Pagan Rabbis of the Mishnah (Jacob Neusner)


Against history and messianic end-times, Jewish philosophy might want to take note that at the conclusion of a discussion of the Order of Appointed Seasons (Seder Moed) of the Mishnah, Jacob Neusner describes these pagan rabbis. Their world picture is cyclical, rooted in nature and in pleasure, raised, as a French philosopher might have said, to the nth degree in repetition.

“Unlike the recurrent emphasis of Deuteronomy, the Sabbath or festival is no longer a theme or topic available to some moment in historical time, to something which happened to Israel…The Mishnah refers…solely to recurrent events, embedded on the regular lunar calendar, defined in nature, by the movement of the seasons and the moon, and in Scripture, in the main by the affairs of the cult” (Judaism, The Evidence of the Mishnah, pp.136-7),

Forget Franz Rosenzweig who framed the holiday structure around big ticket items like God, world, “man,” creation, revelation, redemption, concepts that will ruin  the mind. “When the Mishnah speaks of appointed times, it means not the end-time or the one-time fulfillment of time but recurrent Sabbath and festivals, new moons and holy days. When the Mishnah asks what is to to be done in response to those appointed times of nature and cult, it answers in terms of cooking and eating, working and resting, sleeping, celebrating, and rejoicing. The Mishnah’s program for Sabbaths and festivals speaks not of a being other than the ordinary life of Israel, but of a heightened enjoyment of everyday pleasures…The framers of the document, moreover, so lay out matters that the sole provision in the village is for comfort and relaxation” (p.137).

At the same time, Neusner denies that this is a rejection of myth. It’s “a different cosmic myth, which speaks of different things to different people.” “The reason for the Mishnah’s worldliness is its otherworldly conception of the this worldly life of Israel” (ibid.).

(Veteran scholars of rabbinics, please excuse these late’ish career musings on Jacob Neusner of a Jewish philosophy scholar. These cannot be helped, neither the lateness nor the enthusiasm)

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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