Plato and the Talmud

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dr. Jacob Howland publishes new book

Plato and the TalmudIn his latest book, Dr. Jacob Howland, McFarlin Professor of Philosophy at The University of Tulsa, examines the similarities between the Platonic dialogues and the Talmud and sheds new light on the relationship between Athens and Jerusalem.

Plato and the Talmud was released in October by Cambridge University Press. It is the product of a natural crossroads for Howland, whose research often focuses on ancient Greek political philosophy and who has spent 12 years studying the Talmud with Rabbi Marc Fitzerman at B’nai Emunah Synagogue in Tulsa.

“As soon as I began to study the Talmud,” Howland notes, “I saw that it closely resembles the Platonic dialogues in drawing readers into active inquiry about philosophical and religious issues. And when I mentioned this resemblance to Jacob Neusner and Irving Greenberg, two leaders in the world of Jewish thought, both men encouraged me to write a book on the subject.”

Plato’s dialogues, in which characters argue a topic by asking questions of each other, and the ancient Jewish text of the Talmud present theological, philosophical and moral questions without providing definite answers. “They’re not telling us what we should believe,” Howland explains. However, the writings do provide stories that show how one might live up to the moral and practical insights achieved through philosophical and rabbinic inquiry.

In the book, Howland shows in detail how Platonic drama and Talmudic aggadah, or homilies related to Jewish oral laws and traditions, speak to different sorts of readers as they explore the implications of rabbinic Judaism and Socratic thought.

Howland found that Plato’s Socrates engaged discussions on morality in much the same way as Talmudic sages: with rational inquiry that derives its impetus and direction from faith. Howland compares Socrates to Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah and Amos and examines the “limits of reason and importance of faith.”

Donald Harman Akenson, a professor, author and authority on the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, calls Howland’s latest work “a remarkable book, wide in its knowledge, graceful in its presentation, modest in its posture: exactly what real scholarship should be.”

Other books by Howland include Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith, The Republic: The Odyssey of Philosophy and The Paradox of Political Philosophy.


Dr. Jacob Howland