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.

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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!

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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.

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 misery, 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 Tripoli, 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

Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, Epilogue

The following post contains my notes on Jacob Neusner’s Epilogue (called Chapter 15, Before and After) to his book The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999). The former installments are: Introduction and Chapter 1, Chapters 2 and 3, Chapters 4 and 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, and Chapter 14.

He begins the epilogue with:

The theology of the Oral Torah in its union with the Written Torah, on the one side, and with the liturgy of synagogue and home life, on the other, defines Judaism’s world view, the details in context of its way of life, its explanation of what, and who, is Israel. In their distinctive language and idiom, which in no way copied the language and reproduced the modes of discourse of Scripture, the sages of the Oral Torah retold the story of the Written Torah. The liturgy of the synagogue and home, for its part, would rework modes of thought characteristic of the sages of the Oral Torah and re-frame clusters of categories that sages had formed to make their statement. That is why anyone who wishes to describe the principal characteristics of the religious world view of that Judaism, in proportion and balance, will find the prescription here (p. 641).

As proclaimed by the sages, the Oral Torah is the complement to the Written Torah, the two together providing the whole teaching of Moses. This situaties Oral Torah in the center of the continuum running from Written Tora to Judaism’s prayer life in synagogue and home. This is not solely a chronological but also a theological continuum. The Written Torah preceded the writing of the documents of the Oral Torah, which was later succeeded by the finalization of the liturgy for synagogue and home. Such is the history of the documents. But Oral Torah is also theologically central, occupying the position of mediation between Written Torah and liturgy. The Oral Torah is central, providing the interpretation of the Written Torah and the foundation of Jewish prayer life. Does the Oral Torah accurately represent the Written Torah? Does the Oral Torah really represent the foundation of liturgy and prayer in Judaism? It’s known that early Christian writers disagreed with the sages’ interpretation of Scripture during the centuries that the documents of the Oral Torah were being produced. Also, there is little of the eventually established synagogue liturgy and prayer documented in the Oral Torah (pp 642-643).

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Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, Chapter 14

The following post contains my notes on Jacob Neusner’s The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999), Part IV, Restoring World Order, Chapter 14, Restoring the Public Order: The World to Come. The former installments are: Introduction and Chapter 1, Chapters 2 and 3, Chapters 4 and 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, and Chapter 13. This Chapter 14, on the World to Come, is the last chapter proper in Neusner’s book. There follows an Epilogue, on which I will also prepare notes. I will also be posting some reflections on the book as a whole, showing its value as an introduction to the thought of the sages as found in the Oral Torah.

Neusner begins (p. 599):

For us it is not easy to imagine a thought-world in which patterns, rather than sequences of events treated as cause and effect, are asked to organize experience. Yet the theology of the Oral Torah sets forth a thought world in which what is at stake are not beginnings and endings in an ordinal or (other) temporal sense. At issue, rather, are balances and proportions, the match of this to that, start to finish, Eden and world to come. True, that mode of thought is not commonplace outside the rule-seeking sciences of nature and society. These worlds of intellect do not tell the teleologically framed story of a molecule or the history of a law of economics but seek to formulate in abstract terms the concrete facts of molecules and enduring rules of economics that describe secular facts whatever the temporal context. But, I think it is now clear, that is precisely how the sages think, which is to say, in the manner of the natural philosophers of antiquity in general, as I pointed out in chapter 1. And they have in mind, as I said, paradigms of relationship.

This philosophy and worldview of the sages can also be taken to explain precisely why we find relatively little narrative in the documents of the Oral Torah, and no large scale histories (whether primary or secondary) of the sort produced by their contemporaries in Christian circles. God’s justice in the world is expressed in balance, as we have learned, and as the primary goal of the Oral Torah itself is the expression of and effecting of God’s justice in the world in Israel, and not focusing on the imbalances abounding in history, the theoretically rigorous systematization of themes coheres and we are presented not with an outline of history, from Eden to the world to come, bu the demonstration of their philosophy of God’s justice. The temporal aspect is secondary. As the world to come is a nececcary component of God’s justice, it is discussed, not because of an apocalyptic interest in eschatology, or a tidying-up of history. For the sages, history itself is irrelevant in the Oral Torah—there is only justice.

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