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 (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.”


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.