“The Jews are a race apart. They have made laws
according to their own fashion, and keep them.”
Jacob Neusner’s bibliography is as long as the laundry list of a professional football team. Only in his mid-50’s, Neusner has published more than two hundred books—including detailed studies of the various rabbinic commentaries on the Five Books of Moses and histories of Babylonian Jewry and of the primitive church—and several hundred scholarly essays. He has also edited annotated translations of the Mishnah, the extensive rabbinic law code, and published translations of the two authoritative redactions of the Talmud. While Neusner has written on contemporary Jewish issues and (as a member of the NEH and NEA), has ventured bold opinions on the arts and on the state of academic learning, his real reputation is based on his prodigious scholarly accomplishments.
Concerning these accomplishments, two general observations are in order. The first is that the conclusions Neusner draws have often been offensive to self-designated Jewish spokesmen. His interpretations of Talmudic texts and the claims he makes for them have drawn fire, most notably two years ago from the Commentary-contributor and Jewish apologist Hyam Maccoby; while several months ago, the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Neusner received his rabbinic ordination, in effect withdrew the offer to confer an honorary doctorate which they had previously granted, claiming that, it being inappropriate to give the degree to his designated surrogate (Neusner being unable to attend the ceremony, owing to an attack of gout), the award would be postponed indefinitely. The disinviting of Neusner occurred shortly after he had printed an essay that criticized the methodology of a then recently-deceased member of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s faculty.
The other relevant observation about Neusner’s scholarship is that much of it is impenetrable except to a Talmud student with extensive knowledge of German social thought. In almost all his commentaries on Talmudic literature, Neusner emphasizes that the texts are governed by their own intrinsic logic, an assumption he applies especially to the two redactions of the Talmud, one compiled in and around Jerusalem in the middle of the fifth century and the other compiled in Babylonia by the end of the sixth. Whereas the.Mishnaic texts (later integrated into the Talmud) made unambiguous declarations about ritual, criminal procedures, and tort law, the Talmudic rabbis, by contrast, spoke in a coded fashion. They used allegories (often literally interpreted by Orthodox Jews) and a complicated system of citing text proofs from the Mishnah and Pentateuch to clarify and substantiate legal rulings. Neusner has written extensively on the logic of fixed association found in the Talmud. He shows how this logic emerges in the earlier Talmudic redaction, the Yerushalmi, and through other rabbinic texts that he has also translated, Tosefta, Leviticus Rabbah, Genesis Rabbah, and Sifre to Numbers. These texts form thematic and methodological links between the Yerushalmi and the second Talmudic redaction, the Bavli, which became everywhere authoritative for Jewish learning and religious practice. The Bavli, as viewed by Neusner, incorporated materials and experiences that were still of marginal importance to the redactions of the Yerushalmi. It is full of allegory and expansive text proof; also it addresses the central crisis in Jewish history since the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of the Second Jewish Commonwealth—the conversion of pagan antiquity to Christianity.
Neusner repeatedly states that the Christians’ challenge was a compelling reason for the self-enclosed system that he identifies with the Babylonian Talmud and that he also considers essential for grasping the Bavli’s widespread authority. Faced by a conversionary religion that addressed the Gentiles from Hebrew texts but also abrogated scriptural and rabbinic practices, the authors of the Bavli tried to create a cordon sanitaire for their people. Neusner describes how threatened and persecuted Jews eagerly accepted the protective device. A life devoted to Talmud separated them from a successor religion whose adherents sought to fragment their community. It amused them to stand apart in all details of their outward existence; and it provided a mode of thinking and discourse that was systematically rigorous but also distinct from the classical, largely Aristotelian, argumentation used by the early church.
Neusner maintains that modern Western expositions of the Talmud have usually foundered on the shoals of the unwelcome distinction between the open logic of classical learning and the “closed hermeneutics” of rabbinic discourse. It is misleading, Neusner argues, to point to apparent parallels between Aristotelian and Talmudic syllogisms. Unlike the Logic, the Bavli does not point beyond the texts it seeks to relate; “In forming the large world in which everything would be contained in some one thing, the Bavli’s authorship relied for connection upon the received text, and necessarily drew conclusions resting upon connection solely within the dictates of an a priori and imputed system of making connections. There [were] connections supplied, and not discovered, structures ultimately imputed through extrinsic processes of thought, not nurtured through the proposed testing of propositions intrinsic to the matter at hand.”
This closed hermeneutic made it impossible, according to Neusner, for those exclusively absorbed in the Talmud to arrive at science and philosophy. Such disciplines rested on changing associations and universally accessible forms of verification. Nonetheless, Talmudic learning provided a specifically Jewish path to redemption. It sustained and kept unified a humiliated people, while sharpening their dialectical skills. It did enough, that is to say, without making claims for the rabbis that lay outside their enterprise.
In Neusner’s newest book, The Ecology of Religion, he sets out to clarify with reference to Judaism “the interplay between a religious system and the social world that gave to that system its shape and meaning.” He looks at the “interrelated components” of Judaism as a religious system through the “documentary method” developed in his earlier scholarship. By determining the intention of particular pieces of rabbinic literature, Neusner hopes to uncover their function in what became the prevalent Jewish world view after the destruction of the Second Temple. However convoluted and apocopated rabbinic arguments may be, Neusner insists on looking at them as “statements” about Jewish destiny. Commentaries on Leviticus and Numbers incorporating Mishnaic passages, allegorical interpretations of Scripture, and the works and sayings ascribed to the Sages are all shown to be interwoven into the rabbinic canon in accordance with certain persistent concerns: maintaining Jewish community in the wake of misfortune, and upholding a specifically Jewish understanding of Scripture as a guide for ritual practice and as a promise of Jewish national redemption. As for the last motif, the rabbis provided it with a noncontroversial context: they referred irresolvable legal quandaries to a future messianic age and portrayed the Messiah King as a legal scholar. And while they held on to the dream of rebuilding the Temple a second time, they also equated prayer and legal study with the bringing of sacrifices. The rabbis also stressed the equality of priests and nonpriests in terms of the performance of ritual obligations and the need for atonement.
Neusner undertakes his study as a self-described Weberian, attempting to relate the religious view he analyzes to a system of political economy. He notes Max Weber’s achievement in plotting a relationship between the world’s religions and the organization of power and material resources in the societies subject to these patterns of belief Though Neusner has written knowledgeably on rabbinic economics, he does not bring off his Weberian project, which in any case forms only a subtheme in the present volume. His failure results at least in part from one of his chief accomplishments: that is, the exhaustive definition of rabbinic Judaism as one of several different forms of Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism is seen to have both developed and prospered in a situation of political powerlessness; unlike Christianity, Islam, and even biblical Judaism, it never maintained a self-sufficient imperium. Neusner may be justified in exploring “ecologically” within a communal context such as Judaism, but it is doubtful whether the term “political economy” describes the object of his study. It is ironic that Neusner himself has exposed the many flaws in Weber’s Ancient Judaism, including its faulty use of categories in analyzing ancient Jewish life.
What Neusner claims or refuses to claim for rabbinic—i.e., normative—Judaism contributes to his controversial place as a Jewish thinker. Most Orthodox Jews who are acquainted with his scholarship have reservations about it. Though an observant Jew, Neusner makes no secret that he approaches Talmudic literature as a scholar, not as an Orthodox apologist. Neusner calls attention to the historical circumstances in which rabbinic discussions occurred, and he pays little attention to those medieval glossators whose comments appear alongside Talmudic passages and whom the Orthodox consult for interpreting their ancient sacred texts. Perhaps Orthodox Jews are also embarrassed by Neusner for the same reason as are their liberal coreligionists: namely, his unwillingness to make Judaism resemble some ancient form of ethical rationalism. Though Orthodox Jews do not believe that their tradition is really enlightened religion, some do feel that it may be best for Gentiles to think otherwise. Reacting to the conventional charge that Jews are clannish, even Orthodox Jews may wince at Neusner’s stress on the closed nature of Jewish learning.
To liberal Jews, who dominate Jewish philanthropic and public relations organizations, Neusner is undoubtedly an embarrassment. He exalts Judaism for precisely those characteristics from which liberal Jews wish to dissociate themselves: ancestral piety, devotion to received custom, rejection of openmindedness in favor of a self-enclosed body of truth. Neusner not only finds anti-liberal values at the heart of narrative Judaism, but even argues on their behalf. On the basis of his writings one can infer not only his own Jewish belief but sociological assumptions traceable to Max Weber and Ferdinand Tönnies. Like these German social thinkers. Neusner believes that communities are built around cults, that social prescriptions and economic attitudes come from ingrained religious attitudes, and that modern social science represents, in large part, an attempt to escape the obvious. The movement from organic community to an impersonal civil society, which Tönnies was among the first to examine, creates for Neusner a civilizational problem. Because of this movement, he has explained, we have lost our understanding of community even as a historical phenomenon. Thus his association of normative Judaism with a closed hermeneutic has unleashed an attack from those who cannot see good coming from traditional communal existence.
Some of the most impassioned invectives against Neusner have emanated from those who dislike his more accessible writing. Those comments of his that have elicited the most widespread negative reaction have in fact been on the subjects of holocaust theology and American Zionism. On both subjects Neusner has spoken critically, from a normative Jewish perspective. He has reproved holocaust theologians for their explicit or implicit atheism and for their reduction of Judaism to a form of Third World victimology. He has also accused them of driving a wedge between Jewish and Christian Americans by their indiscriminate attacks on Christians and Christianity as the cause of the holocaust.
On Israel, Neusner has spoken all too frankly in (among other places) the Washington Post. He urges American Jews to stop pretending they are about to move to Israel while proclaiming Israel as the cultural center of Jewish life. Although Neusner supports the right of Israel to exist and prosper as a Jewish state, he has no use for the exaggerated praise sometimes lavished on Israeli society. As a patriotic American, he thinks that American Jews owe their first loyalty to the United States and that they should certainly not repay the country in which Jews have prospered most by treating it as an alien, hostile land. To a Jewish critic who noted a similarity between Weimar Germany and the United States, Neusner replied with an offer to buy his critic a one-way flight from Chicago to Tel Aviv.
In all fairness to him, it needs to be said that Neusner does not entirely neglect the value of universal accessibility in the articulation of religious insights. In his studies on the confrontation of Judaism and early Christianity—and particularly in his remarks on Aphrahat, a fourth-century monk who wrote in Syriac against the Jewish claim to continued divine election—Neusner sympathetically presents both sides of the great religious debate. He praises Aphrahat for his mastery of Aristotelian logic, and, in a conversation with me, identified this pugnacious monk as “one of us”—that is, a “bearer of the classical Western intellectual tradition.” Even so, at least part of Neusner’s heart remains with Aphrahat’s rabbinic opponents and with all Jewish apologists engaged in a holding action against an already triumphant Christianity. Turning to a coded polemic in order to express themselves against Christian persecutions, the rabbis moved toward an increasingly veiled and esoteric relationship to the outside world. The closed hermeneutic was the necessary price of Jewish national existence and of a related Jewish spirituality. But Neusner does not deny the redemptive value of Christianity’s open hermeneutic—or the possibility that Judaism could incorporate Hellenic and Christian modes of discourse without ceasing to be Jewish. The Talmudic experience has been indispensable for Jewish existence, but its closed hermeneutic, Neusner says, has already been complemented by the Jewish absorption of Western ideas.
Neusner, one should mention, is no provincial. He has studied or taught at nearly half the Ivy League schools, spent time at Oxford and Hebrew University, and is presently associated with the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. When he laments—as he often does—the degradation of American higher learning, he is passing critical judgments from Brown, where he only recently retired as a distinguished university professor. The scion of a socially established family from West Hartford, he speaks of discovering his Judaism as an already mostly forgotten ancestral memory. Unlike many other Jewish intellectuals, Neusner gives no indication of suffering from status anxiety. Almost instinctively patriotic, he is a conservative Republican, and the proud father of an ensign in the U.S. Navy. Also, he seems to have friendlier (and certainly less agonized) relations with many Christian thinkers and Christian writers—for example, Andrew Greeley—than with other Jewish intellectuals.
His background helps us to see in proper perspective a provocative essay that he recently published in The World & I: “Two Faiths Talking About Different Things.” In this piece, Neusner begins by declaring that “Judaism and Christianity are completely different religions, not different versions of one religion. . . . The two faiths stand for different people talking about different things to different people.” Although the earliest Christians were indeed observant and professing Jews, and although Christianity and Judaism are both authentic Hebraic religions, Neusner chooses to highlight their differences. He observes, for example, that “Christians saw Israel as a family; Pharisees saw it as a way of life.” Moreover, “[t]he Christians carried forward one aspect of Scripture’s doctrine of Israel and the Pharisees another.” Neusner piles one contrast on another: Judaism’s appeal to a historic community as against Christianity’s concern with individual salvation; the Christian reconstruction of the Israeli covenant around all mankind under Christ as opposed to Judaism’s covenant based on the continuity of ritual life and national cohesion.
The point that needs to be recalled here is that Neusner admires both Judaism and Christianity. He underlines their differences not for the sake of invidious comparison, but because he wishes to show that the concept of a “Judeo-Christian religion” remains problematic, though not for the reasons often given in popular Jewish publications. What ultimately stands in the way of any mutual acceptance of a Judeo-Christian synthesis is neither persistent Christian anti-Semitism nor Jewish provincialism, nor an imagined Gnostic pollution of Judaism committed by New Testament authors. Neusner believes that Jews and Christians follow parallel but distinct paths to salvation, and that their theological distinctness, combined with their theological overlap, has made their relationship uneasy. Neusner’s pluralistic universe has a place for both religions, but he considers it important that the adherents of each recognize each other’s honest differences. Without abandoning his own Jewish faith, Neusner believes that Christianity represents a defensible alternative to the Jewish understanding of Scripture. But he also insists that the Christian view of Scripture is not the same as the Jewish one. Thus, attempts to cobble together civil religions embracing both Judaism and Christianity are bound to fail, or to end in dishonesty.
As a critic of false universalisms and a defender of community, Jacob Neusner goes beyond the field of Judaic studies, which he has done more than anyone else to make academically respectable. He has become willy-nilly a part of the intellectual counterrevolution already taking place in American universities. Against those who use higher education to promote secularism and cultural homogeneity, Neusner defends the communally-founded vision of historic Judaism. Setting out to define the closed hermeneutic of rabbinic Judaism, he has ultimately confirmed the underlying premise of 19th-century European sociology. Contrary to academic and journalistic superstition, social studies deal with situated peoples and nations, not with an imaginary global village.
[The Ecology of Religion: From Writing to Religion in the Study of Judaism, by Jacob Neusner (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 320 pp., $27.95]