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.

When is an “ex-Jew” not a Jew? Once (your mother’s) a Jew Oiveys a Jew

The following letter appeared in the South African Sunday Times (October 11, 2009) in favour of the Goldstone Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict http://www.goldstonereport.org/

Stop turning a blind eye

It came as no surprise that the Jewish community has its knives out for Justice Richard Goldstone, accusing him of betraying his people and his homeland. This laager mentality of the Orthodox Jewish sect is nothing new. If Orthodox Jews are challenged, they close ranks. How can a people who have been persecuted for centuries possibly turn a blind eye to the atrocities being committed on both sides of this bloody conflict? The Jewish community needs to accept responsibility for the atrocities that it has committed against Palestinian civilians, as do Palestinians need to accept responsibility for Israeli civilian deaths.

Loren Ogin, ex-Jew, Edenglen

My interest in this letter – as well as in this bography – does not lie in Israeli politics. In my Prologue, my main interest for writing is clear: First, The sovereignty of God in all things, specifically His sovereignty in salvation, and second, God has not finished with the Jew – God forbid – for the Jew will be at the centre of history when Yeshua returns.”

Here is my reply to Loren Ogin, the ex-Jew.

“Stop turning a blind eye” by ex-Jew Loren Ogin (Sunday Times, October 11), which supports Judge Goldstone’s Gaza Report, says the following:

“This laager mentality of the Orthodox Jewish sect is nothing new. If Orthodox Jews are challenged, they close ranks.” In my understanding,  By “Orthodox Jewish sect” Ogin seems to refer to Jewish Zionists. There are at least three kinds of Jews: there are secular Jews, who don’t believe in the God of the Jewish Bible (Tanakh); there are Jews who believe some parts of the Tanakh; and there are Jews who believe all of the Tanakh. This last group also believes in the oral traditions (Talmud and Midrash) and are referred to as “Orthodox” Jews. The majority of Orthodox Jews do not observe all 613 core practices (mitzvoth). This group is referred to as “modern” Orthodox..The minority of orthodox jews is referred to as “traditional” or “ultra”-orthodox. Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that Jews should have no political control in “Zion” (modern Israel) or in any other part of the world, at least not until Moshiach (Messiah) comes. “The State of Israel, qua state,  (says Chaim Waxman in his “Dilemmas of modern orthodoxy”, p. 5) is a modern, essentially secular, political entity, and its only significance to the traditionalist as conceived herein lies in the fact that so many Jews live there. The modernist, on the other hand, ascribes religious significance to the State specifically as a political entity, and the modernist perceives the State of Israel as an inherent part of Messianic redemption.”

Ogin is right; ultra-Orthodox Jews do indeed have a “laager mentality”, they do “close ranks”; not against anti-Zionists, but against Zionists. The ultra-Orthodox Jew and the Zionist strongly disagree, and often, despise each other. Ultra-Orthodox or ultra-any belief evokes it’s sister concept – fundamentalism. Isms often carry a negative connotation.  Two examples: scientism is a thought system that reduces everything to the material world of science, and legalism is to make the law more than it was meant to be. In Judaism and other religions, one of the main issues is the degree of importance of the Law. For ultra-Orthodox Jews, all 613 laws (mitzvoth) are essential. In contrast, Conservative and Reform Jews are selective. Then there is a vast swathe of Jews who don’t believe in the Torah at all. The irony is that modern Conservative and Reform Jews, and Jews who don’t believe in the God of Israel at all are Zionists, whereas the Ultra-Orthodox Jews are anti-Zionists. The latter  say they are anti-Zionist because “Zionism” is a human, not a divine, creation, because Zionism gainsays the Word of God; Zionism is not built on Torah. Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe with Rambam that every word of the Tanakh is breathed out by God.

“I believe in the words of the prophets. They are the truth.
I believe that the Bible was given to Moses.
I believe that the Bible cannot be changed.”

(Rambam – Moses Maimonides)

Loren Ogin identifies all Jews with the “Orthodox Jewish sect”, but Orthodox Jews are a minoirity within the large Jewish population. Though American Jews (says tend to define “Jew” as a religious term, they still – oddly, I would think – consider it as “an ethnic identity — a tribal matter of shared ancestry, inflections, foods, and fears.”   How do Orthodox Jews regard the Goldstone Report? They’re not directly concerned with the military conflicts in the Middle East, because these conflicts are only symptoms of an unacknowledged disease, namely, the rejection of God’s command that Jews should not be in political control of Israel in the first place. Of course, God’s prohibition of political control over the Holy land doesn’t mean that Jews should not live in Israel. What it does mean is that that God’s Word has forbidden them to “occupy” Israel – until Messiah comes. Reform rabbis thought likewise – until 1940. In 1897, a year after the publication of Herzl’s The Jewish State, the Central Conference of Reform Rabbis stated their vehement rejection of Zionism. They did so year after year until the Holocaust that began in 1940. The reason why Reform rabbis rejected Zionism for all those years had nothing to do with the will of God. Reform Jews did not believe in any kind of return to Zion. They were citizens of the world. There was no thought of  exile (galut) as the Orthodox Jews believed. Reform Jews believed – and many still do – that they were sent into the world to be a light to the nations. Why did these Reform Jews reject Herzl’s notion of a “Jewish State”? Herzl’s son, Hans explains why:

My father was a great man, whom I loved… But I’ve come to see that he made a great historical error in his attempt to rebuild the Jewish State…. My father did not realize the true mission of the Jewish people, which has proven that the living and fertilizing spirit does not need territorial boundaries, and that a people can live and exist even when fortifications and borders have disappeared. I would ask them not to attempt to add to the decadent civilizations but to remember their true identity and work for the cultural reconstruction of their homeland – and this homeland is the entire world. (Hans Herzl to Marcel Steinberger – 1929 – Princes Without A Home).

These Reform Jews were products of the Enlightenment that swept Europe, taking root in France and blossoming in Germany. For a Jew, to be a Jew was something special, but to be a German Jew was superlative. The enlightenment critically questioned tradition: traditional institutions, traditional customs and traditional morals. The Jewish enlightenment was called Haskalah ( השכלה‎; from sekhel “intellect”, “mind”).  In Jewish families,  the word sekhel is almost as commonplace as the word tsorres (troubles, sorrow). In Jewish families there’s no dearth of tsorres and always a shortage of sekhel: a maskil (an enlightened one) can never be enlightened enough.

Why did the Holocaust change the Reform rabbis’ negative attitude to Zionism? Because it offered the Jews a country of their own in which they would ensure that a Holocaust would never happen again. “Classical Reform is dead. A love of Israel has entered Reform hearts” (Harold M. Schulweis).

Most Orthodox Jews, in contrast, bow to the mystery of God’s – often painful – will, as did the Jews at the time of the first total destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (586 BC), where parents ate their children, and a second total destruction by Titus of Rome (70 AD). The underlying problem for the Orthodox Jew is not political, not social, not biological, not economic, but covenantal –  the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant God made at Sinai (the sinaitic/mosaic covenant), and the God’s promise of a new covenant where the law will no longer be written on stone but written on hearts – of flesh, not of stone:


“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

And Ezekiel (StrengthOfGod):

‘For I will take you out from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take out the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and you shall keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be my people and I will be your God.’ (Ezekiel 36.24-28).

This description of a restored Israel is far removed from the gay parades of Jerusalem, the Holy City of Hashem (the Name).

So, for the Orthodox Jew, the problem is not with God, but with His people. How many of the “nation” of Israel (that is, Jews all around the world) believe that  “I will be their God”. Try getting that across to most Jews, especially the successful lawyer, businessman, physicist, journalist, musician, philanthropist. Tell them that the Land issue is mainly a God issue. They’ll laugh in your face: “you’ve lost the plot, and your marbles.” And if you persist, they’ll have you for breakfast.

Moses Hess in his “Rome and Jerusalem” (1862) is adamant that once a Jew always a Jew:

“Judaism as a nationality has a natural basis which cannot be set aside by mere conversion to another faith, as is the case in other religions. A Jew belongs to his race and consequently also to Judaism, in spite of the fact that he or his ancestors have become apostates. It may appear paradoxical, according to our modern religious opinions, but in life, at least, I have observed
this view to be true. The converted Jew remains a Jew no matter how much he objects to it. At present, there is but little difference between the enlightened and the converted Jew.”

Herzl was an “enlightened” Jew, as were Marx, Freud, Einstein, and Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786, father of the Jewish Enlightenment haskalah). There is also, among many others,  Felix Mendelsohn, the great music composer, who was the grandson of Moses Mendelsohn. Felix was brought up without religion, and later became a Lutheran. Luther was one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation, hence the term “Reformed” church. I, like Felix (I like Felix), am also a Jewish “Reformed” Christian. Felix and Raphy – two happy peas in an aposotate pod. But then, is there no difference between Felix Mendelsohn and Moses Hess, as Moses Hess claims in the previous paragraph? There is indeed a difference – a vast difference. Having said that, are the apostates, Felix and Raphy, still Jews. Heavens, yes!

John Derbyshire in his article “DNA, Schmee-NA! The Genetic History Of The Jews” provides some biographical information on Jon Entine, the author of Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen people:

The author is of East-European Jewish ancestry, and was raised as a Reform Jew. He seems now to be an agnostic or atheist; but of course that gets you a mere few inches away from your Jewish identity. (“I’m an atheist,” pleads the Ulsterman under questioning by a terrorist gun squad. “All right,” snarl the gunmen, “but are ye a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?”

Now, if Derbyshire had to ask me whether I was a Protestant Jew or Catholic Jew, I would answer, and truthfully: “I am a Protestant Jew.” But hang on a bit – I am a Protestant Jew now but two decades ago I used to be a Catholic Jew. The Catholics will tell me that if I had become a Buddhist like Thomas Merton (according to Buddha.net, Buddhists are atheists1), that’s ok; but, if I turn Protestant, that deserves a papal anathema. Both Jews and Catholics will tell me: “Raphy, you may have turned Protestant, but you can never become a Protestant. Why, I ask? Because, they will reply, you can never stop being a Jew (says the Jew) or a Catholic (says the Catholic).

I have one more confession: I also used to be a Buddhist – who hasn’t? That, however, doesn’t matter to Jews and Catholics: Jews or Catholics can remain or unbe a Buddhist, if that is what they really want. What in Jewish, Catholic and Buddhist eyes – am I then? Not this, not that? I am a Jewish Catholic Protestant who used to be a Buddhist, I suppose.

Three paragraphs earlier, Derbyshire said that “Jon Entine seems now to be an agnostic or atheist; but of course that gets you a mere few inches away from your Jewish identity.” Entine, in his “Abraham’s children, explains the reason why only a mere few inches away from his Jewish identity. It’s because Jon Entine has got what it really takes to be Jewish – Jewish DNA. But be careful: most Jews (observant or atheist or Protestant) will just scoff “DNA Shmee-NA” or may even express shock – DNA OivaVey.

Loren Ogin says he’s an ex-Jew. Jews are Buddhists, Jews are Christians (the early Church, for example- et moi), Jews believe in UFOs; there’s an embarrassment of Jewish choices. Yet, none of these Jews would call themselves an ex-Jew. There’s no getting away from it, Loren, you’re a Jewish ex-Jew.

1 “There is no almighty God in Buddhism. There is no one to hand out rewards or punishments on a supposedly Judgement Day. Buddhism is strictly not a religion in the context of being a faith and worship owing allegiance to a supernatural being.” Tan Swee Eng, “A Basic Buddhism Guide.” Buddhanet.net (2004).

Classical Reform is dead. A love of Israel has entered Reform hearts.