The Good Word

Jesuitical vs. Talmudic

Making arguments, splitting hairs

An exchange occurred not long ago in California’s Sacramento Superior and Municipal Courts. As a lawyer attempted to excuse his client’s behavior with a convoluted explanation, Judge James Ford interrupted acidly with the comment, “That’s just … that’s just too Jesuitical for words.” The colloquy continued as follows:

Lawyer: “Pardon me?”Judge: “It’s too Jesuitical. You probably didn’t go to a Jesuit school.”Lawyer: “Certainly didn’t. I am of the Jewish faith.”Judge: “Then it’s too Talmudic for words.”

One can almost hear the appreciative chuckles from the spectators’ gallery at this bit of repartee–the overreactive, tension-dispelling response that very mild witticisms tend to produce in solemn venues. And yet someone should have risen to say, “Objection!” It is common to regard “Jesuitical” and “Talmudic” as synonymous, but this does an injustice to both words.

“Talmudic” originally signified nothing more than “of or pertaining to the Talmud” (Oxford English Dictionary), the Talmud being the postbiblical Rabbinic code of Jewish laws and interpretations that is the source of authority in Orthodox Judaism. “Jesuitical” originally signified “of or pertaining to the Jesuits; belonging to the Society of Jesus; Jesuit” (OED, again), the Jesuits being the Roman Catholic clerical order founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1534 as an intellectual bulwark against the Reformation. Whatever else may be said about them, both “Talmudic” and “Jesuitical” carry connotations of great learning and meticulous attention to argument. Where they diverge is in motivation.

Very early, owing in part to English Protestant propagandists, the word “Jesuitical” came to characterize a form of argument designed less to seek the truth than to make a case, a form of argument that was aggressive and clever but perhaps not always sincere–indeed, one that was at times cunningly equivocal or downright deceitful. Aside from pure anti-Jesuit animus, this nuance probably arose from the work of some 17th-century Jesuit theologians who imperfectly employed a method known as “casuistry” in resolving questions of moral theology–an approach that gave the broadest possible leeway to individual behavior. This form of justification, which became known as “laxism,” may explain why Jesuit priests were the confessors of choice among Europe’s Catholic aristocracy.

To characterize a lie as an “economy of truth” would be a Jesuitical formulation. To say that one had smoked marijuana but did not inhale would be a Jesuitical distinction. (Bill Clinton received his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, a Jesuit school.) William Safire argues that “Jesuitical” has by now developed a sense devoid of any overtones of prevarication: “subtle, intricate, moralistic reasoning, informed by a rigorous logic” is his definition. I am not as sanguine as Safire, and believe that using the word will always carry some slight risk: It may be wielded as a slur and received as a compliment, or vice versa.

“Talmudic” carries none of this baggage. The Talmud, with its commentaries on the Torah and its commentaries on the commentaries (the process goes on and on) cannot be faulted for using guile to arrive at a congenial “truth.” But the word has its own negative connotations. Talmudic scholarship is famous for the tortuous and painstaking manner in which truth is pursued and established–if it can be established at all. It is assumed by Talmudic scholars that the language of the Talmud is precise, and that each word is therefore of surpassing significance. As a result, even infinitesimal details are treated with the utmost seriousness. Also, while Talmudic scholarship is sometimes aimed at practical affairs (for instance, civil and criminal law, dietary laws, the status of women), it also considers issues that have no practical application at all, and sometimes delves into matters that may seem utterly fanciful.

In his book The Essential Talmud, rabbi and scholar Adin Steinsaltz recounts a famous absurdist parody: A rabbi asked his disciple why the letter peh (p«) was needed in the word “korah.” When the disciple replied that the letter did not appear in that word, the rabbi persisted: “Let us assume for a moment that the letter is placed in this word.” “But why should it be needed there?” asked the disciple, to which the rabbi replied, “That is exactly what I asked you.”

In any event, the roots of “Talmudic” meaning “excessively hairsplitting scholarship” are not difficult to discern. Let’s get down to cases. Recently my town passed an ordinance prohibiting the hunting of deer. Challenging this at Town Meeting, the hunting lobby pointed to the placement of certain commas in the statute that seemed to hold open the possibility of hunting deer with bows and arrows. The debate that raged for an hour over these commas was essentially Talmudic.

In subsequent discussion, the hunting enthusiasts asserted that their interest in the matter had little to do with the pleasure of hunting. Rather, they said, it involved a desire to protect the town from the scourge of Lyme disease. This tack was essentially Jesuitical.

During Richard Nixon’s first visit to China, an impasse developed over a fundamental issue: Taiwan’s long-standing position that the nationalist government of Taiwan was the legitimate government of all of China, including the mainland, and mainland China’s long-standing position that the People’s Republic was the legitimate government of all of China, including Taiwan. Henry Kissinger’s brilliant formulation in the famous 1972 Shanghai Communiqué–“The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China, and that Taiwan is part of China”–offered language that on its face was unassailably true and that all parties could solemnly accept, even as it deliberately settled nothing whatsoever. That is Jesuitical reasoning in its best sense.

I have no candidate at hand for a similarly great example of modern Talmudic reasoning, and am open to suggestions.