Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapter 8

We continue now with my reading notes on Chapter 8, Complementarity, of Jacob Neusner’s The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999).

These are the previous installments of my notes:
Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah (introduction and chapter 1)
Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapters 2 and 3
Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapters 4 and 5
Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapter 6
Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapter 7

We’ll begin with Neusner’s description of the topic of this chapter:

Complementarity characterizes the way in which God and man relate, correspondence [which is the subject of Chapter 9], the way in which God and man reach ultimate definition. Here we reach the heart of world order: what is man, who is God, and how and why they need each other. Let me explain, accounting also for the position just here, just now of these two modes of relationship, complementarity, then correspondence, in my exposition of the theology of the Oral Torah. In this chapter and the next, the account of world order is complete, except for the story of chaos and the restoration of order, told in parts 3 and 4. (p. 321)

There are four characteristics of perfection in God’s plan as described in the theology of the Oral Torah, two negative and two positive:
The two negative characteristics:
1.) “God’s plan for a just and perfect order involves a timeless world of lasting, rational traits of social organization, called here ‘paradigms.'” (p. 322) — the subject of chapter 6.
2.) “God’s plan further is realized in a world of stasis, in which scarce resources of a worldly order, such as real estate, continue in enduring patterns, governing the holdings of households, for all time. At the same time, the sages made provision for an increase in wealth of a supernatural order, in which everyone participated in the benefits.” (p. 322) — the subject of chapter 7.
The two positive characteristics (pp. 322-323):
3.) Complementarity: the relationship between God and man — the subject of chapter 8.
4.) Correspondence: the dynamics of similarity and difference between God and man — the subject of chapter 9.

The first two subjects are considered “negative characteristics” as they stress systems defined by absence of change. The second two are considered “positive characteristics” because they are defined by the presence of various qualities in the relationship between God and man.

World order exhibits perfection because in any orderly, unflawed arrangments, whether of aesthetics, sociology, or architecture–flowers, social classes, or buildings–all things hold together in proportion, each with its sustaining counterpart and complement. That is what provides stability and strength. The principal systemic components or categories, then, do not stand in isolation, but require the balance of an other to form a coherent whole. Complementarity points to that same logic that seeks to show the match of matters. Indeed, it is a principle comparable to the logic that deems justice to require the meting out of measure for measure, this sin or crime, that compensating penalty; this act of obedicence to the Torah, that beneficent response in the order of society or desired result in nature. But in place of exchange, this for that, complementarity speaks of coherence, this together with that, above all, this impossible without that. (pp 323-324)

So even here, in discussing the relationship between God and man, that overarching principle of justice as manifested in balance is present. The term used, “complementarity,” invokes the connotation that each party complements, somehow makes fuller, the other. (As in this chapter, the parties are man and God, things are a little more complicated; thus we have the following chapter to discuss the similarities and differences between these parties.) Complementarity in this chapter gains a wider focus than strictly the man-God relationship (as seen ontologically, that is) or even an earthly-Heavenly relationship, strictly speaking, though this latter is perhaps more accurate. Complementarity here covers such issues as justice and mercy (p. 324), and other complementing pairs. In every case we find an action of God, which makes the existence of the earthly counterpart possible, and without which, it would not exist. Neusner gives as examples demonstrating the complmentarity of several pairs the following three quotations:
1.) Yerushalmi Peah 1.1: XXXII, showing the complementarity of justice and mercy;
2.) Leviticus Rabbah IV:V.2-3, showing the complementarity of soul and body; and,
3.) Leviticus Rabbah IV:VIII.1, showing the soul and body pair becomes a metaphor for the relationship of God to the world (pp. 325-329).

Now we come to “the centrepiece and model of much thought about how things hold together” (p. 329)–the example of the Temple and the sacrifices. As Neusner says (p. 329):

The sages maintained that, one, the world of nature comes to concrete realization in the Temple and its cult, and that, two, the Temple and its cult embodied the principles of justice that infused nature as much as the realm of human activity. Here they found the meeting point of three categorically disparate entities, creation, man, and abstract principle, specifically, nature, Israel, and justice, and, in detail, they identified the way in which the three coalesce to form a unity. (p. 329)

In Bavli Rosh Hashanah 4:4 A-E 1.2/31A, we are shown how the series of daily-sung psalms was accorded a link to each of the days of the week through a correlation with what was created on those days as depicted in Genesis chapter one (pp 330-331).

In Genesis Rabbah V:V.1, the complementarity of Israel and creation is described in God’s commands to creation to accomodate Israel in those occasions when God acts to save Israel. Further, in Genesis Rabbah I:II.1, God’s act of creation, and thereby His ownership over all creation, is used to link Israel to the Land, thus creation and Israel are incomplete without one another.

With the Temple and its offerings, we learn of the complementarity of the sacred and profane, as well as Israel and creation: Israel sanctifies natural produce (meat, grain, wine, oil), offering it to God, a simultaneous movement from profance to sacred and nature/creation to Israel, the latter particularly represented in that transaction in the Temple service. Some of this sanctification is automatic, as in the case of second tithe produce (but not coins representing it!), for once it has entered into the walls of Jerusalem, it may not leave, but must be consumed there (Mishnah Maaser Sheni 3:5). The Temple is seen as the pinnacle of the earth, and thus prayers are to be recited in its direction (Mishnah Berakhot 4:6A): travelling by ship (and thus moving in various directions) one should direct his heart toward the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The priority of the Temple over the rest of Jerusalem, Jerusalem over the rest of Israel, and Israel over all other lands, is covered in Tosefta Berakhot 3:15: for prayer, those outside the Land turn toward Israel; those in Israel turn toward Jerusalem; those in Jerusalem turn toward the Temple; those in the Temple turn toward the Holy of Holies. (pp 332-334)

The cosmic value of the Temple services is highlighted in Abot de Rabbi Natan IV:IV.1, equating the rains (and thereby the fertility and prosperity) of the world with the Temple service. When the latter ended, the former were no longer guaranteed in their proper times. So the entire world relies on the Temple service. (p. 334)

The relationship of gentiles and the Temple, however, is more complicated. Sifra XXXIV:I.1-2 shows that a gentile has no right or responsibility to bring a sin offering and thus affect atonement for his sin. As we saw in an earlier chapter, the gentiles are associated with death, through their rejection of the Torah, God’s instructions on how to have life (both here and now and in the world to come). Offerings which are the specific prerogative of Israel are not accepted from gentiles; only the results of vows or freewill offerings are accepted (Mishnah Sheqalim 1:5). For nature to serve God through being offered in the Temple, Israel is required. (p. 335)

Further examples of the complementarity of Israel and the cult equate the fires of martyrdom and of faith with the sacrifices (Pesiqta de Rab Kahana XII:III.1-3), the animals selected for the sacrifices being equated with the patriarchs (Leviticus Rabbah XXVII:IX.1-2), and that these same animals were chosen as they are pursued, not pursuers (Leviticus Rabbah XXVII.V). (pp 336-337)

The theological logic, the quest for complementarity linking Israel to the cult, accounts for the hermeneutics that yields the particular exegesis at hand. But of equal imporance is the mode of thought. It is the philosophical one that is explained in chapter 1, explaining things through comparison and contrast–here, matching complementary counterparts–that accounts for the effort to match the patriarchs with the chosen animals of offering. The proof-texts are integral, once the comparison has been undertaken. For Scripture’s facts are required to validate a proposition. But the systemic origin of the impulse to integrate is fundamental to the formulation. (p. 337)

Again, we find Scripture to be the objective observational world in which the Scriptural-scientific methods of the sages find the proofs to support their propositions. The formulation of the complements lies entirely within that system of thought in origin. Scripture answers not only its own questions, but every other one as well. The integration of disparate facts based on various similarities or contrasts is natural to this mode of thought. Though it is often quite shocking to adherents of more modern systems of exegesis/heremeneusis, it is nonetheless a fact that this system adheres to a systemic logic, displays a supreme familiarity and facility with Scripture, and continually impresses with its evidence of both intellectual acumen and great piety. (Glory to God, whose image is capable of such things!)

Neusner goes on to describe the complementarity of the high priest’s clothing and various sins, quoting Bavli Yoma 7:1.10-11/72A-B, Song of Songs Rabbah XLVIII:V.3-6, and even a set of complements between the Temple furniture and Israel’s moral state, found in Bavli Yoma 7:1.10-11, 13-14/72A-B.

The components on which we have concentrated, creation, the just moral order, and Israel, in no way match categorically, and that is the challengeg to complementarity. The sages, for their part, claim more than that within the world order of justice that God thought up and made, principal parts coexist in harmony. They further allege a quality of complementary relationship that transcends mere harmony, the absence of conflict. The sages maintain that the parts fit only when they function in perfect union. That is not an easy claim to sustain. For the natural world and the social order define their own categories, respectively, but do not intersect: what has a lamb to do with a city? And how does the particular social entity, Israel (or its categorical equivalent, the gentiles), match a cloud, on the one side, and an abstract category of thought (whether philosophical or legal or theological), justice, on the other. And yet, in the quest for showing how the generative categories (creation, society, justice) complement one another, the theology of the Oral Torah finds its answer in that hierarchy established by Land of Israel, Jerusalem, Temple Mount, priesthood, sacrifice. Only within the intellectual framework defined by the principle of complementarity can the remarkable statements about the union of nature and supernature, the social order and Israel, attain their full significance. (p. 341)

So we find complementarity to be another of the necessarily understood general principles in play in the theology of the Oral Torah. In a way, this is hardly surprising. The nature of rabbinic exegesis and hermeneusis is, as we’ve seen, deeply and entirely Scriptural. Complementarity is required in their approach to the sacred text if they are to make anything of it at all in answer to their investigations–finding a complement to the wording, concept, or action under investigation by recourse to originally unrelated texts. What is surprising is that this form of exegesis was developed into such a massively overlapping hermeneutic of complementarity. It is positively everywhere in these writings when understood in this larger sense.

Neusner then moves from a variety of complement pairs to the main subject of the chapter: the complmentarity of God and man. Yet, in what way can man possibly be understood to complete God in any way at all?

The Oral Torah provides its distinctive answer. Since God has commanded love, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt. 6:4). God has announced that aspect in which he is incomplete, identifying what he requires but does not possess. And that is the love of man. Thus, God, at the very moment of the declaration of his uniqueness, pronounces what he yet needs for completion, man’s entire devotion. But, by its nature, that love cannot be commanded or coerced, only beseeched on God’s part, freely given on man’s. And reciprocally, it hardly need be added, what man requires but cannot gain through coercion or manipulation or fixed exchange is God’s favour and love. So, in the ineffable exchange of love, in the transaction of the will, each party to the drama of creation seeks in the other its own complement, completion and wholeness. When that exchange takes place, Eden is regained, Israel restored to the Land of Israel. When it does not take place, man’s intentionality takes the form of arrogance, which leads to sin, which disrupts world order. In the relationship of complementarity, love surpasses even justice. The exposition of how that relationship of complementarity is fully set forth in the Oral Torah will require a systematic exposition of how a single word encompasses a principal theological component of an entire system. (p. 342)

It need hardly be said by this point that by “man” Neusner has in mind “Israelite man.” That is, as we learned in the earlier chapters, one who loves and obeys God is an Israelite, and one who disobeys God, showing Him hatred, is a gentile, regardless of the social-familial origin of either. “Love,” even in contemporary usage by those Anglophones for whom the tongue has not been totally corrupted, connotes loyalty. In this case, as the love is reciprocal, so also is the loyalty: the love of man for God enacts loyalty in obeying God’s commandments in the Torah; the love of God for man enacts loyalty in rewarding that obeidience with a reward that, in cases of exceptional righteousness (as we will see below), can be of intergenerational duration, lasting even to the end of the world.

The rest of the chapter (pp 343-364) therefore focuses on expounding the concept of zekhut as used in the Oral Torah as directly relevant to the complementary love of man for God and God for man. The word cannot be simply glossed with, say, the English word, “merit.” Neusner’s definition is more nuanced:

The key word in some of the stories, zekhut, which may be translated “the heritage of supererogatory virtue and its consequent entitlements,” stands for the empowerment of a supernatural character, that derives from the virtue of one’s ancestry or from one’s own virutous deeds of a very particular order. These are, concretely, deeds not commanded but impelled by utter generosity of the heart. These are deeds that make a difference only when they are done without hope, let alone prospect, of recompense and without pressure of any kind except the kind that wells up from within. It is, then, an indicator of one’s inner quality and character. No single word in American English bears the same meaning, nor can I identify even a synonym for zekhut in usages of the canonical writings, only the antonym, which is sin. Sin represents an act of rebellion, zekhut, an act of humble and willing, gratuitous submission, so the two represent binary opposites, and complements of another order, as we shall see in due course. (p. 343)

Note that this understanding of zekhut and sin regards each as a concrete action, not a state of mind or theoretical theological category. In fact, zekhut is a kind of transaction: “a transaction involving a relationship that in Heaven provokes the bestowal of uncoerced favour, thus zekhut” (p. 343, n. 2). As in the definition in the paragraph above, we find two parts to zekhut: 1.) “supererogatory virtue” on the part of the human party, and 2.) “consequent entitlements” either personally or in a “heritage of grace” (a lovely term we have met with before in this book) or “heritage of virtue” (another keeper!) granted by Heaven in response.

Neusner provides numerous illustrative quotations throughout this part of the chapter:
1.) Yerushalmi Taanit I:4.1–Three cases of zekhut resulting in Heaven granting rain in answer to prayer.
2.) Moving on to zekhut abot, the righteous deeds of the patriarchs and matriarchs contributing to ongoing blessing and even forgiveness: Mishnah Sotah 3:4-5; Tractate Abot 2:2; 5:18.

In explanation of zekhut abot, Neusner writes:

How does complementarity as mode of thought and message of the system come into play? Zekhut completes and complements the category, sin. Just as sin forms an act of will, as we shall see in chapters 10 and 11, one of rebellion against God, so zekhut constitutes an act of will, one of uncoerced love for, submission to God. The one is incomplete without the other, God and man, zekhut and sin. But zekhut and sin differ, for Scripture is explicit that the burden of sins cannot be passively inherited, willy-nilly, but, to form a heritage of guilt, must be actively accepted and renewed; the children cannot be made to suffer for the sins of the parents, unless they repeat them. Thus, zekhut, being a mirror-image, can be passively inherited, not by one’s own merit, but by one’s good fortune alone. But what constitute these actions that form mirror-images of sins? Here the principle of complementarity of relationship between God and man explains the concept at hand: the Israelite possesses a lien upon Heaven by reason of God’s love for the patriarchs, his appreciation for certain things they did, and his response to those actions not only in favouring them but also in entitling their descendants to do or benefit from otherwise unattainable miracles. (p. 350)

Further examples of zekhut abot follow in extensive quotations from Genesis Rabbah:
1.) Genesis Rabbah LXXVI:V.2–It is the zekhut of Israel (Jacob) that later makes Israel (the Israelites) able to cross the Jordan.
2.) Genesis Rabbah III.3–Jacob bore his zekhut as well as that of his parents Isaac and Rebecca and his grandparents Abraham and Sarah, making him difficult for even an angel to best, much less a human force.
3.) Genesis Rabbah LXXXIV:V.2–Zekhut can sometimes work in the opposite direction, leading to the blessing of one’s ancestors, as in the case of Joseph and Jacob (when leaving Haran).
4.) Genesis Rabbah LXXXVII:VIII.1–Joseph benefits from zekhut abot and Israel benefits from Joseph’s zekhut.
5.) Genesis Rabbah LXXIV.XII.1–Every Scripture passage using “if” invokes zekhut abot.
6.) Genesis Rabbah XLIII.VIII.2–Abraham giving a tithe leads to his being blessed in all things.
7.) Genesis Rabbah XLIII.VIII.3–The zekhut of the priestly blessing is based on the “so” of Abraham and/or Isaac and/or Jacob.

Also, the exampls of the zekhut of the patriarchs, if followed and lived by their descendants, will likewise lead to the accrual of a Heavenly entitlement on the behalf of the actor; as seen in Genesis Rabbah LVI:II.5, where the act of prostration becomes a saving act, the entire history of Israel flows from from its acts of worship (pp 354-355).

Zekhut is, however, still as much personal as it is and can be collective:
Genesis Rabbah LXXVI:II.2–Jacob recognizes Esau has built up zekhut by having remained in the Land while he was in Haran.
Yerushalmi Taanit 3:11.IV–A particular rabbi’s personal zekhut is attained through Torah study in conjunction with numerous habits of courtesy and consideration.

There is also the very unusual example of the action of some Canaanites and Egyptians accruing zekhut of a kind for their descendants through their mourning for Jacob and Joseph. See Genesis Rabbah C:VI.1.

We find precise indications of which actions will lead to entitlements of supernatural favour for Israel’s descendants in Genesis Rabbah LXXIV:XII.1-2.

[I]t is appropriate, now, to return to the starting point, the relationship of man to God that I have characterized as complementary. A simple answer is demanded to the question, why does zekhut form the centerpiece in the sages’ doctrine of how God and man require one another? Whence–in mythic language–our lien on Heaven? A few words contain the response: God needs man’s love, man needs God’s grace, and neither can coerce the other to give what, by definition, cannot be coerced at all. The relationship of complementarity is realized through man’s deeds of a supererogatory character–to which Heaven responds by deeds of a supererogatory character.

That defines the heart and soul of the sages’ theology of man’s relationship to God. Self-abnegation or restraint shown by man precipitates a counterpart attitude in Heaven, hence generating zekhut. The complementary relationship measured by zekhut–Heaven’s response by an act of uncoerced favour to a person’s uncoerced gift, for example, act of gentility, restraint, or self-abnegation–contains an element of unpredictability for which appeal to the zekhut inherited by ancestors accounts. So while one cannot coerce Heaven, he can through zekhut gain acts of favour from Heaven, and that is by doing what Heaven cannot require but only desire. Heaven then respond’s to man’s attitude in carrying out what transcends his duties. (pp 360-361)

The point of that last sentence is crucial. Zekhut describes not the fulfillment of the commandments of God as reflected in the Torah, but what good acts are above and beyond them. The commandments are duties, in fact. As we read earlier, obedience to God in the practice of the commandments results in a reciprocal blessing, but acts of extraordinary righteousness, acts of zekhut, result in even more extraordinary blessings.

Neusner concludes his discussion on complementarity thusly:

We observe at the end that order is ultimately attained by transcending the very rules of order. In order to establish the moral order of justice, therefore, God breaks the rules, accords an entitlement to this one, who has done some one remarkable deed, but not to that one, who has done nothing wrong and everything right. So a life in accord with the rules–even a life spent in the study of Torah–in Heaven’s view is outweighed by a single moment, a gesture that violates the norm, extending the outer limits of the rule, for instance, of virtue. And who but a God who, like us, feels, not only thinks, responds to impulse and sentiment, can be portrayed in such a way as this? . . . No rule exhaustively describes a world such as this. We are in God’s image, after God’s likeness, not only because we penetrate through right thinking the principles of creation, but because we replicate through right attitude the heart of the Creator. Humanity on earth, the Israelite family in particular, incarnates God on high, and, in consequence, earth and Heaven join. (pp 361-362)

Next comes Chapter 9, Correspondence. Thank you for reading.


  1. “In this case, as the love is reciprocal, so also is the loyalty”

    הוא היה אומר: עשה רצונו כרצונך כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו; בטל רצונך מפני רצונו כדי שיבטל רצון אחרים מפני רצונך

    Avot 2,4

    Keep it up!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *