Handbook of Rabbinic Theology: Language, System, Structure

Handbook of Rabbinic Theology: Language, System, Structure

Handbook of Rabbinic Theology: Language, System, Structure

Handbook of Rabbinic Theology: Language, System, Structure


From his extensive and intensive study of the rabbinic literature, Jacob Neusner shows how the rabbinic documents give expression to a very real, if implicit, theological system. While the rabbinic literature is often seen as a collection of miscellaneous responses to questions arising from study of the Hebrew Bible and its application to contemporary life, Neusner sees a system behind and embodied in the various writings. He discusses the ways in which the divine thought, and the human thinking that sought faithfully to interpret it, actually came to expression and treats what he calls the grammar of the divine self-expression in order to help us see the theological structure that it implies. Then he shows how this implicit system is expressed in the rules for the life of the people that God has chosen as his own. Citing passages from almost all of the mishnaic tractates, Neusner shows how they fit into and give expression to the system.

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James Joyce is reputed to have said that if Dublin were destroyed, it could be reconstructed, brick by brick, from the pages of Ulysses. Along these same lines, I allege, if the Hebrew Scriptures of ancient Israel, the Written Torah, were lost, the main lines of the narrative of Israel's life with God and the consequent social vision could be reconstructed out of the details of the Halakhah, norms of conduct, and of the Aggadah, norms of conviction, that are set forth in the Oral Torah, that is, the canon of Rabbinic writings of late antiquity.

Here I show that the Rabbinic documents of the formative age of Judaism, the first six centuries C. E., make use of a generative theological grammar to set Scripture forth as a comprehensive, rational theological system of conviction and to construct a cogent theological structure of the social order—thus the “language, system, and structure” of the title.

This handbook presents in condensed form the results of three of my systematic works on the theology of Rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism set forth by Scripture as mediated by the Mishnah, Talmuds, and Midrash-compilations of late antiquity. The three titles here formed into a single coherent statement are The Theological Grammar of the Oral Torah I–III (1999), The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (1999), and The Theology of the Halakhah (2001). The three were conceived to form a single continuous statement, covering the theological language, system of belief, and structure of behavior that animates the definitive documents and characterizes the age and thought of those that produced them.

Accordingly, in the principal parts of this reprise, I lay out [1] how the Rabbinic system speaks, [2] what it says, and [3] how it is embodied in the social order of the community for which it constructs its encompassing conception. Parts Two and Three turn to the functioning system and categorical structure. The former concerns how the theological corpus set forth in the Aggadah (“narrative”), the corpus of Scriptural interpretation, doctrine, ethics, and narrative actually functioned in explaining Israel's condition, the latter addresses how the Halakhah (“norms of behavior, ” “law”) identified the building . . .

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