Virtual Judaism of the Mishnah (Jacob Neusner & Gilles Deleuze)


Reading Neusner’s classic Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah at long last and past midcareer. I am unsure if earlier I would have ever appreciated the book enough or at all or I would have been able to conceive the idea that Mishnah is virtual Judaism. What Neunser finds in Mishnah is a philosophical system cut off from and suspended over actual reality, a picture of society suspended over history, and in the cultic imaginary of the holiness code, the intensification of heighted life.

Neusner calls Mishnah a “grand design of life for the house of Israel,” including civil space and holy time.  The use of the term “design” suggests what the theorists of religion following JZ Smith would call “map,” “not territory” (p.42). But what kind of house? Is the design a practical blueprint? Neusner asserts unequivocally that this is not a house in which anyone ever lived or in which anyone could ever have lived (p.xvii). This means more than the historical fact that the Judaism of the Mishnah was rejected back in the day by the vast majority of Jews during their failed wars of liberation from Roman empire (pp.xviii, 24).

More to the point is how the Mishnah reflects not the actual world of quotidian life and historical change, but rather a picture of stasis and the values of stasis. In the Mishnah is confronted “a work of absolute fantasy: a non-existent Tempe, fully laid out, building, protocol, procedures; a society stretched out from the walls of the Temple, with its space and regulation of time, it mode of establishing families and  dissolving them, its economic life, all proportioned in relationship to that imagined Temple and its imaginary cult” (p.47). As repetition, the Mishnah’s design models the ongoing events of uneventful events in the life of the village and cult. Its affirmation of ordinary society, state, commerce, and cult out of joint with contemporary reality, the reality evoked by the Mishnah is entirely made-up and mapped out in the imagination. Its design constitutes a “leap back to what was not” (p171).

In Neusner’s presentation, the Judaism of the Mishnah is more like philosophy than law. “Before us lie the beginnings of work which in its late day phased in exquisitely trivial terms some of those old, perennial issues of philosophy contemplated by Aristotle and later considered by the Stoics, issues of potentiality and actuality, the physics of mixtures, and other odd and, from a practical viewpoint, empty questions, the answers to which…interested only those who asked the questions” (p.47).

What Neusner calls the gift of the scribes to the Mishnah is the organization of knowledge and possibilities into patterns that generate “abstract perception.” Beneath the surface of the rule perceived in Mishnah are unstated principles and unsounded patterns, a mode of thought attuned to that reality which lies beneath the surface, but which we would add to Neusner’s evocation, revealed only at the surface (pp.241-5). What matters more than the said is the saying in a world without subjects, a universal grammar as imagined reality, distinct statements related to a whole imposed by mind (pp.234, 246, 247). There are, as per Neusner, no actors, authors, or audience in the theater of the Mishnah (234), which has been made to resemble a wax museum, tableau, diorama at rest in perfect stasis (235). As philosophy, Mishnah is a system of synthesis, fusion, connection, division, the disintegration of things vis-à-vis each other and the connection of acts and things (pp.234, 235, 261, 265). Out of this chaotic world reduced to constructions of pure potentiality, the Mishnah creates bounds about and pathways through confusion.

What is common to both Neusner and Deleuze might have a lot to do with the residual force of Stoicism as a philosophical disposition. We see this in the way both thinkers theorize virtual potentiality, a rhizomatic connecting and disconnecting of forces, a world without subjects. They are different, of course. Deleuzian lines tends toward intensities that are bifurcating, accentric, chaotic and schizophrenic, whereas Mishnah seeks stasis and stabilization. Deleuzian philosophy is anti-humanist or post-humanist, whereas the Mishnah according to Neusner is humanist insofar as human intention is placed at the center of the system.

What, though, is the intention of the Mishnah? Is it good sense and common sense, or something that comes just as close to paradox that is just one step away from an abyss. While Neusner tracks faithfully the conservative worldview of the Mishnah we note a chaotic little point. “What can a man do?” is the philosophical question posed by the Mishnah to the philosophical reader.  This is the evidence of the Mishnah. “What causes and resolves confusion and chaos is the power of the Israelite’s will” (p.270). Consider this tricky little statement. There is more to Mishnah than resolving chaos into ordered cosmos, which is the usual rubric with which to consider Mishna and other so-called symbolic systems in the study of religion. The will of the Israelite does more than slot flux into neat categorical buckets. The cat that Neusner lets out of the bag is that the will of the Israelite can just as well cause chaos as resolve it. At the center of the Mishnah, is “man.” Neusner exposes how it is “this man is Israel, who can do what he wills.” Human will and willfulness enters uncertainty and difference into the heart of the rabbinic rhizome.

In Talmud, the divine dice player is the human figure standing at the center of the Mishnah, who corresponds to God in heaven (p.270). More infrequently than not, God appears barely in the Mishnah. God is not “actually” there, not even in the index to Neusner’s book. Almost godless would be more the radical conclusion of his more conservative analysis. The human subject makes holy. The human subject animates the system. The human, not God is at the center of the Mishnah. The human subject decides, leaving Heaven to confirms and ratify (p.277). The rabbis are the ones who have assembled the entire apparatus. They are the ones who determine the rules of the game, the roll of the dice being theirs. At question then is what forms of difference will emerge with each successive roll, repeated one roll after the other and under the condition of a freedom that only the system allows its operators?

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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2 Responses to Virtual Judaism of the Mishnah (Jacob Neusner & Gilles Deleuze)

  1. tzvee says:

    Few others gave or give Neusner a serious reading. You caught many of his main insights quite well.

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