Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah

Earlier in the year, I asked Professor Jacob Neusner for a recommendation on which of his numerous books to read (there are well over 1,000 at this point: more than Solomon!). His first recommendation was for his The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999). He mentioned that it was one of his books that he most enjoyed writing. That means alot, coming from a man who’s single-handedly translated nearly the entire Rabbinic canon (he’s almost done), published numerous analytical and historical works related to said canon, and pioneered the application of form analysis on that canon, as well.

His is a fascinating career, intellectually. One of the things that most struck me about his work (and this was years ago while I was just beginning to learn post-Biblical Hebrew) was his recognition and description of the underlying order to the Rabbinic texts, the logic underlying not only the form of the writings themselves, but the logic underlying their argumentation and the worldview that can be discerned from it. The form of argumentation is clear to anyone learning the literature, but the extra step to form as representative of the wider underlying logos or rationality behind the literature was revelatory.

This book goes into depth in pulling together the evidence describing that logic, and the theology it is an expression of. Below are a few excerpts I’ve made from the book, and my own notes, based on any passages that I find delightful, thought-provoking, difficult, or sublime. This’ll be an ongoing series of posts, one hopefully not too tedious, as some of my commentary is admittedly superficial, though hopefully not too jejune. However, I thought that the more exposure this book receives, the better. It is a real page-turner, and deserves more attention than it has had to date. A search for reviews on this book in both JSTOR and ATLAS produces no results: zero for each. I find that astonishing. Professor Neusner’s work is intellectually challenging, but highly rewarding to the attentive reader. I can only assume that some more sensationalist titles have usurped reviewers’ attention, unfortunately.

There is likely also the issue of this book being outside the “comfort zone” of some readers. So far as I know, outside of some other of Neusner’s works leading up to this one, essentially those discussed in the Preface as descriptive of the methodologies he utilized which resulted in this writing, he has charted some new territory, plotting the Sages’ forest rather than the trees, relaying the strategy of the Oral Torah rather than its tactics. For some, his approach is too analytical and not “religious” enough, however one might understand that. Yet this is a deeply religious work, even if it is not a traditionally religious work. It is one which shows that justice and order as found in the Oral Torah are the only thing that one could expect from a just, and therefore orderly and good and loving God. Let us proceed.

I have made no effort to impose upon the sources “gender-neutral” language, which would violate their character, imputing an originally exclusionary intent that is in fact rarely present. When sages wish to use “Adam” or “he” to refer only to men, they signal that intent in a loud and clear fashion. (That–as everyone knows–an implicit male bias pervades the whole forms a trivial banality.) In any event, in Rabbinic literature, “man/Adam/he” and “mankind” ordinarily stands for male and female, that is, “all of humanity,” as “he” and “mankind” in much contemporary usage and in the whole of historical usage of the English and American languages are deemed to encompass both genders. In these pages that usage governs throughout, and “he-or-she” and its persnickety variations and circumlocutions do not occur. (p. xvii)

Bravo! It is indeed a “trivial banality” that ancient texts in general bear an implicit male bias. And it is certainly a symptom of somewhat of an unhealthy modern fixation to impute to the ancient authors of such writings an “exclusionary intent that is in fact rarely present.” To alter such original language to suit the fancies and misperceptions of someone suggesting such things is pandering of the worst kind–altering historical data at the whim of a minority in the present. It is merely historical revisionism. These texts are appreciated not only for what they say, but how they say it. It’s often difficult enough to render them comprehensibly into English; to adulterate the translation to fit a completely modern gender-based agenda is unconscionable.

Here, we confront the actualization in mythic language of the philosopher’s Eden, set forth in abstract terms. The sages in these proportionate, balanced, and measured components revealed a world of rules and exposed a realm of justice and therefore rational explanation. It was the kingdom of Heaven, so the sages called it, meaning the kingdom of God. For that Eden, in the abstraction of natural history that was invented by philosophy, corresponds to the conception of the world and its perfection set forth by the theology of the sages. They accordingly conceived of a philosophical Eden out of Scripture’s account–its authorized history of the world from Eden to the return of Zion. What the observed facts of nature taught philosophers, the revealed facts of Scripture taught our sages of blessed memory. Therein theology differs from philosophy–but, in the Oral Torah in particular, the difference is there and there alone and nowhere else. (p. 17)

By this last sentence, Neusner means that the work of the sages’ theology is no less rigorously rational and methodologically intense than philosophy. One thing I think is also key to keep in mind is that the sages, in taking the authorized history of Scripture (as Neusner calls it) as their epistemological foundation stone, it was also perceived as their ontological foundation stone. That is, they considered this authorized history of Scripture to be true, to the letter–“these things happened and thus we are here.” This is also an entreé for those unfamiliar with the sages’ reading of Scripture to understand how they read it and worked with it in the works of the Rabbinic canon. Torah is not just a source of proof texts, but is the source of all proofs and all texts, relied upon as a kind of foundational force of reality, as a philosopher would see nature. The Torah is the sages’ universe, her books their galaxies, her chapters their star systems and individual exemplars within are matter itself. Torah is thus so much more important than a collection of stories and the ethical conclusions one might draw from them. Torah possesses a value that is inherent and unshakable, that is effectively sui generis. This point of philosophy/nature and sages/Torah is reinforced throughout Neusner’s first chapter.

Another point: I wonder to what degree the philosophers contemporary with the sages (roughly first through sixth centuries) were basing their own work on their own scriptures, the Platonic canon particularly, rather than in doing so much of the real primary observational work with nature. This is just thinking on some more precise examples that might be illustrative of Neusner’s wider point on philosophers and their own epistemologies in relation to the sages. There were quite a few with the scripture-basis in common with the sages.

It follows that, when we imagine the world as philosophers conceive it, we find entry into the world as our sages of blessed memory imagine it to work. But though the method is the same, the message that emerges proves fundamentally different. That is because Torah for the sages takes the place of nature for philosophy. Its narratives, transformed into exemplary cases, replace social thought about mankind in general. The sages’ appeal to these examples makes unnecessary historical inquiry, based on sustained narrative, into what men have done. They find a better way to identify the rules that the results yield, whether then or now; to them, history is monumentally irrelevant. (p. 22)

And we see this particularly in the utter lack in the Rabbinic canon of (auto)biographical narratives of the sages themselves and history of the development of the documents. There is the Iggeret of Sherira Gaon, but it is much later and not quite a history. Unfortunately, there is nothing comparable to, say, Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History and the others like it, which describe an historical procession of Christian personages and their writings and how all of these interacted. Partly this undoubtedly lies in a nearly perfectly accomplished humility–the authors only very nearly avoided complete anonymity, as was apparently their goal–the message was more important than its messengers.


  1. Great Post! I shall be following this series with great interest. A pity that my library hasn’t gotten this book.

    Here is another statement from Neusner following the same train of thought as the ones you cite:

    because there men achieve sainthood through study of Torah and imitation of the conduct of the masters. In doing so, they conform to the heavenly paradigm, the Torah believed to have been created by God “in his image,” revealed at Sinai, and handed down to their own teachers … If the masters and disciples obey the divine teaching of Moses, “our rabbi,” then their society, the school, replicates on earth the heavenly academy, just as the disciple incarnates the heavenly model of Moses, “our rabbi.” The rabbis believe that Moses was (and the Messiah will be) a rabbi, God dons phylacteries, and the heavenly court studies Torah precisely as does the earthly one, even arguing about the same questions. These beliefs today may seem as projections of rabbinical values onto heaven, but the rabbis believe that they themselves are projections of heavenly values onto earth. The rabbis thus conceive that on earth they study Torah just as God, the angels, and Moses, “our rabbi,” do in heaven. The heavenly schoolmen are even aware of Babylonian scholastic discussions, so they require a rabbi’s information about an aspect of purity taboos. (1998: 8).

    and “Happy New Year!”

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