These are the previous installments in this series of notes on Jacob Neusner’s The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999):
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
Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapter 8
We proceed to chapter 9, Correspondence, beginning with a transitional paragraph from the last chapter, on Complementarity:
Complementarity shades over into correspondence. For, in stressing the complementarity of God and man, we ought not to miss their correspondence at the deepest levels of sentiment and emotion and attitude. The one completes the other through common acts of humility, forebearance, accomodation, a spirit of conciliation. In the first lace, Scripture itself is explicit that God shares and responds to the attitudes and intentionality of human beings. God cares what humanity feels–wanting love, for example–and so the conception that actions that express right attitudes of humility will evoke in Heaven a desired response will not have struck as novel the authors of the Pentateuch or the various prophetic writings, for example. The Written Torah’s record of God’s feelings and God’s will concerning the feelings of humanity leaves no room for doubt. (pp 362-363)
As the last chapter on complementarity covered the principle of often quite disparate pairs completing one another, particularly God and man, in this chapter the focus is on the similar (and to a lesser degree, dissimilar) characteristics of those same two parties–how are God and man alike and not alike? The principle of complementarity discussed in the last chapter already bears the seeds in it of this discussion on correspondence through the very equability of the pairs. That is, they are sufficiently similar in a number of points to be equable, yet it is precisely in their differences that they complement one another (and also counter one another). Successful complementarity is thus precisely sourced in correspondence.
The theological anthropology of the Oral Torah, treating the study of man as a chapter in the knowledge of God, in whose image man is made, defined correspondence between God and man in three ways: intellectually, sharing a common rationality; emotionally, sharing common sentiments and attitudes; and physically, sharing common features. That is why, to begin with, God and Israel relate. They think alike. They feel the same sentiments. And they look alike. Like God, man is in command of, and responsible for, his own will and intentionality and consequent conduct. The very fact that God reveals himself through the Torah, which man is able to understand, there to be portrayed in terms and categories that man grasps, shows how the characteristics of God and man prove comparable. The first difference between man and God is that man sins, but the one and the just God, never; connecting “God” and “sin” yields an unintelligible result. And the second difference betweeen creature and Creator, man and God, is that God is God. (p. 365)
Neusner begins with the most striking, indeed startling, point of similarity between God and man: physical form. This is, not surprisingly, based on Genesis 1.26: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” For though it is indeed the case in later theology that God’s incorporeality is a given, and the various descriptions in Scripture and elsewhere of God’s various body parts are philosophized or simply ignored, the Oral Torah insists instead that God and man exactly resemble one another in form and are distinguished only by their respective actions, not by form:
1.) Genesis Rabbah VIII:X.1–At man’s creation, the angels mistook him for God, until God put him to sleep.
2.) Bavli Sanhedrin 1:1 XLII/93a–God has the form of a man.
3.) Bavli Berakhot 1:2 III.39/7a–God has a face, a head, a back, and hands and arms, like a man, since he has tied on phylacteries like a man.
4.) Bavli Ketubot 13:11 III.31/111b–God has eyes and teeth.
5.) Bavli Shabbat 88b–God has cheeks and a mouth.
6.) Bavli Taanit 4a–God has arms and hands and palms.
7.) Bavli Berakhot 1:1 III.21/6a–And with those arms, God straps on phylacteries.
All of these few selections indicate the sages conceived of God as corporeal and identical in appearance to man:
[W]e find clear evidence of a corporeal conception of God. We have no basis on which to believe that the text at hand meant a (merely) poetic characterization, or, indeed, what such a more spiritual interpretation would have required. Assuming that the words mean precisely what they say, we have to conclude that God is here portrayed as incarnate. (p. 369)
“Incarnate” is perhaps better understood as “embodied.” That is, God is not bodiless. Of course, in orthodox Christian theology, God is conceived of as “incarnate” in a very real sense, but this is not what Neusner is saying here.
In Pesiqta de Rab Kahana XII:XXV.1-3, God is described as appearing to man in forms that are comprehensible to him, both in general and in particular. As Neusner says, “People differ, and God, in the image of whom all mortals are made, must therefore sustain diverse images–all of them formed in the model of human beings” (p. 370). Comprehension requires familiarity, even in visual recognition. Yet this applies, too, to God’s voice, which is heard according to each individual’s capacity. So the physical appearance of God comes to vary so that it is properly perceptible and comprehensible to all at an individual level–like image, so the original: God makes Himself in man’s image.
But this physical, bodily aspect is less emphasized than the intellectual and rational correspondence:
[F]irst comes shared rules of intellect, which render God and man consubstantial. God and man intellectually correspond in the common logic and reason that they share. That is in two aspects. First, like Abraham at Sodom, the sages simply took for granted that the same rationality governs. God is compelled by arguments man finds persuasive, appeals to which man responds: “Will not the Judge of all the world….” Second, meeting God through the study of the record of God’s self-revelation, the Torah, the sages worked out their conviction that man’s mind corresponded to God’s, which is why man can receive the Torah to begin with. That man can study the Torah proves that man has the capacity to know God intellectually. That explains why they maintained that God is to be met in the study of Torah, where his presence will come to rest. God’s Presence, then, came to rest with those who, in an act of intellect, took up the labour of Torah-learning. (p. 371)
As an example of meeting God in Torah study, Neusner adduces Abot 3:6–whether a group of ten, or five, or three, or an individual alone is hard at work in studying the Torah, God is there. This is not, however a solely passive learning of reading and rote memorization. By Torah study is described the entire system of rabbinic thought, all the paradigmatic methods gleaned from Scripture, and their systematized application:
Through their critical, analytical inquiry into the Torah and its law, the sages intended to gain access to the modes of thought that guided the formation of the Torah. Their strategy involved, for instance, dialectical argument concerning comparison and contrast in this way, not in that, identification of categories in one manner, not in another. Those were the modes of thought that, in the sages’ conception, dictated the structure of the intellect upon which the Torah rested. The sages could meet God in the Torah. In their analysis of the deepest structures of intellect of the Torah, they hoped to enter into the mind of God, showing how God’s mind, expressed in God’s words, worked when God formed the Torah. And there, in the intellect of God, man gained access to God. But in discerning how God’s mind worked, the sages claimed for themselves a place in that very process of thought that had given birth to the Torah. (p. 372)
The equation of man’s and God’s logic, mutually comprehensible, precisely because of the “image” both are of one another, is demonstrated in a story found in Bavli Baba Mesia 86a, depicting a Heavenly session of Torah study in which God is participating. When God concludes one way, with a unanimity of the rest of the session of the contrary opinion, recourse is made to the expert opinion of Rabbah bar Nahmani (who supports God’s opinion), who then dies and is invited to join the session. So we see Torah study is similar in Heaven and on earth. The sages depict their work as replicating the working of the mind of God in the formation of the Torah, both Written and Oral. They claimed this precisely because of the understanding of the correspondence of man’s and God’s minds. And so, though they could, because they understood the processes of its formation, write Torah, demonstrating that correspondence, they could still, of course, not reveal Torah, demonstrating a difference, for that revelation belongs to God alone. “That is, man is like God, but God is always God” (p. 374).
In the delightful story of the oven of Akhenai (Bavli Baba Mesia 59ab), God’s supernatural evidences and even voice are rule out-of-bounds by the rabbis’ rules of engagement; He laughs and says, “My children have overcome me; my children have overcome me!” The story draws on a point we’ve run across in past sections of Neusner’s book. The Scriptures, Written Torah, are the source for data that comprise the proofs necessary to the sages’ determinations. Their investigations are predicated on requiring only the investigation of that previously-revealed corpus, with further revelation, as in the story above, being judged inadmissible. And this is acceptable because God and the sages share the same logic, the same rationality, and quite obviously, the same delight in it! The correspondence is certain.
Now we get down to the brass tacks.
How, then, are we to take the measure of man’s and God’s correspondence with one another? To answer that question, we have to systematize the place of God in the coherent theological system that animates the documents of the Oral Torah. These yield four categories that organize what in the Torah man is told about God. In the Oral Torah God takes up a position as premise, presence, person, and personality. It is at the fourth category, the representation of God as a personality, that man and God meet. In the first three, God takes up a position to which mand does not aspire, for, as I said, God is always God. (p. 376)
To elaborate a little:
God as Premise:–This is seen in passages in which a conclusion is adumbrated on the belief that God created the world and revealed the Torah. “Premise” is used because God is a primary proposition in this usage, and not a being interacted with. This lies particularly behind the commandments of Torah as a body.
God as Presence:–This is “God as part of a situation in the here and now” (p. 376), yet not interaction in a personal, direct manner. The example given is the role God plays in rendering a decision in the ritual commenced when a wife is accused of adultery by her husband (see Numbers 5 and Mishnah tractate Sotah). That is, if the woman is guilty, God enacts a punishment that is not a direct result of the ritual itself. Yet God is neither seen nor heard, only present and acting.
God as Person:–Neusner says of this category only, “God furthermore constitutes a person in certain settings, not in others” (p. 377). As a “person,” this would almost require God’s appearance as a part in a legal movement of some kind which requires the parties to both be people, a contract or somesuch. This is still not direct communication.
God as Personality:–This is the appearance of God as a vivid, individualized, distinct personality, in interaction with others, in which He is often given corporeal traits, just like the people he interacts with.
These correspondences present no surprise, since the Written Torah for its part portrays God in richly personal terms: God wants, cares, demands, regrets, says, and does–just like man. God is not merely a collection of abstract theological attributes and thus rules for governance or reality, nor a mere person to be revered and feared. God is not a mere composite of regularities, but a very specific, highly particular personality, whom people can know, envision, engage, persuade, impress.” (p. 377)
God, when represented in human terms, is not surprisingly often depicted as a king, as in Pesiqta de Rab Kahana XV:III.1–God imitates the mourning of human kind, though more extravagantly, both befitting His greater status and His greater mourning. God’s correspondence with man is explicit here, with God asking, “When a mortal king mourns, what does he do?” (p. 378).
In Genesis Rabbah VIII:XIII.1, God is depicted as offering a blessing at the wedding of Adam and Eve, adorning Eve the bride, visiting the sick, burying the dead, and sympathizing and blessing the mourner. The sages insist that ehse similarites to human behaviour are not instances of God imitating man, but rather man imitating God–the ethical norms established by God and revealed in Tora are the source of man’s imitation. So, God not only looks like man in appearance, reasons like man, but performs the same virtuous deeds that man performs and values (p. 379). God spends his day much as a human ruler of Israel is imagined by the sages to have done–for three hours studying Torah, three hours in judgment and three hours more in mercy, and three hours playing with his pet, Leviathan (Bavli Abodah Zarah 1:1 I.2/3b), or, instead of playing, teaching children. At night, he rides a cherub through 18,000 worlds or listens to the songs of the heavenly creatures. Whatever the conception, it is one of physicality, in entire correspondence with the deeds of a human magnate, though moved to a more impressive level befitting God’s majesty and power. And though God is often conceived of as corporeal, this is not necessarily always the case, as in Bavli Baba Mesia 7:1 IV.6/86b, which shows God personally interacting in the physical world in corporeal and other forms or ways of appearance.
Neusner then comes to the correspondence of emotions and attitude between God and man, and this is where the heart of the matter lies. In the former chapter’s discussion on zekhut, the importance of the attitude and emotion on the part of the actor, and the corresponding attitude and emotion on the part of God who responds, clarifies the correspondence between God and man in both attitude and emotion. That is, if the acts were not initiated by positive attitude and emotion, they were not rewarded. Relatedly, they are rewarded because God concurs with the attitude and emotion in which they are given. So, following, Neusner presents various emotions and attitudes attributed to God, which are all also correspondingly deeply and recognizably human.
God does not rejoice at the destruction of anyone, for they are all the works of His hands (Bavli Sanhedrin 4:5 V.1/39b). His emotions are those of a parent who can only mourn at the loss of a child, even, or perhaps even especially, a rebellious and wayward one.
God is humble, and wants man to be humble (Bavli Shabbat 89a)–Moses tried to deny having been given the Torah from God, a signal honour. Arrogance, on the other hand, is the rejection of the imitation of God in humility, and leads directly to idolatry (Bavli Sotah 1:1 V.5/5b), the rejection of God Himself. God laughs in derision at such (Bavli Abodah Zarah 1:1 I.2/3b). In Bavli Sotah 1:1 V.18/5b are quoted some passages of Scripture against arrogance: Jeremiah 13.15, and Deuteronomy 8.14 and 8.11. A little further in the same, in a section quoting Isaiah 57.15, “With him also who is of a contrite and humble spirit,” God is said to be with the contrite, which reflects His own attitude: “and he neglected all valuable trees and brought His Presence to rest in the bush.” Just after this is, again, another equation of arrogance with idolatry (Bavli Sotah 1:1 V.21/5b)–the arrogant are cut down (Isaiah 10.33) as the Asherim are (Deuteronomy 7.5), with that arrogance leading to eternal death, no resurrection. Even so, the passage continues, humility is perfected in God, not man, and God absolutely cannot countenance arrogance (Bavli Sotah 1:1 V.22-23/5b)–He will destroy the arrogant.
This leads to the sages (like Scripture’s) depiction of God as both hating idolatry and being angrey at the arrogant and idolators (Psalm 7.12 and 30.6; Isaiah 26.20 quoted and developed in Bavli Berakhot 1:1 III.35/7a) and acting on it, and even apparently losing His temper, as in the case of Rahab of the sea (Bavli Baba Batra 5:1 IV.23/74b). God’s anger is with the world, Israel, and with Israel particularly in making the world as it is (Bavli Berakhot 1:1 II.1-3/3a), and He howls about it at night (with an audible voice!), alternately angry and mourning.
God is likewise depicted in various interaction with various other persons, as teaching, reasoning, and arguing with others just as anyone else would. He gives a pledge to the angel of the Red Sea so that the Israelites can make it onto the short (Bavli Arakhin 3:5/15ab). At the destruction of the Temple and exile of Israel, Abraham comes and he and God discuss the situation, reminiscent of Abraham confronting God before Sodom was destroyed (Bavli Menahot 5:1 I.4/53b). God does not silence Abraham, as some almighty potentate would, but treats his beloved Abraham as an equal in the discussion, answering all his points of contention, finally showing Abraham that despite, or rather because of, all this, a much better situation awaits Abraham’s children in the distant future. God even defends Israel with the prophet Hosea, teaching him through his own family relations how God feels for and about Israel (Bavli Pesachim 8:1 I.7/87a). Here the correspondence of man and God goes so deep as to be the correspondence of Hosea, husband of an unfaithful wife, and God, husband of unfaithful Israel. Hosea both learns forgiveness and that God forgives Israel.
Neusner follows this with an extensive set of excerpts (beginning at Bavli Sanhedrin 11:2 XII.9/106b-107a) showing interaction, social, personal, rational, emotional, and entirely present personal interaction, with King David. In this we find David’s prayers in the Psalms and elsewhere are transformed into conversations with an immediately present God who responds. Prayer here is dialogue, emphasizing the correspondence with every emotion and reasoning touched upon.
Not surprisingly, though, the most common representation of God in Oral Torah is as a sage–the master teaching the disciple, as in Hosea’s case above. He teaches Moses to politely greet Him (“Moses, don’t people say hello in your town?” Bavli Shabbat 9:3-4 I.43/89a), and teaches Israel what to ask for: dew, not rain, and to be always visible (Bavli Taanit 1:1/4a)
Then there is the depiction, in keeping with what we read earlier on God’s special preference for Israel, of God and Israel as lovers (Pesiqta de Rab Kahana V:VI.2-3).
Even in cases of religious practice there is correspondence between God and Israel. As Israel is instructed by God through Torah, so they do as God does. God wears phylacteries and sings praises for Israel (Bavli Berakhot 1:1 III.23/6ab), prays (to Himself, of course; Bavli Berakhot 1:1 III:32/7a), and even seeks the blessing of a sage (Bavli Berakhot 1:1 III.34/7a).
It is in the compilation of sayings tractate Abot that the greatest correspondence between God and man is depicted as one of feelings, as Neusner says:
Our consideration of the matter of zekhut in chapter 8 has prepared us for that result, the point at which complementarity shades over into correspondence. God and man are consubstantial, above all, at heart. A systematic statement of the matter comes to us in tractate Abot, which presents the single most comprehensive account of religious affections. These turn out to pertain to God’s as much as to man’s feelings. The reason is that, in that document above all, how we feel defines a critical aspect of virtue. A simple catalogue of permissible feeling comprises humility, generosity, self-abnegation, love, a spirit of conciliation of the other, and eagerness to please. A list of impermissible emotions is made up of envy, ambition, jealousy, arrogance, sticking to one’s opinion, self-centredness, a grudging spirit, vengefulness, and the like. People should aim at eliciting from others acceptance and good will and should avoid confrontation, rejection, and humiliation of the other. This they do through conciliation and giving up their own claims and rights. So both catalogues form a harmonious and uniform whole, aiming at the cultivation of the humble and malleable person, one who accepts everything and resents nothing. (p. 404)
It is not merely that God commands or prefers man to behave in one particular manner rather than another, but that God wants man to behave like Him: “Make His wishes into your own wishes, so that He will make your wishes into His wishes” (Abot 2:4). That is explicit resort to correspondence. See further the passages Neusner excerpts and refers to at this point: Abot 3:10; Tosefta Berakhot 3:3; Abot 4:1 and 4:18-19. As Neusner puts it so well, “[T]he emotions prescribed in tractate Abot turn out to provide variations of a single feeling, which is the sentiment of the disciplined heart, whatever affective form it may take” (p. 406). These are all expressions of the love enjoined on man by God: love for God and love for neighbor. Anything else will not do. The complete humility of spirit in order to constructively elevate another lies at the heart of this system.
The following extensive quotation is too pithy and important to summarize or excerpt. Did the sages intend all this just as wordplay, as sophistry? Is the Oral Torah just a big game or an even bigger mistake?
Do the sages mean that man and God correspond, or do we deal with some sort of figurative or poetic representing relationships of a less tangible character than I have suggested? I should claim that the entire system of theology, with its account of world order based on God’s pervasive justice and rationality, means to portray exactly how things actually are–or, with man’s correct engagement, can be made to be. For the sages, we deal with the true reality that this world’s corruption obscures.
What we see, therefore, is an application of a large-scale, encompassing exercise in analogical thinking–something is like something else, stands for, evokes, or symbolizes that which is quite outside itself. It may be the opposite of something else, in which case it conforms to the exact opposite of the rules that govern something else. The reasoning is analogical or it is contrastive, and the fundamental logic is taxonomic. The taxonomy rests on those comparisons and contrasts we should call parabolic. In that case what lies on the surface misleads, just as we saw how the sages deem superficial the challenges to God’s justice that private lives set forth. Conceding the depth of human suffering, the sages also pointed out that, sometimes, suffering conveys its own blessing. And so throughout, what lies beneath or beyond the surface–there is the true reality. People who see things this way constitue the opposite of ones who call a thing as it is. Self-evidently, they have become accustomed to perceiving more–or less–than is at hand.
God and man correspond in the call from the One to the other for forebearance, patience, humiliation, self-abnegation. God, disappointed with creation, challenged by the gentiles with their idolatry, corresponded with Israel, defeated and subjugated, challenged by the worldly dominance of those who rejected the Torah. Both, the sages maintained, dealt with failure, and both had to survive the condition of defeat. But if, we cannot remind ourselves too often, God and man correspond, God is always God, man, man, Creator and creature.
We conclude the matter of theological anthropology exactly where we ended our account of the ultimate anomaly, man’s condition in the world order of justice, with the insistence that, all things having been said, man’s ultimate task is silence in the face of the tremendum:
Bavli Menahot 3:7 II.5/29b
5.A. Said R. Judah said Rab, “At the time that Moses went up on high, he found the Holy One in session, affixing crowns to the letters [of the words of the Torah]. He said to him, ‘Lord of the Universe, who is stopping you [from regarding the document as perfect without these additional crowns on the letters]?’
B. “He said to him, ‘There is a man who is going to arrive at the end of many generations, and Aqiba . Joseph is his name, who is going to interpret on the basis of each point of the crowns heaps and heaps of laws.’
C. “He said to him, ‘Lord of the Universe, show him to me.’
D. “He said to him, ‘Turn around.’
E. “He went and took a seat at the end of eight rows, but he could not grasp what the people were saying. He felt faint. But when the discourse reached a certain matter, and the disciples said, ‘My lord, how do you know this?’ and he answered, ‘It is a law given to Moses from Sinai,’ he regained his composure.
F. “He went and came before the Holy One. He said before him, ‘Lord of the Universe, How come you have someone like that and yet you give the Torah through me?’
G. “He said to him, ‘Silence! That is how the thought came to me.’
H. “He said to him, ‘Lord of the Universe, you have shown me his Torah, now show me his reward.’
I. “He said to him, ‘Turn around.’
J. “He turned around and saw his flesh being weighed out at the butcher-stalls in the market.
K. “He said to him, ‘Lord of the Universe, Such is Torah, such is the reward?’
L. “He said to him, ‘Silence! That is how the thought came to me.'”
The sages had in mind to construct man in God’s image, not God in man’s.
We should never be confused about that. Everything reverts to God in this chapter: because He is this way, so man is this way, for man is His image. Man could hardly do otherwise, even in rebellion, for the image is innate, part of our makeup, mind and body and everything, and it is inseparable from us. Rationality and emotion are innate, and though both can be bent to rebellion, they are present because the man is made in the image of his Maker.
Note especially the hearking back to all the subjects previously covered in Neusner’s book. Each chapter builds upon another, and the argument of each succeeding chapter would not stand without the preceding chapters’ arguments. Likewise, each succeeding chapter’s import can be found in the earlier ones as well. Underneath all of it, the theology of the Oral Torah, we now find, lies love. Love is expressed in justice, in unchanging stability, in ensuring a balance in rewards for deeds and maintaining fair economics. Love is expressed best in humility, and where we might expect the greatest reward, we find instead, as in the case of Aqiba above, the greatest humility. Love is the source of the Oral Torah.
Neusner concludes this chapter on Correspondence with the following paragraph, which forms a conclusion to section two of the book, Perfecting World Order:
So much for the doctrines that systematically and coherently set forth the theology of a world order regulated by God’s justice, an order in which reward and punishment proportionately and exactly responded to man’s deeds, and order in which God responded according to reliable rules to both Israel and the Torah, gentiles and idolatry, and an order that encompassed both public affairs and private life. This perfect world, unchanging and beyond time, brought God together with man in relationships of a complementary character, endowing Israel and God with corresponding traits, so that the one could understand and rely upon the other. But if the Oral Torah’s theology of a just world order could account for how things are and are supposed to be, how, in a manner coherent with their doctrines of justice and rationality and coherence, did the sages make sense of what ought not to happen, which is the way things have come about in the here and now? To the sources of disruption and the causes of chaos, the true challenges to the sages’ theology of prevailing justice in the public order and private condition as well, we now turn.
Next comes Part III, Sources of World Disorder, starting with Chapter 10, Intentionality. Thank you for reading. I hope that others are gaining benefit from this, just as I certainly am.