I recently learned a new Yiddish term while reading a novel called “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok: “pilpul.”
The novel is about two boys, both sons of rabbis, one Orthodox and one Hasidic, coming of age in Brooklyn in the 1940s.
They go to different yeshivas but end up at the same university, studying to be rabbis themselves, like their fathers. While that may all sound rather parochial, the novel’s themes about the relationships between fathers and sons are quite universal.
But what I found most fascinating was the whole subculture devoted to the study of the Talmud. I couldn’t help being struck by the similarity of the rabbis and the rabbinical students to our own subculture, devoted to the study of the law.
They pore over original texts; we pore over original texts.
They pore over commentaries about their texts; we pore over commentaries about our texts.
They try to reconcile apparent conflicts between their commentaries; we try to reconcile apparent conflicts between our commentaries.
They think what they are doing is supremely important, deprive themselves of sleep and ruin their health for their work; we think what we’re doing is supremely important, deprive ourselves of sleep and ruin our health for our work.
They take upon their shoulders the sins of their parishioners; we take upon our shoulders the sins of our clients.
And they have this word — pilpul — to describe one particular methodology for studying the Talmud. But some of the rabbis use the term in a derogatory fashion, roughly equating to “sophistry.” One of the rabbis calls it “empty, nonsensical arguments over minute points of the Talmud that have no relationship at all to the world.”
In our subculture, we have our pilpul, too. It’s the drivel that fills up the majority of the space in the law reviews.
Do you want an example of pilpul from our subculture? Try this pretense at legal scholarship, about the topic of legal scholarship itself, from The Georgetown Law Journal:
“Now it’s true that we’re producing at a vastly faster rate than ever before. More papers. More conferences. More panels. More symposia. More blogs. And faster and faster, too. More and faster.
Over seven thousand legal academics — and all of them cranking out those talks and papers as fast as possible. The speed of legal scholarship is just off the charts right now.
“And yet nothing’s happening.”
Pierre Schlag, “Spam Jurisprudence, Air Law, and the Rank Anxiety of Nothing Happening (A Report on the State of the Art),” 97 Geo. L.J. 803, 804-805 (2009).
That’s the sort of pilpul that actually gets published these days in what was once a respected law review.
As best as I can tell, by “nothing’s happening,” the author means that private property hasn’t been outlawed yet. But of course, I can’t be sure. I’m such an old-school fool, I have actually been practicing law and writing about law for decades without once using terms common to critical legal studies, such as “dominant paradigm,” “marginalizing,” or “empowerment.”
But I have used Yiddish terms in briefs before. “Chutzpah” always comes in handy when arguing for judicial estoppel, don’t you think? And now, thanks to Mr. Potok’s wonderful novel, I have “pilpul.”
And there’s definitely no shortage of pilpul in the legal subculture to flag with that term.
But don’t worry. Here at the Wisconsin Law Journal, I promise to keep making arguments that do have a relationship to the world.
And if I should break that promise and if you should accuse me of writing pilpul, now I will know what you mean.