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Bible. Interpretation: How Judaism Reads the Bible.

(11,934 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Judaism in its normative sources of the first six centuries c.e. reads the Bible. by transforming the narrative of Scripture into a pattern that applies to times past as much as to the acutely contemporary world. It is as if the sages of Rabbinic Judaism interpret this morning's newspaper in the light of an established paradigm of how things are and what they mean. For Judaism, the past is present, and the present is part of the past, so past, present, and future form a single plane of being. Here is a ve…

Torah in Judaism, the Classical Statement

(7,802 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Torah means “teaching,” and in Scripture refers to the teaching that God revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai. The most familiar meaning of the word is the five books of Moses or Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). “The Torah” may also refer to the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures (called by Christianity, “the Old Testament”). Since at Sinai, Judaism maintains, God revealed the Torah to Moses in two media, written and oral, with the written part corr…

Leviticus in Judaism: Scripture and Halakhah in Leviticus

(10,563 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
The book of Leviticus is mediated to Judaism by two Rabbinic readings of Scripture. The first, Sifra, ca. 300 c.e., asks about the relationship of the laws of the Mishnah and the Tosefta to the teachings of Scripture. The second, Leviticus Rabbah, ca. 450–500 c.e., forms of selected passages of Leviticus, read in light of other passages of Scripture altogether, large propositional expositions. Here we consider only the relationship of Scripture and Halakhah in Leviticus. Sifra, a compilation of Midrash-exegeses on the book of Leviticus, forms a massive and systematic s…

Talmud of Babylonia in Historical Perspective

(12,766 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
The Talmud of Babylonia is one of the great, classical writings of human civilization—enduring, influential, nourishing. It claims its place among the most successful pieces of writing in the history of humanity, along with the Bible, Plato's Republic, Aristotle's oeuvre, the Quran, and a very few other writings. What those books have in common is the power to demand attention and compel response for many centuries after their original presentation. The Quran, for example, is received by Muslims as God's word, as is the Bible by Chri…

Aggadah in the Halakhah

(9,066 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Aggadic discourse comments on a received text, tells a story, or advocates an attitude or a proposition of normative conviction and conscience. Halakhic discourse expounds and analyzes a topic of normative conduct. How does narrative or theological discourse participate in the presentation of the halakhic norms of conduct? The two modes of discourse, Aggadah and Halakhah, are quite different from one another. Each organizes its presentation in large building blocks or category-formations, and th…

Exodus in Judaism

(7,078 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
The book of Exodus is mediated to Rabbinic Judaism by the midrashic compilation Mekhilta Attributed to R. Ishmael. That is a miscellany, not a coherent and systematic reading of the biblical book. The document, seen in the aggregate, presents a composite of three kinds of materials concerning the book of Exodus. The first is a set of ad hoc and episodic exegeses of some passages of Scripture. The second is a group of propositional and argumentative essays in exegetical form, in which theological principles are set forth and demonstrated. The third cons…

Disputes on Law in Rabbinic Judaism

(9,228 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
In the Halakhic documents, the Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, and Bavli, Rabbinic sages ubiquitously record disagreements on matters of law. But disputes reinforce the unity of the law at its fundamental levels. Conflicts between authorities underscore the prevailing consensus about fundamental truth. Indicators of concurrence in deep structures of thought abound even—or especially—in the context of disputes, properly situated in perspective and proportion. Conflict concerns detail, consensus, go…

Rabbinic Judaism, Social Teaching of

(4,934 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Israel forms God's kingdom on earth. Israelites in reciting the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”) accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and the yoke of the commandments, twice daily. That liturgical premise comes to realization throughout diverse halakhic formations. The basic theological conception concerning the kingdom of heaven is familiar and common to a number of Judaic religious systems, not only the Rabbinic. But for Rabbinic Judaism to be “Israel” means to li…

God in Judaism, the Classical Statement

(12,480 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
The religion, Judaism is made up of three components: [1] the Torah, oral and written, [2] Israel the holy people, and [3] God. God is creator of the world, giver of the Torah, and redeemer of Israel. Israel the holy people meets God in the Torah at Sinai, when God—not Moses—proclaims, “The Lord, the Lord! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Exod. 34:…

Rabbinic Judaism, Formative Canon of, IV: The Aggadic Documents. Midrash: The Later Compilations

(22,297 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
While Mekhilta Attributed to R. Ishmael, Sifra, and Sifre to Numbers, like the Mishnah, cover many topics and yield no prominent propositional program but only implicit principles of thought, the second and later set of Midrash-compilations, produced in the fifth and sixth centuries (ca. 450–600 c.e.), which accompany the Talmud of the Land of Israel, form highly propositional statements. The first of the group, Genesis Rabbah, makes the same point many times and sets forth a coherent and original account of the book of Genesis. The next s…

Socialism-Yiddishism, Judaism and

(7,224 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Jewish Socialism was a nineteenth and twentieth century movement that joined the social and economic ideals of Socialism to a deep commitment to the formation of a way of life and a world view for an Israel, specifically, the impoverished and working class Jews of Eastern Europe. It is comparable to a Judaism because it presented a complete picture of how one should live life, namely, as an active worker for political change and social improvement, how one should see the world, namely, as someth…

Pirqé Abot

(4,389 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Tractate Abot, conventionally dated at ca. 250 c.e., 1 forms a melancholy meditation on the human condition of the individual Israelite. Corporate Israel and its historical fate never frame the issue. The problem facing the framer of the document—provoked by the logic of monotheism—is succinctly stated: “We do not have in hand an explanation either for the prosperity of the wicked or for the suffering of the righteous” (4:15). The resolution of the paradox of palpable injustice—the prosperity of the wic…

Virtue in Formative Judaism

(9,611 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
For Judaism, the account of virtue begins in the Torah's picture of world order based on God's virtue, not the virtue of humanity. God's traits of justice and equity, love and compassion, form the model for those of God's creatures. Moreover, the Torah knows humanity as the children of Adam via Noah to Abraham. Accordingly, Judaism in its classical statement treats virtue as a component of a much larger doctrine that concerns the meaning of the life of humanity. The Torah tells the story of huma…

Halakhah, Religious Meaning of

(11,090 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
The normative law, or Halakhah, of the Oral Torah defines the principal medium by which the sages set forth their message. Norms of conduct, more than norms of conviction, convey the sages' statement. And from the closure of the Talmud of Babylonia to our own day, those who mastered the documents of the Oral Torah themselves insisted upon the priority of the Halakhah, which is clearly signaled as normative, over the Aggadah, which commonly is not treated as normative in the same way as the Halakhah. The aggadic statement addresses the exteriorities, the halakhic one, the interior…

Theodicy in Classical Judaism

(6,606 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
The term theodicy refers to a justification of the ways of God, the proof that—despite what might appear to be the case—God's justice governs the world order. The need for such a proof comes about by reason of the character of monotheism . For, while a religion of numerous gods finds many solutions to one problem, a religion of only one God presents one to many. Life is seldom fair. Rules rarely work. To explain the reason why, polytheisms adduce multip…

Judaism, Definition of

(7,114 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
A Judaism is a religion that [1] for its way of life privileges the Pentateuch and finds in the Five Books of Moses the main rules defining the holy way of life, [2] for its social entity identifies the group that embodies faith as the Israel of which the Hebrew Scriptures speak, and [3] for its world view recapitulates the experience of exile and return that the Pentateuch sets forth. Deriving from God's revelation to Moses at Sinai, Judaism is a monotheistic religion, as are Islam and Christianity, which affirm that same revelation (to Christians, it is the Old …

Bestiary, Rabbinic

(10,080 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
There is no single bestiary-code in Rabbinic Judaism, but we find two distinct ways of thinking and speaking about animals, as about much else. One is Halakhic and deals with norms of action, law; the other is Aggadic and addresses norms of attitude, theological narrative. These two distinct realms of thought and speech on the same subject yield lessons of two separate classifications of the order of nature and society. Three examples suffice, two Aggadic and one Halakhic: animals illustrative o…

Judaism, History of, Part III: Late Antiquity

(10,554 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
In late antiquity, the Judaism of the dual Torah (“Rabbinic Judaism”) took shape. That Judaism in time became normative, the foundations for every system of Judaism, the religion, that flourished from then to now. We have evidence that, at that time, other Judaisms, besides that represented by the Rabbinic documents, also took shape, for archaeology of synagogues has produced decorations that hardly conform to the Rabbinic rules governing representational art. But only Rabbinic Judaism is fully represented in written evidence that permits us to formulate its history. Judaism Repre…

Deuteronomy in Judaism

(7,877 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
The book of Deuteronomy reaches Judaism through Sifre to Deuteronomy, attributed to Tannaite authors, a commentary to Deuteronomy completed ca. 300 c.e. Out of cases and examples, sages seek generalizations and governing principles. Since in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses explicitly sets forth a vision of Israel's future history, sages in Sifre to Deuteronomy examined that vision to uncover the rules that explain what happens to Israel. That issue drew attention from cases to rules, with the result that, in the book…

Theology of Judaism—Halakhah and Aggadah

(5,667 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
The normative law, or Halakhah, of the Oral Torah defines the principal medium by which the Rabbinic sages of antiquity founded set forth their message. Norms of conduct, more than norms of conviction, served to convey the sages' statement. But the exposition of matters of religious belief, or Aggadah, undertakes a critical task as well, so that the Halakhah and the Aggadah together set forth the whole theology of Judaism. One without the other leaves the work incomplete. The theology of the Written and Oral Torah—that is, Judaism—conveys the picture of world order based …
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