Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapters 4 and 5

We continue here with my reading notes as I make my way through Jacob Neusner’s The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999), chapters four and five.

Chapter Four
The Political Order: The Gentiles and Idolatry

As chapter three covered Israel and the primary feature that defines Israel, the Torah, so chapter four covers the gentiles and their defining feature, idolatry.

Gentiles are idolators, and Israelites worship the one, true God, who has made himself known in the Torah. In the Oral Torah, that is the difference — the only consequential distinction — between Israel and the gentiles. Still, there is that and one other, Israel stands for life, the gentiles for death. (p. 131)

That is, the Torah leads to life because it is the revealed will for mankind of the only true God who revealed it and rewards its adherents with eternal life. Idolatry is the worship of no-gods, and leads nowhere else but to a natural result, death in the grave, because it restricts itself to the natural. This dichotomy is reflected, too, in the very early Christian “Two Ways” materials, found especially in the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas–the way to life is through obedience to the living God, while the way to death is that of pagan society.

I cannot over-stress the given on which all else is built: to be a gentile is to practice idolatry and to die, and to be Israel is to serve the one true God and to rise from the grave. That principle governs throughout. Everything else flows from it, and, in due course we shall see, upon that basis the present condition of the world is shown to cohere with the principle of the moral order of justice that prevails. (p. 142)

I suspect that the principle will be something along the lines of the saying, “He has his reward”–a contemporary quasi-theological comment connoting the person under discussion to have so thoroughly identified with this world, its ways, and its riches, and simultaneously so ignored his spiritual life, that his life to come will be nowhere near as pleasant as his current life. [I wrote that note while reading; it turns out I wasn’t too far off. See below.]

What about gentiles in general? All depends upon their own actions. Since the point of differentiation is idolatry as against worship of the one God, gentiles may enter into the category of Israel, which is to say, they recognize the one God and come to serve him. That means, whether now or later, some, perhaps many, gentiles will enter Israel, being defined as other Israelites are defined: those who worship the one and only God. The gentiles include many righteous persons. But by the end of days these God will bring to Israel:
Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:8 I:2:
A. When R. Hiyya bar Adda, the nephew of Bar Qappara, died Resh Laqish accepted [condolences] on his account because he [Resh Laqish] had been his teacher. We may say that [this action is justified because] a person’s student is as beloved to him as his son.
B. And he [Resh Laqish] expounded concerning him [Hiyya] this verse: “My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the bed of spices, to pasture his flock in the gardens, and to gather lilies” [Song 6:2]. It is not necessary [for the verse to mention, ‘To the bed of spices’]. [It is redundant if you interpret the verse literally, for most gardens have spice beds.]
C. Rather [interpret the verse as follows:] My beloved — this is God; has gone down to his garden — this is the world; to the beds of spices — this is Israel; to pasture his flock in the gardens — these are the nations of the world; and to gather lilies — these are the righteous whom he takes from their midst.
D. They offer a parable [relevant to this subject]. To what may we compare this matter [of the tragic death of his student]? A king had a son who was very beloved to him. What did the king do? He planted an orchard for him.
E. As long as the son acted according to his father’s will, he would search throughout the world to seek the beautiful saplings of the world, and to plant them in his orchard. And when his son angered him he went and cut down all his saplings.
F. Accordingly, so long as Israel acts according to God’s will he searches throughout the world to seek the righteous persons of the nations of the world and bring them and join them to Israel, as he did with Jethro and Rahab. And when they [the Israelites] anger him he removes the righteous from their midst.

But it is explicitly stated in these documents that this act of conversion is something originating in the gentile proselyte, and not the result of proselytization. Further, once the converted person is obedient to God through the Torah, he is no different from an Israelite. Again, this is because idolatry (=non-Torah) is the defining characteristic of the non-Israelite/gentile, and Torah obedience is the defining characteristic of Israel, as seen in Chapter Three. We proceed to learn some of the differences in attitude encountered.

The gentiles thus sustain comparison and contrast with Israel, the point of ultimate division being death for the one, eternal life for the other. If Israel and the gentiles are deemed comparable, the gentiles do not acknowledge or know God, therefore, while they are like Israelites in sharing a common humanity by reason of mythic genealogy — deriving from Noah — the gentiles do not receive in a meritorious manner the blessings that God bestows upon them. God blesses the gentiles, but they do not respond properly. God gives the gentiles prophets, but the prophets to the gentiles do not measure up. So God favors the gentiles with blessings and with prophets. Not only so, but each party to humanity, Israel and the gentiles, forms its own piety as well. But with what result! (p. 151)

Gentiles are blessed, but then blaspheme God; in contrast, an Israel blessed is an Israel glorifying and blessing God. Pesiqta de Rab Kahana XXVIII.I.1 places the blasphemies of Pharaoh (Ex 5.2), Sennacherib (2 Kgs 18.35), and Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3.15) in contrast to the blessings from David (1 Chr 29.10), Solomon (1 Kgs 8.56), and Daniel (2.20).

Relatedly, gentiles cannot claim to have lacked instruction through Torah and prophecy. They, too, receive direct communication from God through prophets, though with differences, as in the classical and definitive example of Balaam. The gentile prophets do not receive the message clearly or as directly as do the Israelite prophets. Also, their prophesying distances them further from God through taking place at night, which is unclean by nature (Dt 23.11 as quoted in Genesis Rabbah LII.V.1 ff). Gentile prophets’ prayer is likewise not as efficacious as that of Israelite prophets, because of that distance.

Israel’s piety, based in Torah, is pleasing to God. The gentiles’ piety, however, based as it is in idolatry, so offends God that he would destroy the world were it not for Israelite piety.

Despite these differences, it is crucial to note that “[n]othing intrinsic distinguishes Israel from the gentiles, only their attitudes and actions…. Sufficient proof derives from the explicit statement that, when Israel acts like gentiles, it enters the classification of gentiles; if Israel conducts itself like the gentiles, Israel will be rejected and punished as were the gentiles, with special reference to Egypt and Canaan” (p. 156).

“The attitude of the idolator governs God’s disposition of matters” (p. 158). It is the intention of the idolator that is so offensive to God, as an attitude of both rejection (for rejecting Torah and thus God) and foolishness (for worshipping a non-god), and their actual actions in creating and worshipping idols.

The various gentile nations rejected the Torah for specific and reasonable considerations, concretely, because the Torah prohibited deeds essential to their being. This point is made in so many words, then amplified through a parable. Israel, by contrast, is prepared to give up life itself for the Torah. (p. 167)

There is that attitude manifesting itself again. Of course the Torah is inconvenient, and inconvenience is too much for some people. It would seem, too, to reflect a base kind of mentality that refuses moderation and self-control, preferring an animal “freedom.” And so, living like animals leads also to death like animals–no resurrection, no eternal life. I wonder if this attitude is addressed in those terms in the rabbinic canon: animal-like lives ending in animal-like deaths.

Now that we understand how the gentiles are also subject to justice, we turn to investigate how it is that idolators can rule over Israel. It is no more anomalous than their apparent, but wholly temporary, personal prosperity.

Now that we have a clear picture of how humanity is constituted, we turn to the urgent question of the contemporary condition of Israel among the nations. The now-routine question, which the system identifies as critical, requires no elaboration: why, for all that, do the gentiles rule Israel? The answer is, that is how God has arranged matters, and at every point, the divine plan to impose justice is realized. The key-proposition contains two elements: God has decided to do things in just this way, and God’s plan accords with the requirements of the just governance of world order. It is the second of the two components that is elaborated, provoking the question natural to this theology: what has Israel done to deserve its punishment? And why this punishment in particular?

When we recall that, within this theology, world history orbits about Israel, we cannot find surprising that the present arrangement of world politics responds to Israel’s condition, specifically, its sinfulness. The reason the gentiles rule is that Israel sinned. When Israel repents, they will regain dominion. (pp 167-168)

This framework was established already in Scripture, and is most explicit in the books of Judges and of the major Prophets. Israel’s sin results in gentile rule, which then results in Israel’s repentance, which in turn results in their forgiveness by God and freedom from gentile rule. Thus the order of justice is upheld, and gentile rule over Israel is in no way anomalous, despite its superficial appearance as such.

The prophets called the gentiles the instruments of God’s wrath. The sages took the same view. They explained that the gentiles do not act on their own but carry out God’s will. What happens to Israel therefore reassures Israel that the holy people continues to live in the kingdom of Heaven, and the very fact of the anomaly of pagan rule turns out to guarantee God’s rule and Israel’s role. Israel has not lost its position in the unfolding of the story of creation of a just world order set forth in the revelation of Sinai. Israel is now writing, and will continue to write, its own chapter of that story. Not only so, but Israel is not subordinate to the world-empires but their equal, standing in its assigned position at the end and climax of that part of the story of creation that the gentile empires are assigned to write. These convictions come to express in systematic expositions that utilize first three of the four principal media of expression of the Oral Torah — exegesis, mythic-narrative, even the symbolization of discourse through list-making and the amplification of lists, and halakhah — to make a systematic statement.

With the gentiles understood as tools of God for Israel’s ongoing chastisement toward repentance, can we not also understand here an application of the principle of commensurate response, mentioned earlier? That is, the gentiles prove themselves to be excellent chastisement tools in God’s hand, though they don’t recognize this reality. Regardless, God rewards them for a job well-done, and, unfortunately in the immediate short-term for individual Israelites, occasionally too well-done–a point brought up by the prophets.

I cannot improve on Neusner’s summary conclusion for this chapter on The Political Order: Gentiles and Idolatry:

So to conclude: the just world order is comprised by the division of humanity into Israel with the Torah, and the gentiles with their idols. The one is destined to life eternal with God, the other to the grave, there to spend eternity. World order then finds its center and focus in Israel, and whatever happens that counts under Heaven’s gaze takes place in relationship to Israel. That division yields rich and dense details but only a simple story, easily retold. In a purposeful act of benevolence, the just God created the world in so orderly a way that the principle of justice and equity governs throughout. Fair rules apply equally to all persons and govern all circumstances. God not only created man but made himself known to man through the Torah. But man, possessed of free will, enjoys the choice of accepting and obeying the Torah, therefore living in the kingdom of Heaven, or rejecting the Torah and God in favor of idolatry and idols.
Now we realize the full potentiality contained in the simple doctrines with which we began: that those who accept the Torah are called Israel, and the others are called gentiles. The gentiles hate Israel because of the Torah, and they also hate God. But the world as now constituted is such that the gentiles rule, and Israel is subjugated. Where is the justice in that inversion of right, with God’s people handed over to the charge of God’s enemies? Israel has sinned, so rebelled against God, and the gentiles then form God’s instrument for the punishment of Israel. God’s justice governs, the world conforms to orderly rules, embedded in the very structure of creation. Israel’s own condition stands as the surest testimony of the world’s good and just order. That guarantee is for now and all time to come. (p. 189)

Now we proceed to Chapter Five, titled “Ordering the Ultimate Anomaly: Private Lives.”

This chapter deals with, essentially, theodicy in individual lives. It’s easy to understand God’s plan on so wide a scale as to punish Israel for the sins of Israelites, but when it comes to the intense suffering of some individuals who seem never to deserve it, we, like the sages, are often at a loss. The best answer in such a case is, as the sages concluded, the silence of humility–a response shared on this subject by saints through the ages. But the sages likewise made attempts to rationalize suffering, and these are not always unconvincing.

God is selective and elects those that ought to be selected, punishes and rewards those that deserve the one or the other. So God’s justice is what is explained. God is good to those that deserve it and punishes those that deserve it. Scripture explains the matter through the qualifying language that it uses in context; it is Scripture’s cases that are ordered into the governing principle of the whole. (p. 192)

That is, as we read earlier, that since the elements of Scripture are the elements examined by the sages’ science, there is likewise no different perspective possible than that God is just, as is repeatedly emphasized in Scripture, and which is foundational to the sages’ understanding of a just world order. The systematization is, however, complete by the time of these writings, so that the loose elements in Scripture’s statements of God’s justice in Proverbs, Job, Qohelet, and so on, as well as statements on everything else, are organized into the sages’ periodic table. Scripture natively lacking this formation of systematic categories, the sages provide the system for its organization and comprehension as a morally coherent statement of God’s justice, from beginning to end. As Neusner says it:

Indeed, to formulate the problem of evil as a critical issue for their theology, the sages did not have to open the book of Job, or Jeremiah’s deep reflections on the prosperity of the wicked, or Qohelet’s (Ecclesiastes’) morose recognition that the righteous and the wicked come to a single fate. The logic of their generative principle of a just world order established by the the singular Creator left no alternative. For wherever they turned, their claim that the one God, ruler of the world, reliably orders the world with rational justice found slight confirmation. To discern grounds for doubt the sages had only to walk out of the door of the school house and consider the condition of their neighbors, indeed, to contemplate their own lives. They devoted themselves to the study of the Torah, ordinarily doing so — their stories take for granted — in conditions of poverty, while round about Israelites who neglected the Torah prospered. How justify the lives of ordinary folk, when the rule of justice does not find validation in even their own lives of Torah study? The good fall, the wicked rise, the ignorant or the arrogant exercise power, the sages can merely rant and cavil — so where is that orderly world of reason infused with justice? (p. 193)

(Note that throughout Neusner’s book, he’s using “justify” in a particular sense–“to show the justice in a thing.”) Now we come to the pithiest part of the chapter. To understand the justice of the suffering of an individual, we must first understand to what degree an individual is even relevant to the question of justice, for to this point, we’ve learned only of corporate entities, Israel and the gentiles, not the role of individuals in either.

[B]ecause the sages constructed a single coherent theology, encompassing every dimension of existence, they had to show the justice of a single principle of explanation for private and public affairs alike. Then how to hold together, within a unitary rule of order, explaining in the same way the abstract situation of an imagined nation and the concrete circumstance of ordinary people near at hand? When the sages reflected upon the complex problem of how a world order of justice governs private lives, three principles set bounds to their speculation. These principles responded, in logical sequence, to three questions:
1.) can the individual be at all distinguished from all Israel?
2.) if not, then on what basis does the individual matter at all? and
3.) can the same explanation that necessarily accounts for the condition of Israel sufficiently serve also for that of Israelites, and if not, what further components does the encompassing rationalization of Israelite existence require?

In answer:
1.) The short answer is no (pp 194-198).
2.) The fame of an individual’s name was not valued by the sages, except insofar as the individual was willing to sacrifice himself for the Torah, bringing him an everlasting name in the world to come. But individuation is still necessary for the proper functioning of the moral order (pp 198-201).
3.) “The answer is affirmative, but with important qualifications. The fundamental affirmation, pertaining to Israel and private Israelites alike, maintains that exact justice governs. No anomalies will persist past the resurrection, the last judgment, and the world to come…” (p. 201).

The sages didn’t, however, give up on trying to reconcile the principle of just order with personal suffering. Scripture itself includes numerous examples showing that an individual is responsible for his actions, and suffering or reward follows upon them–God is not to blame for the result of their actions. Such is the ordinary course of events, but what of the extraordinary? In one set of explanations (pp 205-207), justification is found in positing the individual’s fate as inextricably bound up in Israel’s. A second set of explanations (pp 207-211) focuses on the principle of commensurate response in the community, by the effect of a righteous or wicked person present on those around him. Third comes the individual focus (pp 211-238), suffering based on personal deeds or reward. Two alternate sources of explanation were astrology (denied validity by most sages–only God governes Israel, not the stars) and accident (accepted by the sages as only apparently accidental to man, but really also the working of God’s will). The sages did, however, understand the gentiles to be subject to astrology–as they had rejected God, they were subject to no more than natural forces. And an Israelite falling into sin likewise falls under the influence of the stars. Even in the seemingly mundane choice of vocational success, God is present in granting wealth or poverty to the worker. So it is best to also always learn Torah, too, along with any vocation. Premature death is considered a punishment for certain sins (extirpation). The early death is expiation, so the person returns to a right relationship with God in the world to come. There is even discussion of pre-emptive death which prevents the person from committing a grave sin. But these are extraordinary cases. Suffering, of course, affects all people. Suffering that prevents Torah study is punishment, but that which doesn’t prevent Torah study is a blessing. The more general kind of suffering is atonement for sin, which leads to repentance. This kind of suffering as correction appears throughout Scripture.

Why should suffering be valued as a medium of atonement? The reason is that suffering provokes introspection and serves as source of reflection on the sins one has committed, so providing the occasion for repentance, which yields atonement as offerings yielded atonement. Accordingly, the most important reason that suffering is precious is that it changes one’s attitude. Through suffering, one is moved to atone for sin, and therefore suffering brings about that atonement that sages seek, appeasing God through a form of sacrifice as much appreciated as the sacrifice on the altar. That is, the sacrifice of one’s own will in favor of God’s decree. When suffering comes, it brings about submission to God…. (p. 227)

So, as in the case of communal Israel, so in the case of the individual Israelite–suffering generates repentance, restoring communion with God. “Let all involuntary suffering teach you to remember God, and you will not lack occasion for repentance,” wrote St Mark the Ascetic (On the Spiritual Law, 57; Philokalia I:114, English ed.). The principle is identical. Who can even count the writings of saints through the ages who recognized suffering as the gateway to repentance? And who, being devout, has not suffered and turned closer to God? Suffering is, paradoxically, a blessing–medicine without the spoonful of sugar.

From such a perspective, suffering represents not an anomaly in, but confirmation of, the theological logic that begins all thought with the principle of God’s justice and benevolence. Suffering helps man to help himself, returns man to God, precipitates man’s repentance. What more can one ask of a just God than the opportunity to shape one’s own will to conciliate him? (p. 229)

In light of this understanding, the sages also turned to find the origins of this supererogatory blessing with the patriarchs, the source of the rest of their heritage of grace:

No wonder, then, that the Oral Torah’s framers, focused as they are on the patriarchs as themselves paradigms for their children, Israel, and enduring sources for a heritage of virtue, go so far as to invoke the fathers as the founders of suffering. Here, the patriarchs themselves asked God to bestow old age, suffering, and sickness, because the world needed them. These components of the human condition not only do not form challenges to the logic of God’s just governance of the world, but express that very benevolence that infuses justice. So the patriarchs themselves initially beseeched God to bestow on man the blessings of old age, suffering, and sickness, each for its rational purpose. Here the theology transcends itself:
Genesis Rabbah LXV:IX.1
A. “When Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his older son, and said to him, ‘My son,’ and he answered, ‘Here I am'” (Gen. 27:1):
B. Said R. Judah bar Simon, “Abraham sought [the physical traits of] old age [so that from one’s appearance, people would know that he was old]. He said before him, ‘Lord of all ages, when a man and his son come in somewhere, no one knows whom to honor. If you crown a man with the traits of old age, people will know whom to honor.’
C. “Said to him the Holy One, blessed be he, ‘By your life, this is a good thing that you have asked for, and it will begin with you.’
D. “From the beginning of the book of Genesis to this passage, there is no reference to old age. But when Abraham our father came along, the traits of old age were given to him, as it is said, ‘And Abraham was old’ (Gen. 24:1).’
E. “Isaac asked God for suffering. He said before him, ‘Lord of the age, if someone dies without suffering, the measure of strict justice is stretched out against him. But if you bring suffering on him, the measure of strict justice will not be stretched out against him. [Suffering will help counter the man’s sins, and the measure of strict justice will be mitigated through suffering by the measure of mercy.]’
F. “Said to him the Holy One, blessed be he, ‘By your life, this is a good thing that you have asked for, and it will begin with you.’
G. “From the beginning of the book of Genesis to this passage, there is no reference to suffering. But when Isaac came along, suffering was given to him: his eyes were dim.’
H. “Jacob asked for sickness. He said before him, ‘Lord of all ages, if a person dies without illness, he will not settle his affairs for his children. If he is sick for two or three days, he will settle his affairs with his children.’
I. “Said to him the Holy One, blessed be he, ‘By your life, this is a good thing that you have asked for, and it will begin with you.’
J. “That is in line with this verse: ‘And someone said to Joseph, “Behold, your father is sick”‘ (Gen. 48:1).”
K. Said R. Levi, “Abraham introduced the innovation of old age, Isaac introduced the innovation of suffering, Jacob introduced the innovation of sickness. (pp 229-230)

So, not only were the patriarchs concerned for future generations, they were willing to be the first to undergo such things as old age, suffering, and sickness in order to benefit others.

The suffering of the righteous pays tribute to their strength and is a mark of their virtue. That is shown by appeal to both analogies . . . and Scripture. Suffering then shows God’s favor for the one who suffers, indicating that such a one is worthy of God’s attention and special interest. (p. 232)

Are we not still often surprised and changed by the strength we see in those who suffer greatly and yet do not succumb to despair, or take the advice of Job’s wife, “Curse God and die” (Job 2.9). The frailest of ravaged bodies can radiate a strength that is palpable to the robustly healthy. Perhaps even in all such cases there is a kind of repentance effected, in the silence of pain, itself a cry to God; perhaps not. But I know that I’m not strong enough right now for such a trial. I have suffered through serious illnesses several times in the recent past, and can attest to their ability to move one to repentance. Were it not for one such illness, I would certainly not be typing this or any of the rest of my blog or website. Perhaps it is the nearness to death that brings one to recognize, all unconsciously, life, and not just this life, but the life with God. Still, for all the benefits, I could not wish suffering on anyone else or even on myself again, for the simple fear of the failure to repent. And without the repentance, suffering can destroy a soul as surely as a body. I do look toward the time when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21.4 RSV), not so much for myself, as I’ll likely just muddle through as I did last time, but for all those others who suffer so. Their suffering moves us, as it moved the sages in their lives.

For now, we can only trust in God and remain silent, having faith in his goodness, which is truly just, in the face of such incomprehensible suffering. We don’t know everything–whether about the world, or one another, or God–and God’s doings are often, if not usually, obscure until a later time. Neusner concludes the chapter with these reflections:

[T]he sages were no fools, and hope for the at-present-intangible future did not dim their dark vision of the ordinary experience of life, its nonsense, its anomalies. While pursuing philosophical modes of thought, in the end the sages valued sagacity beyond reason, however compelling. For all their insistence upon the rule of God through a just order, the sages accepted that beyond the known and reasonable lay the unknowable, the realm of God beyond the part set forth in the revealed Torah. They affirmed, in the end, their own failure, which makes them plausible and human in their claims to account for much, if not all, of the anguish of which private lives even of the most holy of men are comprised. In the end we all die, and who knows how long the interval until the resurrection? So the sages’ last word on the reasonable rule of the just order consists of a single imperative: humility, the gift of wisdom, not of wit. (p. 237)

Thank you for reading.


  1. Kevin,

    Thank you for your blogging ministry. You are a gifted individual and it’s nice to see you using these gifts to the glory of God.


  2. “I wonder if this attitude is addressed in those terms in the rabbinic canon: animal-like lives ending in animal-like deaths.”

    The best I can think of off hand is –

    Sanhedrin 38b-

    תהלים מט,יג) [ו]אדם ביקר בל ילין [נמשל כבהמות נדמו] (בל ילין לינת לילה).

    אמר רמי בר חמא: אין חיה רעה שולטת באדם אלא אם כן נדמה לו כבהמה שנאמר ‘נמשל כבהמות

    Great post – as usual!

  3. Aha! It all becomes clear… Neusner’s an Akivite!

    I happen to follow the school of Ishmael against Akiva that suffering is NOT blessed and it is NOT part of the justice and order of YHWH.

    This also makes perfect sense of the fact that Neuser views that “The Torah is the sages’ universe, her books their galaxies, her chapters their star systems and individual exemplars within are matter itself.” Akiva treated the Torah in this very way–sought to find a thousand halakhot for even a single, untranslatable grammatical particle.

    Against Akiva again, but following Ishmael, I’d have to say that Torah is written in human language.

    I always find it startling that anybody would willingly follow and embrace the views of Akiva to such an extent as this when Akiva was so totally wrong on so many vital issues…such as, for instance, Bar Kosiba being the Messiah who was bringing about the Messianic Age…especially when they’re people as smart as Neusner.

    1. You’re going to have to keep reading. I don’t want to spoil it for you. You have gotten some of the emphasis wrong here. Suffering is not intended as part of creation, but is the result of God’s plan for humanity, specifically atonement for sin. It will become clearer in later chapters. I will give a preview: atoning suffering in the here and now is a good thing, as no more atonement will be necessary in the world to come. This is how the system works: balanced and just from beginning to end. Keep reading.

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