Commentary Magazine

Organic Thinking: a Study in Rabbinic Thought, by Max Kadushin; and The Rabbinic Mind, by Max Kadushin

The Rabbinic Mind

Organic Thinking; A Study in Rabbinic Thought.
by Max Kadushin.
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. 367 pp. $3.00.

The Rabbinic Mind.
by Max Kadushin.
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. 394 pp. $5.00.


The characterization and evaluation of Talmudic thought in the light of one’s own time is one of the most difficult tasks a theologian, historian, or literary critic can attempt. Maimonides and Joseph Caro both did that in the past, and thereby deeply influenced the whole development of Judaism. In our century, Jewish leaders like Solomon Schechter, Leo Baeck, Louis Finkelstein, and two Protestant theologians, Robert Travers Herford and George Foote Moore, have tried, in their several different ways, to bring the thought of the Pharisees back to life. Now Max Kadushin, in his two recent works on rabbinic thought, has apparently set himself the same great task.

To this end Dr. Kadushin uses a formidable array of contemporary philosophical terms. He speaks of “organismal conception”; “organismic coherence of value concepts in contrast to cognitive concepts”; “sub-concepts, conceptual phases, and auxiliary ideas in integrated wholes of thought.” Wary though I am of this sort of language, I wish, nonetheless, to offer as much constructive comment on Dr. Kadushin’s achievement as seems to me possible, and so I will limit myself to a few critical observations and try to indicate some further developments of his trend of argument that may be desirable.



Anti-Semites, as well as many minor historians of ideas, have tended to be annoyed by the seeming lack of straightforwardness in the presentation of topics, and by the apparent want of consistent clear-cut reasoning, in both the Talmud and the Midrashim—in fact, in the whole post-Biblical literature of Judaism. Schechter explicitly, and others implicitly, have insisted that such reactions derive essentially from Western misconceptions as to the nature and goal of Oriental ways of thought. Dr. Kadushin rightly takes his stand on similar grounds. He readily grants that it would be vain to look for a rigid, logically ordered system of articles of creed in rabbinic thought, or even for a clearly fixed, logical order of ritualistic and ethical commandments. But he sees something “basically different” at work in the rabbinic mind: a thinking in “organismic concepts” that rejects abstract definitions, classifications, and logical inferences.

Such stress does Dr. Kadushin lay on the term “organic thinking” that he makes it the title of his first work, giving the reference to rabbinic thought only in the subtitle; and this emphasis is sustained in his second book, though there it must share equal place with the term “value concept.” This latter, he holds, indicates a hitherto unknown characteristic of all human valuation. Philosophers, he says, have so far spoken of value only as a subjectively appraised entity, but an entirely different and new term is here called for, namely “value concept,” which, he thinks, signifies something that is objectively valuable. This claim to originality, however, should not be pressed too strongly, I feel. Quite a number of modern English works on value theory use the term “value” in more or less the same sense as Dr. Kadushin; the Encyclopedia Britannia speaks of the “value notion”; and the plural of value concept, Wertbegriffe, used in an emphatically objective sense, is very common in German philosophical and non-philosophical literature. Irrelevant though this question of terminology may seem, a crucial interest certainly attaches to the question whether the mere term “value concept,” when applied to ideas and acts, is a sufficient guarantee of their objective validity. It evidently is not.

German and English Idealist thinkers have often ascribed to “reason” precisely the same merits which Dr. Kadushin attributes to “organic thinking.” Reason was characterized as being able to provide a synthetic, organic, and concrete comprehension of life, in contrast to the mere dissecting, analyzing, and abstracting capacity of the understanding—the understanding being defined here in the sense of Locke, Hume, and modern science. The function of reason is, in fact, often described in Idealist writing in exactly the same terms used by Professor Kadushin—as concretizing, organic, integrating, dynamic, and as being, therefore, the sole instrument for coping with the realities of cultural and spiritual life. Yet, for all that, only too many of the “organic” value concepts pronounced by these English and German thinkers to be true values (e.g. the Hegelian concept of war) have turned out to be of extremely questionable objective validity. Thus, in his characterization of rabbinic logic, Dr. Kadushin remains far more lucid in the delineation of what it is not than what it is. Like Wilhelm Dilthey in depicting his “methodology of the humanities,” and F. H. Bradley in his description of “organic thought,” Dr. Kadushin is very successful in exposing the shortcomings of common logic; yet in specifying his own approach to his topic, he remains far too loose and vague.



How does Dr. Kadushin’s methodology work when used for the concrete interpretation of rabbinic sayings? For one thing, he reminds us, rightly, that the Rabbis did not make an explicit distinction between ritualistic and ethical precepts, and that only modern thinking finds it necessary to divide mitzvot into two such utterly different classes. And he also rightly warns us against underrating the value of the ritualistic laws; they have been of decisive importance in the preservation of Judaism and, like the customs and social habits of other peoples and religions, have done much to refine the “inward life” of the Jew, and cultivate the aspirations of that life.

So far so good. But then Dr. Kadushin goes on to argue “. . . first . . . a number of mizwot by their content would have to fall into both [the ritual and the ethical] categories at once”; and “second,” as “many ritualistic mizwot foster and develop the inward life and so are indispensable to the development of moral and ethical attitudes . . . the division of the mizwot into the two simple categories of the ritualistic and the ethical is inadmissible. . . . This is, indeed, what we should expect of a theology that is organic, the elements of which are always so integrally interrelated as to permit of no hard-and-fast classifications.” Well, if “organic thinking” is held to operate this way, it could be used to justify everything, on the ground that the injunction, say, against eating sturgeon—for which there is no hygienic or any other tenable kind of reason today—is specifically of the same type as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”

True, Dr. Kadushin takes into account the fact that the Rabbis designated some mitzvot as “grave” and others as “light.” But this is meant to acknowledge merely a gradation in the urgency of the different laws, and not the toleration of specific differences between them. And Dr. Kadushin adds that in the Seder Elijahu there appears, “perhaps, a belief that all ritualistic mizwot have ‘a reason,’ an ethical purpose, ultimately to be made known . . . in the World to Come.” But if this is so, how much light, then, is shed by “organic thinking” on our present understanding of the bold thesis that the command enjoining the “washing of hands” and the prohibition against theft should “alike be placed in the same category of divine law”? Dr. Kadushin belittles characterizations of democracy which limit themselves to such definitions as “shared respect and economic balance.” But is his discussion of the lack of difference between ethical and ritualistic laws more illuminating, really, than such definitions of democracy?



To turn to questions far removed from Halachah and the world of mitzvot, there is a very profound passage in the Babylonian Talmud at the beginning of Abodah Zarah 3b. This passage is quoted by Dr. Kadushin in his Rabbinic Mind. It says that God spends part of every day laughing. “God’s sport is with Leviathan, a symbol for Satan. . . . And [God] laughs [literally, “there is laughter before Him”] when wicked Nations of the World arrogantly challenge Him to come upon them and destroy them.” What can “organismic thinking” make of this great saying? Nothing more than to state that it contains “the implication that the arrogant nations who challenge God will ultimately be destroyed.”

It strikes me as scarcely warrantable to draw such an implication from this rabbinic thought. But in any case how inadequate seems the implication for understanding the sublimity and significance of God’s laughter. This bold and original conception of a divinity that reacts with laughter, instead of with anger, to the defiance and blasphemies of man is, as I have tried to document in detail elsewhere, utterly inconceivable to classical Christian thought, or to that of practically any other religion.

A God laughing at the incongruity of his omnipotence set against the boasting and vainglory of rebellious men, and a God to whom the Devil is no more than a daily object of mirth—these are post-Biblical versions of the might of God which seem to me rather different in tone and mood from related accounts in the Psalms (2:4 and 104:26). Nonetheless, intimacy with God that reaches the point of describing His daily pastime, and of praising Him for His laughter—that sets off the imagination with a force almost rivaling that of the most emphatic Biblical images of God’s might.

Such ideas, developed by Jews in centuries that saw them living almost without interruption under the heel of brutal conquerors, display a moral greatness and a freedom from any petty desire for vengeance that deserve much more recognition than they have found so far. Here and elsewhere, the rabbinic mind manifests an inner independence, a superior playfulness, and a religious serenity that in my opinion are much more important than the many rather conventional observations Dr. Kadushin has to make on Talmudic texts.

Dr. Kadushin’s opposition to any rigid modern codification, any cut and dried systematization of rabbinic thought, is fully justified, but it seems to me that the application of his somewhat cumbersome apparatus of “organismic thinking” needs considerable refining.



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