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

April 5, 2019 | Alex Ozar
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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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