Rabbis and Classical Rhetoric: Sophistic Education and Oratory in the Talmud and Midrash by Richard Hidary, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
This is a fascinating and well-researched volume, the relevance of which extends well beyond what the work’s title suggests. Hidary’s book contributes to at least three fields. As the title makes clear, a comparative project juxtaposing the structure of rabbinic passages with rhetorical instructions and exercises from Greek and Roman authors is a primary interest. Hidary argues that midrashic forms and techniques, as well as legal dialogues (sugyot) in the two Talmuds reflect use of Greco-Roman rhetorical forms. But Hidary’s book also engages in a conversation about legal theory and the rabbis’ legal epistemology. Since sophistic notions of rhetoric were tied up with a denial of absolute truth, the choice to engage in these rhetorical forms says something about authors’ attitudes toward the existence of legal truth and topics such as legal pluralism. Finally, and to my mind most significantly, Hidary’s book is essential reading for pedagogues of rabbinic literature. Hidary’s claims about the rhetorical intents of rabbinic texts respond to a common complaint from students: What are we to make of, and what is the value in studying, texts that meander back and forth, often coming to no clear conclusion? Hidary’s work shows that thinking of these texts as meandering or inconclusive is a genre-error, since they are not philosophical or (only) legal texts, but rather, rhetorical performances.
In the Introduction, Hidary describes aspects of the Second Sophistic relevant to his study, laying out the debate between sophists on the one hand, and philosophers following in Plato’s footsteps on the other. The latter “eschewed rhetoric in favor of logical proofs that reveal the absolute and immutable truth,” while the sophists “engaged in rhetorical arguments with the assumption that the most convincing case would establish the best interpretation within a particular interpretive community” (p. 24). Hidary criticizes earlier scholars of rabbinic literature for failing to account for this division within Greco-Roman culture, resulting in overly simplistic debates about whether the rabbis adopted the dominant culture’s attitudes or preserved some Jewish “primeval organic system of thought” (pp. 32–33). Lastly, in this chapter Hidary presents the “basics of rhetorical arrangement:” 1) the exordium (introduction); 2) the narration, which describes the case; 3) the division, laying out the debate; 4) proof; 5) refutation, i.e. the rejection of counterarguments, and 6) the conclusion.
Chapter One considers rabbinic homilies. Hidary analyzes Paul’s sermon in Acts 13:14–41 as an example of classical rhetoric. Hidary then analyzes examples of midrash. In the proem, Hidary sees “a well-structured oration with an exordium, a body of exegetical material, and a messianic epilogue” (52), which aligns with one variation on “standard Hellenistic oratory” (p. 53). He makes a similar argument for the yelamdenu form, and he concludes by reading M. Pesaḥim 10:4–10 as comprising an exordium, narration, partition, confirmation, and epilogue.
In Chapter Two, Hidary shifts to the legal pericopes of the Yerushalmi. He argues for pairing source-critical methods of study with other modes, in this case, rhetorical analysis. He models this approach with the Yerushalmi’s sugya on M. Berakhot 1:1. His source-critical analysis shows how the Yerushalmi takes out of context, misreads, and/or poorly chooses sources to prove its point—phenomena familiar to source-critical readers of the Talmuds. He then argues that these choices reflect rhetorical ends, rather than “logical” ones: “This sugya must therefore be categorized as rhetoric whose goal is not absolute truth or objectivity, but rather the presentation of a certain point of view in a way that will persuade an intended audience” (p. 99).
Chapter Three moves to rabbinic Babylonia. Hidary analyzes examples of the “who is the author of our mishnah?” form, in which a sugya typically rejects multiple possible answers to that question, only to resurrect each of them. Hidary again fits these sugyot into the rhetorical forms of “narration” or “partition,” among others. He notes the apparent inefficiency of these kinds of sugyot and thus argues that the author/editors of these sugyot likely had other, rhetorical goals in mind.
Chapter Four is an excellent study comparing rabbinic forms to Roman rhetorical exercises. In the first half of the chapter, Hidary expands David Brodsky’s “From Disagreement to Talmudic Discourse: Progymnasmata and the Evolution of a Rabbinic Genre” (the significance of which has, to my mind, been under-appreciated), showing how progymnasmata, which open with a law followed by contradictions and resolutions, provide a striking context both for tannaitic midrash as well as for many Babylonian sugyot. Hidary goes on to compare another kind of exercise, the controversia, with Babylonian sugyot. The differences are also telling. Hidary argues that while progymnasmata “strive to prove one side or the other,” similar sugyot work “to uphold both sides by rejecting proof for either side” (p. 148). This leads Hidary to conclude that while “the sophists denied the existence of any objective truth”, the rabbis “believed that both sides of the debate contained truth value” (p. 149). In other words: the sophists believed in no objective truth; the Platonists believed in one; the rabbis accepted many. Though Hidary does not delve into it in detail (aside from a relatively brief engagement at p. 136, n. 27), this chapter also participates implicitly in conversation with the work of Daniel Boyarin and Barry Wimpfheimer regarding the dialogism (or not) of Babylonian sugyot.
Chapter Five turns to a much-studied topic, namely, the correspondence between midrashic techniques and Greco-Roman rhetorical reasoning. Hidary summarizes classic work by Saul Lieberman and especially David Daube, but then goes on to speculate about why the rabbis might have included these “Greek” methods into their corpus. He argues that stories about Hillel introducing and making use of midrashic methods suggest that these tools became popular as a response to sectarian conflict: to defend both Pharisaic law and rabbinic innovation against criticism, “the rabbis turned to the most effective and widespread tools available, those of the classical rhetorical tradition” (p. 190). Yet even as rabbinic literature incorporated Greek interpretive techniques, it also expresses doubts about them, since these are not “objective” measures, but rather subject to the perceptions and predilections of the interpreter.
Hidary turns to the depiction of lawyers in rabbinic and Greco-Roman literature in Chapters Six and Seven. He juxtaposes adversarial legal systems, in which the two sides present their cases and judges determined which side they believed to be in the right, with inquisitorial systems, in which a judge collects and examines evidence and questions witnesses. The adversarial model aligns with sophists and their commitment to rhetoric, since the parties must present the best version of their case, while the inquisitorial model was preferred by Plato, who disdained lawyers and their falsifying rhetoric. Roman courts by and large maintained the adversarial model and with it the need for representation. Rabbinic texts, however, criticize the practice of professional lawyers and suggest an inquisitorial model in which the judges examine witnesses. The rabbinic system is hybrid, however, in that capital cases swing in the direction of acquittal rather than a fully open-ended discussion of what most likely happened. The judges may “poke holes” in testimonies to convict, but not in those intended to acquit (p. 232). This requirement demands rhetorical skill, as in the Roman court, but “not of the lawyers but of the judges themselves” (p. 234). This leads Hidary to the conclusion that “The Talmud is not interested in developing students who can make the best case regardless of the truth, but rather in developing that ability in order to see through false testimony and better arrive at the truth” (p. 235). However, unlike earthly courts, rabbinic depictions of heavenly courts are richly populated with defense attorneys and prosecutors. Hidary explains this phenomenon as reflecting the rabbinic sense that strict justice will lead to undesirable effects because “sinful humans cannot survive [truth and justice’s] high standards” (p. 262).
In the Conclusion Hidary juxtaposes the attitudes of rabbinic Judaism with early Christianity. Like the rabbis, early Christian authors made use of rhetorical strategies to persuade their audience. At the same time, early Christians trained in rhetoric such as Augustine criticized sophistic reasoning, tending more toward a Pauline embrace of Platonic notions of singular truth.
Hidary’s book is richly sourced and of interest to scholars of both the Second Sophistic in general, and rabbinic literature in particular. For what it is worth, I found the comparative aspect of this book the weakest, but also the least important. At numerous points, Hidary cites Greek and Roman authors’ making allowances for variation in rhetorical form (e.g., pp. 36–37, 46, 53), which makes sense—rhetoric would grow stale if it always followed precisely the same contours—but which also makes it perhaps a bit too easy to fit literary creations into this particular framing. As a reader generally more sympathetic to claims of genealogical relationship, I nonetheless often wondered if, given the flexibility of rhetorical “form,” Hidary’s examples were more likely explained as analogies. Moreover, Hidary often takes rabbinic depictions of sages as public orators at face value, a maximalist approach that undermines his attempt to set the rabbis alongside their Roman contemporaries.
More important, however, is Hidary’s contribution to understanding rabbinic literature on its own terms—whether or not those terms were influenced by the rhetorical modes of the Second Sophistic more broadly. Multiple times, I read Hidary’s explanations of rabbinic passages as rhetoric and thought about how this explains frustration my students express at the weirdness of rabbinic literature. Whether they received these forms from Cicero or came to them independently, the fact that the rabbis are not alone in producing these forms makes clear that the strategy is effective, and Hidary’s rhetorical analyses ably show what that strategy is. A literary work need not be efficient or conclusive to be persuasive.
Dr. Micheal Rosenberg is an Associate Professor of Rabbinics at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.
Brodsky, “From Disagreement to Talmudic Discourse: Progymnasmata and the Evolution of a Rabbinic Genre,” in Rabbinic Traditions between Palestine and Babylonia, ed. Ronit Nikolsky and Tal Ilan (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 173–231.
 On this point, see Catherine Hezser’s review, forthcoming in Theologische Literaturzeitung.