Saturday, December 1, 2007

Jacob Neusner's "A Rabbi Talks with Jesus" Book Review

My wife asked me quite a lot of theological pillow talk last night. Wondering about the nuances of what Rabbi Neusner differentiates as the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith, I found myself unable to answer her questions about when the Old Testament was finally codified (I do recall that Protestants and Jews differ from Catholics about its canon); if Jesus preached more of a universal rather than Hebrew-centered message; if you accept Jesus as a great rabbi in the Jewish tradition apart from the later Messianic interpretation given him by Paul and the later 1st century writers;how Peter exactly clashed with Paul, when the Acts of the Apostles was recorded;how much of the Gospels was "back-dated" or as I think of it-- dubbed-- to insert claims of Jesus as the divine Son; finally, whether God talked to Jesus as He was reported in the Torah as talking to Moses.

All fodder for two millennia of disputations, inquisitions, pogroms, calumny, and murder. Or, as Neusner would have it, more calmly taking the Sermon of the Mount seriously. Why? Matthew 5-7 appeals to the Jewish community. It, before John's vitriolic gospel against the Jews, or Paul's messianic deification of Christ, represents an earlier stage in what we can learn about the core teachings of Jesus as he proclaimed them to his fellow Israelites. Neusner dismisses those on the Jewish side who treat Jesus as an affable teacher but ignore his overthrow of Torah; the modern rabbi also denies that Christians should give the back-handed compliment that the founder of their faith was, after all, a Jew and nothing more, given the radical reformulation of Christianity.

Neusner, with his erudite incorporation of Talmudic passages and contrasts the message on another mountain, that of the Torah to Moses on Sinai on behalf of the community of Israel. The Torah requires a collective response and defines familial and cultic responsibility to ensure devotion of the Hebrews to their God on a daily, detailed, and sanctifying basis. Jesus, in the Sermon, addresses not the gathering of Jews at the base of the Mount-- who were amazed at his speaking with such bold authority against tradition even as he promised to fulfill the Torah-- so much as the smaller band of disciples at the top of the hill.

To his followers, Jesus began, Neusner explains, speaking to "you" as often in the singular as the plural. Rather than the incorporation of the communal and the domestic, the national responsibility of Israel and the actions prescribed to the priests in the Temple to attain holiness by ritual and practice, Jesus began to appeal to his disciples. In conversations, Jesus starts-- as Matthew describes it-- to place the personal ahead of the collective ''you." This, in turn, ties into the promotion of commitment to the Master instead of the Torah. Neusner demands that both Christians and Jews take seriously this crucial difference. The rabbi argues that Jesus did not follow Torah faithfully-- even long before the claims of messianic rule were attributed to him. By evidence in Matthew, which Neusner interprets as much as possible rather than using later New Testament texts that elaborate on earlier gospels, the rabbi asserts that following Jesus leads, inexorably, away from the communal Torah into an individual's reliance upon salvation through a decision to follow Jesus rather than stay behind with one's family and community in the Jewish tradition. Holiness, rather than perfection, and sanctity inched towards in the here and now rather than salvation in the world to come, are what distinguish Torah-true Judaism from Jesus's Sermon.

A Jew, Neusner imagines then (as now), cannot have it both ways. Jesus invites one to follow him towards holiness rather than remain totally loyal to the Torah of the Pharisees and scribes, of keeping holy the Sabbath, or of looking after one's parents instead of taking off with Jesus as he leaves Galilee for Jerusalem. These chapters, which take passages from the Sermon and juxtapose them with challenges made by Jews then to Jesus and other scriptural and Talmudic passages, do move in fits and starts, perhaps in homage to yeshiva discourse with its give-and-take as well as Neusner's own quickly paced method of scholarship.

Neusner is an astonishingly prolific critic on rabbinic-era texts; he notes how he wrote this book at a chapter or so a day and finished it in a week. (He wrote this in 1993 on his sixtieth birthday and already takes credit for 480 books.) This speed of composition implies a vast and rapid command of texts and ideas. In this book, aimed at the everyday reader, this accustomed pace may present a drawback for this short book; it could have been at least a third more brief as it is. Editing could have sharpened his argument. It rewards attention, but the critique unfolds in a recursive rather than linear fashion that may frustrate those less familiar with this venerable tendency of Jewish discourse about texts. I find it touching that Neusner looks forward to arguing in the Heavenly Yeshiva with Moses and the sages.

Chapters tend to drift about, although they do accumulate into a thoughtful consideration of why Jewish believers deserve, after two thousand years of condemnation and condescension by the majority faith, a chance for autonomy. Neusner posits that only now, in our climate of intermarriage, conversions across both communities, and interfaith dialogue, can Jews finally gain respect from Christians and return it in kind. A pioneer in Jewish-Christian dialogue, Neusner knows both sides well, and with his command of the Mishnah, he instantly can conjure up the proof-text he needs. This book comes with a pre-papal nod on the back jacket from no less than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger!

Neusner, as a believer but also as a scholar, looks at Matthew's primary appeal to the Jews, the Sermon on the Mount. He asks that both Jews and Christians look at Matthew's earlier gospel not as refined scholars (who take into account extra-textual sources) but on the level of the believer of the text-- and the inquirer who comes from the outside to the text and regards it (how else could it be thousands of years later?) as the primary instigation for dialogue and interfaith inquiry. Matthew sought to convert the Jews to the teachings of this radical rabbi, and Rabbi Neusner takes him on with respect in the Jewish tradition of a long conversation continuing over the centuries about how best to live life according to the Torah, and talks to as well as with Jesus, as one sage to another.

In a moving chapter, he concludes his study of the Sermon by defending his own Jewish observance against the new faith that Jesus creates. Neusner would not join the disciples, but would have remained at the foot of the Mount, "because, for Jesus, 'you' is as often singular as plural. But for the Torah, from Sinai onward, 'you' is always plural. 'You shall have no other gods before me.' 'We'-- eternal Israel-- are here to respond: 'We shall do and we shall obey.' And I do not believe God would want it any other way." (143)

(Image: I prefer Curt Doty's icon on my hardcover to the plain text paperback. Most of this review posted to Amazon US today.)

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