How the Talmud’s Depiction of Fetuses Learning the Entire Torah Differs from Its Platonic Parallel

April 5 2019

According to a talmudic passage, a candle burning above the head of a fetus in utero enables it to “look and gaze from one end of the world to the other”; moreover, the fetus is taught the entire Torah. But at the moment of birth an angel smacks the child on the mouth, causing it to forget what it has learned. Inevitably, this teaching has invited comparison with Plato’s theory that the immortal soul is all-knowing, and that all learning is in fact recollection of what was once known. Alex Ozar argues, however, that the differences between the two teachings are more salient than their similarities:

[I]t would seem that [the Talmud] depicts the fetus as wholly without knowledge at some point it in time. But that cannot be, according to the Greek conception. Whatever knowledge you have, you’ve always had. . . . The soul has simply seen it all, and seen it with its own eyes. This is important, because Plato holds that teaching—the gift of knowledge from one person to another—is fundamentally impossible. . . .

[I]n the talmudic passage, it is noteworthy that the initial mention of fetal omniscience really does seem to be of the Platonic, internally self-sufficient kind: “And above its head a candle is lit, and it gazes and looks from one end of the world to the other.” This is a depiction of supernal enlightenment, with the soul transcending the narrow confines of any worldly here-and-now, enjoying an instantaneous view of the whole not from a finite somewhere but from the infinite everywhere. But . . . notice that this is emphatically not how the incipient child comes by its knowledge of Torah, [which] is not simply swallowed in a flash of enlightenment. Rather, “they teach it the whole entirety of the Torah.”

In the context of Platonic philosophy, then, the point made by the text is that, in direct contrast to worldly wisdom, knowledge of Torah is not merely known or recalled but taught and learned. And so . . . it follows that learning Torah involves a relationship between teacher and disciple, a relationship for which the unique identities of the teacher and the student and the intercourse between them make all the difference. It is not an impersonal, objective exercise, but rather a relationship between personal subjects. . . .

[I]f you have been privileged to know the walls of the beit midrash from the inside, you know that the fruits of your labor there are forever marked by the unique personalities of your teachers, your relationships with your peers, the fellowship of learners there and everywhere, and the sheer fact of your Jewish identity indelibly linking you to the whole of the Jewish past, present, and future.

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More about: Judaism, Plato, Talmud, Torah study

 

Maintaining Security Cooperation with the PA Shouldn’t Require Ignoring Its Support for Terror

In accordance with legislation passed last year, the Israeli government has begun to deduct from the tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (PA) an amount proportional to what the PA pays to terrorists and their families. Last year, a similar law went into effect in the U.S., suspending all payments to the PA so long as it continues its “pay-for-slay” policy. The PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, has retaliated by refusing to accept any tax revenue collected by Israel—raising concerns that the PA will become insolvent and collapse—while insisting that payments to terrorists and their families are sacrosanct. To Yossi Kuperwasser, Abbas’s behavior amounts to mere extortion—which has already worked on the Europeans to the tune of 35 million euros. He urges Israel and the U.S. not to submit:

Abbas [believes] that influential Israeli and European circles, including the security establishment, view strengthening the Palestinian Authority, and certainly preventing its collapse, as being in Israel and Europe’s best interests. They will therefore give in to the pressure he exerts through the creation of an artificial economic crisis. . . .

[T]he PA leadership’s insistence on continuing wage payments to terrorists and their families, even at the price of an artificial economic crisis, shows once again that . . . the Oslo Accords did not reflect a substantive change in Palestinian national aspirations or in the methods employed to achieve them. . . . If paying wages to terrorists (including the many terrorists whose attacks took place after the Oslo Accords were in force) is the raison d’être for the PA’s establishment, as Abbas seems to be saying, . . . one cannot help asking whether Israel has to insist on maintaining the PA’s existence at any price.

True, Israel cooperates on security issues with the PA, but that serves the interests of both sides. . . . The short-term benefits Israel gains from this security cooperation, [however], are of less value than the benefits enjoyed by the Palestinians, and worth even less when measured against the long-term strategic damage resulting from Israel’s resigning itself to the constant incitement, the promotion of terror, and the political struggle against Israel carried out by the PA. Israel should not do anything to hasten the PA’s breakdown, because it has no desire to rule over the Palestinians and run their day to day lives, but it also should not feel more obligated to the PA’s continued existence than do the Palestinians themselves, thereby leaving itself open to continuous extortion.

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Read more at Israel Institute for Strategic Studies

More about: Israeli Security, Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority, Palestinian terror