Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapters 2 and 3

Here I continue with my notes on Jacob Neusner’s interesting book The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God.

Chapter 2
The Moral Order: Reward and Punishment
The sages understood punishment as proportionate and appropriately so. Also, it began with the initial instrument of sin and proceeded from there. That is, a sin in family matters will result in punishment in family matters, and so on.

Reward likewise begins with the instrument which initiated the good deed, but it exceeds proportion, for God’s mercy is greater than His justice.

Punishment of sins alwasy comes from the very corpus of the sinner himself (p. 66)–with the sages quoting Habakkuk 1.7: “Dread and terrible are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.”

The realm of Torah is separate from the realm of idolatry, just as Israel is separate from the gentiles, yet both are subject to the same justice. So of what advantage is the Torah to Israel? Abraham’s reward extends beyond his life into the lives of his family/descendants–“a heritage of grace” (p. 69). See Tosefta 4.2-4 on the hospitality of Abraham in Genesis 18 (pp 69-70 here)–Abraham’s actions are reflected in the things God does for Israel in the wilderness: water/a spring, shade/the cloud, bread/manna, calf/quail, standing/God staying with Israel for forty years.

When it comes to Israel, the principle of commensurate response to each action extends, also, to God’s response to Israel’s atonement. Israel is punished for its sin. But when Israel repents (of which we shall hear more later on) and God forgives Israel and restores the holy peoples’ fortunes, then that same principle that all things match takes over. Hence we should not find surprising the logical extension, to the character of God’s forgiveness and comfort of Israel, of the principle of measure for measure. When, specifically, Israel sins, it is punished through that with which it sins, but it also is comforted through that with which it has been punished. (p. 73)

This “commensurate response” principle is foundational to the sages’ work, and the key to understanding the description of God’s justice throughout the rabbinic canon. It is, effectively, justice itself.

Let me express the matter of the a priori priority of justice as the first principle of all things in a simple but probative way: in the sages’ discourse, justice never requires explanation but violations of justice always do. When what happens does not conform to the systemic givens but violates the expectations precipitated by them then the sages pay close attention and ask why. When what happens does conform, they do not have to: their unarticulated conviction of self-evidence is embodied, therefore, in the character of their discourse: not only the speech but the silence. (p. 88)

This, too, reflects the theme of “commensurate response” (p. 73) which Neusner has developed throughout the chapter, with numerous fully-quoted examples, as what the sages recognized as the keystone of God’s justice: proportionate punishment is related in a particular (usually easily recognizable) way to an offense, while a disproportionate reward is related to a good deed. So, these categories, as the sages’ definition of God’s justice, cannot be upset by seeming injustice, for that relation between punishment/reward and offense/good deed is flexible and adaptable enough to obviate any attenuation of the principle and core definition. The same concern appears even within the Bible itself. Note the sins of Manasseh being the tipping point at which God decided upon exile for Jerusalem and Judah (1 Kings 21.12-15) despite the tradition of Manasseh’s repentance (2 Chronicles 33.12-16). So, one person’s grave sins can be the source of communal punishment.

It’s good to have Neusner guiding us through these things. His broad and deep knowledge of the literature is necessary to this project. The illustrative quotations are enlightening. The points he’s making would not be as sharp without them, nor would the amount of work necessary to achieve this synthesis be readily apparent. With the quotations and Neusner’s commentary, the reader can only respond, “Why, of course. It’s obvious.” And yet this synthesis has not been done before. It is a new thing despite the age of the documents and the number of times they’ve been gone over through the centuries. What a fun book!

Chapter 3
The Political Order: Israel and the Torah

Three rules govern the power relationship between Israel and the gentiles:
1.) Commensurate response to deeds
2.) God’s response to attitude, preferencing humility over arrogance
3.) The possibility of God’s use of the gentiles to punish Israel for sine in order to affect repentance
In the Oral Torah, those three rules combine to respond to the central question “Why do the gentiles prosper which Israel languishes?” (pp 90-91)

The political order of the world is described by the following:
1.) God loves Israel because of Israel’s acceptance of the Torah, which thereafter governs Israel’s life and welfare.
2.) Though Israel and the gentiles share a common origin and ancestry until Abraham, Israel is nonetheless sui generis, precisely for acceptance of the Torah.
3.) Israel’s sins result in punishment from God through political means among others.
4.) After punishment, God forgives Israel, which process will eventually end with the complete regeneration of Israel and the restoration of Eden to Israel’s benefit.
5.) God has provided assurance of his special love and concern for Israel through the many various commandments that lead to Israel’s sanctification. (p. 91)

[B]y “Israel” the sages understood the enchanted Israel of whom Scriptures speak, that is, the supernatural social entity called into being by God. To elect, sanctified Israel, the nations in no way compared except in one: they, too, found definition in their relationship to God. By the nations, which is to say, everyone else, the sages understood idolators, those who come under negative definitions: they do not know and worship the one and only true God, they worshiop no-gods. (p. 94)

As described above, it is Israel’s acceptance of the Torah that results in God’s love, but also Israel’s greater responsibility. Gentiles, in rejecting the responsibility of Torah also, therefore, reject God’s love.

Just as one great sinner’s deeds can result in communal punishment for all Israel, so the deeds of an exceedingly righteous person can result in communal reward for Israel and the extension of God’s love for the exceedingly righteous individual to Israel. The classic example is Abraham, of course. (p. 101)

Israel’s special status and relationship to God derive not from intrinsic qualities–though, as we shall see, the sages imputed to Israel palpable qualities that marked them off from the nations and found in Torah the source of these qualities–but from the record of right attitide and right deeds. (p. 101)

God’s commandments, obedience of which are a source of blessing, are made available to Israel because of their attitude, which demonstrates the proper use of free will, which itself is the sole preserve of man. (pp 106-7)

The relationship between God and Israel is, because of the latter’s acceptance of the Torah, one of love, and such a vivid love that the metaphoric expression of that love in the Written Torah is expressed as a familial love–God as father, Israel as daughter; God as husband, Israel as wife; etc. Even Israel as mother, as we see in Song of Songs Rabbah XLIV: 11.1:

1. A. “…with the crown with which his mother crowned him” [Song 3.11]:
B. Said R. Yohanan, “R. Simeon b. Yohai asked R. Eleazar b. R. Yosé, saying to him, ‘Is it possible that you have heard from your father [Yosé b. R. Halafta] the meaning of the phrase, “with the crown with which his mother crowned him”?’
C. “He said to him, ‘Yes.”
D. “He said to him, ‘And what was it?’
E. “He said to him, ‘The matter may be compared to the case of a king who had an only daughter, whom he loved exceedingly, calling her “My daughter.”
F. “‘But he loved her so much that he called her, “My sister,” and he loved her so much that he called her, “My mother.”
G. “‘So did the Holy One, blessed be He, exceedingly love Israel, calling them, “My daughter.” That is shown in this verse: “Listen, O daughter, and consider” (Ps. 45:11).
H. “‘Then he loved them so much that he called them, “My sister,” as in this verse, “Open to me, my sister, my love” (Song 5:2).
I. “‘Then he loved them so much that he called them, “My mother,” as in this verse, “Listen to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation” (Isa. 51:4), and the word for “my nation” [plene ולאומי] is written “my mother [defectiva ולאמי].”‘”
J. R. Simeon b. Yohai stood up and kissed him on his head and said, “If I had come only to hear from your mouth this explanation, it would have sufficed.”

The sages’ hermeneutic is extended throughout the Scriptures. So, as Neusner says, “The entire Written Torah forms a love-song between God and Israel” (p. 108).

What this [embodying God’s kingdom by obeying God’s will] means, concretely, is that God rules now, and that those who acknowledge and accept his rule, performing his commandments and living by his will, live under God’s rule. We recall the observation that, to single out Israel, God sanctified the people by endowing them with numerous commandments. Carrying out these commandments, then, brings Israel into the Kingdom of Heaven, as they acknowledge the dominion of God. That merging of politics and theology emerges in the language of the formula for reciting a blessing before carrying out a commandment or religious duty, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the world, who has sanctified us by his commandments and commanded us to….” That is the formula that transforms an ordinary deed into an act of sanctification, a gesture of belonging to God’s kingdom. (p. 113)

The sanctification of life through not only acts but the intentional dedication of such acts through an antecedent prayer is a logical, dialectic holism. The same approach is found in the separate Roma Catholic and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions among monastics and more devoted laity. These traditions, too, possess a kind of Oral Torah in what they term Tradition, no less varied, and in ways no less stringent. The relationship is seen in the intention–complete devotion of a life to God through action and through the intentional dedication of that action to Holy God. Although, of course, the sages included these very Christians among the gentiles, their own self-perception was not that of a replacement of Israel, but a continuation of it, with a transposition of Christian canons of behavior as established in synodal contexts for the commandments specified in the rabbinic Oral Torah. I’ve no idea if there’s ever been a comparison of these various corpora of law, but there is a general equivalence, however much any of the parties may like to dismiss the comparison. Regardless, at core both are motivated by love for God–they reject the canons of behavior preferred by “the world” and adhere to their Divine Instruction (Torah or Tradition) in contrast to whatever behavioral norms exist around them. The understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven as recognized and participated in by adherence to commandments or canons is likewise common to both. “Our commonwealth is in heaven” said Paul in Philippians 3.20, undoubtedly drawing on the same conceptual framework.

2 Comments

  1. This is almost identical to my own conception of Christian faith. In fact, I can basically just replace a few words to come to it precisely:

    1.) God loves the world because of their acceptance of the heavenly Torah in human flesh (Yeshua), which thereafter governs the world’s life and welfare.
    2.) Though Israel and the gentiles share a common origin and ancestry until Yeshua, Israel and the gentiles are nonetheless sui generis, precisely for acceptance of Yeshua.
    3.) The worlds’ sins result in punishment from God through political means among others.
    4.) After punishment, God forgives the world, which process will eventually end with the complete regeneration of the world and the restoration of creation to the world’s benefit.
    5.) God has provided assurance of his special love and concern for the world through the examples of Yeshua’s life, death, and resurrection that lead to the world’s sanctification. (p. 91)

    As described above, it is the world’s acceptance of Yeshua that results in God’s love, but also the world’s greater responsibility. Gentiles and Jews, in rejecting the responsibility of following Yeshua also, therefore, reject God’s love.

    Just as one great sinner’s deeds can result in communal punishment, so the deeds of an exceedingly righteous person can result in communal reward and the extension of God’s love for the exceedingly righteous individual to Israel and gentiles. The classic example is Yeshua.

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