Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapter 12

At long last (forgive my recent distractions), the following are 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 12, Repentance. The former installments, by chapter, are: Introduction and Chapter 1, Chapters 2 and 3, Chapters 4 and 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, and Chapter 11. After this installment, there are three chapters left.

Neusner begins this chapter (p. 511):

The logic of repentance is simple and familiar. It is a logic that appeals to the balance and proportion of all things. If sin is what introduces rebellion and change, and the will of man is what constitutes the variable in disrupting creation, then the theology of the Oral Torah makes provision for restoration through the free exercise of man’s will. That requires an attitude of remorse, a resolve not to repeat the act of rebellion, and a good-faith effort at reparation, in all, transformation from rebellion against to obedience to God’s will. So with repentance we come once more to an exact application of the principle of measure for measure, here, will for will, each comparable to, corresponding with, the other. World order, disrupted by an act of will, regains perfection through an act of will that complements and corresponds to the initial, rebellious one. That is realized in an act of wilful repentance (Hebrew: teshubah).

Notice here something that has been occurring consistently throughout Neusner’s book: each chapter requires the previous chapters, and builds upon them. Neusner’s experience in working with the systematized documents of the Oral Torah finds expression in this exceedingly skillful organization of his presentation.

Repentance is not just apology, but also an act of intention, involving a change in one’s will, a determination to make a return (teshubah) from disobedience to obedience, from arrogance to humility. This, in conjunction with atonement, brings about reconciliation with God. In this changed attitude, repentance is then expressed by not repeating a sin when again confronted by the opportunity (pp 511-512).

As seen earlier, God’s mercy vastly outweighs His justice. A sin is punished measure for measure, but repentance is rewarded out of all proportion. Partly, this is because the act of will involved in repentance affects an unlimited number of sins that will no longer be committed; while each sin is a single act of rebellion, repenting of so much potential rebellion is rewarded. But it is God’s mercy that rewards the humble out of all proportion even in regards to that. As Neusner says, “[R]epentance makes sense, in its remarkable power, only in the context of God’s mercy” (p. 514). Man’s will is to be shaped by God’s own attitude of mercy, having benefitted from it. It is when we show mercy toward one another that God shows mercy toward us (pp 514-515).

Understanding this, punishment is then understood as leading man to repentance, and so as a tool of redemption, not merely retributive justice. As described in Ruth Rabbah IX:I.1, it was learned from the first chapter of Job that God provokes repentance through first penalizing one’s property, and only secondarily, if repentance has not occurred, one’s person (pp 516-517).

Prayer and charity are companions of repentance, and are similar to it in that they are likewise expressions of a properly ordered will, prayer as an expression of dependence upon Heaven, and charity as an act of evoking God’s own mercy (pp 517-518). These three, repentance, prayer, and charity, form a group united in an attitude of obedience to Heaven (Yerushalmi Taanit 2:1 III:5).

But repentance is also an action in the real world, not merely an interior attitude expressed in private acts of prayer and charity, and thus more public. In this way it is linked with atonement, for which it is a precondition. Without repentance, there is no atonement.

Bavli Shebuot 1.1 XVII.2/13a–The Day of Atonement atones only in cases where an attitude of repentance is present. This intentionality discussed in an earlier chapter plays the most significant role in repentance.

Leviticus Rabbah X:V.1-3, 7–The precise importance of prayer in the effecting of atonement is discussed. It is granted that it is part of the process of atonement, in conjunction with repentance. Some would make it the exclusive effector of atonement, while others maintain it to be only an integral part of the process.

There are three media of atonement for an inadvertent sin. For deliberate sin, there is no atonement. The three are:
1.) A sin-offering at the Temple
2.) The Day of Atonement
3.) Death–at resurrection, one’s death is accounted to have effected an atonement for one’s sins.
Mishnah Yoma 8:8-9 describes this, with a focus on intention. If a man sins with the intention to take advantage of atonement afterward as a formality to absolve him, then there is no atonement. Without true repentance there is no atonement. See also Abot de Rabbi Nathan XL:V.1 (pp 522-523).

Bavli Yoma 8:8-9 VI.1-2/87a-b–Sins between man and God are atoned for by the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement also atones for sins between men, but only when the offender has regained the good will of the offended. If the offended refuses reconciliation, the offender is absolved, but guilt lies on the offended who has refused reconciliation. This, of course, brings to mind an old favorite from the Gospel of Matthew 5.23-24: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” The implication is that the offering will not be effective unless reconciliation has been achieved.

Bavli Yoma 8:8-9 III.6-14/86a-b–A lengthy excerpt detailing the sages’ normative view of repentance, and providing more information on its components and ancillary effects. Repentance is motivated by either fear or love. Penalties or punishment may be used by God to induce repentance. Repentance is so great as to override a commandment (Jeremiah 3.1). Repentance draws redemption, which will be covered in the following two chapters in detail. Repentance even transmutes deliberate into inadvertent sins. God’s disproportionate response to repentance, rooted in His mercy expressed in the logic of justice, shows it to be absolute in power, so that only one man could save the entire world. The seal of repentance is the lack of repeat offense under similar conditions.

Yet repentance is a far cry from loving and forgiving one’s unrepentant enemy. God forgives sinners who atone and repent and asks of humanity that same act of grace–but no greater. For forgiveness without a prior act of repentance violates the rule of justice and also humiliates the law of mercy, cheapening and trivializing the superhuman act of forgiveness by treating as compulsive what is an act of human, and divine, grace. Sin is to be punished, but repentance is to be responded to with forgiveness, as the written Torah states explicitly: “You shall not bear a grudge nor pursue a dispute beyond reason, nor hate your brother in your heart, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). The role of the sinful other is to repent, the task of the sinned-against is to respond to and accept repentance, at which point loving one’s neighbor as oneself becomes the just person’s duty. Repentance forms the critical center of the moral transaction in a contentious and wilful world (p. 529).

Forgiveness is thus depicted here as of a different order than that posited in certain Protestant Christian understandings–there is no “reflexive forgiveness,” such as can be found in the various schema of imputed justification. There is, in the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, only justice, but it is a justice partaking regularly of great mercy, as seen in God’s disproportionate response to deeds warranting great merit (zekhut) and in response to repentance itself. It is only superficially the case that this approach is irreconcilable with another Christian ideal, found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.43-48 RSV):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Of course, one would be praying that one’s enemies repent!

Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael LII:I.8–God will punish the children of sinners who continue to commit the parents’ sins, but not those who repent. Even the children of the greatest sinners, if they do not likewise sin, but repent, are forgiven.

Pesiqta de Rab Kahana XXIV:XII.1–Repentance overcomes all, achieving redemption. It is both private and public, individual and communal. God is content, however, with a private act of repentance.

Neusner now moves on to the subject of atonement: “As we now realize, by atonement, the sages understand an act or event (death or the Day of Atonement in particular) that removes the effects of sin by bringing about God’s forgiveness of sin” (p. 531).

In this age, without the Temple and its atonement offerings, charity takes the place of sin offerings and guilt offerings (see Bavli Baba Batra 1:5 IV.23/9a: “When the Temple stood….”).

Tosefta Kippurim 4:6-8 describes the four kinds of atonement systematized from and with Scripture by the sages:
1.) One who has repented of violating a positive commandment is immediately forgiven at his repentance. That is, repentance itself solely effects atonement.
2.) With one who has repented of violating a negative commandment, one’s repentance suspends the punishment, and the Day of Atonement effects atonement.
3.) With one who has repented of a violation worthy of Heavenly extirpation or earthly capital punishment, repentance and the Day of Atonement suspend the sentence of death, and suffering effects atonement.
4.) With one who has repented of deliberate blasphemy, repentance doesn’t suspend punishment and the Day of Atonement doesn’t atone, but rather repentance and the Day of Atonement atone for one-third, suffering atones for one-third, and death for the final third.

Note the systematic progression: increasing severity of transgression invokes an increasingly complex and demanding atonement. As Neusner says, “The entire complex exhibits the traits of mind that we have met many times: systematic classification by indicative traits, an interest in balance, order, complementarity, and commensurate proportionality” (p. 533).

Yerushalmi Yoma 8:7 1:1-4–The Day of Atonement, as an extraordinary act of God’s superabundant mercy, effects atonement even against the will of the offender, which even offerings in the Temple cannot do. Only in the case of one who has placed himself outside the faith does the Day of Atonement not atone, unless, of course, he repents.

One wonders at this mechanism. How is the Day of Atonement effective without the Temple ritual? Is it not that this particular space of time is considered sanctified and empowered in itself to effect atonement even in the absence of Temple, priesthood, and ritual? This brings to mind a passage from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s beautiful little book The Sabbath (First Shambhala Library Edition, pp xv-xvi):

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals, and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: the Day of Atonement. According to the ancient rabbis, it is not the observance of the Day of Atonement, but the Day itself, the “essence of the Day,” which, with man’s repentance, atones for the sins of man.

This power accorded to the Day of Atonement is undoubtedly understood to arise from the interesting formulation found in Leviticus 16.30: “For this day will atone for you,” reading the subject of the verb as the Day of Atonement itself, and the verb as active, not passive. In any case, atonement via the Day of Atonement is only available to the faithful in this “automated” manner, and only in particular conditions, as noted above. For the wicked, this is irrelevant.

Abot de Rabbi Nathan XXXIX:V.1–The repentance of the wicked gentiles suspends punishment, but the ultimate judgment (eternal death without resurrection) will still occur. “Dominion buries those that hold it.” As with others, repentance suspends punishment, but the Day of Atonement and death effect atonement.

Abot de Rabbi Nathan XXXIX:VII.1–The wicked gentiles receive their reward here and now, in this world, for what little good they do; however, the righteous of Israel have their reward in the world to come.

Song of Songs Rabbah XLVIII:V.5–Even gossip and involuntary manslaughter, which theoretically shouldn’t have them, are provided means of atonement. Gossip is particularly dangerous to the community.

At this point, Neusner moves from the focus on the individual Israelite sinner and his repentance and atonement to that of Israel as a whole. As he says, “If God’s mercy for the individual sinner vastly outweighs the guilt of the sinner, then all the more so does God treat Israel with abundant mercy. God forgives Israel sins that vastly exceed those of the gentiles” (p. 537).

Pesiqta de Rab Kahana XIV:V.1–Though various others in the past found no fault with God, particularly with His justice, Israel does. Nevertheless, God forgives.

And what role do the nations, Israel’s counterpart, play in this?

Now, to move forward: any discussion involving the community of Israel draws in its wake Israel’s antonym, the gentiles, that is, the other component of humanity viewed whole. Surely, the nations of the world lay claim to a place in the process of reconciliation! But their condition is defined not by particular acts of rebellion against God, for example, gossip or transgression of other laws of the Torah, but rather by the condition of idolatry, an act of rebellion that transcends all details. And to overcome their condition, the gentiles have to give up idolatry and accept the Torah, the statement of God’s will. Short of doing so, no repentance is possible, no atonement even relevant. That basic definition of the gentiles, which we examined in chapters 3 and 4, explains why, in being accorded the opportunity for repentance, Israel gains a role in shaping the destiny of the cosmos; in being denied that opportunity (except so far as they give up their idols and become Israel), the nations remain bystanders to the drama of creation (p. 540).

Leviticus Rabbah XXI:IV.1–The nations complain to God that though Israel sins just as they do, in murder, fornication, and idolatry, Israel receives atonement via the Day of Atonement while the nations don’t. Neusner explains:

Gentiles, estranged from God by idolatry, gain no benefit from the heritage of unearned grace that the saints of Israel leave to Israel. We already have noted that there are other means of repentance and atonement besides the Day of Atonement. Deemed comparable to sacrifices, for example, is the death of the righteous or of sages, and these, too, accrue to Israel’s advantage (p. 541).

Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1 I.2–The death of various saints of Israel benefits only Israel–the nations are excluded.

Yerushalmi Yoma 4:2 II.3–Likewise the song of the Temple was a form of atonement restricted to Israel.

Since, as discussed earlier, Israel’s role in creation bears a cosmic responsibility, so also its repentance, both individual and communal, has cosmic repercussion–the redemption and restoration of the world, the return to the perfection of Eden.

Yerushalmi Shebiit 4:10 VI–Even if an individual does not suffer along with Israel the nation, repentance will bring him to the world to come.

As repentance effects restoration, of life from death, return from exile, perfection from change, and is innately an act of humility, being submission to the will of God, so the true Messiah at the end of the world is understood to be humble, and a false Messiah arrogant.

Lamentations Rabbah LVIII:11.8 ff–The subject is Bar Koziba (“son of the lie”), the false Messiah, arrogant and proud, who succeeded against and was protected from the Romans only by the prayer of holy men.

And again, we come to the key role of intentionality in dealings between God and Israel, this time in an eschatological context:

[W]hen Israel really wants the Messiah to come, he will come. But we are now aware of the special weight attached to the words “want” or “will.” What Israel must want is only what God wants. What Israel must do is give up any notion of accomplishing on its own, by its own acts of will, the work of redemption. It is only through the self-abnegation of repentance that Israel can accomplish its goal. Specifically, when Israel’s will conforms to the will of God, then God will respond to the act of repentance by bringing about the time of restoration and eternal life. This is expressed in a colloquy that announces that the Messiah will come when all Israel keeps a single Sabbath. And that will take place when Israel wants it to take place. It requires only an act of will on the part of Israel to accept one of the Ten Commandments (pp 546-547)

Yerushalmi Taanit 1:1 II.5–It is Israel’s repentance, even just keeping a sing Sabbath, that would bring the Messiah.

It is considered that the troubles attendant upon the arrival of the Messiah inspire Israel to repentance, as designed. God responds to Israel’s repentance by sending the Messiah and bringing about the restoration to perfection.

Bavli Sanhedrin II:1 I.81-82, 87, 90-92, 97/96b-97a–The Messiah, son of David the fallen one (Amos 9.11), will come in a generation in which there are few sages and much suffering due to too numerous, harsh laws. Nature itself will inspire Israel’s repentance through drought, famine, death, and even prosperity, then rumours, and wars, and then comes the Messiah, each of those one by one per year during seven years. There will be many traitors, few disciples, no money, and people will have given up hope for redemption. Yet Israel’s arrogant ones, the judges and leaders, will die, and then repentance will be able to occur and indeed will occur.

Bavli Shabbat 9:3-4 II.2-3–At that time, Israel will not rely on Abraham, or Isaac, or Jacob, but on God, who has always been merciful. Isaac himself, who once offered himself as a sacrifice to God for the sake of his future children, will turn his own children to look to God as father, rather than to himself.

Neusner finishes the chapter with this summary passage, touching upon points from all the chapters covered:

Man both complemented and corresponded with God, and it was man’s freedom, meaning his effective will and power of intentionality, that matched God’s will. When these conflict, man’s arrogance leads him to rebel against God, sin resulting. And from sin comes the imperfection of world order, change, inequity, imbalance. Punished and remorseful, man gives up his arrogant attitude and conforms his will to God’s. God responds with mercy, freely accepting the reformation that is freely offered. Then world order is restored, that perfection effected at the outset is regained for Israel, which means, for God’s part of mankind. Eden, now the Land of Israel, is recovered, Adam, now embodied in Israel, is restored to his place. For the Israelite, death dies, man rises from the grave to life eternal. For Israel, the gentiles’ rule comes to an end, and Israel regains the Land. Repentance marks the recovery of the world as God wanted it to be, which is to say, the worlds in which Israel regains its promised place (p. 553).

We will continue next with Chapter 13, Restoring Private Lives: Resurrection. Thank you for reading.


  1. There are a lot of substantial posts in my reader this morning – but yours is the longest. A few questions jumped out at me as I read. I wondered where to put the I think unique comment from Paul in Acts 13:39 “And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.”

    Yet the Oral Torah comes close. How much the practice of repentance has molded society – even Christian society. Who molded whom I wonder?

    Neusner also echos Bonhoeffer directly in the idea of ‘cheap grace’ which I first read about in Bonhoeffer.

    I don’t think I can agree about the distinction re praying for and praying that – but maybe you were tongue-in-cheek. In the psalms (even!) praying for enemies is implicit – pray for their destruction if you must – but remember how God destroys in the ultimate gift of the death of Jesus. But for me, even worse, I have created my own enemies that I might have some to love and pray for. (Or it seems that way sometimes.)

  2. I don’t think we can directly move to the comparison stage between Oral Torah and Paul just yet. That really results in an apples and oranges set because the assumptions and the systematization of Paul need to be explored according to the exemplar of the systematization utilized by the sages in the Oral Torah. If, at that point, we find that there are similar Scriptural bases for various viewpoints, as I suspect we will, then that level can be examined. But this hasn’t been done for Paul.

    Now, to address the particular category of “praying for enemies,” it’s clear that both Matthew and the Talmud draw upon Leviticus 19.17-18: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Gentiles, in the Matthew context, are clearly external to the issue at hand, so we find this to be an intra-Israel discussion. The Matthew saying likewise is only sensible in presuming, in this view, that one’s Israelite enemies are expected to repent, and that this is what the prayer is for. That is the only thing that is good for all the parties involved. The restoration of balance, order, and perfection among the people of God requires the enemy to repent, and for the persecuted to pray for that perfection and whatever means bring it about. So, the saying must be understood to advocate praying for the repentance of the fellow Israelite persecutors, which is rather obvious in hindsight. I should perhaps have expanded this idea above, but it seemed more obvious at the time.

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