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It Is All About How One Looks at History: Thinking In Jewish XXII

It Is All About How One Looks at History: Thinking In Jewish XXII

It Is All About How One Looks at History: Thinking In Jewish XXII

What constitutes history? Even historians artfully argue about the meaning of history and historical data. In a brilliant analysis of Jewish and Christian thought in the century or so post-Constantine, Jacob Neusner argues from this rather idea: Jews and Christians, using the same set of facts and the same analytical approach reached dramatically different conclusions. The outcome depended on how each protagonist understood the ultimate teleological meaning contained within the facts themselves. Christian authors chose to explain the series of events from Biblical Genesis to their own present day as the perfection of the teleological promise of redemption and salvation; that the past predicts the future. Jewish Sages, on the other hand, understood the past from Biblical Genesis to the present day as another in a never-ending series of retributions, punishments meted out by God for the failure to deliver what God seemingly wanted. On this view the events of the past held no particular sway over the teleological promise of salvation to come when the Messhah finally arrives, rather, the events of the past are merely mini-cycles of relative redemption and relative punishment getting people ready for the ultimate salvation offered by the Messiah who is yet to come.

Christian scholars saw the conversion of Constantine and the political triumph of Christianity as absolute proof that God delivered on God’s promise. They understood the triumph as everlasting and unchanging. God finally revealed his Messiah to the people and now all prophesies have come to fruition. Jewish Sages, on the other hand, saw the world quite differently. They saw the world in terms of epochs that were anything but permanent. Whatever the political conditions extant in the world today are certainly not the conditions that will be present in the future. Each epoch is thought to be a permanent, powerful solution to the political world but, in the final analysis, falls and is replaced by another overarching politic. With this in mind, Jewish Sages saw the political conversion of the Roman Empire as nothing more that the beginning of a new epoch, one with lessons to offer for the true coming of God’s Messiah. Both Christian and Jewish scholars understood the world in the same teleological and eschatological terms; history presents itself as a linear progression to the end of days in which salvation is the reward for all of human kind. Christian eschatology argues that this very opportunity opened itself to fruition with the advent of Jesus with true salvation coming somewhere down the road waiting for the Messiah to return to finish his work. Jews, on their part, rejected that very idea in favor of one that merely predicts that sometime in the future, but not now, salvation is guaranteed by the advent of the Messiah.

Making use of the same proof texts from the Pentateuch and other biblical writings and writing under quite similar teleological structures, Christian and Jewish scholars came to different conclusions regarding the meaning of the “triumph” of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. Their conclusions were, of course, structured to fit the overarching teleology that understood the historical as proceeding in a straight line from creation to the end of days. How they understood that line, however, influenced how they chose to examine the data they both had to work with. Both, according to Neusner, chose to see Genesis as prima facia evidence, factual documentation of God’s creation, relying heavily on that story as well as other Biblical stories to ‘prove’ their case. Christian scholars rigorously examined these stories as a linear progression from which flowed the entire history of mankind to the end of days culminating with the advent of the Messiah. No less rigorously, Jewish Sages, using precisely the same historical database found a very different, cyclical reading of the text. What happened in one epoch is bound to happen in another and the cycle will continue until such time as the Messiah appears.

So which side is right? Well, perhaps neither. Both arguments are based upon the single notion that history unfolds as a meaningful teleological story, a line that may be connected from the beginning of creation to the end of days. On the Christian side, that line appears to be linear, expressing the very idea that at each step along the way a progressive line is drawn to bring humanity closer to the salvation offered by the Messiah. On the Jewish side, that line appears to be cyclical, turning over and over, like a wagon wheel in the sand, presenting a slightly different political solution along the way to prepare humanity for promised salvation. But, what if history, the flow of independent events, most meaningless, are not connected to a teleological purpose? What if those events are simply random anomalies that, while perhaps occurring in bunches to look meaningful, are simply random groupings of insignificant long-term meaning? On this view, the world and its history appears to be more or less Jewish minus the teleology of the Jews. Governments rise and fall, what seems important at the moment is nothing more than the elevation of random ideas and events into immediately weighty issues of the day soon to be forgotten for the next weighty idea. The difference between the Jewish Sages cyclical view and this rather austere existential view is that for the Sages a teleological purpose is attached to the cyclical randomness of the unfolding of events while I suggest there is no teleological purpose at all to the randomness that materializes as meaningful history.

Of All the Rotten Luck…

Of All the Rotten Luck...

Of All the Rotten Luck…

Yes, that’s right, of all the rotten luck. Just a few days after my wife recovered from her very strange virus, the one having an effect on her knees, back and causing a significant and constant headache, I come down with some strange virus that has mimicked a kidney stone, caused incredible lower back pain, upper back pain, neck and shoulder pain along with some violent gastro-intestinal pain that, for the sake of decency, I won’t mention here. While those painful episodes are all giving up the ghost, the ones that still remain are related to the lower back and the GI system. Yuck, doesn’t this stuff ever go away.

Of course, there is a good side to all of this agony. I have had a great deal of time to devote to reading new texts, something I simply love to do because with everything I read I am better informed, have more at my fingertips to make responsible decisions about the very things that make a difference to me in my life. Sometimes, a book presents an argument that is, on its face, difficult to accept as being factual or well researched, sometimes arguments are forced and difficult to follow (always a danger sign of a dogmatic mind) and other times an argument seems so well situated in data that if the data being relied upon is true (often not the case) the argument is actually persuasive.

I am currently reading a monograph by Jacob Neusner, the famous scholar of Jewish Antiquity and ancient texts, as he approaches the historicity of the Jewish and Christian schism in the third and fourth centuries CE (the 100 t0 150 years post Constantine). Neusner never fails to surprise as he demonstrates through “what he knows” or, in other words, what can be supported by extant evidence and not by theological intervention on an otherwise fluid context of historical conditions, the shifting winds that brought Christianity to the gates of triumphalism while relegating Judaism to the posture of a utopian dreamscape waiting for the coming of the Messiah, while Christians ardently awaited the return of the Messiah in order that he complete his mission. Neusner claims that both Christians and Jews understood the Messiah and his coming in the same terms, based on the same biblical and post biblical texts varying only in the application of the lessons learned from those texts. An interesting proposition from the man who elsewhere argues that the Jewish Hillel and the Christian Jesus were one in the same human being expropriated theologically to serve specific needs outside of the historicity of the man extant.

As time passes, I hope to expand on these ideas on a regular basis. I just hope I can keep it together long enough to make a coherent thought.

Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI

Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI

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

Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X

Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X

In 70 CE the Romans, during the First Jewish-Roman War, destroyed the Temple, the center of the sacrificial cult that, over time, became the rabbinical Judaism (as well as the Christianity) we know in today’s post-modern world. Because I am at least nominally Jewish, I don’t much care about the schism that separated Jews and Christians from one another other than as an historical fact. My concern is to understand just how Temple Judaism morphed into rabbinical Judaism and why.

Jacob Neusner makes an interesting case for that development in his exploration of the corpus of rabbinic texts that comprise the heart of rabbinic Judaism. He offers the context of historical events and the response of the redactors of the Mishnah, a code of religious obligations attributed to Judah ha Nasi (Judah the Prince) completed in 200 CE. Without going into too much detail about the form, structure or rhetorical tools used by the rabbis of the Mishnah, the core of Neusner’s argument is simply this: the rabbis, responding to the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE) where an independent Jewish state successfully expelled the Romans only to fall to Rome once again in 135 CE, organized the emerging rabbinic cult by creating a corpus of textual material that was designed to mirror the Temple Cult while creating an ahistorical context by which one became holy. The Mishnah itself paints a picture of sanctification that is set in a context of timelessness, a universal mirror of this very moment, the only moment that counts, by setting down permanent obligations for every aspect of life from farming to business transactions with the underlying intent to provide Jews with a framework for living a life deemed sanctified and holy without regard to the ebb and flow of historical events. The rules, the obligations, applied in good times and in times of tyrants, across all seasons of the year by providing an absolute framework for living come what may.

In the 130-year period dating from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and including the expulsion of and banishing from Jerusalem, the Bar Kokhba Revolt and the re-colonization of Israel by the Romans, the Mishnah took its final form. No longer able to find spiritual comfort in Jerusalem, the rabbis of the Mishnah responded by making Jerusalem live in the hearts and souls of Jews through the eschatology of the messiah to come, the anointed one who will restore everything to the way it is supposed to be including the restoration of the Temple cult in Jerusalem where burnt offerings to the creator God could, once again, serve to purify and cleanse the world of sin.

The logic of the Mishnah, therefore, is not to concentrate on events that occur and influence the way one defines the world one lives in. To the contrary, the logic of the Mishnah is to eschew existential time, to divorce obligations from the context of place and time by making the obligations of human conduct so routine as to become internalized and thereby transformed into an ethical, moral and holy life; a life guided by creating a holy place for the messiah, the anointed one, to appear.

The rabbis of the Mishnah, in short, created a world that spiritually was a simulacrum of the Temple cult, substituting behavioral obligations for animal sacrifice. Regular prayer and rabbis substituted for sacrifice and priests. Rules of conduct posited along with alternative possibilities demonstrated that the Law of the Mishnah was universal and timeless; that following the law was essential to the very existence of the world as well as the world to come, no matter what the externals of life might look like. It mattered not what governing authority was in power, what wars were being fought, what diseases were extant; Jewish life was lived both temporally and, even more importantly, spiritually by living the law.

Neusner’s argument sheds a great deal of light on how one reads Jewish textual material. By the simple act of considering the context in which the texts were written, what externals they were responding to, helps place their zeal into the proper perspective. I want to suggest that a similar crisis is facing rabbinic Judaism today, in the era post-Shoah (post-Holocaust). The genocide of six-million Jews at the hands of the Nazis coupled with the independence of the State of Israel places great strains on the very understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Time will tell just how this internal argument plays out. I’ll just keep on studying and reading and writing and, just perhaps, some clarity will emerge.

 

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