My first publication

My chapter in this book is “An Appreciation and Precis of Jacob Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God“.

The original version of the article was a series of blog posts here. As they have been reworked and the copyright transferred, I’ve taken them down. So, if you want to read it, you’ll have to buy the book!

I’m grateful and honored that Professor Neusner included my article in his book, in which the editor and other contributors are such distinguished scholars. It’s quite encouraging!

I must be doing something right, at least some of the time….


This section on ‘Life and the Law’, itself a reformulation of Schürer’s own title, Das Leben under [sic] dem Gesetz, presents the reviser with a new kind of problem. He is faced here not so much with an antiquated account or a faulty historical reconstruction, as with questionable value judgements. It has been decided therefore not to reproduce § 28 unchanged, as a period piece: readers concerned with a late nineteenth century ideology can read the German original or the previous English translation. On the other hand, since to delete the chapter completely would be to deprive the revised volume of a great deal of interesting information, the subject has been treated in this new version from a historical rather than a theological vantage point. Moreover, the purpose of the Pharisees and their rabbinic heirs is obviously no longer represented as a trivialization of religion, but identified as an attempt to elevate everyday Jewish life as a whole, and in its minute details, to the sphere of cultic worship. It should also be noted that although in the historical survey that follows, Jewish observances and customs are referred to in the past tense, the laws on which they are based are still valid and practised by traditional Judaism.

The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Revised English Edition, eds. Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Matthew Black (T & T Clark, 1979), volume 2, page 464, footnote 1.

The Righteous Phoenix

“And she also gave to her husband” (Gen 3.6). The word “also” is a word that suggests she also gave the fruit to others to eat, to cattle, beasts, and birds. All obeyed her, except for a certain bird named hol (phoenix), of which it is said, “I shall die with my nest, yet I shall multiply my days as the hol” (Job 29.18). The school of R. Yannai maintained: The hol lives a thousand years. At the end of a thousand years, a fire issues from its nest and burns it up, yet of the bird a piece the size of an egg is left; it grows new limbs and lives again.

“After their kinds they went forth from the ark” (Gen 8.19). Eliezer (Abraham’s servant) asked Shem, Noah’s oldest son: How did you manage to take care of the many kinds of animals? Shem replied: The truth is, we had much trouble in the ark. The creature whose habit it was to eat by day, we fed by day; the one who ate by night, we fed by night. As for the chameleon, my father did not know what it ate. One day, as my father was sitting and cutting a pomegranate, a worm fell out of it and the chameleon consumed it. After that, he would knead some prickly reeds infested with worms and feed it with them. As for the phoenix, my father found him sleeping in a corner of the ark and asked him: Why did you not request food? He replied: I saw you were busy, and I said to myself that I should not trouble you. Noah replied: Since you were concerned about my trouble, may it be the Lord’s will that you never die. Hence it is said, “I shall multiply my days as the phoenix” (Job 29.18)

from The Book of Legends, William Braude’s very enjoyable translation of Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitsky’s Sefer ha-Aggadah, pp. 20 (from Genesis Rabbah 19:3), 28 (from b Sanhedrin 108b).

Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism

Below is the full text of Solomon Schechter’s address, “Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism”, delivered at the Judaean Banquet, given in honor of Dr. Kaufman Kohler, March 26, 1903. The text is from Seminary Address and Other Papers (Cincinnati: Ark Publishing, 1915), 35-39.

My acquaintance with Dr. Kohler dates from the year 1901, when he did me the honor of paying me a visit at Cambridge, England. There is no scarcity in that ancient seat of learning, “full of sages and scribes,” of learned conversation. But the day with Dr. Kohler was one of the most delightful I have ever experienced in that place. The day was spent in roaming over the contents of the Genizah and in conversation. Our thoughts were turned to Judaism and the subjects which occupied our minds were all of a theological or historical nature. We probably differed in a good many points, and please God we shall differ in many more—but this did not prevent our short acquaintance from ripening at once into what might approach friendship. I felt that I was in the presence of a scholar and a seeker after truth. His is an intellect devoted entirely to what he considers the truth, and his is a heart deeply affected by every spiritual sensation which is in the air. He also delights to engage in what he considers the “Battles oo the Lord,” and Judaism has need for men of valor.

To speak more clearly: Since the so-called emancipation, the Jews of the civilized world have been lulled into a fancied security which events have not justified. It is true that through the revelation in the Dreyfus case, anti-Semitism of the vulgar sort has become odious, and no lady or gentleman dares now to use the old weapons of the times of Drumont and Stoecker. But the arch-enemy has entered upon a new phase, which Boerne might have called “the philosophic ‘Hep-Hep.’ ” And this is the more dangerous phase because it is of a spiritual kind, and thus means the “excision of the soul,” leaving us no hope for immortality. I remember when I used to come home from the Cheder, bleeding and crying from the wounds inflicted upon me by the Christian boys, my father used to say, “My child, we are in Galuth (exile), and we must submit to God’s will.” And he made me understand that this is only a passing stage in history, as we Jews belong to eternity, when God will comfort His people. Thus the pain was only physical, but my real suffering began later in life, when I emigrated from Roumania to so-called civilized countries and found there what I might call the Higher anti-Semitism, which burns the soul though it leaves the body unhurt. The genesis of this Higher anti-Semitism is partly, though not entirely—for a man like Kuenen belongs to an entirely different class—contemporaneous with the genesis of the so-called Higher criticism of the Bible. Wellhausen’s Prolegomena and History are teeming with aperçes full of venom against Judaism, and you cannot wonder that he was rewarded by one of the highest orders which the Prussian Government had to bestow. Afterwards Harnack entered the arena with his “Wesen des Christenthums,” in which he showed not so much his hatred as his ignorance of Judaism. But this Higher anti-Semitism has now reached its climax when every discovery of recent years is called to bear witness against us and to accuse us of spiritual larceny.

Continue reading “Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism”

When Constantinople Was Taken

Aaron Taylor recently posted a translation of a Hebrew lament written by Rabbi Michael ben Shabbetai Kohen Balbo of Candia in Crete, dating most likely to early July 1453. The news of the fall of the city arrived in Crete on 29 June 1453, a month after the City fell. I’ve been meaning to post this interesting Hebrew piece, but have been otherwise occupied (gainfully, mind you).

As is immediately obvious to anyone familiar with the Bible, particularly with the Prophets, this text is a florilegium, combining excerpts from various books of the Bible, though mostly from the Prophets. Some of the verbs and pronouns are adapted to this context by the author.

Some readers might be puzzled by the reference to “Bela”, in quotation from 1 Chronicles 1.44. Bela was a king of Edom. The Rabbinic “callsign” for the Roman Empire was “Edom”. The fallen emperor, Constantine XI, is “Bela”, following this reckoning.

The following text, citations (following RSV versification; corrected and added to by myself), and translation are from Excursus D, pages 341-343 of Steven B. Bowman’s highly informative The Jews of Byzantium: 1204-1453 (University of Alabama Press, 1985). I combined the notations and the Hebrew text, separating the latter according to the sources. The notations in Bowman are only in the translation. I include the Bowman translation at the bottom, for comparison with the one posted by Aaron. Neither translation quite captures the pathos of the Hebrew, with its very strong language of lamentation and mourning rooted in Prophetic mourning for the sins and punishment of Israel. The punishment theme is here too, preserved by the author, indicating a punishment of both the Romans and the Israelites in the City: a great and murderous destruction has overtaken them all. Even though it’s at the hand of God, that’s no reason not to be shocked and to mourn! And I think if more people knew what kind of treatment was coming their way for the next several centuries, they might have shared some of the Prophets’ and the good Rabbi’s emotion!

This was a fun (if somewhat gloomy in subject) afternoon project!

Continue reading “When Constantinople Was Taken”

Birkat ha-Hammah

Once every 28 years, according to Jewish tradition (see b. Berakhot 59b), the Sun returns to the same place in the sky on the same day of the week as it was at its creation, as described in Genesis 1. There is a special prayer that our observant Jewish friends say at this time, and only at this time: “Blessed is He who accomplishes creation.”

It’s good for all of us to keep this in mind, the care shown by a loving Creator who makes such wonders for everyone, who “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5.45).

The Birkat ha-Hammah (“Blessing of the Sun”) occurs this year on 8 April, or 14 Nisan, which is also the eve of Pesach, or Passover.

I hope all my Jewish friends are able to partake of the blessing of this blessing! I think it’s a wonderful thing that the rabbis established this, so very long ago. It’s a beautiful thing.

Full of days

And Job died, an old man, and full of days.

The Voice of Iyov blog is now permanently defunct, according to a message from the author.

Let us all wish the man behind the pseudonym Iyov the best in all his endeavours.

Jews in the Nineteenth Century

Some remarkable circumstances attest, without a prolonged detail of their miseries, that they have been a people everywhere peculiarly oppressed. The first unequivocal attempt at legislation in France was an ordinance against the Jews. And towards them alone one of the noblest charters of liberty on earth — Magna Charta, the Briton’s boast — legalized an act of injustice (Articles xii, xiii). For many ages after their dispersion, they found no resting-place in Europe, Asia, or Africa, but penetrated, in search of one, to the extremities of the world. In Mahometan countries they have ever been subject to persecution, contempt, and every abuse. They are in general confined to one particular quarter of every city, (as they formerly were to old Jewry in London) ; they are restricted to a peculiar dress ; and in many places are shut up at stated hours. In Hamadan, as in all parts of Persia, “they are an abject race, and support themselves by driving a peddling trade ;—they live in a state of great miser, pay a monthly tax to the government, and are not permitted to cultivate the ground, or to have landed possessions” (Morier’s Travels in Persia, p. 379). They cannot appear in public, much less perform their religious ceremonies, without being treated with scorn and contempt (Sir J. Malcolm’s History of Persia, vol. ii, p. 425). The revenues of the prince of Bohara are derived from a tribute paid by five hundred families of Jews, who are assessed according to the means of each. In Zante they exist in miserable indigence, and are exposed to considerable oppression (Hughes’ Travels, vol. i. p. 150). At Tripolit, when any criminal is condemned to death, the first Jew who happens to be at hand is compelled to become the executioner ; a degradation to the children of Israel to which no Moor is ever subjected (Lyon’s Travels, p. 16). In Egypt they are despised and persecuted incessantly (Denon’s Travels in Egypt, vol. i. p. 213). In Arabia they are treated with more contempt than in Turkey (Niebuhr’s Travels, vol. i. p. 408). The remark is common to the most recent travellers both in Asia and Africa (Morier’s Travels in Persia, p. 266. Lyon’s Travels in Africa, p. 32), that the Jews themselves are astonished, and the natives indignant, at any act of kindness, or even of justice, that is performed towards any of this “despised nation” and persecuted people.

Rev Alexander Keith, 1854

Notes on Pharisees

As you may’ve noticed, I’ve been reading the volume edited by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, In Quest of the Historical Pharisees (Baylor University Press, 2007). If anyone is interested in what can be known about the Pharisees, this is the book to read. I found it a much more satisfying reading experience than even the relatively recent and excellent Anthony Saldarini’s Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society (Eerdmans, 2001), with nearly every chapter presenting a new and more convincing reading of the data.

The first five chapters already lead to something of a consensus. Steve Mason in “Josephus’s Pharisees: The Narratives” and “Josephus’s Pharisees: The Philosophy” covers very well indeed all the mentions of the Pharisees in Josephus’ works, the two chapters dealing with narrative and with the passages wherein the Pharisees are described as one of several Judean philosophies. Martin Pickup covers “Matthew’s and Mark’s Pharisees,” Amy-Jill Levine describes “Luke’s Pharisees,” and “John’s Pharisees” are covered by Raimo Hakola and Adele Reinhartz. The indication through these (with Luke being somewhat equivocal and hard to pin down, which makes Levine’s chapter somewhat less fun, that way) is that the Pharisees were a voluntary association of some sort with a focus on religious-social law (or halakhah, to be somewhat anachronistic), who did not in themselves comprise the ruling class (though some members did belong to it), but they exerted continuing influence over the leadership due to their influence over and popularity with the general population, an influence beginning in the middle-Hasmonean period and continuing until the Great Revolt (and beyond, in the Pharisees transformation/appropriation as the forerunners of the Rabbis). Details of their organization, membership requirements and numbers, even a precis of their standard beliefs, however, are all lost to us. But we do have some very interesting remnants preserved in the rabbinic canon, particularly several pericopes in the Mishnah and Tosefta, which Jack Lightstone describes in “The Pharisees and the Sadducees in the Earliest Rabbinic Documents”, and Neusner describes in “The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70 CE: An Overview”, and “The Pharisaic Agenda: Laws Attributed in the Mishnah and the Tosefta to Pre-70 Pharisees,” and “The Pre-70 Pharisees after 70 and after 140.” The potential recovery of such material is only possible with careful attention to the form of the pericopes. Where the form is unusual, this needs to be investigated. Neusner shows that this yields interesting possibilities indeed in the Pharisee/Sadducee dispute material and in the “domestic” narratives regarding Hillel’s family. In both cases, parts of the pericopes have not been “digested” by the editors of the pre-Mishnaic sources or by the editors of the Mishnah and Tosefta themselves into the standard format for such materials, so the likelihood is high that these are earlier sources incorporated into the texts as we have them. It’s unfortunate that there are so few! It’s also fascinating just how very blurred the line is between “Pharisees” on the one side and “Rabbis” or “Sages” on the other in the Tannaitic documents; there appears to be no real distinction, in fact. Additional interesting chapters include that of Bruce Chilton, “Paul and the Pharisees,” Chilton and Neusner with “Paul and Gamaliel,” James VanderKam’s “The Pharisees and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” and James Strange’s “Archaeology and the Pharisees.”

There are some chapters following the above on The Pharisees in Modern Theology: Susannah Heschel’s “The German Theological Tradition,” and two by Neusner “The Anglo-American Theological Tradition” and “The Debate with E. P. Saunders since 1970.” There is then also a concluding chapter by William Scott Green, “What Do We Really Know about the Pharisees, and How Do We Know It?”

One of the most interesting and beneficial results of this book would be the attention it draws to how one particular reading of the Gospel evidence, rather than the sum of the available evidence itself, and even a more generous reading of the Gospel evidence, has generated nearly two millennia of misreadings of the other materials regarding the Pharisees, too. I’ll cover some of those misreadings here, later. In the meantime, I recommend In Quest of the Historical Pharisees to everyone interested in the subject.