Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapters 2 and 3

Here I continue with my notes on Jacob Neusner’s interesting book The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God.

Chapter 2
The Moral Order: Reward and Punishment
The sages understood punishment as proportionate and appropriately so. Also, it began with the initial instrument of sin and proceeded from there. That is, a sin in family matters will result in punishment in family matters, and so on.

Reward likewise begins with the instrument which initiated the good deed, but it exceeds proportion, for God’s mercy is greater than His justice.

Punishment of sins alwasy comes from the very corpus of the sinner himself (p. 66)–with the sages quoting Habakkuk 1.7: “Dread and terrible are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.”

The realm of Torah is separate from the realm of idolatry, just as Israel is separate from the gentiles, yet both are subject to the same justice. So of what advantage is the Torah to Israel? Abraham’s reward extends beyond his life into the lives of his family/descendants–“a heritage of grace” (p. 69). See Tosefta 4.2-4 on the hospitality of Abraham in Genesis 18 (pp 69-70 here)–Abraham’s actions are reflected in the things God does for Israel in the wilderness: water/a spring, shade/the cloud, bread/manna, calf/quail, standing/God staying with Israel for forty years.

Continue reading “Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapters 2 and 3”

Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah

Earlier in the year, I asked Professor Jacob Neusner for a recommendation on which of his numerous books to read (there are well over 1,000 at this point: more than Solomon!). His first recommendation was for his The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999). He mentioned that it was one of his books that he most enjoyed writing. That means alot, coming from a man who’s single-handedly translated nearly the entire Rabbinic canon (he’s almost done), published numerous analytical and historical works related to said canon, and pioneered the application of form analysis on that canon, as well.

His is a fascinating career, intellectually. One of the things that most struck me about his work (and this was years ago while I was just beginning to learn post-Biblical Hebrew) was his recognition and description of the underlying order to the Rabbinic texts, the logic underlying not only the form of the writings themselves, but the logic underlying their argumentation and the worldview that can be discerned from it. The form of argumentation is clear to anyone learning the literature, but the extra step to form as representative of the wider underlying logos or rationality behind the literature was revelatory.

This book goes into depth in pulling together the evidence describing that logic, and the theology it is an expression of. Below are a few excerpts I’ve made from the book, and my own notes, based on any passages that I find delightful, thought-provoking, difficult, or sublime. This’ll be an ongoing series of posts, one hopefully not too tedious, as some of my commentary is admittedly superficial, though hopefully not too jejune. However, I thought that the more exposure this book receives, the better. It is a real page-turner, and deserves more attention than it has had to date. A search for reviews on this book in both JSTOR and ATLAS produces no results: zero for each. I find that astonishing. Professor Neusner’s work is intellectually challenging, but highly rewarding to the attentive reader. I can only assume that some more sensationalist titles have usurped reviewers’ attention, unfortunately.

Continue reading “Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah”

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.

On the Oral Torah

The sages in these proportionate, balanced, and measured components revealed a world of rules and exposed a realm of justice and therefore rational explanation. It was the kingdom of Heaven, so the sages called it, meaning the kingdom of God. For that Eden, in the abstraction of natural history that was invented by philosophy, corresponds to the conception of the world and its perfection set forth by the theology of the sages. They accordingly conceived of a philosophical Eden out of Scripture’s account—its authorized history of the world from Eden to the return to Zion. What the observed facts of nature taught philosophers, the revealed facts of Scripture taught our sages of blessed memory. Therein theology differs from philosophy—but, in the Oral Torah in particular, the difference is there and there alone and nowhere else.

Jacob Neusner, The Theology of the Oral Torah, 17

Mishnah Comparison Chart

I’ve just posted a comparison chart detailing the coverage of the tractates of the Mishnah in the Tosefta, the Talmud Yerushalmi, and the Talmud Bavli. It should prove useful as a general reference.

As one can see in the chart, the Tosefta gives the widest coverage, with the Yerushalmi and Bavli providing coverage of roughly two-thirds of the Mishnaic tractates, and different ones at that, though they do both cover a number of tractates. The only tractates to have no presence in Tosefta and the Talmuds are Abot, Middot, and Qinnim. In the case of Abot, this is likely because it was added to the Mishnah some time later than its original compilation. Middot and Qinnim were likely excluded due to their subject matter, being the measurements of the Temple precincts, and complications related to bird sacrifices, respectively.

As always, suggestions for improvement are welcome.

Neusner Talmud Bavli update

I’ve corrected a few errors in the file I created with hyperlinks to the individual chapter files of the Hendrickson Publishing and Ages Software edition of Jacob Neusner’s The Babylonian Talmud: Translation and Commentary.

Here is a basic file, with default colors.

This file is the same file, with a black background and colored text, which I find easier on my eyes.

If you own the Neusner Babylonian Talmud CD, you’ll need to have the files installed to your hard drive, and you’ll need to place the above file(s) in the directory in which the pdfs of the chapters are installed. Either that, or you can edit the paths in the html. The corrections involved some of the folio numbers which my too hasty copying/pasting reduplicated in tractates Shabbat and Eruvin.

Random Acts of Aggadah

“Take heed of the heavens” (Deut 32.1). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Say to them, to Israel: Gaze at the heavens, which I created to serve you. Have they perhaps changed their ways? Does the orb of the sun perchance not rise out of the east and light up the entire world, all of it? The fact is: the sun rejoices in its commission to do My will, for Scripture says, “The sun . . . is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course” (Ps 19.6).

“And let the earth be heard” (Deut 32.1). Gaze at the earth, which I created to serve you. Has it perhaps changed its ways? Have you perchance sown seed and it has not sprouted? Or have you sown wheat and it brought forth barley? Or did the heifer perhaps say, “I will not plow,” “I will not thresh”? Or did the ass say, “I will bear no burden,” “I will not move”?

Likewise, the sea. “I . . . have placed the sand for the bound of the sea (Jer 5.22). Has it perhaps changed its ways and, rising, flooded the world?

Is this not a matter to be argued a fortiori? The heavens, the earth, and the sea were created to receive neither reward nor penalty. If they earn merit, they receive no reward; if they go astray, they are subjected to no penalty. They need not be concerned about their sons and daughters. Yet they have not changed their ways. You—who receive reward when you earn merit and receive punishment when you sin, who are concerned about your sons and daughters—how much more and more by far should you not change your ways.

The Book of Legends 7.492
(a translation by William Braude of the classic Sefer ha-Aggadah, edited by Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitzky)

Holy Baba Batra!

[UPDATE: See the comments below for welcome attribution information from Professor Neusner, and information on forthcoming electronic editions of his translations of the Rabbinic canon. The attribution information is lacking in the electronic edition of the Talmud Bavli translation.]

I just yesterday received a copy of Jacob Neusner’s The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary on CD (Thanks, Eisenbrauns!). Hendrickson Publishers used Ages Software to create the program, which is essentially just pdf files of all the chapters (of Neusner’s devising) of the tractates. Neusner’s work in outlining the entire Babylonian Talmud is a truly breathtaking labor of great erudition. The precision of language and the patterns observable in the original are conveyed very well indeed in this translation, which fortunately doesn’t skimp on the explanatory parentheses necessary to make the extremely telegraphic nature of the Talmud’s language intelligible to those not very familiar with it. A general introduction to the Babylonian Talmud is included, as well as an introduction for and a treatise on the structure of each tractate. Very interesting.

There are, however two drawbacks. The first is the lack of facility in searching by the traditional folio numbers. Neusner’s outline organization of the tractates breaks them down into chapters, which the files are also broken into, but this means each tractate then has a number of files, and one needs to open several before finding the proper one with the correct folio numbers in it. The “Talmud Librarian” page doesn’t list the folios at all, and you’ll only find the folios included in the chapter headings. Oh, hold on a minute . . . . After a bit of work, I’ve come up with a basic html file that includes links to all the files, with the titles, transliterations, and descriptions given by Neusner in the general introduction, and including the folio numbers next to each link, a vast improvement I think. To get it to work, you’ll of course need to have purchased this Neusner Talmud CD, and having installed that, you’ll simply save this page (or this color-coded one) to the same directory in which all the files are installed. The pages will open in your web browser when you click the links, if you’ve got Adobe Acrobat (or its Reader) installed. (Note that it must be saved in the same directory that the files reside in for the file to work as is. If you’re comfortable with html editing, you can change that if you like.)

[UPDATE: The following paragraph/drawback is incorrect. Neusner’s is a complete translation of the Babylonian Talmud, which itself only comments on 37 of the Mishnah’s tractates. The presumption of forgetfulness is a wretched thing!]

The second drawback, which you’ll notice upon looking at that file, is that only 37 of the Babylonian Talmud’s 63 tractates are actually included in Neusner’s translation. This was quite a disappointment. Perhaps he’ll complete it in the future. If that’s the case, I’ll make a note of it here. It’s a fine translation, and the outline format is extraordinarily useful, helping to clarify the text, so I certainly hope Newusner’s Babylonian Talmud translation will be completed in the same format, and likewise made available on CD to complete this collection seamlessly. In the meantime, the (older, and thus somewhat inferior) Soncino translation of the complete Babylonian Talmud is available online, also in pdf format.

[UPDATE: Note that I have removed the link, as the pdfs of the Soncino Talmud to which I linked are clearly both a poor presentation of the Soncino Talmud, and in copyright infringement.]

God of all who rejoice forever

Of the Instructor
Song of the sacrifice of the seventh Sabbath on the sixteenth of the month.

Praise the God of heights,
exalted ones among all the potentates of knowledge!
May the holy ones of God magnify the King of Glory,
Who makes holy in holiness every holy one.
The chiefs of praises of all the mighty ones,
praise the God of praises of majesty,
for in the splendor of the praises
     is the glory of His majesty.
In it are the praises of all the mighty ones,
with the splendor of all His majesty.
And exalt his exaltation to the height,
mighty ones of the potentates of exaltation,
and the Divinity of His glory
     above all heights of exaltation.
For He is God of gods of all the chiefs of the heights,
and King of kings of all the councils of the ages.
At the words of His mouth,
     the potentates of exaltation are,
at what leaves His lips, all the spirits of the ages,
by the will of His knowledge,
     all His works in their missions.
Sing with joy, you joyful of His knowledge,
with rejoicing among the mighty ones of wonder.
And proclaim His glory with the tongue of
     all who proclaim knowledge,
joyful songs of His wonder
     in the mouth of all proclaiming Him.
For He is God of all who rejoice forever,
and Judge in His might of
     all the spirits of understanding.
Give thanks, all you potentates of majesty,
     to the King of Majesty,
for to His glory all the potentates of knowledge
     give thanks,
and all the spirits of righteousness give thanks
     in His truth.
And they make their knowledge pleasing
     with the judgments of His mouth,
and their thanksgivings with the return
     of the arm of His might,
for judgments of salvation.
Sing to the God of strength
     with the portion of the chief spirit,
for a song in the joy of God,
and a rejoicing among all the holy ones,
for a song of wonder in the joy of ages.
With these praise all the foundations
     of the Holy of Holies,
the columns bearing up the palace,
     Exalted of Exalteds,
and all the corners of His building.
Sing to God, terrifying of strength,
     all spirits of knowledge and light,
to exalt together the firmament Pure of Pures,
of the holy place of His holiness.
And praise Him, spirits of the mighty ones,
to praise for ages of ages
     the chief firmament of the heights,
all its beams and its walls,
His building, the work of His construction.
The spirits of the Holy of Holies,
     the living mighty ones,
the spirits of holiness of the ages,
above all the holy ones
     of the firmament of wonder,
the wonder of majesty and splendor,
and wonderful is the glory in the light
     of their brightness of knowledge.
…in all the holy places of wonder.
The spirits of the mighty ones are around the dwelling
     of the King of Truth and Righteousness.
All its walls….

This is one of the Songs of Sabbath Sacrifice, 4Q403, 4QShirShabbd, Fragment 1, column 1, lines 30-46. It appears to be the most completely preserved, though even it is incomplete. One note on the translation is that where I’ve used “mighty ones,” the Hebrew has אלהים, and where I’ve used “potentates” the Hebrew has אלים. Rather than confusing readers into thinking this a polytheistic text, when it’s really all about the angelic orders praising God, I avoided translation in those instances as “gods” while maintaining the above-mentioned alternatives consistently.

The Qumran community of Essenes celebrated these Sabbaths with various different songs of praise in which they find themselves sharing in the angelic heavenly praise of God, a situation familiar to those of us belonging to those churches which have maintained ancient mystical liturgical traditions. The worship is twofold: as we praise and offer on earth, the same is occurring in heaven, and eternity and incorruptibility are for a time overlapping with the timebound and corruptible. No doubt the Essenes considered something of the same to be occurring, with swarms of angels careening about them, but also themselves being to a degree transported to the heights of heaven.

This translation is also due to the suggestion of Mike Aquilina, as today is the Feast of the Archangels on the Western Calendar, and one of these songs is thus entirely appropriate!