The Theological Foundations of Rabbinic Midrash

By Ulmer, Rivka | Shofar, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Theological Foundations of Rabbinic Midrash


Ulmer, Rivka, Shofar


The Theological Foundations of Rabbinic Midrash, by Jacob Neusner. Studies in Judaism. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2006. 342 pp. $44.00.

In order to analyze the theological foundations of Rabbinic Midrash Jacob Neusner utilizes the concept of category-formations. These category-formations transform facts into the higher category of knowledge. Knowledge within this context is then mediated into theological propositions. The rabbinic engagement with the written text of the Hebrew Bible ("Scripture") is based upon a theological system that stimulated the creation of midrashic activity. This book sets forth the principal components of this theological system and the formation of the system itself. Neusner first classifies his categories and then proceeds to systematically investigate different midrashic genres. His approach is extremely sophisticated; going from document to document he finds the same or similar categories or, in some cases, states that there are none.

The book contains several major subparts. The preface reviews the pertinent works by other scholars that engaged with rabbinic theology and Neusner s own contribution to this area of scholarship, in particular his series of theological commentaries on rabbinical literature and several of his groundbreaking monographs. The introduction presents the reader with the methods applied to rabbinic texts which produced a theology within midrashic works. Part One of the book is entitled "The common theology of rabbinic midrash"; this section analyzes categories such as Consolation and God's Mercy and Justice with respect to different rabbinic documents. Part Two of the book is entitled"Special cases and general conceptions"; these are category-formations that are particular to individual rabbinic documents. Part Three addresses midrashic compilations that lack theological category-formations. Part Four presents a perspective in respect to theological foundations discussed in the previous sections of the book

The preface emphasizes that rabbinic theology is a corpus of coherent ideas in contradistinction to episodic sayings. Neusner's task in this superb book is to search for the larger implications of various topics in rabbinic texts. In order to prove his theorems Neusner works "backward" from the theological concepts in the texts to the rules that generated them. To this reviewer this is sound scholarship; a similar approach is found in the well-known theorems of generative semantics in the field of linguistics. Neusner asserts that propositional category-formations within rabbinic theology are not formal or topical categories; formal or topical categories do not yield insights into what Neusner calls "systemic logic" (p. xv). Often, the source of what is distinctive to each rabbinic document (e.g., Sifre to Numbers) derives from the biblical book to which the document is devoted.

The introduction quickly moves to the underlying hypothesis of Neusner's study. Rabbinic midrash rests on solid theological foundations; according to Neusner the rabbis did not produce arbitrary results in their systematic and thoughtful explorations. Midrashic documents are the outcomes of such processes as systematization, definition, and classification as well of generalization. The data that one may raise from the texts are classified and then joined together by a given category formation. This reviewer maintains that midrashic texts could have only survived due to their internal theology. It is readily apparent that there was an underlying system in rabbinic literatureits theological foundation-much like languages that have their generative systems which assist in producing countless numbers of sentences based upon grammar. The student of rabbinic text has usually internalized this theological system by reading text after text, without necessarily being able to express it. Neusner claims that the rabbis were guided by category-formations to ask repeatedly similar questions and consequentially they placed in order data in the Hebrew Bible. …

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