Sunday, 30 November 2008

Mishna as revelation

“When we say say a blessing before and after we read the Torah in the synagogue, we say ... נתֵן הַתּוֹרה—who gives the Torah—meaning here and now. By our presence we receive the Torah, here and now. This book [i.e. Neusner's] is meant to help you receive and accept, make use of, the Torah in the concrete and everyday world you know: It is not about the past and in no way concerns a book which came down to us from a particular place or time in history. It is about God's revelation which God gives day by day, and which, as I said, we receive day by day. If Mishnah is not that, if Mishnah merely is a work out of “Jewish history,” then Mishnah is not worth your time and attention. For what makes all the effort required to master this difficult book worthwhile is not that it is a monument to a dead past, but that it is an urgent challenge to the living present, to you and me” (Jacob Neusner, Learn Mishnah, Preface).

I find his belief in the ongoing, living dimension of torah as revelation interesting. I wonder how this relates to Barth's understanding of "the three times of the Word"?

This focus on the text as guide for the present, as a kind of pragmatic manual perhaps, carries a different nuance to the Christian approach to the text. Bob MacDonald summarizes it nicely:

Torah is not text but engagement with the one to who the text points. The medium is neither the messenger nor the source of the message.
Though see my qualification of this here.

Update: I've just noticed that Kevin Edgecomb of Biblicalia has been posting an incredibly detailed review of Neusner's theology of the oral torah. If I ever find the time to study Judaism in detail, I think I will simply get hold of all of Neusner's works and read them through. There's a lot to be said for choosing one scholar as an orientation point for grappling with a complex subject.

P.S. Neusner was Childs' roomate for a while in Yale, I believe, and had an impact on Childs' understanding of Judaism.


Tzvee Zahavy said...

When you say, "I find his belief in the ongoing, living dimension of torah as revelation interesting" I cannot help but think how it would sound to you if I said about your belief on my blog, "I find his belief in the ongoing, living dimension of Jesus as revelation intersting." So what say you?

Phil Sumpter said...

Hello Tvee,

I'm afraid I'm not sure what you mean. If you said that I'd be excited at the possibility of an interesting dialogue. Does it sound condescending to you?

Tzvee Zahavy said...

Yes it does. Perhaps my inability to understand the word "interesting" is the problem. I read it as: "how quaint" and accordingly it reeks of condescension. When you say, "interesting dialogue" I don't know what that means either. I study the content of religions. When you get to a pivotal essence of a religion such as revelation of God through the Mishnah or through the life of Jesus, then that is a heck of a lot more than something that is "interesting." But hey, don't let me rain on your parade. Come to think of it you could say that Macy's parade was interesting... by the way, keep up the good work anyway...

Phil Sumpter said...

Well, it certainly wasn't my intention to be so. I find it "interesting" because I myself am struggling to understand both the Jewish and the Christian position. I also find it interesting because it is important and so worthy of my attention. I would have thought that connecting Neusner to Barth would make clear how seriously I take him. But thanks for pointing out the potential misunderstanding :)

The Candy Man said...

a - kudos for delving into neusner, I think he's pretty decent from what I've read... but i'd suggest just reading the mishna if you really want to understand the rabbis

b - you are posting up a storm, excellent sources. It seems there's some good academic-style stuff out there after all

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Phil, you'll have a hard time buying, not to mention reading, all of Neusner's books. He's published well over a thousand books already, including English translations of almost the entire Rabbinic corpus. He's the most prolific scholar in Humanities, and the most honored with various awards.

I'd recommend starting with his Introduction to Rabbinic Literature, which is part of the Anchor Bible Reference Library (or, now, the Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library). But I would also have to recommend the book I've been going through, The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God. I think it would be a very helpful thing to read in order to experience a kind of selective immersion into the literature guided by someone so very familiar with it. For information on structure, dates, and so on of the Rabbinic literature, you simply have to have Guenter Stemberger's Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (the English translation by Markus Bockmuehl is slightly updated since Stemberger's last German edition, as I recall).

Christian scholars simply don't get the in-depth exposure to the Rabbinic literature that they should have. Just look at the various ways so many (ab)use the word midrash as an example. Christian interaction with the Rabbinic literature, the documents of the Oral Torah, seems always to have been according to a Christian agenda, disallowing the documents to speak for themselves, often at best serving as simply a mine for interesting tidbits stripped of context, used in Christain historical or exegetical programs. The Oral Torah must be understood on its own terms, root and branch, and only then can a fruitful comparison begin to be attempted. This is a project only now in its beginnings.

Anyhow, thanks for the link, too!

Phil Sumpter said...


thanks! I always appreciate tips from "insiders." Neusner also translated the mishna, so even there I'm catered for. I agree that reading core texts is the best thing one can do, so reading the mishna is on my agenda ... alas, time!


you are a legend. Thank you so much! I agree with you on the issue of midrash. Brevard Childs (the hero of this blog) share a flat with him for a while when they were both students and I think he had a big impact on him, even though they were to challenge each other on the nature of "canon." Childs has often critiqued the way that midrash has been indiscrimately used in Old Testament studies (esp. in his articles "Midrash in the OT" and "Retrospective reading of OT prophets").

Thanks again for sharing your wisdom. It's appreciated.