Per­form­ing Israel’s Faith: Nar­ra­tive and Law in Rab­binic Theology

Jacob Neusner
  • Review
By – October 24, 2011

Jacob Neusner is the senior fel­low of the Insti­tute of Advanced The­ol­o­gy and a full­time pro­fes­sor at Bard Col­lege. He has writ­ten or edit­ed more than 900 books and count­less arti­cles, both schol­ar­ly and aca­d­e­m­ic, pop­u­lar and jour­nal­is­tic, and has been award­ed nine hon­orary degrees and 14 aca­d­e­m­ic medals. He is undoubt­ed­ly the most pro­lif­ic writer in any Jew­ish field of schol­ar­ship. How­ev­er, grind­ing out book after book does not always guar­an­tee qual­i­ty. Many schol­ars have been crit­i­cal of Neusner’s inter­pre­ta­tions, method­ol­o­gy, and translations.

In Per­form­ing Israel’s Faith Neusner weighs in in defense of the idea of Jew­ish covenan­tal nomism.” He wrote this book to show that the com­mand­ments of the law are acts of faith” and to show that dox­is (Aggadah) and prax­is (Halakhah) are insep­a­ra­ble. He presents an analy­sis of texts from the Mish­na and Toseph­ta as well as from both Tal­muds to prove this. 

The con­cept that Jew­ish Halakhah (law) and Aggadah (nar­ra­tive) fit togeth­er to form a robust and coher­ent covenant the­ol­o­gy— one direct­ly con­cerned about this world— is not exact­ly news. Schol­ars have been writ­ing about this for decades. Hes­chel, Soloveitchik, Lieber­man, and a host of oth­ers have amply demon­strat­ed what is for most, an accept­ed rab­binic position.

Neusner presents an exam­i­na­tion of sev­er­al key issues with­in Rab­binic Judaism— the nations, idol­a­try, sin, repen­tance and atone­ment — and demon­strates that nei­ther Halakhah nor Aggadah can be ful­ly and right­ly under­stood in iso­la­tion from each oth­er. Again, this point has been made many times before. Fur­ther­more, some of Neusner’s broad gen­er­al­iza­tions are flawed. For exam­ple, he posits that all Gen­tiles are idol­a­tors, and that To reveal the jus­tice of God…is the pur­pose of the the­o­log­i­cal sys­tem of the Aggadah…”. His orig­i­nal trans­la­tions of rab­binic texts may be felic­i­tous but are occa­sion­al­ly in error. A major faux pas for a schol­ar of his rank is the omis­sion of a note stat­ing which stan­dard edi­tions of the Mish­na or Tosef­ta he has cho­sen as his proof texts. For the lay­man this may not be impor­tant, but if some­one were to check the pri­ma­ry source, he would not know where to look. 

Of the 230 pages in this book, 96 pages are rab­binic texts in trans­la­tion. It seems more appro­pri­ate for use as a class­room source book than as an inde­pen­dent work. We rec­og­nize Neusner’s crit­i­cal and argu­men­ta­tive style, but what may be suit­ed for stu­dents in acad­eme is not always appro­pri­ate for the read­ing public. 

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions