Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 2): What is grammar?


When you hear the word “grammar,” you probably think of structures such as plurals, spelling, tenses, and word order; “grammar” is the cement, and vocabulary is the bricks of a language. If the bricks are right but the cement mix is wrong, we say the grammar is bad.

The above meaning of “grammar” can be defined as “patterns with function but no specific meaning: phonology (new sound combinations), morphology (new words), syntax (new sentences). It is the grammar that allows language signs to be used with virtually endless creativity” (Edward Vajda).

In Part 1, I mentioned that Neusner, in his “Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure,” is going to use the “metaphor of grammar” to describe the rabbinical theological system. He says:

The metaphor of a grammar serves [well], for by grammar is meant (Neusner quotes Steven Pinker) ‘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).

English: Steven Pinker at the Göttinger Litera...

Steven Pinker at the Göttinger Literaturherbst, 10/10/2010 Göttingen, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neusner’s “large structures” (sentences) are Vajda’s “virtually endless creativity.” Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that we could make, if we lived forever, an infinite number of sentences from finite – nevertheless still huge – number of bits that go up to make the variety of possible sentences. As Noam Chomsky puts it: finite means for infinite ends.

Chomsky at the World Social Forum (Porto Alegr...

Chomsky at the World Social Forum (Porto Alegre) in 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chomsky, says John Searle, argued that since any language contains an infinite number of sentences, any “corpus,” even if it contained as many sentences as there are in all the books of the Library of Congress, would still be trivially small. Instead of the appropriate subject matter of linguistics being a randomly or arbitrarily selected set of sentences, the proper object of study was the speaker’s underlying knowledge of the language, his “linguistic competence” that enables him to produce and understand sentences he has never heard before.” (John Searle, June 29, 1972. The New York Review of Books).

The term “grammar” has its origin in the Greek word for letter, gramma. Grammar” used to be restricted to language, but no more. There’s now a grammar of all sorts of odds and togs, for example, a “grammar of fashion”: “The larger the ‘vocabulary’ of someone’s closet, the more creative and expressive those wearers can be, which enables them to create more ‘sentences.’ As a result, wearers are able to portray information about themselves effectively, more effectively, perhaps, than someone who doesn’t have those same means.”

If you were to attend Stanford University, you could dig your chops into the “grammar of cuisine,” and gourmand on such delectables as “The structure of British meals.”And, if you are one of those who thinks higher, there’s the grammar of the genetic code. (“Code” in linguistics is a another name for “grammar”). Recently, biophysicists discovered “Four New Rules of DNA ‘Grammar.’”

The reason why we can use the term “grammar” in so many diverse contexts is because the “grammar” of a system is simply the structure of interrelationships that undergirds that system, showing how things fit together into a coherent whole.

Consider the function of grammar in a language. Here is John Searle again:

He [Chomsky] then classifies the elements of the corpus at their different linguistic levels: first he classifies the smallest significant functioning units of sound, the phonemes, then at the next level the phonemes unite into the minimally significant bearers of meaning, the morphemes (in English, for example, the word “cat” is a single morpheme made up of three phonemes; the word “uninteresting” is made up of three morphemes: “un,” “interest,” and “ing”), at the next higher level the morphemes join together to form words and word classes such as noun phrases and verb phrases, and at the highest level of all come sequences of word classes, the possible sentences and sentence types. (John R. Searle , June 29, 1972. The New York Review of Books).

Words – only – have – communicative – meaning – when – in – right – relation – to – other – words. The previous sentence proves my point. The words of the previous sentence convey a message, that is, they communicate. Without the correct vocabulary (words found in a dictionary), forms and word order (found in a grammar book), there is no message but only a mess. As it is with language, so it is with all human life, which can only be understood in terms of the structure of its interrelations.

We saw (paragraph 2 above) that for Neusner, “grammar” is a system of “large structures” – sentences built from discrete (elemental) structures such as words and bits of words such as the plural -s and the suffix -ation (as in “nationalisation”). I summarise so far. In language, there are two meanings of “grammar.”

  1. The “cement” that binds vocabulary together. This meaning is often used in the classroom.
  2. There is a wider meaning of “grammar,” which refers to both the cement and the vocabulary required to make a sentence. In this context, we speak of “grammatical meaning,” or “semantic meaning,” or “sentence meaning,” The three terms are synonymous.

Neusner seems to equate “sentence/grammatical meaning” with “language.”

There is, however, far more to language than the sentence level. For example, the question “What do you mean?” often pops up not only between a mother tongue speaker and a non-mother tongue speaker of a language but also, and often, between two mother tongue speakers of the same language. There is the indignant “Waddaye mean!” and the simple innocent desire to understand what the other is saying or writing. I focus on the simple desire of mother tongue speakers to understand what the other means.

As we saw earlier, language, like all structures consists of a hierarchy of parts consisting of progressively larger wholes.

1. Basic sounds (phonemes) or written symbols (letters) – meaningless in themselves (Hebrew letters for the “de facto” Jew do have meaning) are the building blocks of progressively larger meaningful units ranging from:

2. Structural elements such as number (singular – plural), gender (masculine – feminine -neuter), tense, and so forth, which are traditionally referred to”grammar” (the cement of language), to

3. Words, to

4. Sentences, to

5. Discourse (paragraphs, and larger chunks of language)

There is a difference between the meaning of a sentence on its own (sentence meaning) and the meaning of a sentence when combined with other sentences to either form a larger sentence or when it is used with other sentences to form a piece of discourse.

I deal first, very briefly, with sentences that combine to form larger sentences and then say something about discourse.

The term “grammatical meaning” refers to sentence meaning. There are three sentence types:

  1. Simple sentence
  2. Compound sentence
  3. Complex sentence.

Here is one example of each:

1. God is not a man . Simple Sentence

2. God is not a man and he doesn’t lie. Compound Sentence

3. God is not a man that he should lie. Complex Sentence

The last example ( a complex sentence) is a notorious example of the Jewish misinterpretation of Numbers 23:19. The grammatical blunder is to subvert the complex sentence, “God is not a man that he should (can, would want to) lie” into the compound sentence, “God is not a man and he does not lie.” Indeed, Jewish opponents of Christianity dispense with the second half of the sentence altogether: “God is not a man.” See, the Bible says God is not a man; now you Christians come along and say he is a man. You Christians need to learn grammar: God – is – NOT – a – man. Get it?). (See Raphael and Picasso pay attention: God is not a man that he should lie (Numbers 23:19), and Milking the teats off the text: the rabbinical interpretation of Numbers 23:19)

I turn to “discourse.”

Discourse” occurs when sentences come alive and function in communication.1 A sentence in isolation is inactive, that is, it only has the potential to function. It is this potential which has to become actualised in discourse. For example, the sentence “I am reading” is understood by anyone who knows English grammar and vocabulary. This is called the “meaning” of the sentence (see blue box below), which you can derive from a dictionary and a grammar book. When, however, this sentence comes alive in a communication (in discourse) we have more than the meaning of the sentence but also what the speaker/writer means by the sentence, that is, we are dealing with how a person uses the sentence (see yellow box below).

A sentence on its own can mean one thing but when embedded in a larger chunk of language (that is, discourse) it can mean something very different.

Geoffery Leech, in his “Pragmatics” (1983) explains. There is:

1. the meaning of X, which is the semantic or sentence meaning, or (in Pinker and Neusner above), the “grammatical” meaning, and

2, what you mean by X, which is the discourse or pragmatic or sociolinguistic meaning.

For example, the sentence “I am reading” means that there is somebody, namely, me who is reading. This meaning is the semantic/sentence/grammatical meaning. Let us now use “I am reading” in discourse, that is in communication, in living language.

Student A is sharing a room with Student B. A is reading in the room while B is out. B returns, sees A bowed over a book, and shouts: “What are you doing.” It is obvious to A that B is not requesting information as to whether A is reading a book.

Suppose A’s answer is “I’m reading.” The semantic (sentence, grammatical) meaning of this utterance is clear, namely, A is not eating, or sleeping, but reading. But what does A mean (in the larger context of life, in other words, of discourse) by “I’m reading” and what does B mean by “What are you doing?”Here are a few possibilities of the discourse meaning of these two sentences:

Question: “What are you doing?”

1. Hey, what are you doing in my bed?”

2. What a miracle, you’re reading a book!

3. We’ve been looking all over for you, and here you are all the time, rotting at your desk.

Answer: “I’m reading”

1. Please don’t disturb me.

2. It’s no good, I’ll never speak to you again.

3. I’m so bored, the TV is not working; what else is there to do but read – yawn.

4. Who do you think you are to speak to me like that?

5. You illiterate idiot, go back to your comics.

So the discourse (pragmatic) context of language does not merely go beyond the sentence meaning, it makes the sentence actually meaningful, and actual meaning (meaning in action) is the only kind of meaning that we can live by, and, I suggest, do theology by.

In Part 3, I move on to Neusner’s grammar as an analogy of (rabbinical) theology.

1 In the French tradition all language units beyond the Saussurian (Ferdinand de Saussure) sign are referred to as discours. The sentence is discours and straddling sentences (the intersentential) is “extended” discours (Michell 1991: 103). Chomsky is praised (Ricoeur 1973; 1984) for making sentence meaning (Ricoeur’s “sémantique” ofdiscours the minimal unit of analysis instead of Saussurian signs, i.e. words and bits of words (Ricoeur’s”sémiotique. (See my article on Derrida’s Tower of Babel)


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