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.”


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 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.”

The Written and Oral Torah: Which is Primary?

English: The Title page of Mishnah Torah by Mo...

English: The Title page of Mishnah Torah by Moshe ben Maimon haRambam, published in Venice in 1575 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this piece, I examine the relationship between the Written and Oral Torah. I argue that the Written Torah has been given a raw deal.

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) may refuse to give up much of its meaning; 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. Rabbi AkivaTatz said in one of his lectures, “any six-year-old can understand” the Written Torah. One has to enter the pardes (the deeper levels) of Torah to derive any lasting good. These deeper levels 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 above and beyond it. So, it is not always, or perhaps even often, the case that the Oral Torah and the Written Torah complement each other. Often it is rather that the Written Torah implements what the Oral Torah dictates it to mean.

All writing starts out as speaking. So, the Written Torah was, of course, once oral. Indeed the oral Torah was also once oral and was only written down in its seminal form in the second century after the Christian era. This compendium is called the Mishna:

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.”

I shall examine the notion that the Oral Torah is a compedium of “explanations of the Written Torah” (above quotation).

Torah” is used in two ways: 1. the Pentateuch, and 2. the whole Hebrew Bible, the Tanach. For our purposes, the distinction is not important, because our focus is on principles of transmission, not on content. When I refer to content, it is to give an example of the discord between the Written and Oral means of communication.

Which of these two means of communication is primary? There are two senses of “primary”: 1. order of importance” and 2. chronological order. We examine these two meanings of “primary” in terms of Oral and Written Torah. There are two views:

  1. Oral Torah is primary in both senses of the word, that is, it is of first importance and it produces the Written Torah.
  2. Oral Torah is primary in one sense only, namely, it is of first importance; but it is the Written Torah that produces the Oral Torah.
PRIMARY Chronological Order Order of Importance
1. Oral Torah Produces Written Torah First
2. Written Torah Produces Oral Torah First

In both these views, the Oral Torah is of primary importance; the Written Torah without the Oral Torah is nothing more than a naked ghost in the linguistic machine.1

Here is the argument for the first view, namely, the Oral Torah produces the Written Torah.

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

Some of Judaism’s detractors attempt to invalidate the second method of communication; the living transmission of parent to child. These critics of Judaism argue that the written text; i.e. the Bible, is God’s word, and as such is reliable and trustworthy, but the living transmission is only words of men. Why should we rely on the words of men? What indeed is the basis for the Oral Law?

Judaism affirms that God made use of two methods of communication in order to transmit the truths of Judaism from one generation to the next; the written text and the living communication of parent to child. These two methods of communication complement and support each other. It is only when we absorb the message through both of these mediums of communication that we can arrive at a proper understanding of God’s truth.

If we examine the Bible itself, we will see that this criticism [namely, that the Oral Torah is man made) of Judaism does not get off the ground.

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 argues that it requires an authority outside the text to pack flesh onto the dry bones. This external authority is the Oral Torah. Ibn Ezra, one of most celebrated Jewish writers of the Middle Ages sums up Rabbi Blumenthal’s view: “…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.

The problem is that this Oral authority is not uniform, and often contradictory. For example in the time of Jesus, the two main “houses” of Judaism were those of Hillel and Shammai, who often disagreed on the content of the Oral Law. A century later, Akiva ben Joseph, a proponent of the Hillel camp, won the day. Akiva developed the Mishnah. It is from Akiva that the chain of rabbinical authority, from the second century after the Christian era, was forged (as in “ironmongery;” and as in “contrive”?). It was also Akiva, though, who believed that Bar Kochba, the Jewish leader of the revolt against Roman rule, was the Messiah. It wasn’t a good beginning for such a highly regarded sage, on which so much of the clout of the Oral Torah was grounded, to have been bowled over by a false Messiah. But then, the rabbis could take a leaf out of the Catholic book by claiming that not even the gates of hell/sheol can overpower the Holy Spirit (Ruach Hakodesh), who has promised to guard his oral revelation/oral Torah against error.

So far, we have examined the Oral Torah as the creator of the Written Torah.

Another view is that the Written Torah is the “raw material of human creation.” Here is an excerpt from Rav Chaim Navon’s lecture on “Torah Study – Creation or Revelation,” which cites several sages that support this “raw” view of the Written Torah: (Judaism considers the sages chochomim to be the God-appointed human channels of the Oral Torah).

I maintain that, with respect to the Oral Law, the concept of “truth” is meaningless. The Torah student is not required to strive for the absolute “truth” that is concealed in God’s hidden places. The Torah serves as raw material for human creation, and man must develop the Torah in the direction that seems right to him.”

Rav Chaim Navon then quotes):

When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah to Israel, He gave it to them in the form of wheat to produce from it fine flour, and in the form of flax to produce from it a garment. (Tanna Debei Eliyahu Zuta, ed. Ish-Shalom, parasha 2).”

He continues:

This is a revolutionary and sensational formulation: The Torah was given like raw material, and man must utilize it in order to fashion the next layer of the Oral Law. Chazal spoke in a similar vein in other places as well (He quotes):

Had the Torah been given in the form of clear decisions, the world would have been unable to exist. What is the meaning of: “And the Lord said to Moshe”? [Moshe] said to Him: “Master of the universe, tell me the Halacha!” [God] said to him: “‘After the majority to incline’ – if there are more who favor acquittal, he is acquitted; if there are more who favor conviction, he is convicted. This is in order that the Torah be explained in forty-nine ways favoring ritual impurity and forty-nine ways favoring ritual purity.” (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 4:2).

He continues:

Some of the more recent authorities follow this position of Chazal. The formulation proposed by Rabbi Joseph Bloch, head of the Telz Yeshiva, comes closer to our view than do the words of the author of the Ketzot (he quotes):

“… When the Torah was given to Israel, its laws were given over to the Torah Sages, whose thinking, provided that it is aimed at the Torah’s reasons and secrets, establishes the reality of the Torah and the reality of the universe which is dependent upon it. Thus, it differs from the other branches of wisdom, for those who investigate them do not establish the reality of those branches of wisdom, but rather uncover it. For their thinking and decisions will never change reality. This is not the case regarding Torah, for the reality of ritual impurity and purity, forbidden and permitted things, obligation and exemption, are set in accordance with the decisions of the Torah Sages. (Rabbi Joseph Bloch, Shi’urei Da’at, I, p. 21)[1]

How can it be, asks Rav Chaim Navon, that the Torah is merely raw material? How can the Torah Sages give two different answers, both of which are equally valid? In the case of a mathematical problem, for example, 2 plus 2, the problem has only one correct answer. It would seem that halachic questions should also have only one correct answer! In order to resolve this difficulty, let us consider the words of Ramban” (Rav Chaim Navon quotes Ramban):

Anybody who studies our Talmud knows that regarding the disagreements among the commentators there are no absolute proofs, and generally there are no irrefutable objections. For this branch of wisdom does not allow for clear demonstrations as does mathematics. (Ramban, Introduction to his Milchamot Hashem).”

So, according to Rav Chaim Navon, we must learn from the sages of Israel, who are the inheritors of the Oral Torah revealed to Moses at Sinai. Here we see that although the Oral Torah feeds on the raw flesh of the Written Torah, it is the Oral Torah that reveals the inworkings and inwormings of the Written Torah.

The Oral law consists of several parts, two of which is the Midrash and the Zohar, where the latter is the handbook of Kabbalah (“received” [at Sinai]).

Here is Michael Laitman in his “Zohar for all.”

The more we try to live this inner picture through The Zohar and refrain from sinking into historic images of familiar Bible stories, the more The Zohar will promote us to the interior of the Torah, to the true Torah—the real perception of reality” (p. 129).

The upshot: we must go beyond the ”simple distillations” (Laitman) of “familiar Bible stories” that (Rabbi Akiva Tatz says) any six-year-old can understand.

I now introduce some content from the Written Torah to show how the Oral Torah worms its way into the Written Torah. En passant, we should not feel too squeamish or affronted by the phrase “worms its way in,” for the simple reason that it is the Zohar that says that if you were able to journey to the center of the Torah, you will uncover the secret In the serpent’s belly, the root of Moshe Rabbinu (Moses’) soul.

Here is an example from the Midrash Genesis (B’reshit) Rabbah, which is a collection of homiletical interpretations of Genesis. I examine how the Oral Torah works with ( would say, against) the raw data of Written Torah:

If you’re not a Midrash student, and can understand basic Hebrew, or English or whatever translation of Genesis you are able to read, you will probably assume when Genesis 1:31 says, God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good,” that “very good” means “very good;” in Hebrew טוֹב מְאֹד TOV M’OD. The Midrash, on the contrary, says that the surface text is merely deceptive packaging, and so, were you to dig deeper – which only the initiated can do – you’ll see that when God says “very good,” He really means “very bad”; indeed, worse than “very bad;” God means the evil inclination itself, the yetser harah, the fleshly desire. Here is the relevant Midrash:

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 Na(c)hman 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 [Eclesiastes] IV, 4) (Genesis Rabbah 9:7, translation from Soncino Publications).

(See “Digging below the surface of Torah, Midrash and Vulgate: When very good is evil).

“Very” is a very interesting word. It is usually used with an adjective as in “very good” (as in Genesis 1:31 above). “Very” sometimes acts like and adjective (describes a noun). Here is the Latin equivalent of “very” in the Latin version of the Nicene creed: “Deum verum de Deo vero”; in English “very God of very God.” (Any similarities between vero and vermis, Latin for “worm,” may or may not be accidental. Didn’t we just see that the serpent resides in the belly of Torah; so why not also the worm vermis?)

We read in Karl Barth’s Church dogmatics, “Jesus Christ lives, very God and very man.” The reason why the Latin verum/vero is similar to “very” is because “very” derives from the Latin term verum/vero, which means, of course “truly.” Man is truly (vero) a worm (vermis).

So, in Genesis, “very good” surely means “truly good” for the reason that it seems so right for the God of truth to call his creation “truly good.” But then the Midrash goes and spoils it all by saying the reason why the completed creation is called “very good” is because without the evil inclination (lust), creation is incomplete. Rabbi Nachman (the Midrash above) is regarded as a sage, that is, an illustrious authority on the Oral Torah, without which the Written Torah is nothing but Bible stories2 that any six-year-old can understand (Rabbi Akiva Tatz). For this reason, when the Rabbi says that “very good” means “evil,” a good Jew takes notice and tries to make sense of it. If, however, this midrash is wrong, it would mean that Moses did not pass it on to the sages, for the simple reason that God did not say, “write ‘very good,’ but – wink wink – mean “evil inclination.”

God is, of course, sovereign not only over good but also over evil; and if He is sovereign over evil, He also creates it; which the scripture states clearly: “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things” (Isaiah 45:7)

עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע Osê (I MAKE) shalom (PEACE) ooboray (AND CREATE) ra (EVIL)

And yet there is no evil in God. Is there a contradiction here? No, there’s only an apparent contradiction; a paradox. And as any Midrashic student will tell you,

Midrash is a way of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal or moral teachings. It fills in many gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at. Quite a few are creative – and even daring, innovative and fascinating – inasmuch as they retell the stories by filling in the many gaps left in the biblical narrative with respect to certain events and personalities that were only hinted at. (Living with contradiction in the Midrash).

Have I contradicted myself by agreeing with the Midrash that God creates the “evil inclination?” Not at all. The Written Torah (I refer to Isaiah here) does indeed say:

I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil (רָע RA); I am the LORD, that doeth all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7, Mechon Mamre, Jewish translation)

(The New International Version pussyfoots around by translating RA as “disaster.” Bad weather?).

If you’re a Written Torah “onlyist,” (Sola scriptura) you are compelled to come to grips with (morally) difficult texts such as “I create evil” (Isaiah 45:7) and “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19b). Yet most (Jewish and Christian “Sola scripturists”) try and wheedle their way out of these hard texts which seem to show God as immoral. If, however, you’re an Oral Torah “mostlyist,” you have a embarrassment of (revealed?) choices; indeed of contrary choices, which in Oral Torah are not considered contradictory choices; how so, I cannot fathom. To wit:

Rabbi Yannai (early third century CE) said: Words of Torah were not given as clear-cut decisions (hatikhin), but with every utterance (or, command) that the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke to Moses, he communicated forty-nine arguments (literally, faces) (by which a thing may be proved) pure, and forty-nine arguments (by which it may be proved) impure. He (Moses) said before Him: Master of the universe, how long until we shall know the clear sense of the rule (biruro shel davar)? He (God) said to him: “Follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2). When a majority declares it impure it is impure; when a majority declares it pure, it is pure” my emphasis).

When words have multiple/plural meanings they are called polysemic (Greek “many meanings). What does one call a multiple of multiple pure and impure meanings of one word/phrase? Multiple polysemichosis?

So there we have it from the Serpent’s mouth: God in the Oral Torah is not a theocracy but a democracy. In such as scheme, all covenants consist of mutual agreement between He who chooses – for the sole reason that “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy – and those whom he chooses.

The rabbis say that God chose the Jewish people because they, among all peoples, were created out of divine stuff, and so are a “piece of God above.” Indeed, the Lord of Lords may sometimes need to seek out Oral Torah (via the sages) for guidance, or, failing that, study the Oral Torah (His? mind) for Himself to try and discover the reason for all the disagreements over divine revelation among His messengers. The Sovereign Endless Lord, did not reckon with the Book of Zohar, which the sages say emanate from Heaven.

The Book of Zohar (part of the Oral Torah) has a different meaning every day. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, Degel Machaneh Ephraim [The Banner of the Camp of Ephraim], Portion: Bo [Come], p 84

The Written Torah has been truly cooked. Raw deal?

1Gilbert Ryle, in his “Concept of Mind.” calls the theory of the separability of mind and body, “the dogma of the ghost in the machine.”

2Michael Laitman in his “Zohar for all,” says:“The more we try to live this inner picture through The Zohar and refrain from sinking into historic images of familiar Bible stories, the more The Zohar will promote us to the interior of the Torah, to the true Torah—the real perception of reality.”

Targum and Oral Law in Orthodox Judaism

Where in Deuteronomy do we find any reference to the passage below?

“Mosheh the prophet said: When I ascended the mountain of Sinai, I beheld the Lord of all the worlds, the Lord, dividing the day into four portions; three hours employed in the law, three with judgment, three in making marriage bonds between man and woman, and appointing to elevate or to abase, arid three hours in the care of every created thing: for so it is written: The Mighty One whose works are perfect, for all His ways are judgment, a faithful God before whom no iniquity comes forth, pure and upright is He. [JERUSALEM. (The same words to) three hours, uniting the marriage yoke of the husband to the wife . . . . a faithful God and true; falsehood is not before Him; He is just and upright in judgment.]”

It isn’t in the Torah, the written Torah, that is. You will, though, find it in the Oral Torah (which has, like the Written Torah, been written down), specifically the Targum, which, for many Orthodox Jews, is part of the Oral Torah.

 What is the Targum’s connection to the Oral Law?

 “The entire Oral Law, says Rabbi Bernie Fox, can be viewed as an interpretation of the Torah. What level of interpretation is required to fulfll the obligation of reviewing the weekly portion? The Talmud is establishing this minimum level. Targum represents the minimum. Reading the parasha (portion) and studying the targum fulfill the obligation of studying the parasha….How does targum fulfill the requirement of interpreting the parasha? There are two possibilities. This is because targum has two aspects. Targum is a brief commentary based upon the Oral Torah written in the form of a translation. It is a translation and a commentary. The second opinion in Tosefot [medieval commentaries on the Talmud] is that the essential characteristic of targum is that it provides insight from the Oral Torah. It is written in the form of a translation. However, study of a mere translation does not fulfill the requirement of reviewing the parasha. A commentary providing insight from the Oral Torah is essential. Targum satisfies this requirement. Another translation might not.”

I now return to the Targum passage, which I quoted at the beginning.

Mosheh the prophet said: When I ascended the mountain of Sinai, I beheld the Lord of all the worlds, the Lord, dividing the day into four portions; three hours employed in the law, three with judgment, three in making marriage bonds between man and woman, and appointing to elevate or to abase, arid three hours in the care of every created thing: for so it is written: The Mighty One whose works are perfect, for all His ways are judgment, a faithful God before whom no iniquity comes forth, pure and upright is He. [JERUSALEM. (The same words to) three hours, uniting the marriage yoke of the husband to the wife . . . . a faithful God and true; falsehood is not before Him; He is just and upright in judgment.]”

 The above Targum (Pseudo-Jonathan Targum) passage is a commentary – which many outside Orthodox Judaism will probably find hard to fathom – on Deuteronomy 32; which verse I am not sure; though, Alfred Edersheim ( “Life and Times of Jesus,” chapter 4, p. 148, note 673) maintains that it is Deut. 32:4, which reads:

4 He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.

Edersheim’s examples provide a “general impression of Rabbinism:”

 “Terrible as it may sound, Edersheim says, it is certainly the teaching of Rabbinism, that God occupied so many hours every day in the study of the Law. Compare Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Deut. Xxxii. 4 (quoted above)… Nay, Rabbinism goes farther in its daring, and speaks of the Almighty as arrayed in a white dress, or as occupying himself by day with the study of the Bible, and by night with that of the six tractates of the Mishnah. Compare. also the Targum on Cant. v. 10.”

Now, Let’s move to the Targum on the Canticle of Canticles ( Song of Songs) v. 10., which Edersheim has just referred to:

 י דּוֹדִי צַח וְאָדוֹם, דָּגוּל מֵרְבָבָה

 10 My beloved is radiant/glowing and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand.

 Here is the Targum’s interpretation, or commentary, which would be a better description of the Targum’s operation:

 Canticle of Canticles 5:10

 Then the Assembly of Israel began to speak in praise of the Lord of the World, and this is what she said, “The God I desire to worship is that One Who by day is dressed in a robe as white as snow and is occupied with the twenty-four books of the Law, the words of the Prophets, and the Writings; and Who by night is occupied with the six Orders of Mishnah and the glorious splendor of His face blazes like fire from the intense wisdom and judgment–for He innovates new traditions every day and will reveal them to His people on the Great Day. And His banner is over a myriad myriads of angels who minister before Him.”

in his  “Rabbinic Reception of Early Bible Translations as Holy Writings and Oral Torah,”  Willem Smelik describes the connection between the Targum, the Written and the Oral Law. He provides the following example of a “perculiar digression” (which “seemingly appears out of the blue”) from the written text of Genesis 33:20 to illustrate the difference between Written and Oral Torah. This example is a “critical illustration of the plurality of meanings hidden in the Hebrew text, it becomes highly meaningful in its present co-text” (Smelik distinguishes between the linguistic setting of a text [co-text] from the non-linguistic setting of that text [context]). Here is the example:

 “R. Aha, Smelik says, offers an interpretation of Gen. 33.20 which describes how Jacob sets up an altar for God and names this altar El elohe Yis-rael, ‘God is the God of Israel’. For the Rabbis it was unacceptable to relate God to an altar in this way, rendering a literal translation of this verse problematic. Now, according to R. Aha, not the altar was named, but Jacob himself. R. Aha also said: R. Eleazar said: How [do we know] that the Holy One blessed be He called Jacob God? Because it says, ‘And the God of Israel called him “God” ‘ (Gen. 33.20). If you suppose that Jacob called the altar ‘God’, then ‘and Jacob called it’ is required. But [it is written]: ‘And he called him’, that is Jacob, ‘God’. And who called him ‘God’? ‘The God of Israel’.”

 I don’t see how R. Eleazar gets the above hermeneutic (?) from Genesis 33:20, which says: “And he erected there an altar, and called it Elelohe-Israel.”

וַיַּצֶּב־שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ וַיִּקְרָא־לֹו אֵל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

This seems to be R. Eleazar’s take of Gen 33:20:

 And he (Jacob) erected there an altar, and (He, that is, God) called him (Jacob) Elelohe-Israel.

 Smelik said above that for “the Rabbis it was unacceptable to relate God to an altar in this way, rendering a literal translation of this verse problematic. So, what solution does theTargum find? Answer: Call a man God.

But what about “God is not a man that He should lie…?” (Numbers 23:19), which is the favourite verse used by Jews to counter the incarnation of God in Jesus the Christ. (See my “Milking the teats off the text the rabbinical interpretation of numbers 23:19”).

 For many/most orthodox Jews, the Targum (Oral Law, for many Jews)  fits in beautifully with the Written Torah. Others will probably have a problem with this; which reveals the deep chasm between the rabbinical and Christian (and for that matter, the non-orthodox Jewish) mind.