Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 1)

Great names in Hebrew grammar of yesteryear are the Kimchi family (Joseph and his sons Moses and his celebrated brother, David), Jarchi (Rashi), Moses Maimonides and many others. In modern times, I single out Jacob Neusner, not only because of his grammar skills but because of his analogy between grammar and theology. The basic idea is that theological structures and grammatical structures have much in common. I shall devote much time to this idea in later posts.

When you hear the word “grammar,” what comes to mind? Plurals, spelling, tenses, word order. Most of us think of “grammar” as the cement, and vocabulary as the bricks of a language; the bricks may be right, but the cement mix may be wrong – I can see it’s a house but it’s wonky.

Kyle Wiens writes in the Harvard Review, I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why:

If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building…Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too,’ their applications go into the bin.” 

True, that is one meaning of “grammar”; its mechanics. A wider meaning of “grammar” refers to everything involved in the structure of sentences. There is more to the term language, however, than sentences. I deal with this “more” in Part 2.

I introduce Neusner.

Jacob Neusner is a prolific writer on Jewish Studies. The Huffington Post describes him as “Distinguished Service Professor of the History and Theology of Judaism and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College Annandale-on-Hudson. He also is a Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, and a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. He has published more than 1000 books and unnumbered articles, both scholarly and academic and popular and journalistic, and is the most published humanities scholar in the world.”

In the next few posts, I’d like to concentrate on one of his major works in rabbinical studies, namely, his “Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure”(Brill Academic Publishers, 2002), which

presents, says Neusner, in condensed form the results of three of my systematic works on the theology of Rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism set forth by Scripture as mediated by the Mishnah, Talmuds and Midrash-compilations of late antiquity. The three titles here formed into a single coherent statement are The Theological Grammar of the Oral Torah I-III (1999), The Theology of the oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (l999), and The Theology of the Halakhah (2001).The three were conceived to form a single continuous statement covering the theological language, system of belief, and structure of behavior that animates the definitive documents and characterizes the age and thought of those that produced them.”

Jacob Neusner: the one with the yamulka?

I shall be studying Neusner’s Handbook over the next few weeks. Here I relate the bit I’ve read so far with a few introductory observations on the origin and nature of language. (I have more than a nodding acquaintance with Neusner’s other works).

As we know, “theology” deals with the application of our noggins to what God says to us. Jewish theology and Christian theology obviously have much in common and also much that is not. Both will agree, though, that theology is based on God’s word, on what He is saying to us. What is very important is that our interpretations of God’s word should be based on sound inferences.

For the true-blue Jew (In future “Jew” will refer to the real mccoy), the scriptures (the written Torah, also called the Tanach) is one part of the Oral Torah, which is the total Torah given orally to Moses and God’s other spokesmen, the sages (chochomin). The rest of the Oral Torah was later recorded in the Talmudic and other Jewish literature.

Here’s a thing: the Hebrew root davar (means “word/speak” as well as “thing.” A famous book in introductory linguistics is Roger Brown’s “Words and things.” No prizes for the Hebrew translation of the title.

For the Kabbalist, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are the basic building blocks of the universe. So, Hebrew is not merely a natural language, but a supernatural language, the language of God. Also, it is not merely a language but the “table of elements” out of which all things in the earth and in the heavens were created. It is easy to see that in such a view, God’s speaking creation into being is given added poignancy. But I am jumping my creative gun, because before I rev my rabbinically fueled engines (in Part 2)), I need to examine here some salient facts about language in general.

Human language, says Edward Vajda, is not purely a reflex triggered automatically by external stimuli or internal emotional states. Human language can be used as an index, just like animal communication, but it may also exhibit what has been termed displacement. Humans can not only talk about things that are absent but also about things that have never been. Humans can invent myths and tell lies. Human language can be used arbitrarily, with the stimulus deep within the speaker’s psyche and the topic not present or even non-existent. Animal languages can only be used as a means of pointing to something directly present in time and space.”

The origins of human language will probably remain for ever obscure. By contrast the origin of individual (natural) languages has been the subject of very precise study over the past two centuries.

How did language begin? (No, Menachin Begin, although Jewish, can’t help you there). If you believe, with Ray Jackendoff, that we come from monkeys, a logical question to ask would be “how human species developed over time so that we – and not our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos – became capable of using language” (Jackendoff). Neither Jackendoff nor any other human is able to unbundle this knotty question. In 19th century France, speculations on origins got so so out of hand that in 1866 the French Academy banned any further research on the matter. If you believe that human language originated in Adam, you get, of course, a different picture. The standard theories of language variation maintain that when people gradually separate, their language begins to vary. The Bible teaches that mankind had a common language but when it decided to build a Tower (of Babel) to climb to the heavens, God confounded the common language. So, instead of gradual change, a miraculous rupture in the uniform linguistic fabric occurred to produce linguistic variation.

When people, says J.W. Oller, with a common language were separated by, say, an ocean for about 1,000 years, they ended up not being able to understand each other. The Scandinavians in Iceland cannot understand those who stayed in Europe. The English of Beowulf’s time—between AD 680 and 8003—is unintelligible to speakers of “modern English,” which is dated roughly from Shakespeare (1564–1616) and the King James Bible (1611). If we met Shakespeare today, we would understand him, but not folks from Beowulf’s time. Even printed literature, dictionaries, telephones, computers, and worldwide travel cannot keep languages from changing. We see remnants of change in English where let used to mean “prevent” but now generally means “allow” (excepting a “let ball” in tennis) and meat used to mean any kind of food but now is limited to what Shakespeare called “flesh.”

J.W. Oller (Jr). So glad to see you’re wearing your yamulka, J.W.

From Genesis to Revelation, continues Oller, the Bible shows us that God created the universe, sustains it, and has redeemed all who will believe, by the power of His Word. That power, according to the Bible, resides in the language capacity. It is the one and only unmistakable signature of God in us.”

The Tower of Babel account is not a PIE in the sky theory. Indeed, the Tower of Babel story accounts very well for the data, and therefore there is “More than PIE (the title of Oller’s article) – Proto-Indo-European (PIE) – in the Tower of Babel account. According to Oller, “[s]ecular theories fail to explain the many distinct language families throughout the world. The biblical account of Babel is the only explanation that fits the data.” (See here for Oller’s argument)

(Dr. John Oller, Jr., is the Hawthorne Regents Professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He has taught in prestigious universities and lectured around the world. The Modern Language Association also awarded him the Mildenberger Medal for one of his numerous books).

For the Jew, Hebrew didn’t start with Adam but in heaven; indeed, it didn’t start at all because if God always was, so was His language, which is equated with his creative power, namely his davar, his word. The Muslim says the same things about Arabic. I shall deal with this Hebrew-Arabic claim at a later stage.

Language, like everything, natural and supernatural consists of two fundamental interlocking categories: structure (or form) and function. Cognate terms used in the biological sciences are anatomy (structure) and physiology.

Neusner’s book is going to compare the rabbinical theological system to a language, which for him comprises vocabulary, syntax and semantics. Neusner seems at first blush to equate “language” and “grammar,” but we will need to read more to establish whether this equation is maintained throughout his book. He uses the “metaphor of grammar” to describe the rabbinical theological system:

“The metaphor of a grammar serves [for this purpose], for by grammar is meant “an example of a discrete combinatorial system. A finite number of discrete elements (in this case, words) are sampled, combined, and permuted to create large structures (in this case, sentences) with properties that are quite distinct from those of other elements.” (Steven Pinker, “The language instinct” (New York: HarperPerennial, 1995, p.84). At issue then are the rules of combination and permutation into larger structures – an ideal way of surveying the work at hand. ” (Neusner pp. 19-20).

It is important to note that “grammar” in Pinker and Neusner is restricted to the sentence level. What about the “discourse,” level, namely, the level beyond the sentence? This higher level is of crucial importance in language as communication, in our context, biblical and theological texts. In Part 2, I map out the basic principles of (verbal) language and discourse. In Part 3, I examine Neusner’s pivotal analogy between “grammar” and “theology.”