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.”
In order to better understand the term pilpul as it functions today, we must define the way in which that term has been understood in the classical Sephardic tradition and how that understanding has been transformed by the Ashkenazi tradition.
As I was taught by my Rabbi Jose Faur, the Sephardic tradition, emerging out of the Babylonian academies and finding its definitive form in the many legal works of Moses Maimonides, held the Talmudic texts to be oral literature. Using mnemonics, technical terms, and other rhetorical devices to aid memorization and transmission, Sephardim understood the Talmud to be a colloquy of discussions that were drawn from the proceedings of the great rabbinical Academies of Babylonia. The Babylonian Talmud became the basis upon which the Jewish law would be constructed.
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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.
The scholar Haym Soloveitchik discusses this matter in his 1987 article “Religious Change: The Medieval Ashkenazic Example”:
Many have inferred, and reasonably so, that the Tosafists were not only scholars but communal leaders … like all true leaders they molded the law to fit the needs of their people … What legitimized, in the eyes of the Tosafists, this radical reinterpretation?
“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.
In this discussion we have the key that will unlock much of the content of contemporary Jewish discourse.
As Soloveitchik states, 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.
There were two ways in which the Ashkenazi rabbis effected this radical reinterpretation of the Talmud:
In Rashi’s Talmud commentary — a required text in every Jewish school in the world — he uses the Aramaic term Hakhi Garsinan, meaning, “This is how the text is to be read.” Whenever this term is used, it indicates that Rashi has amended the text. His emendations were necessitated by the need to bring actual practice in line with the text.
Rashi’s emendations are not a theoretical proposition; the actual editions of the Talmud that we use today reflect the changes. The text of the Talmud was forever remade according to the dictates of Rashi and his school.
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!
In absolute contrast to the Ashkenazi method, the Sephardic tradition, grounded in textual reality and scientific principles, carefully parsed every term in the Talmud; a concern that often led the most prominent scholars to look for the most accurate version of the Talmudic text.
Rashi’s method of emendation and the Tosafist reading based on the Lav Davqa method completely transformed Judaism; the Ashkenazi tradition was the one that ultimately triumphed.
What this means for contemporary Jewish discourse is critical: Even though many contemporary Jews are not observant, pilpul continues to be deployed. 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.