Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapter 11

Following are my notes for Chapter 11, Sin, of Part III, Sources of World Disorder, of Jacob Neusner’s The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999). The former installments, by chapter, are: Introduction and Chapter 1, Chapters 2 and 3, Chapters 4 and 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, and Chapter 10.

I’ll begin with Neusner’s own words:

That the theology of the Oral Torah spins out a simple but encompassing logic makes the character of its treatment of sin entirely predictable. First, the system must account for imperfection in the world order of justice; sin supplies the reason. Second, it must explain how God remains omnipotent even in the face of imperfection. The cause of sin, man’s free will corresponding to God’s, tells why. Third, it must allow for systemic remission. Sin is so defined as to accomodate the possibility of regeneration and restoration. And, finally, sin must be so presented as to fit into the story of the creation of the perfect world. It is.

Defined in the model of the first sin, the one committed by man in Eden, sin is an act of rebellion against God. Rebellion takes two forms. As a gesture of omission, sin embodies the failure to carry out one’s obligation to God set forth in the Torah. As one of commission, it constitutes an act of defiance. In both cases sin comes about by reason of man’s intentionality to reject the will of God, set forth in the Torah. However accomplished, whether through omission or commission, an act becomes sinful because of the attitude that accompanies it. That is why man is responsible for sin, answerable to God in particular, who may be said to take the matter personally, just as it is meant. The consequence of sin is death for the individual, exile and estrangement for holy Israel, and disruption for the world. That is why sin accounts for much of the flaw of creation. (pp 457-458)

With sin being an act of rebellion against God, a public sin is seen as blaspheming God’s name (Bavli Qiddushin 1:10 I.10/40a). In sin, God and man meet, and the order of the world is affected. Through sin, man’s will upsets God’s plan for creation. This imperfection, itself a result of sin through man’s expression of his free will, which latter is part of the image of God in man, is thus an expression of God’s justice. That is, the presence of free will itself expresses, even in wrong choices and their results, the love and justice of the Creator who endowed man with that image of Himself. And, like the use of free will resulting in the earlier-described zekhut, free will can also choose repentance, and thereby benefit from God’s mercy. (pp 458-459).

How does one person’s choice, understanding the perfectly balanced recompense of penalty for sin described earlier, disrupt the perfection of the world created by God? In the Oral Torah, sin is not personal alone, but social and even cosmic. But it is not a permanent feature of world order. The restoration of perfection proceeds apace, chaos to creation to Torah to Flood to Israel, in which order is restored to the world, and onward to the world to come. (p. 459)

In the Oral Torah, the world is divided into three periods: two thousand years of chaos (prior to the giving of the Torah at Sinai), two thousand years of Torah (by which man learns what God wants of him), and finally two thousand years of the Messiah, which has not yet occurred, as the prevalence of sin has required the extension of the age of the Torah. The sages’ perception of God’s justice in the state of the current world-age is revealed in their doctrine of sin. The three cardinal sins are idolatry, fornication, and murder (Genesis Rabbah XXXI:VI.1). Worse than these, however, is rejection of the Torah by Israel (Yerushalmi Hagigah 1:7 I:3). This is still dependent upon the intention or attitude of the actor. An action which is combined with a wicked intent is an action that without wicked intent may be subject to forgiveness. Intention, as we saw in the last chapter, is key. Obedience is the key, not a specific action, for some are forbidden in some circumstances, yet allowed in others, which is demonstrated in Leviticus Rabbah XXII:X.1-3, for each thing forbidden, one is permitted. “God’s leniency vastly outweighs his stringency” (p. 462). Both love and hatred disrupt the natural order of things–the saddling of an ass in love by Abraham in order to obey God’s commandment counteracts the saddling of the ass in hatred by Balaam (Genesis Rabbah LV:VIII.1-2). It is better to sin sincerely, as in the case of Jael (Judges 5), rather than to be hypocritical in virtue (Bavli Horayot 3:1-2 I.11/10b). “The upshot is that, as we already realize, intentionality is everything; sin is rarely absolute but ordinarily conditioned upon the attitude of the actor; and sincerity in sin exceeds in merit hypocrisy in virtue” (p. 466).

The origins of sin lie in arrogance, as discussed earlier, and those of virtue in humility. Arrogance leads to sin, which is rebellion against God. Humility leads to virtue, which is submission to God. Through righteousness comes redemption, so Israel (which is what those who obey God are) holds the key to its own destiny. (p. 466)

Neusner presents numerous excerpts in this chapter, more than in previous chapters, demonstrating the general doctrine of sin found in the Oral Torah:

Bavli Shabbat 20:1 III.10-12/139a–“Any punishment that comes into the world comes only on account of the judges of Israel,” so look to Israel when there are many troubles, and expect their rulers to have sinned. When the wicked rulers are gone from Israel, God’s Presence will rest on Israel. Israel’s subjugation results from arrogance; its ultimate redemption will result from humility.

Bavli Sotah V.25/5b–Humility is greater than an offering of all the sacrifices (Psalm 51.19) and the humble one’s prayer is not rejected. That is, whether in the presence or in the absence of the sole legitimized system for atonement through offering and sacrifice, humility atones better than all the sacrifices.

Sifré to Deuteronomy CCCXVIII:I.1-4, 6-10—Prosperity brings arrogance, with people thinking they have wrought their own prosperity themselves, and arrogance leads to sin. “So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked” (Deuteronomy 32.15). This passage brings forward the examples of the people before the Flood (Job 21.9), the people of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11.1), the people of Sodom (Job 28.8; Ezekiel 16.48-49), Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 32.6, 8), Israel in the Land (Deuteronomy 31.20; 8.12-13), the children of Job (Job 2.18-19), the Ten Tribes (Amos 6.4, 6, 7), and Israel in the days of the Messiah. Arrogance is the opposite of humility. Just as the latter brings forgiveness, so the former brings guilt.

Leviticus Rabbah VII:VI.1—One who is boastful before God is punished only by fire: again, the people of the time of the Flood (Job 21.15; 6.17) and the Sodomites (Genesis 19.24), then Pharaoh (Exodus 5.2; 9.24), Sisera (Judges 4.3; 5.20), Sennacherib (Isaiah 36.20; 10.16), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3.15, 22), and lastly Rome (Psalm 73.25; Daniel 7.11). But Israel will be comforted by fire (Zechariah 2.9 [2.5 RSV]). Again, attitude is highlighted more than actions, showing that sin is not simply a set of actions.

Sifra CCLXIV:I.1-3—Rejection of the sages is rejection of the Torah which is rejection of God. Such rejection implies knowledge of God’s dominion, and a personal rebellion against it, as in the case of Nimrod (Genesis 10.9) and Sodom (Gemesis 13.13). Mere disobedience is not rebellion, which requires intentionality.

Sifra CCLXIV:I.4—Torah study is the first requirement, for its knowledge imparts intentionality so that obedience is not simply accidental, which would be of no advantage. Not knowing Torah and not doing it, there are those who do not despise those who do so, but in the end, they will—a good will is of no advantage. Then there are those same despisers who at first don’t hate the sages, but in the end they do—good will toward the sages is of no avail. Even tolerance does not avail, as it too fails. Someone may despise all of the above (study, doing, sages, tolerance) but recognize, for a time, the origin of the Torah at Sinai, again to no avail and only temporarily. In the end, if all of the above are despised, yet the person accepts the principle of God’s existence and role, even that is of no avail, and it is likewise temporary—they’ll change their mind on that, too. Knowledge generates intentionality which, depending upon the attitude, leads to either obedience or rebellion. The lack of obedience after gaining knowledge of Torah is rebellion.

Bavli Nedarim 3:1 I.14, 16-17/22ab—Sin is a result of the emotions which generate improper attitudes, chief among which is anger (Qohelet 11.10) which leads to hell (Proverbs 16.4) as well as a stomach ache (Deuteronomy 28.65) (!). Anger even drives away God’s presence (Psalm 10.4) and knowledge of the Torah (Qohelet 7.9; Proverbs 13.16). Such a man increases his sins (Proverbs 29.22).

Bavli Shabbat 13:4 I.4/105b—Loss of composure in general is bad, but can be good if in mourning for a sage, as supported by Psalm 56.9. The point is not just the loss of a personality, but of mourning the loss of a gateway of righteousness, as the sage is one who brought Torah to others, leading them to better lives of holiness. Such a loss is partly a loss of Torah to a student, so excessive mourning is understood as completely different from the loss of composure seen in a person’s loss of temper.

So much for the sages’ general theory of sin and its causes. But, Chapter 10 has already shown us, they formulate the theology of sin within a larger theory of the character of man. Responding to the question, if man is like God, how is it that man’s will does not correspond with, but rebels against, the will of God? Here man’s free will requires clarification. Man and God are possessed of free will. But man’s free will encompasses the capacity to rebel against God, as we know, and that comes about because innate in man’s will is the impulse to do evi, yeser hara in Hebrew. So here we extend theological anthropology to encompass a more complex theory of man than that set out in chapter 10: man corresponds to God but is comprised of conflicting impulses, whereas God is one and unconflicted.

That impulse within man to do evil struggles with man’s impulse to do good, yeser hattob. The struggle between the two impulses in man corresonds with the cosmic struggle between man’s will and God’s word. But creation bears within itself the forces that ultimately will resolve the struggle. That struggle will come to an end in the world to come, which itself comes about by an act of divine response to human regeneration, as we shall see in due course. (p. 477)

Bavli Sukkah 5:10 II.3-4/52a—The evil inclination will be slain by God in the world to come. The righteous and the wicked will perceive it differently at that time: the righteous as a great hill, which they see they could never have overcome without God; the wicked as a hair-thin thread, which they never attempted to overcome.

Bavli Sukkah 5:1D II.7/52a—The evil inclination neglects the gentiles (whose undifferentiated sins spring from idolatry), but attacks especially Israel.

Bavli Sukkah 5:1D II.9-13/52b—Through Torah study, a man overcomes the inclination to do evil, though it overcomes him every day (Genesis 6.5), and seeks to kill him (Psalm 37.32), but God will help him (Psalm 37.32). It is like stone washed away by God’s word (Isaiah 55.1; Job 14.19), or iron, melted and smashed to pieces by the fire and the hammer of God’s word (Jeremiah 23.29). The inclination begins externally (Hosea 4.12) but becomes internal (Hosea 5.4). It is a passer-by, then a guest, and finally a man of the household (2 Samuel 12.4).

Genesis Rabbah LIV:I.1—The inclination toward evil grows throughout one’s life, but can still be beaten, even late in life. God delivers a man from it (Psalm 35.10), through the bread (Proverbs 25.21; 9.5) and water (Proverbs 25.21; Isaiah 55.1) of Torah.

Tractate Abot 3:1—Reflecting on three things keeps one from sin: 1.) where you have come from (a putrid drop), 2.) where you are going (a place of dust and worm and maggots), and 3.) to whom you will give a full account of yourself (the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be he). The three thoughts are defenses against the evil inclination, which uses pride and self-sufficiency to inspire rebellion against God, the ultimate Judge.

Song of Songs Rabbah XCVI:I.1—God created both the impulse to worship idols and the impulse to fornicate. The former is already eliminated in Israel, but resisting the latter is credited with resisting both.

Bavli Hagigah 2:1-2 VII.3/16a—Expounding on Micah 7.5, on the identical spelling for “friend” and “evil”, don’t trust the evil inclination’s insidious suggestion that God will forgive. The consequences of sin always become public (Habakkuk 2.11; Micah 7.5; Psalm 91.11; Isaiah 43.12); its suggestion that it can be kept secret is a lie.

Bavli Nedarim 3:11G-R I.16-17/32b—Remedies against the evil inclination are the good inclination, and repentance and good deeds. Unfortunately the good inclination is not innate to man. Man is by nature sinful. But Torah study inculcates the good inclination which brings about the regeneration in man that overcomes his natural rebellion. Only Israel, possessing Torah, can overcome man’s nature and attain life.

Abot de Rabbi Nathan XVI:III.1—The evil inclination is thirteen years older than the good inclination in a man, because only at age thirteen is he introduced to the Torah. (Thirteen is the age of the Bar Mitzvah.)

Abot de Rabbi Nathan XVI:V.1—The evil impulse is present from conception, and is a distinctly human characteristic.

Genesis Rabbah XXXIV:X.4—The soul germinates in the womb with the body, and God helps there against the evil impulse already.

Aside from personal sins, there are sins with communal effects. Among public sins, gossip is considered the counterpart to fornication in personal sins.

Leviticus Rabbah XVI.VI.1—Gossip is here equated with leprosy (perhaps through its power of contagion?).

Leviticus Rabbah XVI:VII—Birds chirp a lot, just like gossips talk, so birds are required for the offering to atone for gossip.

Bavli Arakhin 3:5 II.1-15/15a-16b—A lengthy analysis, involving much comparison and contrast. At heart is that just as speech can be used to sanctify, as in the case of a vow, it can be used to destroy, through slander. Most of the trials the Israelites put God through involved “evil speech.” These led to plagues and death, so their seriousness in the eyes of God has been taken into account.

From the definition of sin, both public and personal, we turn to its consequences, once more noting the correspondence between costs of sin to the individual and those exacted from holy Israel all together. In both cases sin exacts a two-sided penalty. The sinner, acting out of arrogance, is diminished; the sinner, defying God, is cut off from God. That applies in so many words, to both the private person and all Israel. So, as in declarations and even exact language familiar from Chapters 2 [The Moral Order: Reward and Punishment] and 5 [Ordering the Ultimate Anomaly: Private Lives], what the person sought—aggrandizement through rebellion against God’s will—he does not gain, but what he did not want—diminution—is what he gets. Thus, when it comes to seeking to feed his arrogance, before someone sins, people pay reverence and awe to that person, but once the person sins, reverence and awe are imposed on that person (p 489):

Pesiqta de Rab Kahana V:III.3, 5-7—Adam would listen to God’s voice without fear before his sin, but hid upon hearing it different after his sin; the Israelites looked at God’s glory capping Mount Sinai’s summit, but after their sin, they couldn’t even bear the glow of Moses’ face; so also David before and after Bathsheba, Solomon and Saul in their sins. Sin brings diminution, the formerly strong becoming weak, the formerly brave becoming fearful.

Sifré to Numbers I:X.2-3—Before Israel sinned, the flux and skin ailment (“leprosy”) of Leviticus 13 were not found among Israelites. Afterward, they appeared, and then they could no longer face God because of them.

Leviticus Rabbah XVIII:IV.1—After Israel’s sin at Sinai, many more diseases than just the flux and “leprosy” began to appear.

So, the result of an individual’s sin is an abasement that is even physically manifested in the form of a new weakness, illness, or change in personality, and a concommittant separation from God. What then is the collective punishment for public sins? Exile.

Lamentations Rabbah XXXVIII.I.1-2—The gentiles, assimilated to one another and wealthy, do not suffer in exile as Israel does. This is because Israel manages to maintain its separation even in exile, and it has none of the wealth required to make this easier.

Bavli Shabbat 16:2 II.42,44/119b-120a—It is agreed by all that Jerusalem was destroyed because of sin. The discussion here centers on which sin in particular is was—violating the Sabbath, failure to recite the Shema morning and evening, neglecting Torah study, lack of shame, lack of respect, lack of correction, humiliating the disciples of the sages, or that all the faithful in the city had simply already left.

The greatest penalty invoked by sin, however, is cosmic: separation from God.

Leviticus Rabbah XVIII.III.2—Israel was, briefly at Sinai, under God’s complete protection and thus free even from death. Yet after their rebellion, alienation from God began.

Bavli Rosh Hashanah 4:4A-E I.6/31ab—God removed his presence from Israel in ten stages, though not without waiting for their repentance. Israel’s abasement is reflected in the moves (also ten) made by the Sanhedrin, ultimately dwelling in Tiberias, the lowest of all (lower than all the other cities physically).

But this separation from God is not complete, because God is merciful and always responds favorably to repentance:

Sifré to Numbers CLXI:III.2—Even though Israel goes into an unclean exile, God remains with them, willing to endure the uncleanness. The return of Israel to the Land under the Messiah will also be a return of God to the Land.

Pesiqta de Rab Kahana I.I.3, 6—God’s estrangement from the world was an estrangement from humanity because of its sins. Through Israel, God returns to man, and man returns to God.

Bavli Hagigah 1:2 VI.4-37/4b-5b—A long look at various passages which make various sages weep, as they take them to relate God’s estrangement from Israel. Then is discussed what makes God weep. All of this is related to pilgrimage (the subject of Hagigah) in that pilgrimage is a meeting of man and God, in which one party, man, is seen by but doesn’t see the other, God, who sees and blesses man. In the end, Torah study is placed in the position of the pilgrimage, as the place where God is met.

Yerushalmi Taanit 1:1 II:5—Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai taught “To every place to which the Israelites went into exile, the presence of God went with them into exile.” This is the case in Egypt (1 Samuel 2.27), Babylon (Isaiah 43.14), Media (Jeremiah 49.38; Daniel 8.2), Greece (Zechariah 9.13), and Rome (=Edom: Isaiah 21.11). Though God is in exile with Israel, he will likewise return with them to the Land after the end of Rome, at which time all mankind will give up idolatry and Israel will rule.

Neusner concludes this chapter by leading us toward the next:

If the sages’ theology builds upon the foundation of God’s justice in creating a perfect world and accounts for the imperfections of the world by appeal to the conflict of man’s will and God’s plan, then, we must ask ourselves, what is the logical remedy for the impasse at which, in the present age, Israel and the world find themselves? Their explanation for flaws and transience in creation, sin brought about by the free exercise of man’s will, contains within itself the systemic remission—that required, logical remedy for the human condition and creation’s as well. It is an act of will to bring about reconciliation between God and Israel, God and the world. And that act of will on man’s part will evoke an equal and commensurate act of will on God’s part. When man repents, God forgives, and Israel and the world will attain the perfection that prevailed at Eden. And that is why death will die. So we come to the account of restoring world order. Here we begin to follow the unfolding of the restorationist theology of eschatology that completes and perfects the sages’ theology set forth in the documents of the Oral Torah. (pp 506-507).

Next we being Part IV, Restoring World Order, commencing with Chapter 12, Repentance and Atonement.

Thank you for reading.

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