Pilpul is a term that has entered the English language as a figure of speech for casuistry. It is borrowed from a Hebrew term for a particular method of studying the Talmud through intense textual analysis in attempts to either explain conceptual differences between various halakhic rulings or to reconcile any apparent contradictions presented from various readings of different texts. It has become a common colloquialism used by some to indicate extremes of disputation or casuistic hairsplitting.
Jewish rabbis have admonished many students to turn away from the intellectual stimulation of such obsessive hairsplitting debates to apply themselves to "more useful pursuits". Many leading rabbinic authorities since the 16th century have harshly criticized the method of pilpul as being unreliable and a waste of time, and it is regarded by some as having been discredited by the time of the Vilna Gaon. A frequently heard accusation is that those who used this method were often motivated more by the prospect of impressing others with the sophistication of their analysis and the cleverness with which they applied their learning, rather than by a disinterested love of truth. These students typically did not apply appropriate standards of proof in obtaining their conclusions (if any), and they frequently presupposed conclusions that necessitated unlikely readings of "proof-texts". As such, pilpul has sometimes been derogatorily called bilbul, Hebrew for "confusion". A famous polemic against Pilpul states that "It would be better to learn carpentry or another trade, or to sharpen the mind by playing chess. At least they would not engage in falsehood, which then spills over from theory and into practice..."
Saint Paul in the New Testament warned against disputing about words, which only ruins those who listen—"charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers." KJV 2 Timothy 2:14. (See 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, 11; 1&Thessalonians 1:6, 9; 5:14)
- Rabbi Yehudah Loew of Prague - The Maharal (1512-1609), Tiferet Yisroel: On the greatness of Torah and mitzvot, page 168
On Nitpicking, Pilpulistic Nonsense, and Hair-Splitting in the Law, by Dov Fischer (Dov Fischer is a Jewish rav.)