Jacob Neusner and the grammar of rabbinical theology (5): the creativity of the rabbinical mind

Summary

Neusner’s “rabbinic theology” rests on the Chomskyan notion of “grammar,” namely, the structure of sentences and their elements . “Discourse” goes beyond the sentence. Neusner’s rabbinic theology ignores the communicative context of words and sentences. Here is Neusner: “Just as Chomsky says ‘Grammar is autonomous and independent of meaning,’ so in Mishnah [the written collection of the Oral Torah and first major rabbinic work], the formalization of thought into recurrent patterns is beneath the surface and independent of discrete meanings. Yet Mishnah imposes its own discipline, therefore its own deeper level of unitary meaning, upon everything and anything which actually is said.” Rabbinic theology, says Neusner, is only intelligible to the rabbis who redacted and preserved the rabbinic texts such as the Mishnah, and, therefore, rabbinic theology “is not a public and ordinary language at all.” I examine this unusual, indeed extraordinary, “logic” of God (theology theos, logos).

Grammar as a Metaphor of Written Torah

Grammar

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); italics added).

By “creativity” is meant not only that we can create an infinite number of sentences but also that each sentence could function in a variety of contexts. For example, in one context, the sentence, “I am now going to open the oven and look at my fish” could mean exactly that or it could mean – in the context of a mother to her starving son – “If there’s any missing, you’ve had your chips.” The mother is using language as communication.

Neusner’s grammar of theology

Theology, says Neusner, is to religion as language is to experience and perception (italics added)…The use of the analogy drawn from language become obvious when the character of the Torah – the record of encounter with God set down in words of a propositional character – is taken into account. If in the Torah religious experience and knowledge are conveyed in words, sentences and paragraphs, then language is the particular medium for religious encounter, and the rest follows” (pp. 22-23). And “To extend the metaphor,  theology forms the natural sounds of religion into intelligible speech” (p.30). 

Problematic is Neusner’s distinction between “theology” as propositional knowledge (propositions are by definition conveyed verbally) and Neusner’s implication that “religion” is non-verbal “experience and perception.” “Religion,” as normally understood is much more than a set of inchoate experiences and perceptions far removed from the linguistic forms that describe it. “Describe” implies verbal expression, therefore, propositions.

Simply, a proposition is nothing more than a sentence. And to be meaningful, the sentence needs to come alive in the larger context of discourse, which, by definition is communicative, and which means meaningful. In a religion, beliefs and practices are based on a text (oral and/or written). Theology, on the other hand, is the academic study of religious texts. So, in both religion and theology you use your mind as well as (propositional) language – mind and language here are inseparable; whereas in theology you apply your mind and language to religion in a more cognitively demanding way; you study religion. And what should be the objective of religion and theology? “To meet the Eternal” (Neusner, Handbook of Rabbical Theology, p. 29 – at left of photo).

Neusner is going to use grammar as a metaphor for rabbinic theology, because:

The metaphor of a grammar serves [well for the purpose of comparing it with theology], 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).

I examine how Neusner’s rabbinical theology applies the rules of combination and permutation into larger structures.              

Neusner describes theology, which he decomposes into the “logic” of God, as a “grammar” that consists of the vocabulary, syntax and semantics of sentences. He assigns his “grammar” to rabbinictheology where he compares 1. vocabulary (‘head-nouns’) to its categories; 2. syntax to its rules for forming constructions and making connections; and 3. semantics to its models of analysis data (facts). (Jacob Neusner “Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure,” p.22).

With regard to Neusner’s “logic of God,” I think that the meaning of -logy in “theology” is not “logic” but “study (of meaning) as in “biology” and “mythology.” “Meaning” (in theology), of course, involves both logic (how we think – validity) and truth (what we think) about God.

In his “Neusner on Judaism: Literature, Volume 2 – Chapter 7 Form and meaning in the Mishnah,” Neusner says (in the abstract to the chapter), the system of grammar and syntax distinctive in Mishnah expresses conventions intelligible to the members of a particular community, the rabbis who stand behind and later preserved Mishnah. It is not a public and ordinary language at all.”

 Very important for understanding rabbinical Judaism is that the grammar of Mishnah is only intelligible to the rabbis. To question the rabbis, therefore, in the way I am going to do in this examination, certainly excludes me from understanding anything in the Mishnah, but hopefully not from presenting an intelligible argument that such a rabbinical stance is wobbly, at best.

 Later in the same chapter, Neusner says (italics added):

“The extraordinary lack of a context of communication – specification of speaker, hearer — of our document [the Mishnah] furthermore suggests that for Mishnah, language is a self-contained formal system used more or less incidentally for communication. It is not essentially a system for communication, but for description of a reality, the reality of which is created and contained by, and exhausted within the act of description. (Italics added). The saying of the words, whether heard meaningfully by another or not, is the creation of the world. Speech is action. It is creation… And just as Chomsky says, “Grammar is autonomous and independent of meaning,” so in Mishnah. the formalization of thought into recurrent patterns is beneath the surface and independent of discrete meanings. Yet Mishnah imposes its own discipline, therefore its own deeper level of unitary meaning upon everything and anything which actually is said.”

Neusner said (above) that the Mishnah has an “extraordinary lack of a context of communication.” This means not only that the Mishnah is not essentially” a system of communication, but that it is a very poor system of communication. The Mishnah, says Neusner, is a ‘self-contained system’ creating and exhausting its own realities in the very act of describing them.” In sum, Mishnah language constructs and exhausts reality.

What about Neusner’s “The saying of the words [of the Mishnah], whether heard meaningfully by another or not, is the creation of the world?”  The explanation of such an unintelligible statement (to those outside traditional Judaism) is found in the Kabbalah, a core text of the Oral Torah. According to the Kabbalah, the very individual sounds (phonemes)/letters (graphemes) of the Torah contain deep meanings independent of the meanings of the words they spawn. Rabbi Glazerson says:

The deeper significance of the letters and words is discussed extensively in the literature of Kabbalah. It is a subject as wide as all Creation. Every single letter points to a separate path by which the effluence of the divine creative force reaches the various sefirot (”spheres”) through which the Creator, Blessed be he, created His world” (See my Letters of Hebrew fire the depth and death of meaning.

I see in Neusner’s rabbinical theology a dislocation of “grammar” from “communication,” and thus from objective reality. This does not mean that rabbinic theology, as Neusner describes it, rejects the concept of reality; what it does is create its own reality. Recall (above): “The Mishnah” is not essentially a system for communication, but for description of a reality, the reality of which is created and contained by, and exhausted within the act of description.” We have, in effect, rabbinical truth versus the world’s purported falsehoods. Truth in rabbinical theology is given by the Holy One of Israel to the rabbis alone. Neusner continues (Handbook, p. 29):

The Torah preserves and hands on the record of God’s presence in this world. There, in those words, sentences, paragraphs the media by which theology forms its vocabulary based on its thought preferencesIsrael finds the record of encounter with God. And God is to be met whenever the words that preserve the encounter are contemplated, thus:”

Rabbinic texts

Neusner then cites three texts from rabbinical texts. I focus on his second example, Tractate Abot [Avot] 3:6. (the parts within square brackets are Neusner’s):

Rabbi Halafta of Kefar Hananiah says, “Among ten who sit and work hard on Torah-study the Presence comes to rest, as it is said, ‘God stands in the congregation of God’ (Ps. 82:1) [and ‘congregation’ involves ten persons]. And how do we know that the same is so even of five? For it is said, ‘And he has founded his vault upon the earth’ (Amos 9:6). And how do we know that this is so even of three? Since it is said, ‘And he judges among the judges’ [a court being made up of three judges] (Ps. 82:1). And how do we know that this is so even of two? Because it is said, ‘Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard’ (Mal. 3:16). And how do we know that this is so even of one? Since it is said, ‘In every place where I record my name I will come to you and I will bless you, (Ex. 20:2420:2a) [and it is in the Torah that God has recorded His name].”

How does this Tractate illustrate Neusner’s There, in those words, sentences, paragraphs the media by which theology forms its vocabulary based on its thought preferencesIsrael finds the record of encounter with God?To answer this question, consider what Neusner says a few paragraphs later (Handbook of Rabbinic theology, p. 29):

So to begin with we take up a religion that uses disciplined language to set down in permanent form whatever it wishes to say about knowing God. These fundamental convictions of Rabbinic Judaism explain why any account of the theology of that Judaism is going to focus upon the modes of recording in words, Israel’s moments of meeting God, and God’s actions of self-revelation… That integral and necessary component [the Rabbinic canon, which is the Oral Torah] of the one whole Torah revealed by God to Moses is set out in vast documents…The Oral part of the Torah, like the written part, records that encounter in its own distinctive language.” (Italics added).

Tractate Abot 3:6 (above), say the rabbis, is an example of God’s revelation of the Oral Torah where rabbinical theology uses disciplined language to set down in permanent form whatever it wishes to say about knowing God” (Neusner). According to Neusner, the rabbis believe that whatever they wish to believe is what God wishes as well. As I said above, the rabbis claim that truth is given by the Holy One of Israel to them alone; and, according to the Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (Arizal), when (not if) God makes a mess, the rabbis are there to clean it up. (See When the Jew cleans up the Holy One of Israels Mess, Messiah will he come?).

How does this “disciplined language” relate to Neusner’s main theme in his Rabbinical theology. Recall that he is trying to show why (Chomskyan) “grammar” is a good metaphor for rabbinic theology where “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. Let’s see.

Neusner provides more background to Tractate Abot 3:6 that may help us understand better the rabbis’ belief that they have unlimited divine license to use the limited content (analogous to the limited rules of “grammar”) of the Written Torah to create an unlimited accumulation of rabbinic discourse. (See the diagram at the beginning). For this background to the Tractate, which Neusner does not provide in his “Handbook,” we have to go to another of his books published two years earlier in 2000. The background is found in Leviticus Rabbah XI:VIII.3.The question in Tractate Abot 3:6 is, How does a Jew cleave to God? Can he cleave to God directly or only indirectly by cleaving to the Torah mediated by the sages/rabbis, who hold the keys to the Torah (Oral and Written). (According to Rashi, one cannot cleave to God directly because he is a consuming fire). The following episode is related in Leviticus Rabbah XI:VIII.3, the Oral Torah. The historical context is the war between Judah, on the one hand, and Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Israel’s Syrian allies, on the other (Isaiah 7 – 9). Ahaz, king of Judah, formed and alliance with Assyria. He also adopted the Assyrian gods and thus rejected the Torah. Ahaz plans to destroy Israel by killing off all the kids no, not of Israel but of Israel’s goats. No kids, then no he-goats; no he-goats then no flock; no flock then no shepherd; no shepherd then no world.

So did Ahaz plan, ‘If there are no children, there will be no disciples; if there are no disciples, there will be no sages; if there are no sages, there will be no Torah; if there is no Torah, there will be no synagogues and schools; if there are no synagogues and schools, then the Holy One, blessed be he, will not allow his presence to come to the rest of the world.’ (Leviticus Rabbah XI:VIII.3F-G).

What did Ahaz do? He, says Neusner, “locked the doors of the synagogues and schools and the Holy Spirit was locked out of Israel.” Framing the matter in simple terms, continues Neusner: Through the Torah God comes into the world, and the sages, who master the Torah and teach it, therefore bring God into the world. Note the difference between Saul (the Apostle Paul), by himself meeting Christ all alone and the encounter with God through God’s presence in schoolhouses and synagogues. While the Torah may be studied in private, it is received and proclaimed only in the public square of shared worship or shared learning: synagogue, yeshiva. One’s obligation to hear the Torah read can be fulfilled only in community, in a quorum. That is where we meet God. This is the point of Rabbi Halafta of Kefar Hananiah, in a familiar saying of Torah-learning that explains how we meet God in the Torah.” (Neusner in Neusner and Chilton, Discovering the Torah in Comparing Spiritualities, pp. 4-5).

With regard to Saul’s direct encounter with Christ, this is an atypical encounter for a follower of Christ as was the encounter of Moses, Isaiah and Ezekiel with God. The Christian relationship with God at least among those who believe in the inerrancy of scripture and scripture alone (sola scriptura) – is heavily dependent on the scriptures, as indeed the Jewish relationship with God is heavily dependent on the Torah (Written and Oral).

We return to Neusner’s idea that “the point of Rabbi Halafta of Kefar Hananiah [in Tractate Abot 3:6) is that it “explains how we meet God in the Torah.” Rabbi Halafta does indeed say what he wishes, which is abundantly clear when what he says is compared with the Written Torah. The question is whether Abot 3:6 is said in a “disciplined” and divinely directed manner as Neusner claims.

The problem is that none of the examples in Abot 3:6 has any rational or conventional basis of agreed signals of communication. In short, they bear only the most tenuous of connections to the point Rabbi Halafta is trying to make, which is that a child of Israel can cleave to God on his own through the Torah without having to cleave to any rabbis (Neusner does not agree with Rabbi Halafta’s one on One with God – through the Torahi). To illustrate the problem in Rabbi Halafta, one of his examples is “how do we know that this is so even of two? Because it is said, ‘Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard’ (Malachi 3:16). Here is Malachi 3:16 in full: “Then they that feared the LORD spoke one with another; and the LORD hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon His name.”

They” refers to the whole congregation or a large part of it. Nothing about a small group like “three,” or even “ten.” If Rabbi Halafta were able to respond, I am sure he would deny that he was bleaching the lifeblood out of the Torah. I am reminded of Rabbi Akiva Katz, who said in one his lectures that even a six-year old could understand the surface level of Torah. The problem, as I see it, is that the secret level (called “sod” in Hebrew), which the rabbis claim to be the only persons able and divinely authorised to see, often does not bear any contextual, therefore “meaningful,” relationship to the surface level, a relationship deemed necessary in language science. But then rabbinical theology, says Neusner, is only intelligible to the rabbis who redacted and preserved the rabbinic texts because rabbinical theology “is not a public and ordinary language at all.”ii

We return to Neusner’s central theme, namely grammar as a metaphor for rabbinical theology. Rabbinical theology, in effect, is the Oral Torah. There’s the Written Torah, which, consists of brute grammatical elements. As for the historical events in the Torah themselves, these are, says Neusner, irrelevant. (See Jacob Neusner and the grammar of Rabbinical theology (4): God wants the Jew to create his own history and live in the now).The rabbis, under God’s direction initiated at the revelation at Sinai – is this an historical event for Neusner? – do whatever they will with revelation. It is perhaps more accurate to say with Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal that the Written Torah (from Genesis to Malachi the Tanach) is a subset of Oral Torah, consisting of a vast collection of sayings, commentaries and theology that dwarfs the Written Torah (Tanach – Hebrew Bible). In a similar vein, Ibn Ezra (one of the most celebrated Jewish writers of the Middle Ages) says “...the Law of Moses is founded upon the Oral Law which is the joy of our heart.” The implication is that there is no joy and no heart in sola scriptura – the Written Torah alone. (See The Written and Oral Torah: Which is Primary?).

The displacements found in Tractate Abot 3:6 provide a taste of the boundless creativity and invention of the human mind and its greatest acquisition – language, which finds supreme expression in rabbinical theology. Neusner’s metaphor of “grammar” backed by the (Judaic?) musings of the most famous linguist of modern times, Chomsky, gives Neusner the licence and the credibility required to pull it off – and the wool over our eyes? But let me not jump the gun and shoot the messenger, for there is much more to ponder upon in Neusner’s densely intriguing “Handbook of Rabbinical Theology.”

i “Rationality is always public, by definition. And, given the public character of the giving of the Torah, the propositional character of what is given, and the active and engaged character of the act of receiving the Torah, it is no surprise that the rule for studying the Torah and therefore also the requirement for meeting God is as with Moses and Elijah. God gives the Torah through the prophet to be sure, but always [to the “us” of Israel. So “we” meeting the One may be embodied in the “I,” the individual of whom Halafta speaks, but “we” always stands for the “we” of Israel, Rationality requires community.” ((Neusner in Neusner and Chilton, “Discovering the Torah” in “Comparing Spiritualities, pp. 4-5).

ii

Neusner says that the “Torah is best studied in community, whether palpable, as in a school, or imagined, as in books, articles, or debates in letters. Israel encounters God together in the Torah through processes of rational thought (italics added): systematic description, critical analysis, rational interpretation” (p. 5). (Neusner does not agree with Rabbi Halafta’s one on One with God – through the Torah).

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