Jacob Neusner and the grammar of Rabbinical theology (4): God wants the Jew to create his own history and live in the now.


Jacob Neusner’s metaphor of rabbinical theology as “grammar” extends logically to his view of history. In previous sections on Neusner’s rabbinical theology, I discussed Neusner’s (Chomskyan) “grammar” at length. In a nutshell, “grammar” is a set of limited rules applied to words forms, word order and vocabulary that are used to construct an unlimited number of sentences. For example, my previous sentence has never been constructed before, and probably will never be repeated by someone else (unless copied). Apply this idea to history, and the historical record becomes a set of limited “facts” (Neusner) that are used to create the rabbinical system. And God wants it that way, says Neusner (as we shall see later). According to Neusner, history is not about what really happened but about what Judaism creates and “lives on in the minds and imaginations of the great rabbis of Judaism.” And this is what God wants, says Neusner. I examine this claim.

In Neusner’s “Handbook of rabbinic theology,” the section “A religion of intellect, creating a language of faith,” he writes:

(I have italicised the two terms, “documentary record” and “history” that I would like to discuss).

…in Rabbinic Judaism, religious encounter to begin with takes place in, and is handed on for generations to come through, the medium of words properly used. It is a religion of intellect, encompassing emotions within the conventions of rationality, a religion that knows God through the close analysis of what God says in so many words and in the breaths, the silence separating them… For what it [Israel] knows about God, this particular religion [Judaism] appeals to the documentary record of God’s presence in humanity…Pointing to God’s presence in nature and in history, the Torah identifies the occasions of encounters and intervention.”

Neusner speaks of “the documentary record” that points to “God’s presence in history.” In normal historiography, the “documentary record” aims to establish what really happened in history. It might come as a surprise – perhaps to some traditional Jews as well – that for Neusner the documentary record (the rabbinical canon) has little to do with “history” as a record of real events. Elsewhere (in his “Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity”) he distinguishes between the “Hillel of history” and the “History of Hillel):

One thing, says Neusner, we “will recognise (if not immediately) [about the redaction of Hillel’s “stories”] is that they were made up or constructed for some purpose other than to preserve the very words Hillel had spoken, the very deeds he had done.” Here is the purpose, according to Neusner, why these stories were “made up.”

Rabbi Hillel was a great story teller. What is, and always was, asks Jacob Neusner, the Jewish interest in Hillel? One thing only: no one could tell stories like he could; he was a “model story-teller.”  Neusner distinguishes between “the history of Hillel” and “the Hillel of history.”  He says:

If we ask not about the historical Hillel but about the Hillel of history, that is, about how Hillel lived on in the minds and imaginations of the great rabbis of Judaism, we get exact and reliable answers. Every story then is a fact. It testifies to what people later thought Hillel had said and done. It tells us then about the things rabbis maintained all Jews should say and do: the model of virtue, the mode of correct reasoning alike. Hillel then is: he endures. He never dies. He is the teacher, he is the paradigm. That is why the stories reach us. That, it seems to me, stands then for the purpose for which the stories were made up and preserved. They are documents of culture, glyphs of faith).” (Jacob Neusner, “A counterpart to the problem of the historical Jesus,” in “Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity, pp. 77-88).

Facts” in Neusner, therefore are not a record of what really happened outside the rabbinical mind. The rabbinical “documentary record” consists of “documents of culture, glyphs of faith.”

l wonder, however, says Neusner, whether in the context of faith – whether concerning Moses, Jesus,or Muhammad, such a thing as “critical history” in the nineteenth-century sense indeed can emerge. I ask myself whether, to begin with, the sources came into being with any such purpose in mind. And I question whether when we ask about history in the sense at hand, we address the right questions to sources of such a character. And, anyhow, what ‘critical historical’ facts can ever testify to the truth or falsity of salvation, holiness, joy, and love? ((A counterpart to the problem of the historical Jesus.” Jacob Neusner, “Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity”, p. 88; see “Jewish scholars and the play dough of interpretation”).

What matters in Scripture, says Neusner, is not the history of Scripture or even the historicity of the events portrayed in Scripture. What matters is the authority of Scripture, and that rests on the community of the faithful today, not the events that (we may “prove”) took place so long ago…What counts is not what happened then – did Sodom really perish in fire and brimstone, or was it an earthquake? – but what scripture teachers us to make of what is happening now…what God wants of me. And to people who ask Scripture to explain what is happening now, to lessons and examples of the sages of Judaism have much to say.” (Jacob Neusner, “Christian faith and the Bible of Judaism: The Judaic encounter with scripture, William B. Eerdmans, Michigan,1987, p. xii)

Neusner’s rabbinic Judaism sounds very much like “Reconstructionist” Judaism, where the Torah is regarded as the folklore that binds the Jewish community together. Here is part of Rabbi Lester Bronstein’s “crash course” in Reconstructionist Judaism:

In this system, God does not choose the Jews to be performers of the commandments. Rather, the Jews choose to be called by God by means of a vast network of sacred acts (mitzvot) ranging from balancing work and rest (Shabbat), to establishing courts and laws, to sexual fidelity, filial respect, medical ethics and the rhythms of the seasons. (Hence, asher ker’vanu la’avodato, “who has called us to your service.”) Paradoxically, it is the mitzvot that keep us Jewish, but which simultaneously attune us to the greater universe of which we are a tiny part.” (See The Spirit of Reconstructionist Judaism).

Neusner and Reconstructionist Judaism (and Reform Judaism, by and large) would say that it doesn’t matter whether the Babel story, for example, is a myth, or (to use a reconstructionist term) folklore; what is important is that it is a shared myth, and it is the sharing of a common heritage that binds a community together. What matters more, in reconstructionism, is the “binding,” not the Book.

Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, another reconstructionist Jew, believes that the Torah stories, even if not true in the historical sense, are central to Jewish life. The Torah, she says, is one of the “noblest employments of the mind and soul aiming at knowledge and wisdom….“Perhaps religious experiences provide no new information about the universe. Rather, they give us the emotional impetus to tell certain kinds of stories. We may indeed be nothing but a pack of neurons and our religious experiences may be neurological phenomena; nevertheless, the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences come from our higher cognitive functions. When we choose to link ourselves to a religious civilization, we opt for a narrative tradition that will shape raw experience in particular ways.”

And that’s also Neusner’s “rabbinical” view of history – raw facts, the raw gristle of rabbinical theology.