Incoherent Rabbinic Political Theory (Jacob Neusner)


A brilliant hot mess of illuminating brilliance, Jacob Neusner’s Rabbinic Political Theory: Religion and Politics in the Mishnah is a must read for readers of Jewish philosophy interested in politics, even as it will inevitably disappoint anyone actually interested in either “the political” and politics writ large and in the Judaism of the Mishnah writ small.

About the political in the Mishnah, Neusner spoke only glancingly, but more coherently in his Judaism: Evidence of the Mishnah. Here in Rabbinic Political Theory, he enters into the thick of the material only to get confused. It is in that confusion that the brilliance lies. The incoherence is a telling one insofar as it highlights not so much the confusion of the author but about the confused place of politics and the political in relation to religion and in relation to Judaism.

The fundamental incoherence comes from these three points.

[1] None of what appears in Rabbinic Political Theory will be identifiable to anyone interested in politics and political theory. [2] This is because Neusner makes big claims about politics and the political in the Mishnah while he himself provides the ammunition that drops the bomb on those very claims. [3] This has to do with the most basic underlying confusion which is to confuse the “social” with the “political.”

This confusion can be found at the opening line of the first chapter devoted to “defining” a “politics and the politics of religion.” There he writes, “Religion comprises what people do together, not just what they believe in the privacy of their hearts. In other word, religion functions socially.” This is pretty much a given in Jewish Studies. Neusner then continues to conclude, “And since it operates within society, religion may therefore function politically” (p.1).

The language here is slippery. To say that religion “may” function politically doesn’t mean that it actually does or must do so always and necessarily. After all, there are many forms of religion and many forms of the political. My own assumption would be that there are social functions that are other than politics, even as, defining both terms narrowly, the social and the political overlap.

 And with that, we’re off.

For Neusner, the primary piece of evidence for the existence of politics, not in Judaism or Jewish life per se, but in the specific case of the Judaism of the Mishnah is the presence of laws relating to coercion and corporeal and capital punishment. Coming back again and again throughout the book to this theme, Neusner is working with Weber explicitly in mind, contending that legitimate violence is the sine qua non of politics (cf. 6, 173, passim). A second and also interesting interlocutor for Neusner is Aristotle who begins his analysis in The Politics with “the householder” as a basic economic unit of political life. For Neusner, the householder plays a similar role, except for one respect.

But then the analysis goes strange.

By the end of the book in part III, in the last chapters comparing the so-called politics of the Mishnah with The Politics of Aristotle Neusner notes this important difference. Aristotle integrates the economics of the household with the larger village and then polis. In contrast, the Mishnah splits apart the economics of the household from the political (chapters 9-12). The claim is that the household and village is not political in the Mishnah (p.206-8). Other points of contrast concern the relation between stasis and flux, both as ontological categories and as points of political difference. Aristotle is alert to the messiness of political life and constitutional change. The Mishnah could not care a less about these phenomena.

So what is the political in the Mishnah?

What are the driving passions that animate it? The first thing to mention is that the politics of the Mishnah is meant to maintain the routine, regular order of the world. This is a basic point made famous in Theories of Religion by scholars such as Clifford Geeretz, that the ethos of a people is meant to correspond with nomos, the order of the cosmos. The Mishnah as a “steady-state” system of law reflects the cosmic order of creation whose jurisdiction is caught between the will of God and the power of free, intentional, human action and ordering (cf. 153, 157).

The second animating “passion” is the one that Neusner identifies as such, which is the passion to be like God. This would a politics in the image of God. Beyond the merely secular and mere civil order, the passion of this politics is otherworldly and futuristic (cf. pp.112-115, 120, 168). Reading the final chapter of tractate Sanhedrin but reminding this reader of Franz Rosenzweig, Neusner evokes how the so-called politics of the Mishnah is meant to create and sustain a people outliving the grave. This includes those put to death by human courts. All Israel except for a clearly and carefully designated subset of Jewish heretics enjoy the world to come, no matter what they do in this world (p.122). Not the polis, which is what defines the political for Aristotle, it is the people of Israel, an image of a holy nation that stands out as the political entity, like God, above time and incapable of dying (pp.128, 132, 213). All of this is quite fantastical, as Neusner will himself note.

One could call this a theo-politics, but the politics of the Mishnah is not even political, much less theo-political.

Neusner will make or concede this point throughout the text, that the political, as represented by the authority of a human king is subordinate in the system of the Mishnah (pp.137, 146, 148). But even more to the point, it is a theo-politics, if that’s what you want to call a set of ideas under which God or the representation of God is a dominating sovereign that legitimates the political system. Unlike in Hebrew Scripture, there is no connection between politics and revelation. It is not revelation, not God’s direct word that motivates human action and legitimates legal coercion.  According to Neusner, there is no “myth of power” in the Mishnah (p.41, cf. pp.41-7). The whole point of the concluding chapter of part II of the volume is that “transcending power” means that the God of the Mishnah is no omnipotent sovereign, that God concedes political authority to human actors (chp.8, especially p.168). This represents a kind of theology that John (Jack) Caputo has called “weak,” the term appearing here in Neusner on the politics of the Mishnah already in this 1991 study.

Is the Mishnah even political?

The answer to that question would depend upon where and how the political is placed in the Mishnah. Is politics the animating passion of this formative document? According to Neusner, it turns out that politics is set to the side. It doesn’t even matter in the Mishnah. The “passion of the Mishnah” is animated not by politics but by passion for eternal life in the world to come. There is, in the Mishnah no interest in naked political power (p.130), and the main interest of the Mishnah is not in any divine or secular controlling sovereign authority. Politics only “facilitates from the sidelines” (chp.6; esp. pp.137, 146), and in the end, coercion, which for Neusner was his main piece of evidence for the politics of the Mishnah, is also set to the side. Again according to Neusner, what matters in the Mishnah is not the court of the king, but rather “the Temple and table, the field and family, the altar and hearth, time, space, transactions in the material world and in the world above as well” (p.147). Regarding coercion, the linchpin of the political: in the end, the law enjoys limited jurisdiction. It is the subject of “small claims about minor matters….a potpourri of cases of a distinctly trivial character, affecting at best only a handful of local residents.” Already in the Mishnah, the law turns out to be weak, operating on the basis of inner sanction on the part of those who choose to live according to its order. The behavior of those who do not do so is not subject to sanctions. Even if Neusner himself still insists that the law is “profoundly political,” the law remains, in his own estimation, descriptive, not prescriptive (pp.162-3).

Who dominates?

The sages, of course, are the one in control. But is this political rule?  The three-fold or four-fold jurisdiction marked by the Mishnah include Heaven, King, Temple, and Court. According to Neusner, these are distinct and cooperating realms. “The Heavenly court attends to deliberate defiance of Heaven, the Temple to inadvertent defiance of Heaven. The earthly court attends to matters subject to its jurisdiction by reason of sufficient evidence, proper witnesses, and the like, and these same matters will come under Heavenly jurisdiction when the earthly court finds itself unable to act” (p.53).

At the very same time, the Mishnah also ignores this careful arrangement. Under their own hegemony, the sages rule all three human zones (arguably Heaven as well). The courts are in their hand, the priests obey their instruction regarding ritual law, and the king only governs at the pleasure of the sage whose goodwill he must cultivate (p.59). Indeed, the Mishnah describes in great detail the working of Temple and court, its bureaucracy and value system, and with almost nothing to say about the King and his administration. There is no real institutional differentiation in the Mishnah.

I’m culling all of this from Neusner. Regarding cases of constitutional crisis, no details are given in the Mishnah about what happens when the king or priest ignore the sage. There is no sense in the Mishnah of real competing political powers outside the rabbinic class. They are there but not acknowledged as meriting serious attention. With no clear picture of how politics works, all we have is an inchoate consensus of how things are or are supposed to be. Neusner staked his entire political theory on coercion, but we have no sense as to how the rabbis preside over local government of village affairs or coerce. We have little by which to understand how the sages acted politically in institutions (controlling personnel, organizing, making decisions, effecting power, working out differences to come to consensus regarding public policy (chp.3, cf. chp.4). Neusner understands perfectly well that the Mishnah is not political in any real way except as imagined by the sages (p.84).

None of this is coherently political. It is puzzling to imagine how the Mishnah is supposed to constitute a political document or constitutes a politics of Judaism. Even if the stakes are high, Neusner concedes, “in this Judaism politics stands subordinate, its range of responsibility limited” (p.48). Or consider the following sentence which is a flat-out contradiction: “Politics becomes a statement not of worldly power but of ontological truth, and that accounts, in the case at hand, for the laconic and descriptive character of political discourse” (p.168). Given this laconic character, it is not easy to figure out why one would want to call it political in the first place, when, after all, the first order of a politics is to attend to the political, not to the ontological.

A fabrication of the imagination

About this total picture, conservative Jewish thinkers fantasize. But the so-called politics of the Mishnah as understood by Neusner as constituting a conception of the integrated life is one that is only imagined. To a utopian neverland belongs the image of an entire nation sorting out rules and order in every component of life, economic, political, philosophical, theological. Neusner knows that this kind of politics is utopian, fabricated. So why bother with the Mishnah if it is just a fabrication?  Neusner points to the power of imagination, of thought experiments to provide “data about the possibilities of invention –and also about the consequences” (pp.5-7). At one point he compares it to science fiction.

But a politics woven out of “gossamer threads of hopeful fantasy”  does not count as political (p.9). Whatever insight we might draw from the Mishnah and from Neusner’s study of political theory has not to do primarily with politics, but about religion. This too is an incoherent statement: “[P]olitical culture in the politics of Judaism, though prominent, is essentially peripheral to the systemic problematic” (p.9). Read it again. A phenomenon that is “prominent” cannot be “peripheral.”

Thoroughly engaged by Rabbinic Political Theory and the grist for thinking it provides, my takeaway about the data of possibilities is precisely the opposite of the one drawn by Neusner. No, the Judaism of the Mishnah is not political. Another conclusion is that one is better off not mixing religion and politics. Whatever model it is the rabbis made up in the Mishnah was and is in no way remotely a politics or political. Yes, they imagined a better world than a political world, a holy community not in control of a polis, the circle of an ordered world of men who want to maintain apart from flux a social world in a state of pure stasis, a social entity whose life is lived pointing to life beyond the grave. In this light, the Mishnah is the wrong tree to bark up for politics. Also the wrong tree are the systems of Judaism that grow out its matrix. Rule by rabbis can only collapse in on itself because these systems that they design contain little by way of political data.

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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1 Response to Incoherent Rabbinic Political Theory (Jacob Neusner)

  1. tzvee says:

    Well spoken and incisive. Thanks.

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