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Biography in Rabbinic Judaism

(12,066 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
About not a single Rabbinic sage of late antiquity, the first six centuries c.e., do we have the materials that sustain anything like a serviceable biography. 1 That is not merely because the sources do not serve for critical history in the conventional sense, but because they intend a different kind of treatment of lives of persons. Paradigmatic episodes in place of distinctive and individual biography yield the model of the life framed by the Torah: a life lived within the rules of nature, but facing outward toward supernature, a life transcending the natural world, measured by moment…

Theodicy of Judaism I: The Moral Order, Reward, and Punishment

(7,422 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Theodicy means justifying God's deeds within the Torah's theology. The theodicy of Judaism is Judaism, defining as it does the generative issue of the entire theological system that animates the documents of Rabbinic Judaism from the first through the seventh centuries c.e. That issue is how one all-powerful God can be deemed just given the state of Israel, his people, in the world? 1…

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 wicked more…

Judaism, History of. Part V.A: Judaism in Modern Times in Europe

(10,684 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
For the history of Judaism in Europe, “modern times” begin when, from the late eighteenth century, political change removed from Christianity its power to define culture. The…

Conservative Judaism

(11,718 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
With roots in the German Judaic response to the development of Reform, then Orthodox Judaism , on the one side, and the immigrant response to the conditions of American life in the twentieth century, on the other, Conservative Judaism seeks a centrist position on the issues of tradition and change. The Historical School, a group of a nineteenth century German scholars, and Conservative Judaism, a twentieth century J…

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…

Purity and Impurity in Judaism

(10,677 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
In Classical Judaism, purity ( tohorah) and uncleanness ( tum'ah) carry forward Pentateuchal commandments that the holy people, Israel, when eating, procreating, and worshiping God in the Temple, is to avoid certain sources of contamination. The principal one of these is the corpse (Num. 19). Lev. 11, further, catalogues foods that are clean and those that are unclean; Israelites eat the former, not the latter. Lev. 12 goes over the uncleanness that results from childbirth; Lev. 13–14 deal with a skin-ai…

Hebrew Language, Judaism and the

(3,326 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Hebrew, an ancient northwest Semitic language, has served as the principal language of Judaism, even after the Jews ceased to speak it as their everyday language. The Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament,” “written Torah”) of ancient Israel were mainly in Hebrew. They were translated into Greek, Aramaic, and other languages, but in the synagogue were and are declaimed in Hebrew. The great commentaries to Scripture written by the Rabbinic sages of the first six centuries C.E. all were written in Heb…

Art and Symbol in Judaism

(6,333 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Most synagogues built from the third to the seventh century c.e., both in the land of Israel and abroad, had decorated floors or walls. Some iconic symbols out of the religious life of Judaism or of Greco-Roman piety occur nearly everywhere. Other symbols, available, for example, from the repertoire of items mentioned in Scripture, or from the Greco-Roman world, never make an appearance at all. We find representations of the following symbols of Judaic origin: shofar (ram's horn, for the New Year), a lula…

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…

Tradition in Judaism II

(15,495 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Is Judaism a traditional religion? At stake is a long-term issue of culture, namely, the relationship, in the formation of the Judaic culture, between philosophical system and historical tradition. In its canonical documents beyond Scripture, which are the Mishnah, Talmuds, and Midrash, normative Judaism claims to present enduring traditions, a fundament of truth revealed of old—the oral component of the Torah of Sinai. Judaism appeals to literary forms and cultural media that accentuate the tra…

Zekhut

(6,754 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
In classical Judaism zekhut —“the heritage of supererogatory virtue and its consequent entitlements”—stands for the empowerment, of a supernatural character, that derives from the virtue of one's ancestry or from one's own virtuous deeds, specifically, those not commanded but impelled by utter generosity of the heart, done without hope let alone prospect of recompense and without pressure of any kind. No single word in English bears the same meaning, nor is there a synonym for zekhut in the canonical writings, only the…

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…

Halakhah: The Category-Formations

(10,559 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
The Halakhah of Rabbinic Judaism as set forth in the Mishnah-Tosefta-Yerushalmi-Bavli organizes its data into generative category-formations, most of them shaped around the twin-principles of [1] the analysis of [2] a particular topic, hence, analytical-topical category-formations. Information on a given subject is shaped into the answer to one or more propositional or analytical questions of broad interest, generally transcending the subject-matter altogether. Then we should be able to account,…

Debates in Rabbinic Judaism: Amplifying the Dispute

(11,817 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Disputes in the halakhic documents—statement of a topic + Rabbi X says… Rabbi Y says—occasionally are augmented by debates. These are formal and balanced exchanges of not only opinion but reason and argument. While introduced only sparingly, the debate is always integral to the dispute to which it is attached, and invariably yields a deeper understanding of the issues of the dispute.…

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…

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 Musli…

Torah and Culture

(7,709 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Does culture express or defy the religious imperative? Do the patterns of the social order realize the divine plan, or do they represent that from which religion must separate itself, upon which religion stands in judgment? This inquiry pertains in particular to religions engaged in constructing norms for the social order of the faithful. The matter, then, concerns the relationship between the generative symbol of a religion an…

Reform Judaism

(9,921 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Reform Judaism, also known as Liberal or Progressive Judaism, sets forth a Judaic religious system that takes as its critical task the accommodation of Judaism to political changes in the status of the Jews from the late eighteenth century onward (fig. 132). These changes, particularly in Western Europe and the USA, accorded to Jews the status of citizens like other citizens of the nations in which they lived. But they denied the Jews the status of a separate, holy people, living under its own l…

Midrash and the Oral Torah: What Did the Rabbinic Sages Mean by “the Oral Torah”?

(6,030 words)

Author(s): Neusner, Jacob
Rabbinic Judaism classifies its canonical writings as parts of “the Oral Torah” revealed by God to Moses at Sinai and transmitted from then to late antiquity in a process of tradition from master to disciple. Part of that process of tradition is held to involve a work of…
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