Thursday, November 14, 2013


Jenny R. Labendz, Socratic Torah: Non-Jews in Rabbinic Intellectual Culture. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 255. ISBN 9780199934560. $74.00.

Reviewed by Hagith Sivan, University of Kansas (

Version at BMCR home site


This is an intelligent study of rabbinic dialogues as reportedly conducted by various rabbis, mostly within Palestinian tradition, with non-Jews. The provocative title reflects the author's conviction that centuries after Plato promoted two way conversation as a means of projecting Socratic ideas, the rabbis in Roman Palestine embarked on a similar course in advancing their understanding of the Torah (= Law).

A generous introduction surveys previous literature on the subject of conversational interaction between rabbis and non-Jews. Labendz's main argument is that "the rabbinic dialogues with non-Jews employing Socratic Torah are intended as a means of producing and communicating rabbinic knowledge" (p. 15). Other themes in the introduction include: "rabbinic epistemology", or truth claims based not on Scripture but on "the non-Jews' personal intuition and life experiences" (p. 18); and "historicity and cultural context", two poles which, pace Labendz, do not convey the significance of Socratic Torah and hence, while meriting a discussion, do not matter ultimately. Labendz does not assume "an organic connection" between Plato and the rabbis (p. 25), or direct exposure. Rather, she is interested in delineating rabbinic life and literature in which "Socratic Torah" made sense. The introduction ends with a section devoted to methodology, specifically to the use of comparisons in a study that is not "fundamentally comparative" (p. 31). Here Labendz returns to "rabbinic intellectual culture" or the atmosphere surrounding the sprouting of rabbinic works.

Chapter one outlines "The Relevant Features of Plato's Socratic Dialogues" through focusing on six rabbinic passages. It also offers a justification of the theme, which, as Labendz puts it herself, constitutes a "small genre of material" (p. 64). In other words, within the vast scope of rabbinic literature of late antiquity, the dialogues that are the core of this book form a discreet sub-group in which a rabbi's superior knowledge invariably humbles his "opponent", who is deliberately selected as a non-Jew (or non-rabbinic).

Chapter two focuses on "The Epistemological Implications of Socratic Torah", specifically the intuitive acquisition of knowledge through "subjective human beings" (p. 71). Labendz draws parallels between rabbinic parables and "Socratic Torah", as twin approaches to constructs of knowledge, yet prefers to highlight their differences in order to emphasize the uniqueness of the rabbinic "Socratic" dialogues.

Chapter three ("Rabbinic Boundaries Expanded") examines how the rabbis "draw out" from non-Jews corroborative answers about their own views of the Torah. The nameless interlocutors, unevenly matched with the rabbis, are basically straw men selected for dramatic effect. In other words their very nature is intended to startle a rabbinic audience precisely because the subject of the dialogues was not ordinarily associated with non-Jews. Here Labendz also points to the manner in which these dialogues expand an already varied rabbinic epistemology that harked back to "the cultural mixing that took place in Roman Palestine in Late Antiquity" (p. 98).

Chapters four and five ("Socratic Torah Contested" and "Multiple Audiences, Multiple Discourses") analyze four dialogues, each posing a single question, two different answers, and two different audiences. Labendz is asking how the rabbinic protagonist behaves, what methods he pursues, and how the rabbi's student audience reacts or rather objects to the apparent contradiction of the rabbi's own approach. Parallels with the Gospel of Mark (7:1-23) lead Labendz to conclude that "the behavior of the heroes of these texts communicates religious and intellectual values" not necessarily corresponding to historical reality (p. 144).

Chapter six ("The Wisdom of Non-Jews and its Relevance to Torah") examines rabbinic attitudes to the intellectual capacity of non-Jews: could the latter participate in a rabbinic Torah study? The questions raised by non-Jewish "philosophers", such as the belated biblical requirement of circumcision (given to Abraham but not to Adam), act both as mirrors of outsiders as well as a point of departure for rabbinic reflections on the mysteries and complexities of the creation itself. Such dialogues further suggest that knowledge is not necessarily a one-way process, emanating from a single source, but rather a process that is arrived at by various routes and through various participants. Even Torah knowledge can benefit from insights provided and provoked by non-Jews.

Chapter seven ("Rabbis and Non-Rabbis: Minim and Matron") examines dialogues with two problematic groupings, "heretics" and a woman named Matrona (if such is indeed the meaning of the term). Although the first group is probably Jewish, and the latter not Jewish, both types of dialogues, like those with non-Jews, serve to clarify rabbinic self- perception and their understating of knowledge, its production and dissemination.

Chapter eight ("Rabbis and Non-Jews in the Babylonian Talmud") briefly examines two examples of "Socratic Torah" without parallel in the Palestinian Talmud. Despite the difference in quantity of "Socratic Torah" between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, Labendz insists that "some rabbis" in both Palestine and Babylonia shared a common set of working assumptions.

The conclusions briefly restate Labendz's claim to originality in that "Socratic Torah" amounts to a certain type of dialogue text that distinguishes it from other rabbinic dialogues precisely because it boldly posits rabbis and non-Jews in a realm from which the latter were all but excluded. It remains, like late ancient Jewish-Christian polemics, a reflection of intra-communal conversation and conflict.

Since Torah study was a major occupation of rabbis, the group of dialogues studied by Labendz traces in detail how such formats were designed to produce and communicate rabbinic knowledge. Hers is an interesting and bold attempt to contextualize banality within an intellectual space that had engaged Socrates in a quest for arguments and their reverse. In Socrates' Athens such a quest could not stand aloof from the surrounding context of politics; nor perhaps could it in late Roman Palestine. By systematically exploring the Torah, the prestigious basis of their status, the rabbis played the uncertain game of superior knowledge against the irreducible fact of the "other". In order to affirm their identity they were forced to roam in the forest of humanity. Perhaps it was a good idea indeed to examine thoroughly the nature of the hypothesized relationship between rabbis and gentiles. It would have been instructive to systematically set out the spectrum of omissions and interpretations, to disengage them from the limiting context of the arguments that they serve.

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