Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, Epilogue

The following post contains my notes on Jacob Neusner’s Epilogue (called Chapter 15, Before and After) to his book The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999). The former installments are: Introduction and Chapter 1, Chapters 2 and 3, Chapters 4 and 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, and Chapter 14.

He begins the epilogue with:

The theology of the Oral Torah in its union with the Written Torah, on the one side, and with the liturgy of synagogue and home life, on the other, defines Judaism’s world view, the details in context of its way of life, its explanation of what, and who, is Israel. In their distinctive language and idiom, which in no way copied the language and reproduced the modes of discourse of Scripture, the sages of the Oral Torah retold the story of the Written Torah. The liturgy of the synagogue and home, for its part, would rework modes of thought characteristic of the sages of the Oral Torah and re-frame clusters of categories that sages had formed to make their statement. That is why anyone who wishes to describe the principal characteristics of the religious world view of that Judaism, in proportion and balance, will find the prescription here (p. 641).

As proclaimed by the sages, the Oral Torah is the complement to the Written Torah, the two together providing the whole teaching of Moses. This situaties Oral Torah in the center of the continuum running from Written Tora to Judaism’s prayer life in synagogue and home. This is not solely a chronological but also a theological continuum. The Written Torah preceded the writing of the documents of the Oral Torah, which was later succeeded by the finalization of the liturgy for synagogue and home. Such is the history of the documents. But Oral Torah is also theologically central, occupying the position of mediation between Written Torah and liturgy. The Oral Torah is central, providing the interpretation of the Written Torah and the foundation of Jewish prayer life. Does the Oral Torah accurately represent the Written Torah? Does the Oral Torah really represent the foundation of liturgy and prayer in Judaism? It’s known that early Christian writers disagreed with the sages’ interpretation of Scripture during the centuries that the documents of the Oral Torah were being produced. Also, there is little of the eventually established synagogue liturgy and prayer documented in the Oral Torah (pp 642-643).

In response to these concerns, Neusner states that “[t]he faiithful of Judaism through the ages reach Scripture through the oral tradition recorded here [in the Oral Torah], never encountering an unmediated Scripture (whether historically or philologically or archaeologically, for example)” (p. 642). This situation is analogous to the long history of mediation of the Bible by the Church, as a guarantor of orthodox reading. Written Torah was, for the faithful of Judaism, half of Torah, the other half being Oral Torah. The wto were not separate or separable. (This was also a situation in the Church in regard to Tradition and Scripture–the two were one whole.)

In regards to the liturgy, it is established upon the same theology contained in the Oral Torah. The liturgy “takes place within the timeless world of enduring paradigms formulated by the Oral Torah” (p. 644). The relationship expressed in the Oral Torah, that between Israel/Israelite and God, comes alive in the liturgy. Oral Torah is the heart of the liturgy.

Neusner expounds throughout on the direct relationship between Written Torah and Oral Torah on the one hadn, and Oral Torah and the synagogue liturgy on the other. The paradigms of Scripture are directly carried into the Oral Torah both through the latter’s program of systematization, and through the direct citation of Scripture. The pattern of creation-fall-repentance-redepmption is found in both the broadest and the narrowest application: to the world and to the individual. This pattern, like the others fond in Oral Torah predicated on those of Written Torah, would be immediately recognized by Moses and the Prophets. Nearly every proposition in Oral Torah is also accompanied by Scriptural texts. The entire process is governed by the theology of the sages so that we find an inward movement of relating to Scripture in hermeneutics driving exegesis, a movement balancing the outward movement of the discovery of that theology, which is rooted in Scripture, sprouting in Oral Torah, and flowering in the sages’ overarching theology, which Neusner has described in this book.

The synagogue liturgy is as timeless as the paradigms of Oral Torah, which paradigms the sages systematized from Scripture. All ages meet together in the liturgy. Neusner demonstrates this at length with reference to the wedding liturgy, the rite of circumcision, and several prayers of the daily liturgy.

This epilogue of Neusner’s is so densely-packed with intriguing points that I find it difficult, if not impossible, to summarize it in way that might do it justice. Thus I have kept to a very brief summary here, and strongly recommend the full text to the interested reader, as I do, of course, for the rest of the book as well. The Epilogue itself is one of the most throught-provoking of the chapters, and I’m sure I’ll be writing more on the many fascinating topics and insights contained within it.

Neusner closes this epilogue and the book thusly, which ably sums up the argument in this chapter (pp 669-670):

Now readers ought rightly to object, but is this corpus of liturgy not a mere reprise of Scripture? Why invoke the Oral part of the Torah to make sense of the synagogue worship, when that liturgy simply reworks the main lines of thought of the Written part of the Torah, indeed constantly recites verses of Scripture within the act of worship? And I hasten to concede, as would the sages in whose behalf I have claimed so much, readers do not err. A liturgy that recapitulates the themes of creation, revelation, and redemption, that speaks of exile from and return to the Land in a plan of restoration, that celebrates God’s sovereignty and invokes God’s justice in judgment, surely reworks the themes of Scripture. And one that constantly makes reference to the Torah as the emblem of God’s love and to Israel as the people of the Torah, that perpetually invokes the correspondence of world order in the heavens with peace on earth (as in the Qaddish-prayer) — such a liturgy surely rests squarely upon the Written Torah, which from its opening lines says no less.

A single, seamless statement, the Siddur and Mahzor, the Oral Torah, and the Written Torah, severally and jointly say the same few things. That is why the worship of the synagogue, in the Siddur and the Mahzor, with its enchanted and timeless world of ever-present eternity, is beyond all comprehending except within the framework of the Oral part of the Torah. But so too, sages will have insisted, the Oral part of the Torah for its part restates precisely the message, in exact balance and proportion, of the Written part. It too makes sense only within the framework of the Written part of the Torah. So, in sequence, the sages read from the Written Torah to the Oral one. And, reflecting on that reading, the theologians of the liturgy composed prayer to re-frame in the second-person “you” of prayer personally addressed to the person of God precisely the result of that same reading: what the Torah teaches about God that Israel may bring in prayer to God.

So that is why, as I claimed at the outset, when we define the theology of the Oral Torah, we state Judaism pure and simple, no more, no less. Here we encounter the one, the only, the unique God, who to Israel makes himself known in the Torah, creates a world ordered by justice, and sustains and restores that world order, every day, making peace, as the Qaddish says, both in heaven and on earth. That is what revealing the justice of God in the world order requires: God’s rule in the chaos of the here and now. So in the words of the Qaddish, invoking heaven and earth at once:

Magnified and sanctified be the great Name in the world that he created as he willed, and may his dominion come in your life and in your days and in the life of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon…May he who makes things whole on high make things whole for us . . . .

This concludes my series of chpater-by-chapter notes on Jacob Neusner’s The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God. I recommend the book highly. Reading the numerous quotations from Neusner’s (and others’) translations of the documents of the Oral Torah is a crucial part of the experience in following Neusner’s train of thought throughout the book. A direct experience of the writings in the orginal language of the sages is not possible for all. Neusner has done a great service in first translating (along with some colleagues) the documents of the Oral Torah, and then providing the extensive quotations where necessary in the book. Easily half the book is comprised of these quotations. And it is good for the reader to experience, even if in translation, the actual writings of the sages. I think this book would be a fine corrective to those with only a superficial grasp of what the Oral Torah is, particularly those who consider (as I have often heard in Christian circles) that the regulations in the Oral Torah are merely invented by the rabbis. In fact, the Oral Torah is deeply Scriptural, root and branch, as described above. A deeper understanding and appreciation of this literature is necessary for anyone intending to work with it in any degree. Neusner’s book is a great intellectual triumph, providing us with something that has eluded so many searchers in the past: a systematic theology of the Oral Torah. His great familiarity with the texts, and his incisive analysis are to thank for this fascinating, challenging, and enjoyable book.

Thank you for reading. I hope these notes have proven and do prove useful.


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