Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI
According to Jacob Neusner, religions come in two forms. The first relies on a personal and immediate connection to their god or gods and may or may not rely on a written scriptural foundation; rather the emphasis is on the idea of personal salvation or enlightenment that comes from experience. The second, relies on a compilation of written texts that outline one’s relationship with god or gods focused heavily on the exegesis contained within the sacred textual books. This latter form of religion connects through historical referents rather than through personal experience and relies almost exclusively on the written word. Neusner places Judaism in the latter category. In arguing this position, Neusner places an emphasis on the Tractates of Talmud Bavli or the Babylonian Talmud as the re-invention of Judaism that the Sages of Talmud Bavli completed in the year 600 C.E., at roughly the same time that the Moslems conquered much of the Middle East and the Mediterranean coast of Africa along with large portions of the Iberian Peninsula, a time period that saw the end of late antiquity and the beginning of the so-called “Dark Ages.”
What Neusner is quick to point out; a point he repeats quite often, is that the re-invention of Judaism did not take place by offering mere commentary on the texts that preceded the Talmud Bavli, rather, the re-invention completely subjugated all other documents that came before it as secondary to the Talmud Bavli. The Talmud Bavli was intended to be the definitive take on what it means to be a Jew in the world. In order to take up this task, the Rabbis of the Talmud Bavli connected it to the already accepted lineage of the Torah itself, the Mishnah, the Tosefta and the Mishnah, as an expanded connection between the written Torah and the Tractates of the Talmud Bavli. Neusner’s argument, while foundationally connected to the tradition attached to the Talmud by the Sages who redacted the document, insists that the document is much more than that; it is the re-imagination of the very foundational structure of Judaism.
All this, Neusner argues, occurs through the formalized use of language, rhetorical technique and the application of two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, to stress specifics of the rhetorical. First, the Sages dissect the Mishnah, on the surface a compilation of laws, but on a far deeper level a text that focuses on the crisis created in Judaism by the destruction of the Temple (and thereby the destruction of the Temple cult of animal sacrifice) and the rabbinical response to that destruction, by picking and choosing how they will comment on the Mishnah itself.
Neusner argues that the Mishnah provides the bricks of response to the period beyond the Temple itself while the Talmud provides the mortar and internal structure of the newly created rabbinical response (a new Temple contained within the structural formality of the Gemara or commentary on the Mishnah) to the absence of a sacrificial alter. The Mishnah is written in middle Hebrew, the Gemara in Aramaic with a smattering of biblical Hebrew thrown in when proof texts from the Tanakh, the Torah plus the Histories and other writings (the Jewish Bible if you will), are used. In this structural formalism, middle Hebrew indicates the foundational aspect of the law, Aramaic provides the reader with the thread of discussion and argument that ties the law to the Tanakh with proof texts interspersed to cement the argument written in Ancient or Biblical Hebrew using Aramaic structure and grammar.
Taken as a whole, the Talmud Bavli connects the practice of rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism practiced in much of the world today, to the beginning of creation by insisting on a direct line of communication from Moses at Sinai to the Rabbis and ultimately to the Jews through the rabbis. The Talmud Bavli also incorporates all of the texts, both biblical and rabbinical into one long textual platform that is then connected by a particular three-fold formalism of argumentative dialectical discourse: First, the statement of the Mishnah being commented upon thereby setting the stage for further commentary. Second, commentary that is directed directly or indirectly at the particular questions that arise from the generalization of the Law contained within the Mishnah, an act of clarification. Finally, the rabbis of the Talmud Bavli ignore the Mishnah entirely and pursue ideas that are loosely connected or perhaps not connected at all to the Mishnah’s approach to the Law and present a dialectical argument that may or may not result in clear results. When read in this way, Neusner argues, the Talmud Bavli becomes more than an arcane document, rather, it provides one with a foundational tool for thinking in Jewish, a method that provides one with a way of thinking that, while apparently different that that of philosophy, is foundationally similar to philosophic inquiry.
I actually look forward to seeing Neusner’s analysis unfold as I continue to read and study Jewish rabbinical texts including Talmud Bavli.
- Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Assimilation or Acculturation, One Lesson from the Talmud: Thinking in Jewish IX (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Thinking In Jewish Is Harder than I Thought: Thinking In Jewish VII (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)