Archive for December, 2009

What’s special about the New Jerusalem Talmud?

December 27, 2009

The Greek method of discourse, usually credited as the ‘Socratic Method’, generally structures as follows: it’s set up as two sides of an argument, each piece of the argument is examined and attacked or eliminated until one answer remains, and that must be the ‘right’ answer (which can then be abstracted to a putatively universal principle.)

The problem with that setup is, it’s often actually a setup. A straw man, and a wise man… it’s inherently dualistic (dialogue, the ‘dialectic’, etc.) and it presupposes a polarizing emphasis on ‘winning’ the argument. The premise, at bottom, is that there is only one right answer– that contradiction is untenable.

The Jewish methodology embodied by the Talmud starts with a challenging framing statement: two or three or even four apparently contradictory opinions on the same issue. The discussion then examines all of the issue, from the premise that MORE than one of these contradictory opinions– maybe ALL of them– can actually be simultaneously be true. That each is really approaching the problem from a different angle, level, or perspective, from which that opinion is actually correct–and that many more truths will emerge from such an open-minded, engaged, logically rigorous, but NOT polarizing approach. The underlying premise is that each person, if speaking from a sincere and genuine desire for the good, is revealing a facet of truth.

Today’s controversies, and the discussions around them, almost all tend to fall into the Greek model, with an almost magnetic pull towards polarizing, choose-sides dynamics. Politics, Evolution, Global Warming, Abortion, Health Care, you name it, the debates are impoverished and stunted by this tendency– if you’re not with us you’re against us, and we’re not going to hear a word you’re saying (or even our own words!)

The New Jerusalem Talmud offers a way out of this conundrum. We welcome nuance and ambiguity, that one can admit the truths or claims from ‘both’ sides or many sides of an issue, and an approach that reveals the underlying logics or values that drive these controversies. We propose that literally bringing this approach into the graphic format, as the original talmud did, is exactly the best way to illustrate the many-sidedness of these issues, where the ‘Four Directions’ can each be different approaches, or lines or threads of argument, stemming from any of the fundamental controversies of our time. A rigorous ‘wiki’ of debate, which rather than watering down and diminishing the rich passions of debate (as encyclopedias tend to do), embraces the possibility of presenting side-by-side, on their own terms, everyone’s different approach to an issue– so that the underlying values can be made clear and deeper truths can emerge.