THE HISTORY OF PILPUL
Pilpul is the Talmudic term used to describe a rhetorical process that the Sages used to formulate their legal decisions. The word is used as a verb: one engages in the process of pilpul in order to formulate a legal point. It marks the process of understanding legal ideas, texts, and interpretations. It is a catch-all term that in English is translated as “Casuistry.”
(CD: Casuistry means “Sophistry” or more specifically “clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions”.)
In order to maintain the distinction between the Written Torah — the Hebrew Bible — and the Oral Law, the Talmudic Sages conceived of the idea of pilpul as a means to join each Law to its Biblical prooftext.
The Ashkenazi rabbis saw pilpul as a substantive debate over the content of the Law rather than as a simple rhetorical matter. Their understanding of Talmudic pilpul took the form of a radical reinterpretation of the Law.
(CD: let’s repeat that: —“radical reinterpretation of the Law.”—)
“Reinterpretation” is actually a misleading term. More accurately one should ask what led them to read the Talmud, to perceive the Talmud, in a fashion which could be construed as a justification of the status quo.
(CD: let’s repeat that: —“..justification of the status quo.”—
The Ashkenazi rabbis were less concerned with promulgating the Law transmitted in the Talmud than they were with molding it to suit their own needs.
Pilpul was a means to justify practices already fixed in the behaviors of the community by re-reading the Talmud to justify those practices.
As if this was not enough, the Tosafists instituted one more pilpul principle into Talmudic discourse. This was called the Lav Davqa method. In English we might call it the “Not Quite” way of reading a text. When a text appeared to be saying one thing, the Tosafot — in order to conform to the already-existing custom — would re-interpret it by saying that what it seemed to mean is not what it really meant!
The Tosafist reading based on the Lav Davqa method completely transformed Judaism; the Ashkenazi tradition was the one that ultimately triumphed.
Pilpul occurs any time the speaker is committed to “prove” his point regardless of the evidence in front of him. The casuistic aspect of this hair-splitting leads to a labyrinthine form of argument where the speaker blows enough rhetorical smoke to make his interlocutor submit.
Reason is not an issue when pilpul takes over: what counts is the establishment of a fixed, immutable point that can never truly be disputed.
What is thought to be the Jewish “genius” is often a mark of how pilpul is deployed. The rhetorical tricks of pilpul make true rational discussion impossible; any “discussion” is about trying to “prove” a point that has already been established. There is little use trying to argue in this context, because any points being made will be twisted and turned to validate the already-fixed position.
Pilpul is the rhetorical means to mark as “true” that which cannot ever be disputed by rational means.
by David Shasha
Director, Center for Sephardic Heritage