Formative Judaism: What Do We Know and How

By Neusner, Jacob | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Formative Judaism: What Do We Know and How


Neusner, Jacob, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


While many Judaic religious systems competed from the time of the formation of the Hebrew Scriptures of ancient Israel at the beginning of the Second Temple period forward to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., from 70 onward a single Judaism took shape. Over time that one Judaism predominated, and, in diverse formulations, today continues to flourish. That Judaism designated the generative symbols, identified and elaborated the paramount myths, dictated the contents of the canon, and ultimately defined the singular Judaism of the future. Variously called Rabbinic, normative (norm-setting), of classical, that Judaism made irs initial statement in a set of documents produced from the late second century C.E. to the early seventh century - the Mishnah and the Talmuds of Jerusalem and Babylonia. To speak of "formative Judaism" is to refer to that Rabbinic Judaism in its initial phases at that time.

A particular characteristic of Rabbinic Judaism dictates the way in which it has been and today is studied. It is a Judaism that afforded access to God through the medium of words. For its account of what it knows about God, this particular religion appeals to the documentary record of God's presence in humanity. Specifically, the Torah, Oral and Written, sets forth what holy Israel knows about God in the record of God's own self-manifestation. Pointing to God's presence in nature and in history, the Torah identifies the occasions of encounter and intervention. The Torah preserves and hands on the record of God's presence in this world. In those words, sentences, paragraphs - the media by which theology forms its vocabulary - Israel finds the record of encounter with God. And God is to be met whenever the words that preserve the encounter are contemplated.

R. Hananiah b. Teradion says, "Two who are sitting, and words of Torah do pass between them - the Presence [of God] is with them, as it is said, 'Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord and gave thought to His name' (Malachi 3: 16). I know that this applies to two. How do I know that even if a single person sits and works on Torah, the Holy One, blessed be he, sets aside a reward for him? As it is said, 'Let him sit alone and keep silent, because he has laid it upon him' (Lamentations 3:28)."

Tractate Abot 3:2C-D

Not only so, but it is through Torah study that prophecy is nurtured:

"And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz" (Isaiah 7: 1).

What was the misfortune that took place at that time?

"The Syrians on the east and the Philistines on the west [devour Israel with open mouth]" (Isaiah 9: 12).

The matter [the position of Israel] may be compared to a king who handed over his son to a tutor, who hated [the son]. The tutor thought, "If I kill him now, I shall turn out to be liable to the death penalty before the king. So what I'll do is take away his wet nurse, and he will die on his own."

So thought Ahaz, "If there are no kids, there will be no he-goats. If there are no he-goats, there will be no flock. If there is no flock, there will be no shepherd. If there is no shepherd, there will he no world."

So did Ahaz plan, "If there are no children, there will be no disciples; if there are no disciples, there will be no sages; if there are no sages, there will be no Torah; if there is no Torah, there will be no synagogues and schools; if there are no synagogues and schools, then the Holy One, blessed be he, will not allow his Presence to come to rest in the world."

What did he do? He went and locked the synagogues and schools.

That is in line with the following verse of Scripture: "Bind up the testimony, seal the Torah [teaching] among my disciples" (Isaiah 8:16).

Leviticus Rabbah XI:VII.3

Stated in both propositional and narrative ways, the conviction is the same: in the words of the Torah God speaks; hearing those words, Israel meets God - and finds guidance in where to look for God in nature and in history as well.

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