18 October 2009

Letter from Lhasa, number 147. (Neusner 2004a): Making God’s Word Work

Letter from Lhasa, number 147. (Neusner 2004a): Making God’s Word Work

by Roberto Abraham Scaruffi

Neusner, J., Making God’s Word Work. A Guide to the Mishnah, continuum, 2004.

(Neusner 2004a).

Jacob Neusner

The Mishnah is a collection of rabbinic traditions written down at the beginning of the III century CE.

“The Mishnah is the crown jewel of Rabbinic Judaism in its formative age, the first six centuries of the Common Era.” (Neusner 2004a, p. 11)

“In the law of the Mishnah, Israel does not constitute an ethnic group, a nation or people defined by culture or measured by this-worldly matters of practical consequence. Status as an Israelite, part of “Israel”, comes about by reason of the Torah, Israel forms the holy community of those destined for life eternal, and that constitutes not an ethnic group, nation, or people, but a social entity that is sui generis.” (Neusner 2004a, p. 82)

“The Mishnah knows Israel as the social order that bears moral obligations to God. Corporate Israel alone transcends the grave, and that is for the community and the individual: Israel is eternal. Accordingly, corporate Israel, addressed as a collectivity in the plural “you”, is uniquely subject to divine imperatives. Belonging to Israel bears uniform consequences for each Israelite (“All Israelites...”), no matter how they differ as individuals.” (Neusner 2004a, p. 87)

“The law of the Mishnah provides for the condition of corporate Israel as a moral entity with no counterpart in the rest of humanity. Surprisingly, what marks Israel in community as distinct is that Israel as corporate community has sinned all together and all at once.” (Neusner 2004a, p. 88)

“Everyone is Israel, and everyone is equal, responsible to both God and the corporate community of Israel.” (Neusner 2004a, p. 142)

The Mishnah forms a pastiche of received laws, customs, and exegeses. Much of the data from the Mishnah derive from Scripture; some originate in law or custom established for millennia in the ancient Near East, even from Sumerian and Akkadian times; some come from a common heritage of Israelite custom-facts of law shared with the Qumran writings, for instance. But these inherited facts constitute part of the raw materials, inert and awaiting a shape and a position dictated by the Mishnah itself. What is new in the Mishnah is the Mishnah: the formation of a comprehensive, coherent system and a cogent structure that lack all precedent in prior Israelite times and circumstances and circles.” (Neusner 2004a, p. 349-350)

“Three principal documents form the exegetical continuation of the Mishnah: (1) the Tosefta (ca. 300 C.E.), (2) the Talmud of the Land of Israel (also called the Yerushalmi, ca. 400 C.E.), and (3) the Talmud of Babylonia (also called the Bavli, ca. 600 C.E.). All three depend on structure and order on the Mishnah. Each establishes its independence of the Mishnah as well.” (Neusner 2004a, p. 372)

The facsimile reproductions of various materials may be found here:


Neusner, J., Making God’s Word Work. A Guide to the Mishnah, continuum, 2004.