The rabbinical posture: God’s authority on earth?

Summary

The Torah (Oral and Written) has, say the sages, at least 70 faces. The rabbis impose their own discipline on the Torah and claim to have been given the divine authority to interpret the Torah. I argue that this rabbinical imposition is an importune posture.

Introduction

In Roman Catholicism, the Pope is God’s authority on earth. For the “Orthodox” Jew (Haredi, Chabad), the rabbi is God on earth. When the Jew cleaves to his rabbi, he cleaves to God. He cannot cleave directly to God because as Rashi says, quoting the scripture, God is a consuming fire (Deut 4:24). Anyone who doubts his rabbi, even when he makes shocking exceptions to the rabbinic rule, is one who doubts the divine presence. (See We hear through an iPhone darkly: rabbinical authority and the Aural Torah).

A course on rabbinical Judaism teaches that interpretation is ”bound to a text with wide room for interpreting its meaning?” In the room are seventy rabbis, each doing his own thing, or rather one rabbi with seventy faces. “There are seventy faces to the Torah: turn it around and around, for everything is in it” (Midrash Bamidbar [Numbers] Rabba 13:15); everything in the sense that it contains the building blocks of everything in and under heaven, which Jacob Neusner calls the “grammar” of rabbinical theology (See Jacob Neusner and Rabbinical Theology).

There is the “Written Torah” (scripture) and the “Oral Torah” (rabbinic writings such as the Mishnah, the Midrash and the Zohar). There are two views of the relationship between the Written and the Oral Torah.

1. The Oral Torah roots it legitimacy in the Written Torah and transforms the meaning of the Written Torah. The deeper levels of meaning are not found in the Written Torah, but in the Oral Torah, which for some Jewish movements is not found deep in the Written Torah but outside and beyond it. The “Oral Torah” was written down in its seminal form in the second century after the Christian era. “The Oral Torah, explanations of the Written Torah, was originally passed down verbally from generation to generation. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, it was decided the Oral Torah should be written down so it would not be forgotten. In the 2nd century C.E., Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and a group of Sages compiled the Mishnah. The Mishnah is a written outline of the Oral Torah. (What Is the Torah? by Ariela Pelaia).

Rabbinic Judaism, says Neusner, is the Judaic religious system of the social order set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures called ‘the Written Torah ,’ as mediated by the Mishnah, Talmuds , Midrash-compilations, and related compilations, called “the Oral Torah .” As to the historical and temporal setting, that one whole Torah, written and oral, took shape in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia in the first six centuries of the common Era; it is with that canon and formative period that we deal in this book” (“Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure,” p. 1).

2. The Written Torah is part of the original Oral Torah. All writing starts out as speaking. So, the Written Torah (the Scriptures) was once oral, and therefore forms only one part of the original revelation to Moses, which has been passed down, maintain the rabbis through tradition. In rabbinical theology, interpretation has authority over revelation, which diminishes the authority of the Written Torah, because, as the rabbis argue, without rabbinic tradition, the Wriiten Torah is a closed book.

Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal, in his Deuteronomy 33:4 – Oral Law , argues that the Written Law is a product of the Oral Law:

Those who dispute the validity of the Oral Law assume that the Five Books are the basis and the foundation for the Law. They understand that the written text comes first. When these critics approach Israel’s claim for an authoritative Oral Law, they see this as a claim for a supplementary code, one that is authorized to define and to interpret the written word. These critics contend that if there is a valid code of Law that supplements the text, we would expect that it should have been mentioned in the text.”

Rabbi Blumenthal then provides examples from the Written Torah to uncover its skeletal nature, and then does not only argue that it requires an authority outside the text, the Oral Torah, to pack flesh onto the dry bones, but that the Written Torah is merely one product, a central one, of the Oral Torah. Ibn Ezra, one of the most celebrated Jewish writers of the Middle Ages sums up Rabbi Blumenthals view (italics added): ...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 in the dry bones of the Written Torah. (See The Written and Oral Torah: Which is Primary? ). And Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 3): Torah, Philosophy and Theology).

 

History for the rabbi is his story

Jacob Neusner, a spokesman of rabbinical theology, speaks of “the documentary record” (the rabbinical canon) that points to “God’s presence in history.” In normal historiography, the “documentary record” aims to establish what really happened in history. In rabbinical Judaism, in contrast, “history” has little to with real events. For example, Rabbi Hillel‘s stories were “made up”; 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).

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,” p.88. (Jacob Neusner, Judaism in the beginning of Christianity. See Jewish scholars and the play dough of interpretation”).

And:

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)

Neusners rabbinical Judaism seems very similar to Reconstructionist Judaism, where the Torah is regarded as the folklore that binds the Jewish community together. Here is an excerpt from 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 kervanu laavodato, 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 and Jacob Neusner and the grammar of Rabbinical theology (4): God wants the Jew to create his own history and live in the now.

 

The medium or (what) message?

The rabbis don’t consider their scriptures (Tanach) as a living meaningful discourse, but merely as a deposit of potential meanings analogous to a dictionary and a grammar textbook; these only come alive when they are slotted into a (meaningful) message, and the rabbis are the ones who decide what is meaningful. Their meanings are contained in the Oral Torah (Talmuds, Mishnah, Zohar, etc).

In “Letters of Hebrew fire – the depth and death of meaning , I mentioned Rabbi Glazersons book Philistine and Palestinian (1995), in which he says:

The deeper significance of the (Hebrew) letters… 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.” In a word, we are talking about the Gematria, which is a system that assigns numerical value to a word or phrase, in the belief that words or phrases with identical numerical values are closely related to one another.

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.

The Zohar

The Hebrew word zohar  means light, splendor, the Book of Splendor/Light. Together with the Book of Creation (Sepher Yetsirah), it forms the main canon of the Kabbalah.

Say a Jew wants to study the Zohar (the main textbook of Kabbalah). No problem; as someone said , The Jew is the only one who can understand these things because his soul is different to that of other humans.

The Chochomim (Jewish sages) say that a translation of the Zohar has no redeeming benefit. Now, the majority of Jews outside the state of Israel know little or no Hebrew, and, therefore, wouldnt be able to distinguish between the tiniest tot and jittle, or whatever, in the Zohar. So, thered be no point in trying to read the Zohar in the original language? Wrong, because “… our great Rabbis through all generations taught that the complete redemption depends precisely on the study of the Zohar HaKadosh (Holy Zohar). But it is here that the Yetzer HaRa (Evil Inclination) found a great help in confusing people by telling them: If you do not understand what you are reading in the Zohar HaKadosh, you have no right to occupy yourselves with it.’” (Zohar in English )

This is a great mistake, continues “Zohar in English,” that causes the redemption to be delayed, for all the Kabbalists have written that reading the Sefer HaZohar (The book of Zohar) and the Tikkunim with no understanding whatsoever, only saying it without knowing what one says, effects a great Tikkun in the higher worlds, purifies and illuminates the soul of man and brings the redemption closer” (Underlining added).

(“Tikkun is derived from the Hebrew verb “letaken” meaning to fix or repair. This verb is used all the time in everyday life and has no special meaning. The well-known spiritual meaning of this verb is inferred from two phrases: “Tikkun Olam ” literally meaning “repairing the world” and “Tikkun Midot” meaning “repairing the character”. Both phrases are many times shortened and only the word Tikkun is used, the spiritual meaning being understood from the context”).

Just because a Jew is Hebrew illiterate does not mean that he is unable to read the Zohar. So, reading the words without understanding, which is not difficult to do in a phonetic language like Hebrew, brings the day of redemption closer, if not as close as reading with understanding. Mouthing, therefore, is a valid and holy form of reading, if what is mouthed is Torah Hebrew.  Keep in mind. though, that the majority Jewish “Orthodox” view is that Zohar was originally written in Aramaic (a dialect of Chaldean) interspersed with Hebrew. The Aramaic of the Zohar is not the same dialect as that spoken by Jesus. (A minority “Orthodox” view is that the Zohar is a medieval compilation of Moses de Lion  but  based on ancient sources).

 

Examples of rabbinical interpretation

Example 1 – God made the mess; we are  to clean it up

Ask a Jew whether God is making a mess of the world, and he will answer – yes and no. He doesn’t make a mess because he is good, and he does make a mess after he finds out that the sages he cleaves does say that God makes a mess:

“Here, writes Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, is the “standard narrative” of Judaism up to advent of the Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria. Until the Ari, the standard narrative scripted the human being into a passive role in his own redemption: G d had made a magnificent world; human beings had messed it up. You now had a choice of doing mitzvahs, cleaving to G d and being good, or continuing to contribute to the mess. Better to be good, because the day will come that G d will take retribution from those who were bad and dispense reward to those who are good…The Ari stood all that on its head, providing humanity a proactive role: G d made the mess, he said; we are cleaning it up. (Italics added) (Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, “Eighteen Joyous Teachings of the Baal Shem Tov,” p. 18). (See When the Jew cleans up the Holy One of Israel’s Mess, Messiah will he come?).

Example 2 – When very good means good and evil

I believe the scriptures usually contain only one meaning, the surface meaning. “Surface” is not synonymous with superficial. If they were synonymous, then every time I were to read “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good (Genesis 1:31), I could justifiably exclaim, “how superficial! And ask, “surely there’s more to “very good” than “very good,” surely there’s something deeper than “very good” – “very very good,” for example.

If, though, one wished to penetrate the deepest secret of all, one would discover – according to the Midrash – something so deep that it would defy the laws of contradiction. I would find that when God says “very good,” he means “very good” only for the hoi poloi. But if you’re Jewish and have also devoted decades to Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah, then, and only then, will you understand that when God says “very good,” he really means “very bad”; indeed, worse than “very bad”; He means the evil inclination itself, the yetser hara. Let the Midrash speak for itself:

And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)―Midrash: Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel’s name: “Behold, it was good” refers to the Good Desire; “And behold, it was very good” refers to the Evil Desire. (It only says “very good” after man was created with both the good and bad inclinations, in all other cases it only says “and God saw that it was good”) Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: “Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.” (Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] IV, 4) (Genesis Rabbah 9:7, translation from Soncino Publications). 

Example 3 -The laughter and slaughter of Isaac

Laughter in the Bible appears for the first time in Genesis 17, and it was Abraham who had that first laugh:

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” 17 Abraham fell face down and laughed …”

Why was Abraham’s son, his “only son” yechidkha (that is, the son of the promise), called Isaac Yitzchak “he laughed.” Let’s read Glazerson’s explanation of (what he calls) the “real” (basic) meaning of Isaac’s name (laughter) and see what he does with this laughter.

We read in Genesis 17:17:

Abraham fell face down and laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”

In his chapter, “Isaac and the Philistines” (pp. 99-100), Glazerson contrasts what he calls Isaac’s pure holy Torah laughter with the Philistines’ mocking laughter at Torah:

We can, says Glazerson, see some of his titanic strength in his name יִצְחָק Isaac.” Coming from the root צחק to laugh,” this name signals his lofty perception of the physical world: this name signals his lofty perception of the physical world: a passing shadow only worth laughing at. Someone whose world-view was so very much the opposite of the Philistines’ had nothing to fear from them. This is why Isaac acquiesced so easily in the test of the Akeidah [binding of Isaac], his Binding as a sacrifice. For Abraham it was a severe trial to slay his son, but for Isaac it was not at all hard to give up a world that was worth nothing in his eyes.” Here is the relevant verse: Genesis 22:10 -Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter lishkhot his son – my square brackets. According to Glazerson, when Abraham was about to slaughter his son on the altar, Isaac burst forth into holy laughter, for his life (on earth), says Glazerson, was worth nothing in his eyes. Glazerson’s interpretation would be far more convincing if we could use the English translation of the Hebrew; for then “laughter” and “slaughter” would have everything in common except the sibilant.

Rashi also said that Abraham in his old age didn’t laugh at God’s promise that he would have a son (Isaac “he laughed”); instead, Rashi slaughters the p’shat (simple, linguistic meaning) of the text by saying that Abraham “rejoiced.”

 

Final comments

Orthodox Judaism views the surface text as superficial, as nothing but bed-time stories; as Rabbi Akiva Tatz said in one of his lectures, “any six-year-old can understand” the Written Torah. For the rabbis, one has to excavate below the surface to the pardes (the deeper levels) of Torah to find anything of lasting good. Scripture, for the rabbis, is like a walnut where the literal meaning is the shell that hides the secret truth deep within its flesh. Rabbinic interpretation may read with or against the plain meaning. Although, views differ on how bound one should be to the text, the consensus is that there is wide room for speculation on meaning. The deeper you go, though, the more – ironically – lost you become. The rabbis, of course, would say the opposite: the deeper you go, the less lost you become – because you find more of God above – of whom you are a piece. Very important for understanding Judaism is that the Jewish canon (Tanach and rabbinical literature) is only intelligible to the rabbis. What Jacob Neusner says about the Mishnah applies to the Hebrew scriptures (Tanach, Written Torah) as well:

“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.” (Italics added).

No, Mishnah does not impose its own discipline; the rabbis impose it – upon anything and everything. They leave the Roman Catholic posture in the shade.

The building blocks of Torah and creation: The power of the rabbinical mind – squared

The building blocks of Torah

The Christian generally regards the surface text of scripture, namely, its normal linguistic and communicative properties, to be the best guide to its meaning. There are, of course, parts of scripture where the surface text (p’shat) shuts up; for example, some of the visions of Ezekiel and parts of the book of Revelation. Christians who believe scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos – breathed out by God) also believe, as a corollary to its divine expiration (breathed out), that there are no deeper meanings lurking below the surface text of scripture. So, if Christians differ in their interpretation of a text, they lay the “blame” on the interpreter not on the text. In contrast, Orthodox Judaism views the surface text as superficial, as nothing but bed-time stories; as Rabbi Akiva Tatz said in one of his lectures, “any six-year-old can understand” the Written Torah. For the rabbis, one has to excavate below the surface to the pardes (the deeper levels) of Torah to find anything of lasting good.

Scripture, for the rabbis, is like a walnut where the literal meaning is  the shell that hides the secret truth deep within its flesh. Rabbinic interpretation may read with or against the plain meaning. Although, views differ on how bound one should be to the text, the consensus is that there is wide room for speculation on meaning. The deeper you go, though, the more –  ironically – lost you become. The rabbis, of course, would say the opposite: the deeper you go, the less lost you become – because you find more of God above – of whom you are a piece.

The Torah has seventy faces: “There are seventy faces to the Torah: turn it around and around, for everything is in it” (Midrash Bamidbar [Numbers] Rabba 13:15). And it means everything in the sense that it contains the building blocks of everything in and under heaven. This principle is the basis of rabbinical theology, which Neusner compares with grammar. 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). (See Jacob Nuesner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 2): What is grammar?).

Here are two faces of (Oral) Torah:

“Here, writes Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, is the “standard narrative” of Judaism up to advent of the Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria. Until the Ari, the standard narrative scripted the human being into a passive role in his own redemption: G d had made a magnificent world; human beings had messed it up. You now had a choice of doing mitzvahs, cleaving to G d and being good, or continuing to contribute to the mess. Better to be good, because the day will come that G d will take retribution from those who were bad and dispense reward to those who are good…The Ari stood all that on its head, providing humanity a proactive role: G d made the mess, he said; we are cleaning it up. (Italics added) (Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, “Eighteen Joyous Teachings of the Baal Shem Tov,” p. 18). (See When the Jew cleans up the Holy One of Israel’s Mess, Messiah will he come?). It must be so gratifying to help God clean up his mess. Sometimes I clean up my mess, sometimes God cleans up my mess, sometimes I help God clean up His mess, and sometimes He helps me clean up my mess.

There are words and there are concepts/things that words are meant to represent. If you want to understand a bit about rabbinical Judaiam you need to understand that it does not distinguish between words and things. The Hebrew root davar (means “word/speak” as well as “thing.” A famous book in introductory linguistics is Roger Brown’s “Words and things.”  In Hebrew the plural of davar  is devarim. So, in Hebrew, “Words and things” is not merely “Devarim and devarim”; it has no divine power.  ”Devarim squared” is better where devarim is  raised to the second power – the first power is human;  the second, divine.

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 – Poignancy to the Second power: Rabbi squared.

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).

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.

Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 3): Torah, Philosophy and Theology – Basic concepts

 

In Part I and Part 2 I introduced Jacob Neusner‘s understanding of “grammar” and related it to the larger linguistic domain of “discourse.” Here, I focus on the three other foundational concepts in Neusner’s “grammar of rabbinic theology,” namely, “Torah,” “philosophy” and “theology.”

Torah

Rabbinic Judaism, says Neusner, is the Judaic religious system of the social order set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures called ‘the Written Torah,’ as mediated by the Mishnah,Talmuds, Midrash-compilations, and related compilations, called “the Oral Torah.” As to the historical and temporal setting, that one whole Torah, written and oral, took shape in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia in the first six centuries of the common Era; it is with that canon and formative period that we deal in this book” (“Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure,” p. 1).

In contrast, Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal, in his “Deuteronomy 33:4 – Oral Law,” argues that the Written Law is a product of the Oral Law:

Those who dispute the validity of the Oral Law assume that the Five Books are the basis and the foundation for the Law. They understand that the written text comes first. When these critics approach Israel’s claim for an authoritative Oral Law, they see this as a claim for a supplementary code, one that is authorized to define and to interpret the written word. These critics contend that if there is a valid code of Law that supplements the text, we would expect that it should have been mentioned in the text.”

English: Mishne Torah in 1 volume עברית: משנה ...

English: Mishne Torah in 1 volume עברית: משנה תורה בכרך אחד, מנוקד ומדויק על פי כתבי יד, בהוצאת מפעל משנה תורה (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rabbi Blumenthal then provides examples from the Written Torah to uncover its skeletal nature, and then does not only argue that it requires an authority outside the text, the Oral Torah, to pack flesh onto the dry bones, but that the Written Torah is merely one product, a central one, of the Oral Torah. Ibn Ezra, one of the most celebrated Jewish writers of the Middle Ages sums up Rabbi Blumenthal’s view (italics added): “...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 (skeletons don’t have hearts) in the dry bones of the Written Torah, which is only to be expected if the Written Torah is seen as nothing more than a bone yard. (See The Written and Oral Torah: Which is Primary?).

Theology and Philosophy

Theology, broadly construed, says Neusner, is the science of the reasoned knowledge of God. Theology presents the system that results from philosophical (italics added) analysis of the facts set forth by a religion. To specify what in the setting of a religion I conceive theology to do(continues Neusner), I find a suitable definition for the work of theology in the definition of Ingolf Dalferth:

‘Theology rationally reflects on questions arising in pre-theological religious experience and the discourse of faith; and it is the rationality of its reflective labor in the process of faith seeking understanding which inseparably links it with philosophy. For philosophy is essentially concerned with argument and the attempt to solve conceptual problems, and conceptual problems face theology in all areas of its reflective labors.’ (Ingolf U. Dalferth, Theology and Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell, 1988, vii.”

If philosophy is “essentially concerned with argument and the attempt to solve conceptual problems,” (Dalferth above) then I see no difference between philosophy and academic (scientific) discourse. I explain.

Jim Cummins (1984)i divides language proficiency into the two categories of Basic Interpersonal and Communicative Skills (BICS) and Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). Although it is true that BICS is the foundation of CALP and that all healthy humans beings automatically “acquire” BICS in their mother tongue, it does not follow that all human beings are capable of “learning” the level of CALP that is required for academic study. The terms Cummins uses are somewhat confusing for two reasons:

  1. skills” in Basic Interpersonal and Communicative Skills (BICS) is relegated to a lower intellectual level than “proficiency.” Some people may say “academic skills,” others, “academic proficiency.” Good luck to both.
  2. cognition” is present in Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) but absent in BICS, creating the impression that BICS does not require much thinking. So, let’s settle for “Basic language” and “academic language.”
  3. Dalferth says that philosophy is “essentially concerned with argument.” “Argument” in academic discourse means the presentation of ideas in a logical clear manner. Don’t argue with me!

Some theorists equate cognition with non-linguistic thought, whereas others subsume both language and thought under cognition. There is also “intelligence.” In both philosophy and academic thinking, a relatively higher level of intelligence is required than in BICS.

Consider the following distinction between thought and intelligence proposed by Bohm. First, thought (Bohm, 1983:50):

Thought, considered in its movement of becoming (and not merely in its content of relatively well-defined images and ideas) is indeed the process in which knowledge has its actual concrete existence…What is the process of thought? Thought, is, in essence, the active response of memory in every phase of life. We include in thought the intellectual, emotional, sensuous, muscular and physical responses of memory. These are all aspects of one indissoluble process. To treat them separately makes for fragmentation an confusion. All these are one process of response of memory to each actual situation, which response in turn leads to a further contribution to memory, thus conditioning the next memory.

And intelligence (Bohm, 1983:51):

The perception of whether or not any particular thoughts are relevant or fitting requires the operation of an energy that is not mechanical, an energy that we shall call intelligence. This latter is able to perceive a new order or a new structure, that is not just a modification of what is already known or present in memory…What is involved [in intelligence] is perception through the mind of abstract orders and relationships such as such as identity and difference, cause and effect, etc. (Bohm, David. 1983. Wholeness and the implicate order. London: Ark Paperbacks).

These new orders and relationships do not have to be new to the world, but only new to the person’s mind. (For further discussion of Cummins and Bohm see my Cognition and Language Proficiency).

In sum, Dalferth’s and Neusner’s “philosophy” has to do with the solution of conceptual problems; but then, so does “academic thinking” have to do with using your noggin big time. Granted, you can’t get far unless you have what Arthur Jensen calls level II intelligence. Level I intelligence accounts for memory functions and simple associative learning, while Level II comprises abstract reasoning and conceptual thought. That is not to say that people with lower intelligence are devoid of any abstract reasoning or conceptual thought. All it means is that if you want to do philosophy or academic study such as found in Neusner’s work – which I am diligently, I think, if not gently, ploughing and coughing through, you’d better don your thinking cap.

Now, that I, and hopefully you, have a clearer idea of what Neusner means by 1. the relationship between the Written and Oral Torah, 2. theology and 3. philosophy, I should get on with the job of unpicking his “grammar of rabbinical theology,” where, hopefully, there’ll not be too much nitpicking, on my part, under Neusner’s thinking cap; ok then, Yamulka.

 

Time for a nice cuppa – and a Bics.

i Cummins, J. 1984. Wanted: A theoretical framework for relating language proficiency to academic achievement among bilingual students. In: Rivera, C. (ed.). Language proficiency and academic achievement. Multilingual Matters 10. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

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)

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.”