Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapter 6

I proceed here with my reading notes on Jacob Neusner’s The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999). We enter a new section of the book here, Part II: Perfecting World Order, with Chapter Six, World Beyond Time.

This is an intense chapter, its argument convoluted and somewhat difficult, at first, to grasp. It is necessary to keep in mind the nature of the literature in question, the Oral Torah, and to pay special attention to the examples cited in this this chapter (some of which are explicitly probative of Neusner’s point), as well as to Neusner’s unpacking of them in his commentary and discussion. The reason? This chapter deals with the sages’ perception and presentation of time, which is a perception and presentation vastly different than our own shared modern perception and presentation of time. This difference permits the sages to commit acts of what one might otherwise consider brazen, willful, and wanton anachronism, mixing present, past, and future; such a judgment would, however, be incorrect. This perception of time, paradigmatic time as opposed to historical time, is foundational to the sages’ work. Time is transformed from a series of events into a systematization of patterns of eternal validity, for they are Torah, the eternally valid revelation of the eternal God, and thus not historically conditioned or determined. Scripture, despite ist internal subjective narrative linearity, has become a treasure chest from which the sages extract and line up its jewels like so many pearls on a string. Some stones are recut and remounted and given wholly new settings along with stones of the sages’ own cunning manufacture. But in both Scripture (wider Written Torah) and the sages’ work (Oral Torah), the eternal value of God’s revelation trumps time itself. So the sages perceived Scripture and their work. As the past flows into the present, so the present flows into the past, all one moment in the light of the eternal Torah. The abstraction of patterns found in the Mishnah becomes the paradigm for all the systematization to follow in the Oral Torah, and it is entirely synchronic, and not at all diachronic. The time of Torah is now–a now spread over all the ages, an objective, eternal now replacing all our other little nows. Events thus conform to Torah’s paradigms, not to cause-and-effect in historical time. Again, as we have seen in earlier chapters, Israel, possessing the Torah, is the pole around which all is laid out, at the center of the paradigmatic universe of Oral Torah–events and entities being subsumed in the patterns only insofar as they come into contact with Israel. All else is irrelevant. Over all of it, the grand scheme of the sages’ systematization is in place like a great tent, its shelter creating an eternal, changeless world of perfect order and perfect rest, a Sabbath, in contrast to the busy, changing, anomalous world of linear historical time. This seems a good beginning.

In the Oral Torah the sages reveal the perfection of world order through an-other-than historical mode of thought. They organized experience through a mode of thought I call paradigmatic, identifying enduring patterns to account for how things were, are or will be, rather than appealing to the sequence of happenings — first came this, then came that — to say why the present is what it is. So the sages framed a world beyond time and deemed null the sequence of events, judging as null the illogical proposition that merely because one thing happened before another, therefore the one thing caused the other (post hoc ergo propter hoc). Here is the one critical point at which the sages in the Oral Torah part company from the Written Torah, so far as people with reason deem the Written Torah to make its statement through historical narrative, as conventionally understood. In our terms the sages were not historians but social philosophers, we might say, social scientists. (p. 241)

Or, as Scripture was earlier described as for the sages what nature is for natural scientists, we might call the sages Scriptural scientists.

The Oral Torah formulates its conception of world order in enduring paradigms that admit no distinction between past, present, and future. Its narrative of the life of its “Israel” and the meaning of that life transcend time and change. All things take form in a single plane of being; Israel lives not in historical time, moving from a beginning, to a middle, to an end, in a linear plan through a sequence of unique events. Nor does it form its existence in cyclical time, repeating time and again familiar cycles of events. Those familiar modes of making sense out of the chaos of change and the passage of time serve not at all. Appealing to a world of timeless permanence that takes shape in permanent patterns, the Oral Torah accounts for how things are not by appeal to what was and what will be, but by invoking the criterion of what characterizes the authentic and true being of Israel. (p. 242)

Partly, this timelessness in the Oral Torah can be understood through its appropriation of Written Torah (in its wider sense–the entire Tanakh) in the above-mentioned role as the equivalent to nature for a natural scientist. It is a timeless whole, an entity that can be dipped into at any point, the internal timeline of which is irrelevant in the systematization it is subject to in the Oral Torah. So, that existence as the objective entity from which Oral Torah gains data obviates reliance on its subjective internal chronological order.

Here, Neusner begins to describe “paradigmatic thinking”:

Paradigmatic thinking, and the particular paradigms at hand, frame a world order that is fully realized and stable, a world beyond the vagaries of time. The sages, like philosophers, conceived order to require a world at rest. Perfection entailed stasis, all things in place in a timeless realm of stability. So they thought about past, present and future in a manner different from the familiar historical one. To the sages, then, change marked by linear time signified imperfection, a symptom that things continue in an incomplete process of realization, falling short of realizing their goal. In a completed state of order, the balanced exchanges of justice set the norm. All things in place and proportion, each will have achieved its purpose. (p. 243)

Again, “fully realized and stable” because Scripture, the sages’ observational world of objective value, is itself “fully realized and stable.” It’s not at all surprising that the timeless value of one (Written Torah) affects the other (Oral Torah). Thus, the one at rest, the objective world of the Written Torah, imparts its nature to the Oral Torah through a dual process of its unchanging nature (even aside from its origin with God, it is a book–it doesn’t change like daily life) being both recognized and appropriated by the sages. In this, we see a case where Written Torah imposes upon Oral Torah quite subtly, perhaps without even a consciously recognized intention on the part of the sages, though that’s difficult to fathom, seeing the Oral Torah as such a vasty confection of the intellect. Still, this does seem a distinct possibility–the timeless state of Scripture as objective investigatory world leading directly to the timeless paradigmatic world of Oral Torah. As the sages saw Scripture, so they rendered the Oral Torah.

Events serve to define paradigms and therefore, also, to yield rules governing the here and now: what we do to recapitulate. Here is how diverse events are shown to fall into a single category, so adhere to the same rule, thus forming a paradigm through the shared indicative traits, but then losing that very specificity that history requires for events to make sense.

When we speak of the presence of the past, therefore, we raise not generalities or possibilities but the concrete experience that generations actively mourning the Temple endured. When we speak of the pastness of the present, we describe the consciousness of people who could open Scripture and find themselves right there, in its record. They found themselves present in not only Lamentations, but also prophecy, and, especially, in the books of the Torah. Here we deal with not the spiritualization of Scripture, but with the acutely contemporary and immediate realization of Scripture: Scripture in the present day, the present day in Scripture. This is what we mean when later on we shall observe that the sages read from Scripture to the present, while their competition, in Christianity., would read from the present back to Scripture (from the “New” to the “Old” Testament, in their language). [Footnote 2: In chapter 15 this matter will take on weight.] That is why it was possible for the sages to formulate out of Scripture a paradigm that imposed structure and order upon the world that they themselves encountered. (p. 247)

These paragraphs follow immediately upon a quotation of Mishnah Taanit 4:6-7, which Neusner brings forth to demonstrate how events lead to paradigms, in this case, events of the seventeenth of Tammuz and the ninth of Ab, and some restrictions for activities on the latter day, which bring the present into the past, and the past into the present.

When Neusner mentions “the spiritualization of Scripture,” he seems to describe that process by which one reads oneself into Scripture “in the spirit”, that is, without any direct attachment to it, but with a vivid, active attachment to it as an integral part of one’s existence. Rather than Scriptural tourism, seeing a few sites and taking off for other pastures, real integration is reflected in how much the reality of Scripture is one’s own reality. As Neusner says, the goal should rather be “the acutely contemporary and immediate realization of Scripture: Scripture in the present day, the present day in Scripture” (p. 247). In part, this has to do with the kind of awe in which Scripture is held, and whether one truly considers and treats it as the foundation and source of one’s worldview, as it certainly was for the sages. And it is within the boundaries of examining their program that Neusner writes. Their perspective should be our own, if we’re to understand it.

On the sages’ competition in Christianity who “would read from the present back to Scripture (from the ‘New’ to the ‘Old’ Testament…),” Neusner brings up an intersting point, as well as a temptation to skip to chapter 15. It is certainly the case that in the first six centuries the primary approach in patristic exegesis was to interpret the Old Testament (particularly the Septuagint) in like of the New Testament, particularly to determine prophecies of Christ in those books. Relatedly, the New Testament, particularly the group of four Gospels, was the foundational source of Christianity’s worldview, in a way analogous to the wider Written Torah, and especially the five books of Torah proper, was to the sages, of course. But serious differences lay between the two in their exegetical and hermeneutical practices. As we’re learning in reading Neusner, the sages’ category formations and systematization are unlike anything on the patristic side. Likewise, the narrative and homiletic, not to mention biographical, writings obtain no parallels on the rabbinic side. There are some statistical outliers, to be sure, but the majority of each tradition proves these to be exceptions. Patristic authors did achieve, particularly in monatic typica, something of an “acutely contemporary and immediate realization of Scripture: Scripture in the present day, the present day in Scripture,” in the complex and powerful hymnography of especially the Eastern Church, which often hearkens back to rabbinic modes of expression. But let us move on.

To say that the sages rejected historicism imposes upon them the burden of difference from our norm. But what about the positive side of matters, and how does the sages’ anti-historicism produce a constructive result? The positive side of the same proposition bears a large burden of hermeneutics. Since historical time does not measure the meaning of Scripture, a philosophical one does, that is to say, that quest for regularity and order that in Chapter One we considered at some length. That quest for the rules of the social order is advanced when the Torah narrates not history — past, present, future — but rather an enduring paradigm, as I said at the outset. Accordingly, portraying a timeless world in which the past forms a principal part of the present, and the present takes place within an eternity of contemporaneity, yields an intellectually formidable reward. (p. 250)

Indeed. The rabbinic program would not have succeeded without the abandonment of historical thinking for paradigmatic thinking. The patterns and paradigms would have been impossible to recognize, much less to form and compare and explain. The whole project of systematization such as we see in the sages’ work would have been impossible. (p.251)

With the past very present, the present an exercise in recapitulation of an enduring paradigm, therefore, time and change signify nothing but imperfection, as much as permanence beyond time and change signifies perfection. And that carries forward that quest for the perfection of the world order that the sages anticipate will justify — show the justice, meaning, perfection of — God’s work. That is why, as I said, time in a system of perfection can be neither linear nor cyclical; time in historical dimensions simply is not a consideration in thinking about what happens and what counts. Instead, paradigms for the formation of the social order of transcendence and permanence govern, so that what was now is, and what will be is what was and is. (p. 251)

There is much here. At heart, the discussion is effectively about eternally valid paradigms, a set of patterns that are always valid, a kind of a bunch of Platonic ethical forms. Their elaboration is independent of historical subjectification as much as their eternal reality as Torah, instruction from the eternal God, is. These endure, in an eternal now, as things one always ought to do. It is thus fitting that they are shorn of historicism and therefore historical determination and contingency, because the sages did not conceive of them as historically determined or contingent precisely because they are Torah, which comes from God. Relatedly, the unchanging is perfect, and if unchanging thus unmoving and so is at rest–the eventual complete realization of God’s justice will be a new rest, a permanent Sabbath: Eden restored.

The shift from historical to paradigmatic thinking represents a movement from one kind of thinking about the social order to another kind. The particularity of history finds its counterpart in the particularity of the paradigm of thought. (p. 254)

Paradigmatic thinking is an expression of ordered thought. In this case, Scripture directed the sages, through its own paradigmatic exemplars, to further develop their paradigmatic thought, which itself found expression in the Oral Torah.

This leads directly to the kind of thinking — paradigmatic, ahistorical, and I claim, utterly anti-historical and dismissive of particularities of time or circumstance but rather philosophical and generalizing — that characterizes the Oral Torah’s theological structure and system. Here the past is present, the present is past, and time contains no delineative future tense at all; eschatological teleology gives way to paradigmatic teleology, and — it goes without saying — biography abdicates in favor of highly selective paradigms of exemplarity in the lives of persons, events to patterns. Sustained narrative is abandoned because it is irrelevant; biography, because it is filled with useless information. The concept of organizing the facts (real or fabricated) of the social world of Israel into history as the story of the life and times of Israel, past, present, and future, is succeeded by the concept of organizing the received and now perceived facts of the social world of Israel into the enduring paradigm in which past, present, and future fuse into an eternal now. (pp. 254-255)

Thus paradigmatic thought is not just a different kind of thought about the way the world works, but it also determines the forms of writing that may be used to express it:

When recapitulative paradigms of meaning obliterate all lines between past, present, and future, so that the past forms a permanent presence among the living, and the present recapitulates the paradigm of the past, the conception of history, with a beginning, middle, and end, a linear and cumulative sequence of distinct and individual events, is lost. And writing too changes in character, for with the loss of historical thinking perish three kinds of writing. These are, first, narrative, the tale of a singular past leading to present and pointing toward the future, the concretization therefore of teleology. The second kind of writing is biography, the notion of an individual and particular life, also with its beginning, middle, and end. The third is formulation of events as unique, with close study of the lessons to be derived from happenings of a singular character. (p. 256)

Paradigms leave no room for unique events. They are by their nature meaningful typical patterns, systematic exemplars for whatever realm in which they’re in use. In this case, a system of paradigmatic thought and a literature which preserves that system of thought both reference Scripture with its narrative, biography, and unique events, yet these are transformed, and their direct example is not imitated. A nascent paradigmatic thought in Scripture itself instead becomes the inspiration for the sages’ work.

Existence takes on sense and meaning not by reason of sequence and order, as history maintains in its response to nature’s time. Rather, existence takes shape and acquires structure in accord with a paradigm that is independent of nature and the givens of the social order: God’s structure, God’s paradigm, the sages would call it; but in secular terms, a model or a pattern that in no way responds to the givens of nature or the social order. It is a conception of time that is undifferentiated by event, because time is comprised of components that themselves dictate the character of events: what is noteworthy, chosen out of the variety of things that merely happen. And what is remarkable conforms to the conventions of the paradigm. (p. 261)

That is the effect on time of paradigmatic thinking. Meaning is not found in historical cause-and-effect, but in the paradigm. And since, for the sages, paradigms stand apart as etranally and timelessly valid patterns, not contingent on historical cause-and-effect, time comes to be of only secondary, if any, interest at all. Time doesn’t itself do anything, but is a space in which paradigmatic events and other ignorable events occur. But the things that have happened and happen, those which are of paradigmatic value in the sages’ system, bear comparison whenever they happened, regardless of historical period, cause-and-effect, or even reality itself, as some stories are even actually invented by the sages. So we come to this realization:

In all, to the past is imputed no autonomy; between past and present is conceived no dividing line of any kind; vastly transcending the mere flaws of anachronism, the conception that time past and time present flow together yields the principle that events may be ordered in accord with a logic quite autonomous of temporal order. The point at which we started forms a fitting conclusion to this brief experiment in the testing of a null-hypothesis. Not only do we find not a trace of historical thinking, as that mode of thought is defined in the Hebrew Scriptures. We find expressions of a quite different mode of thought altogether. (p. 269)

It is because of the very nature of paradigmatic thought, and the reliance upon this mode of thought throughout the rabbinic corpus, that the unusually complex discussion of time, above, was necessary. The mixing of periods is not gross, willful anachronism, but reflects a completely different perception of time, one in which time’s direction has no meaning, and in which certain patterns of happenings, distilled by the sages, have become pearls on a string, in no particular order. And now we can move on to examining the phenomenon of the paradigms themselves:

Now that we recognize a different way of thinking about time past, present, and future, we come to the question: what, exactly are the paradigms through which the sages set forth the world order they proposed to discern. In their view the written part of the Torah defined a set of paradigms that served without regard to circumstance, context, or, for that matter, dimension and scale of happening. A very small number of models emerged from Scripture, captured in the sets of Eden and Adam; Sinai and the Torah; the land and Israel; and the Temple and its building, destruction, rebuilding. Within these paradigms nearly the whole of human experience was organized. These paradigms served severally and jointly, e.g., Eden and Adam on its own but also superimposed upon the Land and Israel; Sinai and the Torah on its own but also superimposed upon the Land and Israel, and, of course, the Temple, embodying natural creation and its intersection with national and social history, could stand entirely on its own or be superimposed upon any and all of the other paradigms. In many ways, then, we have the symbolic equivalent of a set of two- and three- or even four-dimensional grids. A given pattern forms a grid on its own, one set of lines being set forth in terms of, e.g., Eden, timeless perfection, in contrast against the other set of lines, Adam, temporal disobedience; but upon that grid, a comparable grid can be superimposed, the Land and Israel being an obvious one; and upon the two, yet a third and fourth, Sinai and Torah, Temple and the confluence of nature and history. (p. 269)

Neusner also describes (p. 270) four models or methods through which happenings are transformed into meaningful events, which themselves are then shown to be meaningfully connected and explicable via the paradigmatic logic that both recognizes the connections and draws conclusions from them:
1.) How are mere happenings organized into events? Periodization. Happenings are subdivided into smaller sets of periods–points on a gridline. The sequence is then subject to analysis, explanation and comparison.
2.) How does Israel relate to the rest of the world? This involves description of Israel’s role in the social and political order of the world and the sequence of those relevant events which recur.
3.) How is the pattern of events explained, making connections and drawing conclusions from these? Paradigmatic thinking results in explanations and conclusions precisely through its ability to systematize and compare patterns, a process of selection which creates meaningful paradigms.
4.) How is the future of Israel anticipated? This results not from explaining the present but from speculation based on a paradigm’s order, structure and explanation.

Now for a good example of paradigmatic thinking in action, with Neusner’s commentary:

Leviticus Rabbah XVIII:II.1
A. “Dread and terrible are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves” (Hab. 1:7).
B. “Dread and terrible” refers to the first Man.
G. “Their justice and dignity proceed from themselves” (Hab. 1:7).
H. This refers to Eve.
I. That is in line with the following verse of Scripture: “The woman whom you gave to be with me is the one who gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:2).
2. A. Another interpretation: “Dread and terrible” refers to Esau.
B. That is in line with the following verse of Scripture: “And Rebecca took the most coveted garments of Esau, her elder son” (Gen. 27:15). [This clothing came from Nimrod,
so Esau was more of a hunter than he, hence, “dread and terrible.”
C. “Their justice and dignity proceed from themselves” (Hab. 1:7).
D. This refers to [the prophet] Obadiah.
E. Said R. Isaac, “Obadiah was a proselyte of Edomite origin, and he gave a prophecy concerning Edom, ‘And there shall not be any remnant of the house of Esau for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it'” (Ob. 1:18).
3. A. Another interpretation: “Dread and terrible” refers to Sennacherib.
B. “Who among all the gods of the lands has saved their country from my hand” (Is. 36:20).
C. “Their justice and dignity proceed from themselves” (Hab. 1:7).
D. This refers to his sons: “And it came to pass, as Sennacherib was worshipping in the house of Nisroch, his god, [that Adrammelech and Sarezer, his sons, smote him with the sword]” (2 Kgs. 19:37).

Once more, we notice that the appeal to one paradigm obliterates lines of structure and order that we should have anticipated, e.g., differentiation between the personal and the public, or the social and the natural. As much as lines of differentiation among spells of time (past, present, future) are obscured, so all other indicators of classification are set aside by the ones that are in play here. Indeed, the power of paradigmatic thinking is not only to order what should be classified, but also to treat as lacking all differentiation what does not require classification. What we have is a reordering of all of the lines of existence, nature’s and humanity’s, as much as an obliteration of conventional points of differentiation, e.g., of time or space for that matter.

The purpose of paradigmatic thinking, as much as historical, thus points toward the future. History is important to explain the present, also to help peer into the future; and paradigms serve precisely the same purpose. The choice between the one model and the other, then, rests upon which appeals to the more authentic data. In that competition Scripture, treated as paradigm, met no competition in linear history, and it was paradigmatic, not historical, thinking that proved compelling for a thousand years or more. The future history of Israel is written in Scripture, and what happened in the beginning is what is going to happen at the end of time. That sense of order and balance prevailed. (pp. 275-276)

To a large degree, the more examples of the rabbinic literature that one is exposed to, the more familiar it becomes, and the explanations of paradigmatic time and paradigmatic thinking above will make that much more sense. Seeing how Scripture is, as described above, the objective observable world for the Scriptural scientists that the sages are, and Scripture is directly from God and therefore perfect, it is no wonder that so much value was placed upon paradigmatic observations made from Scripture. Likewise, it is no wonder that the Oral Torah, as a further distillation of Scripture through the paradigmatic still, is considered as of equal holiness and eternal validity among the sages.

We have now to ask why the sages rejected the linear sequence of unique events that Scripture sets forth in the Authorized History in favor of the kind of paradigmatic thinking that has now been amply instantiated. Historical thinking yielded an unintelligible result, paradigmatic thinking, a rational one. The reason is that historical thinking — sequential narrative of one-time events — presupposes order, linearity, distinction between time past and time present, and teleology, among data that — for the sages, struggling with the secular facts of Israel’s condition — do not self-evidently sustain such presuppositions. Questions of chaos, disorder, and disproportion naturally intervene; the very possibility of historical narrative meets a challenge in the diversity of story-lines, the complexity of events, the bias of the principle of selection of what is eventful, of historical interest, among a broad choice of happenings: why this, not that. Narrative history first posits a gap between past and present, but then bridges the gap; why not entertain the possibility that to begin with there is none? These and similar considerations invite a different way of thinking about how things have been and now are, a different tense structure altogether. (p. 277)

Partly, historical thinking was deemed inadequate because of the subject matter covered in previous chapters–the justice of God, commensurate response in that justice, the central role of Torah and Israel in the midst of the gentiles and idolatry. A flat historical determination of events is insufficient to represent any of those understandings, which is not to say that it was seen to contradict them. Paradigmatic thinking, however, was both spring and support for these concepts. And, as Neusner notes, paradigmatic thinking originates within Scripture itself:

What Scripture (“written Torah,” “Old Testament”) yields for the Oral Torah, therefore, is not one-time events, arranged in sequence to dictate meaning, but models or patterns of conduct and consequence. These models are defined by the written Torah. No component of the paradigm we have reviewed emerges from other than the selected experience set forth by Scripture. But the models or paradigms pertain not to one time alone — past time — but to all times equally — past, present and future. (p. 278)

This, again, is an artifact of Scripture being to the sages what nature is to natural scientists. In this instance, in the sages’ search for paradigms, they could do nothing other than be altogether affected by Scripture’s own selectivity. The culling and systematization of meaningful events of Israel’s (and the world’s) past and presentation by the Holy Spirit as Scripture is the very reflection of the sages’ work in Oral Torah, the culling and systematization of Scripture itself in a further condensation of meaning. And in this, the valuing of Written Torah as the gift of the eternal God thereby transfers directly to the Oral Torah, which is its condensation, its dew, and so eternity pervades it. Thus its timelessness.

Neusner concludes this chapter thus:

Israel kept time with reference to events, whether past or present, that also were not singular, linear, or teleological. These were, rather, reconstitutive in the forever of here and now — not a return to a perfect time but a recapitulation of a model forever present. Israel could treat as comparable the creation of the world and the exodus from Egypt (as the liturgy commonly does, e.g., in connection with the Sabbath) because Israel’s paradigm (not “history”) and nature’s time corresponded in character, were consubstantial and not mutually contradictory. And that consubstantiality explains why paradigm and natural time work so well together. Now, “time” bears a different signification. It is here one not limited to the definition assigned by nature — yet also not imposed upon natural time but treated as congruent and complementary with nature’s time. How so? Events — things that happen that are deemed consequential — are eventful, meaningful, by a criterion of selection congruent in character with nature’s own. To understand why, we must recall the character of the Torah’s paradigms:

1) Scripture set forth certain patterns which, applied to the chaos of the moment, selected out of a broad range of candidates some things and omitted reference to others.

2) The selected things then are given their structure and order by appeal to the paradigm, or described without regard to scale.

3) That explains how some events narrated by Scripture emerged as patterns, imposing their lines of order and structure upon happenings of other times.

4) this yields the basis for the claim of consubstantiality: Scripture’s paradigms — Eden, the Land — appealed to nature in another form.

The upshot, then, is that the rhythms of the sun and moon are celebrated in the very forum in which the Land, Israel’s Eden, yields its celebration to the Creator. The rhythmic quality of the paradigm then compares with the rhythmic quality of natural time: not cyclical, but also not linear. Nature’s way of telling time and the Torah’s way meet in the Temple: its events are nature’s, its story a tale of nature too. Past and present flow together and join in future time too because, as in nature, what is past is what is now and what will be. Out of that presence of eternity in time, the world is ordered in perfection, quietly singing in its perfect orbit a hymn of praise to the creator.

Thank you for reading.


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