Sunday, October 19, 2008

Biblicalia on theology of the Oral Torah

Biblicalia has a very interesting series reviewing J. Neusner's – Theology of the Oral Torah. Several general observations:

1 – There are significant theological differences between different parts of the Oral Torah.. For example, Yaakov Elman has shown that the Bavli and the Yerushalmi have different attitudes regarding the question of theodicy.

2 – An essential point to any discussion of Jewish theology is the fact Jewish thought is always concentrated primarily within the exegetical form. This is as opposed to the Greeks whose thought was primarily systematic. This suggestive point was discussed at length by Yeshaya Wolfsberg in an important article in Talpiot 5 pgs. 288 ff. (see also Talpiot 6 pgs. 179 ff. - and also the article following by G. Churgin).

As is well known, Neusner is notorious for his harsh polemical articles (and books!!) against many of his colleagues and teachers [1]. In his criticism of such well-respected figures as Prof. Saul Lieberman or R' JB Soloveitchik he harps on the fact that their major works of scholarship is in the (old-fashioned) exegetical rather then the (modern) systematic form and this reflects some type of failue on their part to engage with modern scholarship. I do not understand why Neusner considers the systematic form to be inherently stronger then the exegetical form as each accomplishes a different task.. But in any event, this has nothing to do with the conflict between the old and the new but rather, as Wolfsberg explains, with Jewish as opposed to Greek methods of thought.

[1] See for example “When Paradigms meet...”. Interestingly, the same people who he castigates so harshly in these later articles are praised and held up as models to emulate in his earlier articles (see his Bibliographical reflections..”). I believe the key to understanding this surprising about-face is in an article in BAR. ואכמ"ל

[Update: My thanks to Kevin for his informative comment.]


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Thanks for that, Chaim. I'll look up those articles.

I think Neusner's changes began a bit earlier, around 1970, when he started moving away from a more traditional historical-exegetical reading of the rabbinic canon and into his more form-analytical and systematic work. This led to his own change of opinion on the value of his earlier work trying to biographize and historicize directly from the rabbinic documents. There are, of course, plenty of people (especially in a yeshiva context) who strongly disagree with both his methods and conclusions. This is only to be expected, as most of his work is taking an entirely new direction, and it was his earlier work, which he now repudiates, whose conclusions were more similar to their own. In any new direction taken, there are bound to be some dead ends. He is, for one, working on a new Yerushalmi translation which would undoubtedly be more appealing to Prof Lieberman.

Neusner's Theology of the Oral Torah (and the following Theology of the Halakhah) are likewise setting out in a new direction. I would agree that there is a superficial comparison to Western modes of systematization, but this is only superficial. From Neusner's position, the sages systematized the paradigms of Oral Torah from Written Torah, thus systematization was in play in the very genesis of the corpus, and native to its culture. So, his extrapolation of some of the core principles motivating this work (and he admits up front that these are his impression--a very informed impression to be sure, but still an impression) follows along in the footsteps of the original compilers. It's fascinating and brilliant even if one were to find it completely unacceptable from one's viewpoint, whatever that may be.

I'm glad to see you're enjoying my little series, though! I should have the next post up this evening.

Wolf2191 said...


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

You're very welcome!

I've king of lost my momentum over the weekend. The next post for chapter 8, on Complementarity, should be up tonight.

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