Sergey Dolgopolski: Agreeing to disagree: KU prof’s new book on Talmud

What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement

Source: Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, 7-3-09

altSergey Dolgopolski has studied Talmud in his native Russia, Israel and the United States, and in his new book, he’s come to a conclusion: the disagreements in the text’s commentary are a lost art.

“What this is trying to accomplish is to show that Talmud is an intellectual discipline, like rhetoric or logic — an art of thinking,” Dolgopolski said.

In “What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement,” Dolgopolski, an assistant professor of religious studies and Jewish studies at the University of Kansas, says that contemporary, mainstream culture encourages agreement as an ultimate goal.

However, Dolgopolski argues that the 15th century Talmud shows instances where it’s fine to disagree when someone cannot prove his point is right and another person’s is wrong.

“The book places the ways in which the Talmud has been studied into the much larger context, not only what was going on in the 15th century … but how the ways of studying the Talmud fit into the larger view of the history of western civilization and thought,” Dolgopolski said. “I’m not doing the work of a historian, but rather the work of an intellectual who looks at those methodologies from a theoretical perspective that has been developed in the 20th century.”

He says that today, “we all subscribe to the idea that people need to agree on something in order to make progress — agreement is the goal. We also think that if we disagree we need to overcome it.”

A true disagreement, by Dolgopolski’s definition, is when people on both sides are rational and intelligent and understand each other’s point of view. The assumption is that neither side has made a factual error in coming to his or her conclusion. A real disagreement is rare, he said, because there is usually a factual error somewhere.

“What we can learn from the art of disagreement of the 15th century is that instead of trying to find a common denominator … the Talmudic method of the 15th century invites us to explore a different alternative. There is a point where there is no way to come to an agreement,” he said.

True disagreement
That’s not to say people should disagree on everything. Dolgopolski pointed out that only certain situations meet the conditions of a true disagreement.

One example from recent history is that of the Nazis’ attempts at Jewish genocide, he said.

“It would be very simple to say Nazis were just regular criminals … it’s much more complex. Nazis considered themselves ethical people … they just thought Jews were not humans … the horror of what Nazis did is that they based the ethics on excluding Jews and homosexuals and others from the realm of what’s ethical,” Dolgopolski said. “One simplistic way of responding to that situation is to say, ‘Well, we disagree. You think we are not humans, and we think we are humans.’ This is the real point of disagreement —who is human (and) who isn’t is not something that can be rationally decided … (it) is a point of disagreement that cannot be resolved by any kind of practical agreement.”

Dolgopolski says this has practical application for current world issues.

“If we really want ‘never again,’ then we have to realize there is an issue here that hasn’t been resolved — that we are in a situation of disagreement about who is human and who isn’t,” he said. “The goal should be to really understand disagreements rather than deluding ourselves into the possibility of agreement where it is not possible … if you don’t understand the nature of what happens, there is no way for you to address it.”

Introduction to Talmud
Dolgopolski said he hopes many different audiences will appreciate the book. In addition to his work at the university, where he will teach an introductory Talmud class next spring, Dolgopolski likes to teach in the larger Jewish community.

He has taught classes under the auspices of Congregation Beth Israel Abraham and Voliner, where he is a member, and at the Lawrence Jewish Community Center. Dolgopolski was also a lecturer in an educational series presented by the Department of Adult Jewish Learning at the Jewish Community Center in cooperation with KU’s Jewish studies program.

And he has just learned that he will be part of the annual “Day of Discovery” Jewish-learning smorgasbord coming up Aug. 30.

Jeff Goldenberg, JCC’s director of adult Jewish learning, said he is trying to arrange a course focusing of a few different aspects of Dolgopolski’s new book sometime in the upcoming academic year. Anyone who is interested in such a class may contact Goldenberg at (913) 327-4647.

Dolgopolski’s book, published by Fordham University Press, is available for $60 at and

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