Jan 2001 Journal

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From pilpul to palimony

Pilpul is a process of dialectical reasoning much practised in yeshivot. Since it can easily degenerate into over-subtle hairsplitting the rabbinical authorities have long tried to curb its more extreme forms. Without much success – if Heine’s quip der Talmud ist eine jüdische Fechtschule (fencing academy) is to be believed.

Of course, the Jews didn’t have a monopoly on casuistry; the very term has Jesuit associations. Even so, generation after generation of talmudic disputants must have helped to shape our collective DNA. That this has had a largely positive effect is borne out by the large number of Jewish legal luminaries, from US Supreme Court Judge Frankfurter to Lord Chief Justice Woolf. But it has also produced an embarrassingly large number of Jewish smart alecs who will argue that black is white till they are blue in the face.

One such is the Daily Telegraph columnist Janet Daley who set out to prove that sending Bush to the White House with fewer votes than Gore is truly democratic. Her reasons: Gore has piled up millions of votes in a few densely populated coastal states, whereas support for Bush is evenly spread across the huge under-populated area in between. In other words Daley’s definition of democracy is that the vote of a farmer or small town dweller should carry more weight than that of a New Yorker or San Franciscan.

Another Jewish casuist much in the public prints is Sir Alfred Sherman. This octogenarian has truly foxed the political compass. Having started off as a Communist volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, he has travelled ever rightwards since. In his last incarnation as a Thatcherite guru, Sherman has advocated privatisation of health care, transport, the post office, etc. Asked about the inconsistency between his past and present views he retorted insouciantly that 150 years ago Marx and Engels already demanded the ‘withering away of the state’.

A casuist on a more elevated plane is the literature don Gabriel Josepovici. A huge TS Eliot fan, Josepovici said of the Jew-baiting poet: ‘He taught me how to write.’ When he had his attention drawn to Eliot’s notorious line ‘Rachel, née Rabinowicz, tears at grapes with murderous claws’, his take on it was: ‘This shows me exactly how not to eat grapes’.

The law probably provides the happiest hunting ground for adepts at casuistry. The American lawyer Roy Cohn shot to fame in the 1950s as the forensically trained rottweiler Senator McCarthy unleashed on individuals branded as ‘pinkos’, or Communist fellow travellers. By sheer coincidence the colour pink is also associated with homosexuality, and Cohn was as much of a homophobe as he was a Red-baiter. (After his death it came to light that he had been a closet homosexual all the time!)

An American lawyer endowed with a golden, rather than a forked, tongue is Alan        Dershowitz. He became famous in a suit the discarded mistress of Lee Marvin filed against the actor. Dershowitz argued that it was inequitable that divorced wives received alimony whereas mistresses who may have wasted their best years on a man emerged with nothing from the breakup. The court upheld his plea and ordered Lee Marvin to pay his ex-mistress something akin to alimony – hereafter known as palimony.
Richard Grunberger

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