The comedy programme Outnumbered contains the following classic scene (edited):
Father: You should never, ever, hit a person.
Ben (his son): What if they’re attacking you with a shovel?
Father: Well, obviously, yeah. That would be defence…
Ben: Ah, but you said ‘never, ever’!
Father: Look, Ben. You must never hit someone first.
Ben: What if you’re a boxer? If you’re a boxer, you should be able to hit someone. Because a boxer’s job is to punch people. Or what if somebody’s walking towards you and you know they’re a murderer. And they have a shovel.
Father: Ben, this isn’t about murderers with shovels…
It is a funny scene. But actually this is pure Talmud. The Talmud, too, likes to ask questions about seemingly ridiculous hypothetical cases. It does so as a means of serious philosophical discussion, addressing questions such as, ‘When we say that a man must “write” a bill of divorce, what is the essential quality that defines something as “writing”?’.
We can read Ben as engaging in serious debate in Talmudic style, as follows:
Ben’s father starts the argument by making a bald statement of halacha: ‘You should never hit someone’.
The Talmud at this point would say ‘Ini?’, an Aramaic term best translated as ‘Really?’.
Ben doesn’t know Aramaic, but in effect he is saying ‘Ini?’. He quickly finds an exception, namely self-defence. The broad principle as stated cannot be right, says Ben, in effect, because I have found an exception.
His father attempts to reformulate the rule in a narrower way, just as the Talmud often does; namely, that the rule is that hitting anyone first is prohibited.
Ben attacks back by finding another hypothetical that does not fit: the boxer. He is in effect saying – no, surely the prohibition is only on hitting without permission?
And then, in a particularly Talmudic manner, without waiting for an answer from his bemused father, Ben goes back to the first question and in effect argues with himself. He thinks, ‘Even if we accept that there is an exemption for self-defence, how in practice can we apply it?’
Ben’s challenge to himself is good moral reasoning, of course – we can all think of occasions where bogus arguments of, ‘I thought it was self-defence’ are wrongly deployed to justify immoral behaviour. But it is also good Talmud. He starts to answer his own challenge by picking a clear case: a known murderer (the equivalent in the Talmud is the ‘shor mu’ad’ or ox with a history of goring people) armed with a weapon.
Now, if his father were a sage of the Talmud, he would know what to do now: respond Talmudically, by challenging Ben back with a variant on his case: ‘But Ben, how can we ‘know’ that this person is a murderer? Perhaps he once did murder someone, but he has now done teshuvah and is working peacefully as a gardener, so has a shovel. He could be entirely innocent!’
From which we learn – everyone should study a little Talmud… especially parents!
Daniel Oppenheimer is a member of New North London Synagogue and a founder of its Assif minyan