From Talmudic Chaos To Halakhic Linearity

Tzvee Zahavy

In Search of the Logic of Judaism:

From Talmudic Chaos to Halakhic Linearity

In this paper we examine some common views of scholars concerning the idea of the halakhah in Judaism. We then explain why their methods failed to account for the main philological and historical evidence regarding the term from the Talmudic texts. Then we suggest as a heuristic explanation that the logic of the Talmud defies linearity and can be discussed productively using chaos theory.

1. Introduction

The Talmud and Jewish Law guide the lives of many devoted Jews throughout the world even in modern, technologically sophisticated and otherwise secular social contexts. The system of rabbinic law, the halakhah, is the primary means by which Jews make contact with and reference to these forces from prior generations. The diverse modern denominations of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism share a conviction that they have much to gain from studying and following the dictates of the Talmud.

Our two primary teachers inspired our interest into inquiring about the logic of Judaism, both that of the chaotic Talmud and that of the unfolding linearity of the halakhah.

Our revered Orthodox teacher, of blessed memory, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, confronted in his classic work, Halakhic Man, the clash that he saw between the person of science and the person of religion. He felt the necessity to explore this conflict for himself as a philosopher and for other secularly educated Orthodox Jews who chose to explore the learning of a secular culture. He solved a major element of the dilemma by proposing the synthesis of the two - science and religion - in the person of halakhah. He believed that in that archetype we have a melding of the intellect and the soul that will satisfy even the most demanding modernist and even the most spiritual worshiper.

Soloveitchik was an existentialist philosopher, an Orthodox halakhist and a rabbi. The positive facts of historical Judaism were not of primary concern to him. He did not call his seminal essay, Talmudic Man, he called it, Halakhic Man, a choice we shall return to consider at the conclusion of this paper.

In the academic context, our teacher Professor Jacob Neusner trained his students to do critical, analytical historical studies. He himself continues to the present day to amalgamate academic modes of inquiry with a variety of theological aims. Neusner persistently shows that Rabbinic Judaism indeed has a well-defined history and culture. Especially later in his work he has come back to show that it has a deep and abiding faith as well and has shown how to be a positivist without reducing the essences of Judaism. He has taught us how to draw on the advances of academic learning without the often accompanying evolutionary triumphalism of the secularist. A major portion of his publications directly explore the primary rabbinic texts of the Talmud. For Neusner, the notion of the halakhah is a minor concern of his research.

In this paper we first examine what several modern Judaic scholars have said about the halakhah in Judaism. Then we show how their approaches fail to correlate with some of the basic the philological and historical evidence of the Talmudic texts which employ the term halakhah. Finally, probing beyond the historical and philological theories of the texts, we advance a new and intuitive hypothesis. We posit that to fathom the logic of the Talmud and of modes of thought of the halakhah one needs to go beyond standard notions of linearity and consider concepts from within chaos theory.

2. The Linear Logic of the Halakhah According to Urbach, Roth, Sanders et. al.

As our starting point, we account for what we find in the scholarly literature when we look for discussions of the origins, development and logic of the system of halakhah. We consider the results of several representative monographs including, E. E. Urbach’s study called The Halakhah: Its Sources and Development, Joel Roth’s The Halakhic Process: A Systemic Analysis, and E. P. Sanders’ Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah. We chose these scholars because they appear to presume in their work that the halakhah has its own ontological essence.

In Urbach’s study of the halakhah, he presented an understanding of the expression that is representative of many traditionalist scholars.[i] It might have been more forthright for him to state his agenda outright. Instead he tells us only obliquely where he is coming from:

There is complete unanimity as to the centrality of the Halakhah. Both those who oppose or negate it as well as those who accept its authority agree to this fact. What, however, is the Halakhah? This question is not directed to the etymology of the term or its variants but rather to its essential meaning as a religious norm, as law and as a judicial system.

The term Halakhah does not occur in the Bible; it is found only in the tannaitic and amoraic literature and not even in other literary sources of the Second Temple period. In its form, Halakhah is an Aramaic noun and the verb (halak = “to walk” or “to go”) from which it is derived, serves in its various forms, to denote a person who observed the Lord’s Torah and fulfills its commandments. Thus, one “walks” not only in “the ways of the Lord” (Exodus 18:20) but also “in His statutes” (Leviticus 26:3), “in His judgments” (Ezekiel 37:24) and “in His Torah” (Exodus 16:4). Walking is parallel to observing. Just as one walks along known roads but the act of walking also lays new paths, so too, although one observed the commandments in established ways, the act of observance itself creates new forms.

The definition given by Nathan b. Jehiel of Rome, the 11th-century author of the Talmudic dictionary, Arukh, which describes Halakhah as “something which came from ancient days and [will last] to the end [of time], or [alternatively] something according to which Israel goes,” accurately reflects the double meaning of the term: 1. A tradition followed throughout generations, and 2. A way accepted by the people as a whole. This definition also implies that the Halakhah is not explicit in the Bible and that, unlike the Biblical commandments, its source is not in direct revelation. The term, nevertheless, does carry the connotation of authority which is in no way inferior to that of the commandments of the Torah itself. Indeed, the parameters of the Biblical commandments — such as the place and time of their observance and who is obliged to perform them — are fixed by the Halakhah. The tanna, R. Ishmael, did not hesitate to declare that “in three instances the Halakhah overrules Scripture. The Torah says... but the Halakhah [is]... In these three cases the Halakhah uproots Scripture” [TJ Kiddushin 1:2, 59d].

Urbach attributed to halakhah multiple meanings. It denotes religious norms; law; a judicial system; a tradition followed throughout generations; a way accepted by the people as a whole; or fixed parameters of the Biblical commandments — equal in authority to commandments of the Torah. He most clearly believed, as did many German-trained scholars of his generation, that philology recapitulates essence, a claim we find less than satisfying.

Urbach claims that the halakhah has a recoverable linear history. The first part of that in summary says: From the first settlement of Canaan by the Israelites and through the Persian and Hellenistic periods, “there existed a judicial system which had legislative and executive authority.” (4) and an “internal organization” of “elders and judges of every city.” (5)

The supreme bet din in Jerusalem “prevailed during the early days of the Temple and continued — with interruptions — until the last Hasmoneans.” (5) The Samaritans rejected “the halakhah which emanated from Jerusalem, they proceeded to develop a halakhah of their own.” (6) So too the Judean Desert Sect formulated their own.

Urbach presumed that this court issued regulations and ordinances. Takkanot (i.e. ad hoc edicts) permitted warfare on the Sabbath and permitted some practices for produce of the Sabbatical year. (8-9) Takkanot regarding Jewish marriage required at first the deposit of ketubbah money in the house of the father-in-law and later mandated the universal use of the ketubbah document on the authority of Simeon b. Shetah.

Urbach does not say who issued the Takkanot after the Bar Kokhba war which ordained that lost objects need to be announced only to neighbors and townsmen. (10) He does say that the “rabbis” adopted a Takkanah regarding mourners receiving condolences and also asserts that in Ushan times a tenai bet din is the same as a Takkanah. (11-12)

Urbach makes a variety of additional assertions regarding the halakhah. Some Ushan or Yavnean laws, “have their source in ancient Takkanot” even though they are “not recorded as such.” (12) A teaching of R. Simeon b. Gamaliel had the “force of a Takkanah.” (13) R. Aqiba did not have the “official status” to “ordain Takkanot.” (13)

He believes that a gezerah is identical to a seyag (7) but has a “temporary, transient nature” subject to later renewal as in the case of the impurity ordained for lands outside Israel and for glassware. Early Pharisees and the “pairs,” but not the court, issued gezerot. An early authority decreed some Egyptian wheat unclean. But Urbach states, “The importation of wheat from Alexandria has important economic implications since it served to force down the prices, but the motive for Joshua b. Perahiah’s gezerah, as well as for its annulment was not economic.” (15)

In the same vein Urbach continues to credulously suggest that Takkanot attributed by later authorities to Joshua b. Nun or to King Solomon, Ezra, or Nehemiah actually originated with those figures. He hedges a bit only with regard to the authenticity of the Takkanot ascribed to Moses. He distinguishes custom from halakhah. He then outlines the system of halakhah as it developed historically: the courts, precedents and “testimonies”, midrash and halakhah, law as practiced, and the votes that establishing famous rulings.

He notes a “deterioration in significance of the term halakhah,” when it is used in the Talmud to connote views of the law not accepted as binding for practice. He then proceeds to highlights of the Talmud: general rules, terms and principles of legal reasoning, of theology, and of ethics. He adds to this brief pious biographies of rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud and concludes with a discourse on the authority of the Talmud for Judaism.

In Urbach’s narrative the halakhah is old and venerable, logical and moral, and ought to be authoritative for Judaism. In short his study is a valued statement of a historicist Orthodox approach. It might be characterized as “the unexpurgated edition of Pirke Avot” that earliest rabbinic text which purports to account for the origins and transmission of rabbinic literature. Urbach’s halakhah is riddled with catalogues of seemingly arbitrary edicts and his scholarship ignores many of the procedures of modern historiography and religious studies. That makes the book unconvincing reading or even inaccessible scholarship for many of its potential readers.

Let us consider next the authoritative Encyclopedia Talmudit’s article on “halakhah.” This essay gives us a perhaps more compelling and precise Orthodox definition of many of the rules and principles touched upon by Urbach. Its more narrow definition limits the term halakhah to legal decisions in a matter of dispute. In this approach it notes no “deterioration of the significance” of the term, in contrast to what Urbach apparently found in the literature.

Accordingly, the article’s author discusses the role of midrash and aggadah in making decisions of Jewish law; the role of tradition; the role of the rule of the majority; the use of logic; the place of authority; the choice between lenient or strict options and the use of precedents.

The article avers that the rhetoric of the Mishnah or Talmud itself implicitly may guide decisions in matters under dispute even where the text does not specify a preference. As a rule some rabbis have greater authority. The essay spells out when we follow the Tannaitic House of Hillel; Eliezer b. Jacob; Aqiba; Yose; Rabbi; Simeon b. Gamaliel; and Meir in decrees. It provides a summary of the rules for deciding among the views of Rab, Samuel and R. Yohanan; of R. Yohanan and Resh Laqish; according to Nahman; of Rabbah and R. Joseph; Abayye and Raba; Aha and Rabina. There are rules and more authoritative and dominant rabbis.

Now let us compare this with the account presented by Joel Roth, a Conservative Jewish theologian, in his work, The Halakhic Process: A Systemic Analysis. Roth studied the scholarship on legal systems and made the major assumption that we may apply its methods of analysis to halakhah. Roth makes these key claims.

Philologically, halakhah means legal decision. The halakhah follows certain processes, as the title suggests. But in the very first pages Roth dashes right by this claim and supposes without a shade of argument that the halakhah is a legal system. “As a legal process, halakhah is governed by systemic principles that govern the way in which the process works, as opposed to those [legal principles] that govern the determination of the law in any given case within the system... Certain legal principles are also systemic principles.” (1) Then the issues unfold in Roth’s discussion: what is its grundnorm? The Torah. And how does the relationship between that and its authorities play itself out?

As we said, by making the analogy of the whole process of the halakhah to a secular legal system, Roth makes a significant assumption and claim. Nevertheless David Ellenson criticized Roth for his,

…failure to grapple sufficiently with the theological nature of the Jewish legal system. In avoiding this confrontation, Roth overlooks the vital difference which distinguishes a religious system of law, such as the Jewish one, from a secular system, such as the American. In so doing he does not supply adequate epistemological grounds for the authority of the system that he seeks to defend from the attacks of both the Orthodox on the right and the Reform on the left.[ii]

Gordon Tucker went further in his criticism of Roth.[iii] He asked whether it is legitimate to adopt the position of the legal positivists and then mutatis mutandis apply their theory of law to the halakhah. In Tucker’s view, principles of the system are often overridden by maxims, pressures, or even moral imperatives outside of the process.

Tucker wonders if the halakhah is indeed a system with its own logic. “Its literature is certainly diverse enough to allow us to treat it as a largely chaotic, and often contradictory, collection of legal norms.” (366) Above all Tucker argues, the positivist “account of halakhah fails on several counts... The positivist logic leads unavoidably to an account of halakhah which is atheological.” (372) It cuts it off from the believer’s faith. It removes it from the existential dimension.

Tucker insists that Roth needs to lay more of the groundwork for presuming that the halakhah is a system. And if it is, what is the nature of the organic mind of the corpus?[iv] Theoretical discourse in recent academic circles has brought a good deal more sophistication to the question of the nature of organization within systems. Roth seems more interested in extrinsic rules than in internal patterns. We shall return to further discuss this concern below.

Some of these issues now raised in our discussion of Roth’s monograph were addressed previously in a parallel debate as early as 1980 and even prior to that in the scholarly discourse of the field of Mishpat Ivri - Hebrew Law.[v] Englard described at that time the impetus for the emergence of this field of inquiry that took root in Israel and has had little impact outside of its borders. He explained that the revival of national law accompanied the Zionist revival of the Hebrew Language. The focal aim of the early scholars in the area of Hebrew Law was to recover the essentials and national core of Jewish law stripped of its religious layer. Elon simplifies this when he says, “Only the branches of the halakhah which correspond to the branches in modern legal systems,” pertain to Hebrew Law (23). That is to say the laws governing relations between one person and another are part of Hebrew Law because of their social value. Those with religious significance are not.

The lines of demarcation between Hebrew Law and halakhah actually are not so clear. Englard points out for example that all of the halakhah of family law is “an integral part of Hebrew Law.” He critiques Elon’s work on several other counts. He says that it combines mutually contradictory methods: a dogmatic approach — directed toward application, normative and synchronic — with a historical inquiry — aimed at understanding formative processes, empirical and diachronic. This cumbersome methodology is not suited to finding basic principles of an immutable character (51) and central ideas through positive historical reconstruction. Englard correctly compares Elon’s work with that of Boaz Cohen, an earlier Conservative Jewish scholar of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Englard also takes on the task of categorizing the writings in Hebrew Law of Gulak and Albeck. In each instance he correlates the essence of their work with the tendenz of the author.

We have assessed some of the issues regarding the notion of halakhah in our examination of the work of Urbach, Roth and others. Now let us consider E. P. Sanders’ conception of halakhah from the perspective of Protestant scholarship. It would be no surprise to find that Christian theologians and historians are interested in Jewish law for their own tendentious theological purposes. Sanders wants to know what the nature of the law was at the time Jesus overthrew it and what happened to the law after Jesus’ advent. So we have his essays: “The Synoptic Jesus and the Law,” “Did the Pharisees have Oral Law?” “Did the Pharisees Eat Ordinary Food in Purity?”

The focal choices of these titles show us that definite predetermined perspectives guide these concerns. Other Protestant approaches refine the question a bit more. From the greater distance of a Pauline perspective, Tomson (Paul and the Jewish Law) finds many alternative meanings imputed by scholars to halakhah. He defines halakhah as a tradition of formulated rules of conduct regulating life in Judaism. He says there is an organic interconnection among the parts of the definition of halakhah as literary genre, as legal system, and as social rules. (19)

Tomson recognizes that because halakhah is a rabbinic category, it is not useful in the discussion of non-rabbinic data except as a comparison to reflect against that material. (21 ff.) But a variety of other scholars have posited that patterns of laws suggested there were other forms of Judaic halakhah. For example, Revel posited a Karaite halakhah. Albeck thought there was a halakhah of the Enoch Circle. Ginzberg spoke of a Pharisaic halakhah. Baumgarten refers to a wide-spectrum halakhah. Zeitlin talks of anachronism and halakhah. Alon sees fragments of a halakhah in Greek Halakhic midrash and elements of a Christian halakhah in the Didache. Tomson discusses Qumran halakhah in the Damascus Covenant and Rule of the Community. Additionally, there has been much free discussion about halakhah and the Temple Scroll and 4QMMT.

The search for the hermeneutical principles for the interpretation of the Torah is another aspect of the discussion of the derivation of the halakhah. The thirteen middot of Rabbi Ishmael are the best know set of these principles. Through application of the logical rules of the middot, the rabbis purport to be able to derive halakhah from the Torah. As the Jewish Encyclopedia puts it,

The science which defines the rules and methods for the investigation and exact determination of the meaning of the Scriptures, both legal and historical. Since the Halakah, however, is regarded simply as an exposition and explanation of the Torah, Talmud hermeneutics includes also the rules by which the requirements of the oral law are derived from and established by the written law.[vi]

This notion that the rabbinic halakhah is derived by application of logical principles of reasoning to canonical verses of the Torah is an excellent example of the later rabbis making a certain kind of assumptions about the linear derivation of their traditions from prior sacred texts. Their claim underscores our characterization that halakhah is a linear and deductive system of materials in sharp contradistinction to the Talmud, as we shall discuss below in detail.

To recapitulate, a few general points have emerged from the studies we have discussed, i.e., scholars claim that the halakhah has a history and development. It is construed as a legal process and system, a literature, and social rules. And as we certainly have seen, the halakhah has numerous manifestations.

3. The Term halakhah in the Early Literature

Based on a direct review of the earliest primary sources that use the term halakhah, let us raise some doubts about the secondary theories reviewed above.

In fact, the term halakhah is not used as a primary theological category in the Mishnah, Tosefta, or the Tannaitic Midrashim. The word halakhah or its plural form ;&,-% appears 31 times in Mishnah, 105 times in Tosefta and in 59 instances in the early midrashic compilations: Sifra (20), Sifre Numbers (6), Sifre Deuteronomy (18), Mekhilta (10) and Mekhilta of R. Simeon Bar Yohai (5). There is one usage in the Dead Sea Scrolls.[vii]

By our preliminary reckoning there are at least 17 usages of the rabbinic term and concept halakhah in the early literature. Let us sketch these briefly.

I: A “halakhah of Moses” is a tradition handed down from Sinai. This is a statement of the authority and antiquity of a practice.

II: “The halakhah agrees with, accords with, follows, laid down by, stated by” a given source or master is a decision of law or practice in accord with a specified text or authority.

III: “X is a halakhah or the halakhah is X” denotes a statement of the law as it was decided or should be practiced.

IV: “A ruined, defective, wrong halakhah” refers to an improper decision of law or practice.

V: “ the halakhah” refers to a matter that is part of the corpus of halakhah.

VI: “A word of halakhah; a matter of halakhah” denotes an identifiable mode of speech, rhetoric, or expression.

VII: “...through the halakhah” associates the term with a process of reasoning, law, or culture.

VIII: “The four cubits of halakhah” suggests that there is a realm of halakhah with its own ontological essence.

IX: “Study halakhah, elucidate halakhah, repeat halakhah” means that one may partake of the corpus, or from the culture or domain of halakhah.

X: “The halakhah follows the majority or group vs. the individual” is a statement of a more specified principle of decisions of law or practice.

XI: “To fix the halakhah (for the future)” suggests another way to express a statement of the law or practice.

XII: “The absolute halakhah, no discussion about its correctness (e.g., b. Ber. 31a)” shows that a legal rule about which there is no dispute is also referred to as halakhah.

XIII: “Knowledge of halakhah (anthropomorphized)” again makes reference to part of the corpus of halakhah as a realm with its own ontological essence.

XIV: “The halakhah in actual practice (e.g., b. Shab. 54a)” implies the term refers to an ethic or ritual practiced in a social context.

XV: “The halakhah decided by reference to practice” is the reverse of the process spelled out in the more common usages as above in categories I, II, III, etc.

XVI: “The halakhah accords with strict view or the lenient view” makes reference to external principles for determining the halakhah or decision of law.

XVII: “The halakhah as a ruling of a disciple against the view of his master” is an unusual bit of data showing how on occasion the text preserves a decision that contravenes the traditional nature of the rabbinic process (esp. cat. I).

If we were to arrange and comment on each of the instances where the text uses the term halakhah or ;&,-%, we would have no more than a further refinement of this categorization of usages. We would undoubtedly conclude that the conceptualization of halakhah as a system is not intrinsic to the earliest data. That notion derives from the analysis that later scholars associate with the data and the ideas that they impose a posteriori on the evidence. Indeed it is apparent that we have here an example of a living creative theological process within rabbinic Judaism that takes and expands upon the malleable matter of the earlier ages and, in reworking it, keeps some of its contours and reshapes others.

4. Two Metaphors of Logic: Linearity or Chaos

Our present critiques have shown that what scholars claim to have found in the earliest texts concerning the term and idea of the halakhah does not properly characterize the evidence. The theories of historians and philologians fail to adequately describe the characteristics of the Talmud and of the halakhah.

We propose cautiously propose to reach far afield of our ancient religious texts and their standard modes of interpretation to find a metaphor for describing the way the texts took shape in their historical contexts. We tentatively suggest that the corpus of the Talmud be described as a chaotic system and that the related and derivative body of halakhah be seen as a more linear offshoot system of its own

Those who construct models in mathematics and the sciences have come to recognize that more real-world situations than previously thought demand non-linear representations. Some commonly invoked examples of such in our real world include the dripping of a faucet or the movement or lack thereof of automobiles in a traffic jam. Such examples are so rich in information they are difficult to characterize. That does not mean they are poor in order. It means that they are complex and may not easily be framed or reduced to linearity.

Having just barely invoked this large theoretical construct, to now go on and use it as an interpretive tool, we advance this modest hypothesis regarding our issues at hand:[viii]

The realm of Talmudic thought behaves chaotically in some instances. It is generally non-linear, open, complex, “noisy” and process oriented. The domain of halakhic reasoning imposes upon this data from the Talmud an order bound to linearity, directed toward closure and decision, focused on simplicity of view, muting what is noisy, and oriented to essences rather than processes.

Some classical rabbinic images in fact project and clarify this distinction. The rabbis speak in their own well-accepted metaphors of the chaotic “sea of the Talmud” and the distinct and different linear “set table of the halakhah.”

We hereby have proposed to substitute for these classical images – to upgrade and modernize them to the metaphors of the complex system and the linear system. The heuristic value of doing this shows up as we spell out these newer metaphors drawn from mathematics.

Once we start to speak in terms of the theory of chaotics, we introduce into our discourse several additional components. In the mathematic of chaos, couplings between levels of the data are understood to be complex and unpredictable. The paradox of scaling in this universe of discourse is that different levels in the system may show self-similar attributes. At the same time the, chaos theory tells us that respective behaviors at those different levels may be highly coupled or not coupled at all.[ix]

As in the currents of a sea, we may encounter unexpected evolutions and turbulent flows. Talmudic thought fosters this in the accepted paradigms of its textual expressions. By contrast, halakhic reasoning stifles the complex in favor of a deterministic sequence of authorities or columns of laws. It discourages unpredictable swirls in favor of what can be replicated and extended to more numerous situations.

A further useful element for our metaphor from the theory of chaotics is the so-called “butterfly effect.” This means that minute fluctuations in a situation within a system may be amplified into dramatic and large scale consequences. An example of this from common experience: A single car on the highway may swerve in the chaos of rush hour, engendering a multiple car accident and hours of delays in the traffic jam that may then ensue.

In the Talmud, this notion of small movements causing large effects is a frequent part of the discourse. For instance, in one narrative, a simple query was asked by a single student, “Is the Evening Service optional or compulsory?” The result was the large effect of the deposition of the patriarch and the revision of the structure of the rabbinic system. In another case the Talmud insists that on account of a minute dispute between two individuals over a small matter of law let to the larger tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem by the Romans. Such relations between small local causes and unpredictable major global effects are evocative of a prominent feature of nonlinear chaotics.

Yet another element of the theory informs us that movement in chaotic systems is determined by the effects on the elements by certain recurrent patterns of “strange attractors” acting on the directions of the components. In the chaos of Talmudic thought these notions help us visualize the ways in which the corpus treats the Mishnah, and Scripture and the recurring characteristics comprising the charisma of the many individual rabbis.

Further, actions within a chaotic system are described by reference to recursive symmetries. Across multiple levels these attain continuity through the repeated reference to the attractors. Our teacher, Jacob Neusner’s studies of the tractates of the Talmud comes close to accurately characterizing these recursive harmonies in the chaotic Talmud. He goes many steps further by showing that chaos in the system does not lead to entropy. He argues that Talmudic thought derives new energies from contacts in crucial cultural moments. He posits that tangential connections recharge, and even electrify Talmudic thought.[x]

Accordingly, we find it helpful to say that the rich information of Talmudic thought is guided by local recursive symmetries and references to the personal and limited attractors of the corpus.

By contrast, halakhic reasoning seeks global expressions and the freedom of anonymity, even transcendent authority. Above all, this legal process thrives on linearity. First principles lead to sources and those lead to authorities. These in turn bring us to later decisions so the we may formulate a present statement that is simple and unequivocal.

Rigorous mathematicians no doubt could object to our excursion into metaphor. The case could be made that in order to effectively use the chaos template one needs to isolate some trajectory of the system, some element/characteristic/behavior which changes over time. The argument could be made that we ought better to use the concept of “self-organizing systems” rather than chaos. We are uneasy with this alternative metaphor mainly because human rabbinic redactors do impose their notions of chaotic order on the system. We are not sure after all how a multi-generational literary system would organize itself.

We may be better served to retreat from the chaos metaphor and suggest that in theory Talmud is a complex adaptive system, a living system, an evolutionary dynamic, an organism of punctuated equilibrium or an emergent system. Selection of the best templates for comparison remains a task ahead for all who would pursue this line of inquiry.

5. Fractal Conclusions

We have examined above first some common views of scholars concerning the idea of the halakhah in Judaism. We then explained why their methods failed to account for the main philological and historical evidence regarding the term from the Talmudic texts. Then we suggested a heuristic explanation that the logic of the Talmud defies linearity can be productively discussed using chaos theory.

Perhaps even more intuitively, we shall conclude that the Talmud may be compared metaphorically to fractals. A fractal image emerges when a single equation is applied to some initial condition and the outcome is a colored point of complex patterns.

We have the basic components for making an imaginary fractal out of the texts of rabbinic Judaism: mitzvot, middot, truths, and values, applied in different contexts by various authorities leading to differing colored and complex results.

We close with some certainty that the chaotic Talmud needs to be better imagined before one can understand the details of the logic of its more linear offshoots, the tomes of halakhic reasoning.

Last, we believe that this more rigorous theoretical exploration and more detailed philological textual analysis of our cultural constructs of both Talmudic thought and halakhic reasoning advances our admiration for the great contributions of the past and helps us find the greatest ultimate theoretical meaning of all – to know more intimately the intentions of the one who first brought order out of primeval chaos and utter void.


  1. Boaz Cohen, Law & Tradition in Judaism, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, 1959

  2. Kevin Dooley, Institute of Technology, University of Minnesota, personal communications. David Ellenson, “The Challenges of Halakhah,” in Judaism, 151, vol. 38, no. 3, p. 363.

  3. Menachem Elon, Jewish Law: Ha-Mishpat Ha-Ivri, Jewish Publication Society, Phila., 1995.

  4. N. Katherine Hayles, Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, University of Chicago, Chicago, 1991.

  5. B. S. Jackson, ed., The Jewish Law Annual, Supplement One, Modern Research in Jewish Law, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1980.

  6. Max Kadushin, Organic Thinking: A Study in Rabbinic Thought, Phila., 1938.

  7. Jacob Neusner, Talmudic Dialectics: Types and Forms. Atlanta, 1995: Scholars Press for South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism. I. Introduction. Tractate Berakhot and the Divisions of Appointed Times and Women.

  8. ____, The Talmud of Babylonia. An Academic Commentary. Atlanta, 1994-1996, 1999: Scholars Press for USF Academic Commentary Series. Now: Lanham, MD. University Press of America

  9. ____, The Babylonian Talmud. Translation and Commentary. Peabody, 2005: Hendrickson Publishing Co. Second printing of The Talmud of Babylonia. An Academic Commentary.

  10. ____, The Talmud of Babylonia. A Complete Outline. Atlanta, 1995-6: Scholars Press for USF Academic Commentary Series. Now: Lanham, MD. University Press of America

  11. ____, Religion and Law: How through Halakhah Judaism Sets Forth its Theology and Philosophy. Atlanta, 1996: Scholars Press for South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism.

  12. ____, The Halakhah. Religious and Historical Perspectives. Leiden, 2002: E. J. Brill.

  13. ____, How the Halakhah Unfolds: I. Moed Qatan in the Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, and Bavli. Lanham 2006: University Press of America.

  14. ____, The Halakhah of the Oral Torah. A Religious Commentary. Introduction. And Volume One. Part One. Between Israel and God. Faith, Thanksgiving: Tractate Berakhot. Enlandisement. Tractates Kilayim, Shebi‘it, and ‘Orlah. Atlanta, 1997. Scholars Press for South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism.

  15. ____, The Halakhah: An Encyclopaedia of the Law of Judaism. Volume I. Between Israel and God. Part A. Faith, Thanksgiving, Enlandisement: Possession and Partnership. Leiden, 1999: E. J. Brill.

  16. ____, Is Scripture the Origin of the Halakhah? Lanham, 2005: University Press of America.

  17. ____, Resume with bibliography of works by Jacob Neusner,

  18. Joel Roth, The Halakhic Process: A Systemic Analysis, JTS Press, New York 1986

  19. E. P. Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah: Five Studies, Trinity Press International, 1990

  20. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, Jewish Publication Society of America, Phila., 1984

  21. P. J. Tomson, Paul and the Jewish Law, Brill Academic Publishers, Leiden, 1991

  22. Gordon Tucker, “God, The Good, and Halakhah,” in Judaism, 151, vol. 38, no. 3, pp. 369 ff.

  23. E. E. Urbach, The Halakhah: Its Sources and Development, Yad la-Talmud, Jerusalem, 1986

  24. S. Y. Zevin, editor, Encyclopedia Talmudit, Halakhah,” vol. 9, column 241 ff.


[i] E. E. Urbach, The Halakhah, pp. 2-3. We put the relevant page numbers in parentheses in our discussion of this monograph and of the respective works that follow.
[ii] “The Challenges of Halakhah,” in Judaism, Issue 151, vol. 38, no. 3, p. 363.
[iii] “God, The Good, and Halakhah,” in Judaism, op. cit., pp. 369 ff.
[iv] A great deal more attention needs to be paid to influential work by Max Kadushin, Organic Thinking: A Study in Rabbinic Thought, Phila., 1938.
[v] See B. S. Jackson, ed., The Jewish Law Annual, Supplement One, Modern Research in Jewish Law, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1980.

[vi] See “Talmud Hermeneutics” by Wilhelm Bacher and J. Z. Lauterbach ( We deliberately selected an older source to cite to make the point that this credulous acceptance of the forward derivative nature of the hermeneutic principles is a classic statement. Contemporary scholars recognize that in fact the principles are post facto means to associate rabbinic view with biblical verses, not to derive or extract any such content by application of principles of logic to the Torah.
[vii] We based this sample on the concordance of the Academy for the Hebrew Language, microfilm version.
[viii] Cf. N. Katherine Hayles, Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, University of Chicago, Chicago, 1991.
[ix] We thank Professor Kevin Dooley of the Institute of Technology of the University of Minnesota for these and several other keen insights in this paper.

[x] A selection of Jacob Neusner’s relevant volumes of analysis are listed in the references section of this paper.

Published in:

Title: Judaic Logic Series: Judaism in Context 8 Publisher: Gorgias Press Edited by Andrew Schumann Contribution by Tzvee Zahavy Contribution by Avi Sion Contribution by Aviram Ravitsky Contribution by Stefan Goltzberg Contribution by Mauro Zonta Contribution by Sergey Dolgopolski Contribution by Yoel Matveev ISBN: 978-1-61719-194-7 Publication Date: 2010