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.

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

    • Hi Dan, yes, as Neusner says, together with Reconstructionist Jews and most Reform Jews and all liberal Jews, in fact, most Jews, it doesn’t matter whether the history in the Torah is true. And me? Where have you ever heard of a Calvinist Jew thinking such horrors?

      Here is the larger context, which I have scanned from Neusner’s “Comparing Spiritualities.”

      pp. xi-xii

      Specifically, the ancient rabbis show us how to read Scrip-
      rure in a way that we can follow. They show us ways of responding to
      Scripture that we may not have imagined. They also teach us dimensions
      of scriptural meaning that we may not otherwise grasp. We Jews and
      Christians, revering Scripture as the Written Part of God’s one whole
      Torah (for the Jewish part) or as the Old Testament (for the Christian
      parr), do well to seek in our encounter with the teachings of the living
      God the wisdom, imagination, and insight of the ages. Ours is a task no
      prior generation, back to the beginnings, have had to take up.

      In an age of milirant secularism and hostility to the biblical origins of
      the civilization of the West-and of the world-we come together to
      sustain one another’s faith. In this book I want to contribute some
      modest measure of my own faith, Judaism, as that faith may add to the
      faith of our Christian neighbors, for all of us now dwell together in the
      new catacomb, the darkness of disdain for our common faith in one God,
      creator of heaven and earth, judge of all humankind. This is a book of
      religious faith. I draw as a rabbi on treasures I mean to share with
      Christians. I come with humiliry to the faith of others. I hope to give, as
      others have in our day given of their faith, their grace to us Jews.

      This book is not a scholarly examination of how ancient rabbis read
      Scripture, but rather focuses on how from their example we may derive a
      more profound understanding of ourselves through Scripture, the Torah
      in particular. At stake here is not what was going on in the fourth century
      of the Common (Christian) era, when Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus
      Rabbah were written, but what will happen in the twenty-first century.
      For to us Jews the Hebrew Scriptures, the Written Torah, forms the
      record of God’s picture of humanity. We encounter the Written Torah
      not (in anthropological terms) as humanity’s projection of itself onto
      etemity, but (in theological ones) as God’s picture of humanity in time.

      So in this book we shall take up choices explored by the founders of
      Judaism, leaming from them through their example the freedom to bring
      our world to Scripture and to reshape our world in the encounter with
      Scripture. That kind of freedom I think Christians will find liberating-
      and honest.

      In the pages that follow, I show what the doctrine of inerrant Scripture
      meant to our sages, for they believed that Scripture was, and is, God’s
      word. But we have now to go beyond the issue of inerrancy. If we believe
      that the Torah reveals God’s will to humanity (as we Jews do) or that the
      Bible records God’s word (as Christians do), then we affirm Scripture
      and undertake the task of finding meaning in that affirmation: how does
      scripture teach us ro understand the lives and the times in which we live.
      Inerrancy as test of faith misses the point. Once by our choice of scrip-
      ture we believe, what truths does faith entail? It is time to move beyond
      the limiting issues of academic learning, which divide the world into
      believers (sometimes called “fundamentalists”) and scholars. Beiievers
      leam, and scholars believe. There are other approaches to Scripture,
      besides the narrowly academic, the philological and historical.
      Seeing Scripture as a commentary on life and the everyday as a system-
      atic exegesis of Scripture presents us with a new and, I think, fruitful way
      of reading Scripture – and the everyday as well.

      The approach of our
      sages, exemplified in this book, will prove intellectually rigorous, but
      humanly relevant as well. What matters in Scripture 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 upon the
      community of the faithful today, not the events that (we may “prove”)
      took place so long ago. At issue is not history in the sense that the world
      really was made in six days, but etemity: that God sanctifies and rests on
      the seventh, the Sabbath of creation. Under debate, after all, is not
      whether or nor archaeology proves that things happened in the way in
      which Scripture says they did (or in some other way) but Scripture’s
      method and message for history. 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.

      All of us for nearly two hundred years have suffered the abuse to
      think that Scripture answers a set of historical questions: did it really
      happen? But the questions that draw us to Scripture are not questions
      about what happened long ago, but what is happening now – and what,
      in Scripture, God wants of me. And to people who ask Scripture to
      explain what is happening now, the lessons and example of the sages of
      Judaism have much to say.

  1. Pingback: Jacob Neusner and the grammar of rabbinical theology (5): the marrow of unintelligibility « OneDaringJew

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