Fortress Press

Recovering Judaism: The Universal Dimension of Judaism

Recovering Judaism

The Universal Dimension of Judaism

Jacob Neusner (Author)


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The renewed perception of Judaism's influence

Judaism today is too often thought to represent a religious backwater, a highly particularistic, religion with its own esoteric tales and traditions, practices and norms. First Christians, then Jews themselves, have succumbed to this characterization, resulting in dismissal of Judaism's universal religious significance. Bereft of its religious import, Judaism is increasingly thought merely an ethnic designation—and a quickly dissipating one at that.

Neusner pleas for vindication of "the universal character and appeal of Judaic monotheism in the mainstream of humanity." Of the three great monotheistic religions, only Judaism has survived without political power, military might, or great numbers of adherents and has done so because its method and message aim to persuade the world of God's dominion and the marks of God's rule.
  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9780800632687
  • Dimensions 6 x 9
  • Pages 216
  • Publication Date November 17, 2000


Excerpt from the Preface

(pre-publication version)

This book aims to prove that, in its normative writings, Judaism is a universalistic religion, speaking a language common to all humanity and offering a place in God’s kingdom to everyone. That proof is required because Judaism is commonly portrayed by both the faithful and the competing religions as ethnic and particularistic, exclusive and unwelcoming. Two forces today aim at the ethnicization of Judaism into a mere culture, Christianity and Jews themselves.

From New Testament times, Christianity has represented Judaism as insufficient because it excludes the gentiles from that “Israel” of which Scripture speaks, the Israel that knows and worships the one and only God of all humanity. But on its own, Christianity cannot stifle the vitality of Judaism within the community of the faithful.

The Jewish community defines itself in ethnic and political terms, and even rabbis function more often than not as ethnic cheerleaders. Jews, so people maintain, have attitudes and feelings and opinions acquired through birth and upbringing and not accessible to other people, as do all other ethnic or racial groups. By Judaism then people mean, the Jews’ ethnic culture. Then in an age of ethnic celebration, a time in which people emphasize difference and not commonality, Judaism finds itself represented as an ethnic religion, which is not a religion at all. It is the sum of Jews’ experience: the culture, the history, the sentiment, and consciousness of the Jewish people. So difference and particularity rule, and Judaism, a religion that I shall show from its origins means to address all humanity from beginning to end, from creation to redemption at the end of days, loses all hearing.

To state matters simply: the Jews used to be a people with one religion, Judaism. Now, Judaism is becoming merely the religion of one people, an ethnic religion, thus, in the monotheist framework of a universal God of all humanity, deprived of its religiosity altogether.

The argument of this book, with its stress on the universalistic character of the thought and argument of Judaism in its normative canon, means to reestablish the claim of Judaism to constitute a universal religious tradition, addressing the entirety of humanity exactly as do Christianity and Islam, competing with the other two monotheisms on an even playing field for the attention and affirmation of all who maintain that the one and only God who made heaven and earth has made himself known to humanity. All three monotheisms concur that there is only one God, and the naked logic of that concurrence requires that all three are speaking of one and the same God. Then the claim that one of the three monotheisms affords access to the one and only God to only one sector of humanity, a sector sustained principally through ethnic or racial ties, and that that one and only God is inaccessible to everybody else—that absurd claim laid against Judaism caricatures Judaism and violates the generative logic of monotheism, whether in its Islamic or Christian or Judaic formulation.

Each of the three monotheist religions—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity—chooses its own medium to convey one universal message to all humanity concerning the one and only and unique God. All encompass in the story that they tell humanity the one God’s self-manifestation to Abraham, then in the Torah given by God to Moses at Sinai, and, more generally, in the Hebrew Scriptures of ancient Israel. All concur on a further stage in revelation: God in Christ; God to the prophet, Muhammad; God in the Oral Torah, for Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, respectively. Judaism represents one of the three possibilities that inhere within the dialectics of monotheism. But while Christianity and Islam set forth a message of universal significance and appeal, Judaism finds itself represented as a backwater, not part of the mainstream of monotheism.

What I mean to demonstrate in these pages is that in its normative writings, Scripture as conveyed in the Mishnah, talmudic amplifications of the Mishnah, and midrash (terms defined in the Glossary), Judaism addresses all of humanity and appeals to everyone to accept the yoke of God’s kingdom as set forth in the Torah of Moses. In this account of the method and message of the Judaic monotheism defined in the classical and normative documents of Judaism in their formative age, coinciding with the formation of Christianity and concluding at the eve of the advent of Islam, I show the universal character and appeal of Judaic monotheism in the mainstream of humanity.

It is, I demonstrate, a monotheism for all, not just for an “us.” Appealing to the revelation of Sinai, oral and written, Judaism frames a shared, accessible logic that forms of the Torah a universally applicable and compelling system of salvation. Judaic monotheism aims to persuade the world to accept the one and only God’s dominion and to identify, in the world, the marks of God’s rule. So addressing all of humanity Judaism appeals to a reasoned reading of revelation. As there is no ethnic physics or mathematics, so in the framework of monotheism, Judaism, like Christianity and Islam, claims there is no ethnic theology, only a universal claim on the intellect of every person in the world resting on the authority of God’s revealed will recorded at the Torah—the instruction—of Sinai.

Specifically, Judaism transforms the specificities of the Torah into generalizations that encompass the story of all humanity, beginning, middle, and end. That story begins with Adam and Eve and their fall from Eden and the advent of death and ends with the restoration of humanity to eternal life. How do the sages of the Judaic documents of ancient times turn the particular story of Adam and Israel into the universal account of humanity at large? What transforms Scripture as portrayed by Judaic monotheism into a universal statement is its appeal to the shared intellectual qualities of the human mind. Common rules of thought and analysis, Judaism maintains, transform the Torah’s particularities into universally accessible and rationally compelling truth. We deal with a universality of intellectual medium, not only of message—a transcendence over particularities made possible by appeal to self-evidence: to the shared modes of thought and analysis that all reasonable persons find compelling. Judaism appeals above all to logic, reason, and rationality in the reading of the revealed Scripture common to the three monotheist religions.

Excerpt from Chapter One

(pre-publication version)

The Universalism of Judaism

The Torah—that is to say, the religion the world calls Judaism—embodies the universal within the particular and so delivers a message of salvation to all humanity. Specifically, the Torah as set forth by the Judaic sages of late antiquity, the first six centuries of the Common Era (also known as a.d.), turns Scripture’s story of Adam, then Israel, into a statement of the human condition, which is embodied by Adam, then Israel. It is the genius of the singular version of monotheism set forth by Judaism to speak of humble things but thereby to refer to exalted ones, to find in homely commonplaces transcendent messages of eternity, and to do so within a logic that is both particular in its expression and universal in its range and extension. It follows that like its counterpart-monotheisms, Christianity and Islam, Judaism addresses undifferentiated humanity with a message of universal application. It is a religion that speaks of one God for all the world. But that is not how the other monotheisms regard and represent Judaism. They see it as ethnic and particular, not as universal—and therefore as not really monotheism. The representation of Judaism as particularistic, narrow, and ethnic characterizes Christian accounts of Judaism, whether explicitly apologetic or merely insidiously so. Indeed, Christian scholarship on Christian origins invents a grotesque ethnocentric, tribal religion of automatons, then assigns to that caricature traits that violate the very logic of monotheism. In the form of historical scholarship, theology based on the Gospels and Paul’s letters invariably contrasts Christian universalism with Judaic particularism, and, these days, that is all given the authoritative form of historical fact.

Christian theology in times past and contemporary scholarship of a historical character as well take as their starting point the position that “Israel” in the Judaism of that time is ethnic and that consequently Judaism, while affirming one God, kept God to itself. Then, the Christian theological apologetic goes on, the gospel improved upon Judaism’s monotheism by bringing to all the peoples of the world what had originally been kept for only one people alone. So for Judaism “Israel” refers to the ethnic group, a particular people, defined in quite this-worldly terms. And the contrast between the ethnic and particularistic Judaism and the universalistic Christianity follows.

But Judaic monotheism builds upon what the sages conceive to constitute the shared traits of intellect of all humanity, reading Scripture in the manner of natural history, as any reasonable person might do. So here, by contrast to the prevailing caricature, we shall see that Judaism reaches into the common, rational mind of humanity for its reading of the one and only God’s self-revelation to Israel in the Torah of Sinai. Accordingly, I show in detail, Judaism sets forth a universalistic message of monotheisms. This it does in two steps. First, the sages of Judaism appeal for knowledge of God to precisely the revelation invoked by Christianity and Islam, that is to say, the Hebrew Scriptures of ancient Israel. Second, by appeal to modes of thought and analysis common to all rational persons, they set forth out of revealed Scripture—they would say, out of the Torah, written and oral—an account of the human situation that pertains, without ethnic distinction, to everybody who has ever lived.

Dunn’s Representation of Judaism as Particularistic

Lest readers suppose I exaggerate the Christian representation of Judaic monotheism, let me point to a single, current, and representative statement of the ethnic reading of Judaic monotheism. It derives from James D. G. Dunn’s The Partings of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity. Dunn takes as his question the explanation of “how within the diversity of first-century Judaism, the major strand which was to become Christianity pulled apart on a sequence of key issues from the major strand which was to become Rabbinic Judaism.” The parting of the ways “began with Jesus, but without Easter and the broadening out of the gospel to the Gentiles”; the break may not have taken place at all. How, then, does Dunn explain the parting of the ways? He appeals to the particularity and ethnicity of Judaism, as against the meta-ethnic, universalizing power of Christianity to reach out beyond the ghetto walls of an ethnic Israel. Here is his language:

For the Judaism which focussed its identity most fully in the Torah, and which found itself unable to separate ethnic identity from religious identity, Paul and the Gentile mission involved an irreparable breach.

Christianity began as a movement of renewal breaking through the boundaries first within and then round the Judaism of the first century. At its historic heart Christianity is a protest against any and every attempt to claim that God is our God and not yours, God of our way of life and not yours, God of our “civilization” and not yours . . . against any and every attempt to mark off some of God’s people as more holy than others, as exclusive channels of divine grace.

Dunn’s premise is that “Israel” found definition in both an “ethnic” and a religious identity. Certainly for our own day his view prevails, since a broad consensus maintains that Judaism is “the religion of the Jews,” a conglomerate of Jews’ public opinion, whatever that may be, and that the Jews form an ethnic group, with the religious part also constituting a religious community. So by Judaism people mean an ethnic ideology bearing religious pretensions.

But as a matter of fact, distinguishing the “ethnic” from the religious aspect of “Israel” for the documents of the dual Torah simply defies the evidence in hand, that is to say, the formative writings of normative Judaism that came to closure in the first six centuries c.e., from the Mishnah through the Talmud of Babylonia. Dunn reads Judaism through the figure of Paul. But in the Torah, the written as conveyed through the oral, there is no ethnic Israel that is distinct from a supernatural Israel at all. Such a distinction does not take place in the sources that attest to the Judaism of which Dunn speaks. So what I find in Dunn’s formulation of matters is the explicit claim that Judaism in its normative sources takes second place in the hierarchy of religions because it is ethnic, while Christianity overspreads the bounds of ethnic identification.

Table of Contents


1. The Universalistic Message of Judaic Monotheism
Dunn's Representation of Judaism as Particularistic
A Different Way of Addressing All of Humanity
Demonstrating the Universalistic Character of Judaism
The Starting Point
Israel as Counterpart to Humanity
The Monotheist Theology of the Torah: Four Principles
The Universalistic Character of Judaic Monotheism
"Israel" as Ethnic, as Supernatural: The Issue Joined

2. The Legal Medium: From the Case to the Governing Rule
Norms of Behavior, Norms of Belief
How Does the Halakah Speak to Humanity at Large?
The Particular as the Medium for the General
Rational Analysis of Data: Classes of Things
Natural History in Mishnaic Analysis
Where Does God Abide in Reasoned Analysis?
Science: The Universal Knowledge
Rules of Natural History: Aristotle and the Sages
Where the Sages Part Company from Aristotle
Where Material Things Become Means of Revelation

3. The Legal Message: Restoring Eden through Israel
God's Unity and Dominion
Between Israel and God: Shebi'it
Israel's Social Order: Sanhedrin-Makkot and the Death Penalty
Inside the Israelite Household: Shabbat-Erubin
What These Cases Tell Us

4. The Narrative-Exegetical Medium: Paradigmatic Thinking
Scripture's Narratives and Laws: Governing Principles of the Social Order
Judaism Rejects Historical Thinking
The Modes of Paradigmatic Thinking
How to Find Paradigms
How Paradigms Replace Historical Time
Past and Present
Philosophy Replaces History
The Universalization of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs
"Israel" as the Paradigm
Paradigms Discerned through Particular Cases
Particular Historical Narrative to Exemplary Social Generalization
The Four Principal Models for Organizing Events
Supernatural Israel Transcending the Tides of Time
The Purpose of Paradigmatic Thinking
From Scripture to Torah
The Character of the Torah's Paradigms

5. The Narrative-Exegetical Message: Restoring Adam to Eden, Israel to the Land
Restoring Israel to the Land, Humanity to Eden
The Resurrection of the Dead and Judgment
Standing under God's Judgment
The Restoration of Humanity to Eden
Exile and Return
Redemption from Egypt, for the World to Come
Creation the Model of Redemption
Humanity at Large in the Eschatology of Judaism
Who and What Then is Israel?
From Concrete Event to Evocative Symbol
Life in the World to Come
Idolaters = Gentiles and the World to Come

6. Rational Israel: God's Justice, Humanity's Reason
Humanity Explains the Reason Why
Everyone Has the Power to Understand
God's Justice: The Reason
Scripture: God Obeys the Rules of Justice
The Reason Why Not
When Israel ("Those Who Know God") Sins
Measure for Measure
Predestination and Free Will
Suffering Is Reasonable Too
Anomalies in the Just Order
Beyond Reason, the Human Condition

Epilogue: Recovering Judaism