Death & Birth of Judaism

Author: John Mulloy


(Basic Books, 1987) By Jacob Neusner

Reviewed by John J. Mulloy

The importance of Christian culture in history and the influence it has had upon society, is seen indirectly in a thesis proposed by Jacob Neusner in his book, Death and Birth of Judaism. Professor Neusner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa and St. Petersburg. According to Neusner, there is a close link between historical developments in the Christian world and the effect these have had upon the development of new religious understandings in Judaism, and upon the social structures which these brought into being. For Neusner, the formation of what he terms the Judaism of the dual Torah,that is, the ideas and outlook which governed the Jewish people from the 4th to the 18th century, was a consequence of Judaism's response to the Christian ascendancy in society after the conversion of Constantine. It was in this society of the later Roman Empire, now dominated by Christian ideas and practices, that the Jews needed to interpret in providential terms the nature of what had happened which had reduced them to the status of a tolerated religious minority.

This thesis proposed by Neusner is quite different from the older idea held by most Jewish scholars, which saw Judaism as being unaffected by Christianity, living its ownlife insulated from what was going forward in the Christian world. While Jewish communities might be subjected to persecution upon occasion, and have social disabilities imposed upon them, their interior life, and their interpretation of the meaning of Judaism, remained quite unchanged.

Here is how Professor Neusner sets forth his thesis in the first chapter of his book:

"We adopt as our premise the view that Judaisms respond to the questions of the religious world around them but also shape that world. The argument here, for example, is that Judaisms answer questions forced upon Israel, the Jewish people, by important shifts in political facts. Historians of Judaism, both the Orthodox and the Zionist ones, for example, however, take as dogma the view that (because God revealed the Torah, which is beyond the control of man, or because the Jews are a distinct nation, utterly separate from all other nations) Christianity never made any difference to Judaism (any more than did Islam, a totally distinct set of problems). Faith of a `people that dwells apart' (these historians hold), Judaism went its splendid, solitary way, exploring paths untouched (for instance) by Christians. Christianity (the theory goes) was born in the matrix of Judaism; but Judaism, from then to now, officially ignored the new `daughter' religion and followed its majestic course in aristocratic isolation. Since, moreover, Judaism (in any form) is supposed always to have ignored, and never to have been affected by, Christianity in any form (the implicit argument), the future security of the faith of Judaism requires continuing this same policy, pretending that Christianity simply never made, and does not now make, any difference at all to Israel, the Jewish people. Here I treat that dogma as irrelevant. In my view--as I demonstrate in chapter 1--the Jews' world view and way of life began by taking full account of the political situation of Israel, the Jewish people, as a subordinated but tolerated polity."

In contrast to that accepted view, Neusner presents his own interpretation of how Judaism of the dual Torah came into being and how centuries later, it came to an end as a result of important changes which occurred in the Christian world. These exercised a determinative influence upon Judaism's own interpretation of its role in history:

"The Judaism that died and in new expressions came to rebirth in modern times addressed a set of urgent questions, and, for its followers, who included most Jews in the world, answered those questions with truths deemed self-evident. The birth of the Judaism that died in modern times had taken place fourteen hundred years earlier, inthe year 312--that is, the year of Constantine's victory and accession to the throne of Rome after a vision of a cross and the words, `By this sign you will conquer.' That moment marked the beginning of Western civilization, for in it was born the Christian polity, which until nearly our own day has defined the civilization of the West. With Constantine, Christianity became the definitive power in the politics of the West. It died in 1787, with the American Constitution (as we Americans would see matters) or with the French Revolution (as Europeans might prefer). Then Christianity began its journey out of its dominant position in the center of the political arena. The Judaism that flourished in Christendom and in Islam addressed the questions of Judaic polity in a subordinated but tolerated status--that is, the polity that came into being in 312. That same Judaism passed away in 1787 (as we would see it) or in 1789 (as Europeans would prefer), when a new and different set of questions impressed large numbers of Jews as urgent. Those questions concerned not a Judaic polity but the Jewish citizen, not the collectivity but the individual. Answers to these questions constituted the Judaisms aborning in modern times."

The way in which Judaism was an essential part of the Providential purpose of history held by both Christianity and Islam, so that differences of interpretation coexisted with an agreement on the control of history by the God Whom Israel worshipped, is explained by Neusner in this manner:

"Christianity defines the starting point; and, its demise, the death of that Judaism. For the Judaic system at hand, the one that flourished through the history of the West as Christendom, took up the challenge of Christianity and therefore explained to Jews the context and meaning of Israel, political and supernatural alike. Christianity (and, in its time and place, Islam as well) took for granted the fundamental facticity of Israel's claim to form not only a distinct, but a distinctive and special, nation in God's commonwealth. According special status to Israel, Christendom and Islam affirmed the biblical picture, though, of course, modifying it in light of what each deemed further chapters in the sacred history. True, Christianity would further maintain that the Church formed the new Israel; that along with the Hebrew Scriptures, a further set of holy books, the New Testament, contained the word of God. Along these same lines, Islam held that, beyond Moses, then Jesus, Mohammed formed the seal of prophecy, the Quran, God's last and perfect word. But both Christianity and Islam saw Israel, the Jewish people, within the same supernatural view of a world created and governed by one God, who had revealed Himself to Israel (if also through Jesus Christ and the prophet Mohammed), a viewcontained within the Hebrew Scriptures revered, also, by Israel, the Jewish people."

The nature of the Jewish response allowed the Jewish people to understand that God had not deserted Israel but would keep His promises to her. This would be at a future time which has a certain approximation to the Christian expectation of the Second Coming of Christ, although obviously Christ would be absent from the expected Jewish fulfillment of prophecy. Once this belief in Judaism's place in history, and in God's providential plan for Israel, had been formulated, and had answered the question of Judaism's subordinate status in a Christian world, it acquired for Jews the character of a self-evident fact.

"The advent of Christianity as the religion of the Roman empire made acute a long-standing chronic crisis in the divine economy, and thus determined the agenda of the Judaism that reached written expression at the end of the fourth century. This, the Judaism of the dual Torah, mediated between the expectation and the reality. Answering all of the questions then and, for the history of the Christian West, afterward pressing upon Israel, this Judaism explained the Jews' distinctive way of life in the here and now as a medium of sanctification and promised in response to acceptance of its subordinated political position and adherence to its way-of-life salvation in the end of days. Challenging Israel to explain itself, Christendom and Islam therefore received from the Judaism of the dual Torah those answers that, for Israel, constituted self-evident truth: the way of life, the world view, formed by a concrete Israel, that in that time and place constituted a Judaism. Specifically, the urgent and inescapable question answered by the Judaism that first took shape in response to the rise of Christianity addressed the standing and status of Israel in a world in the charge of others than Israel."

What brought that particular Judaism to an end and made its worldview no longer self-evident to Jews was the secularization that overtook the Christian West in the 19th and 20th centuries. This new development required a new set of answers from Jews as to the meaning of their place in history. Several different kinds of response were made to this question. Neusner speaks of each of them as a different Judaism from what had existed from the 4th to the 18th century, and different also from each other. Thus there were several different Judaisms formulated in the 19th and 20th centuries, all of them seeking to provide a satisfying answer to the meaning of Jewish existence in a world which secularization had brought into being.

"Redefining the political civilization of the West, a vast process of secularization removed Christianity--first in the Protestant West, then in the Roman Catholic center and south, and finally in the Christian Orthodox (Greek,Russian) east, of Europe--from its established position as the definitive force. Throughout the nineteenth century, far-reaching political movements--appealing to the nation-state and to man as the measure of all things, rather than to the kingdom of God and to heaven's will--set forth a new politics. That program of secularization raised a fresh set of questions also for Israel, the Jewish people. In the nature of things, these had nothing whatever to do with Israel's supernatural standing in God's plan for creation and the history of humanity. Posed by political changes--as much as the original questions had taken political form--the new set of urgent concerns engaged many Jews, at first particularly in western European countries, later on in the eastern European ones and in their extension in America, in a new set of inquiries. These inquiries produced a fresh program of self-evident answers, and those answers in the nineteenth century constituted a new set of Judaisms."

In Neusner's idea of the death and birth of Judaism, and Judaism's need to adapt to changing social conditions which faced it, there may be some parallel to Chesterton's speaking of "The Five Deaths of the Faith," followed by unexpected resurrections. This is the title of the penultimate chapter in Chesterton's The Everlasting Man 1925), as he saw the history of Christianity. The model he drew upon was the Life of Christ, with the same pattern being repeated in the life of His Church. Thus the Christianity that comes back from apparent death is the same Christianity which existed before, but now making its response to new social conditions. In Neusner's book, it is not quite clear whether he sees the essentials of Judaism maintained in each of the several different Judaisms which he identifies.

This idea of the resurrection of Christianity from apparent death is also a theme in Lord Macaulay's review of Leopold Ranke's History of the Popes. Looking at the condition of the Catholic Church in 1840, some forty years or more after its apparent demise at the time of the French Revolution, Macaulay writes:

"It is not strange that in the year 1799, even sagacious observers should have thought that, at length, the hour of the Church of Rome had come. An infidel power ascendant, the Pope dying in captivity, the most illustrious prelates of France living in a foreign country on Protestant alms... --Such signs might well be supposed to indicate the approaching end of that long domination.

"But the end was not yet. Again doomed to death, the milk-white hind was still fated not to die. [This milk-white hind is a poetic term for the Catholic Church.]... Anarchy had had its day. A new order of things arose out of the confusion, new dynasties, new laws; and amidst them emerged the ancient religion. The Arabs have a fable that the Great Pyramid was built by antediluvian kings, and alone, of all the works of men, bore the weight of the Flood. Such as this was the fate ofthe Papacy. It had been buried under the great inundation; but its deep foundations remained unshaken; and, when the waters abated, it appeared alone amidst the ruins of a world which had passed away." Essay on Ranke's History of the Popes in Volume V of Macaulay's Historical and Critical Essays, pp. 40-44.

Also, John Henry Newman, possibly influenced by this conception of Macaulay, concludes his volume on The Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) by writing in similar terms of the pattern to be observed in the life of the Catholic Church over the centuries. Speaking of these apparent deaths, or what he calls slumbers of the Church, Newman states:

"It is true there have been seasons, when, from the operation of external or internal causes, the Church has been thrown into what was almost a state of deliquium; but her wonderful revivals, while the world was triumphing over her, is a further evidence of the absence of corruption in the system of doctrine and worship into which she has developed. Such has been the slumber and such the restoration of the Church. She pauses in her course, and almost suspends her functions: she rises again, and she is herself once more; all things are in their place and ready for action. Doctrine is where it was, and usage, and precedent, and principle, and policy; there may be changes, but they are consolidations or adaptations; all is unequivocal and determinate, with an identity which there is no disputing." Chap XI, no.9.

It should be noted that these different accounts of the history of the Church - by Macualay, Newman, and Chesterton - have reference only to the Catholic Church, not to the Protestant churches except as these constitute one of the challenges which Catholicism has had to face in the course of its history. It is the survival of the Catholic Church through several different periods of decline and recovery which is the object of their attention. The protestant version of ecclesiastical history saw the Catholic Church in quite other terms. In their attempt to justify their break with Rome and the Papacy, protestants presented the Catholic Church as having become completely corrupt, and thus as having no possibility of recovery. Christopher Dawson points out:

The result of this revolutionary attitude to the historic church was a revolutionary, catastrophic, apocalyptic abd discontinuous view of history. As Calvin writes, the history of the church is a series of resurrections. Again and again the church becomes corrupt, the Word is no longer preached, life seems extinct, until God once more sends forth prophets and teachers to bear witness to the truth and to reveal the evangelical doctrine in its pristine purity.

The Catholic conception is that of the Church as beingindefectible, maintaining throughout the course of ages the truth entrusted to her by her Founder. Nevertheless, in the idea of the revivifying influence upon the life of the Church of martyrs and saints, who counter the forces of evil which have found a foothold in the human element in the Church, the Catholic vision of Church history does allow for some possible link to the Protestant view.

In Neusner's view of the history of Judaism, he sees Judaism as remaining basically the same from the fourth to the eighteenth centuries. Now this is the period when the Catholic Church as seen by the writers I have quoted underwent several periods of apparent death or decline and then remarkable recovery, without having lost its basic character and continuity with its past. Is it not possible that something similar may be found in the history of Judaism? May there not have been periods of great crisis in Judaism, which taxed its power of survival to the utmost and its ability to maintain itself in a basic continuity with its early teaching? External crisis which the Jewish community may have undergone would most likely present a danger of internal crisis as well. One thinks, for example of the widespread embrace by the Jews of Eastern Europe in the seventeenth century of the pretensions of Sabbati Zevi to be the Messiah, before he was finally discredited. Might not such a development have caused an internal crisis in the Jewish community?

Professor Neusner tells us that the change for Jews from living within the confines of Christendom as a tolerated minority culture to one of having to face the problem of life within a non- Christian and secularized society was so severe as to produce several different Judaisms in response to this change. Is it not likely that earlier periods of challenge in Jewish history might also have brought forth considerable variations in the way in which Judaism conceived itself and its role in society? If this were the case, there might be glimpsed some similarity in pattern between Judaism and Catholic Christianity in their respective developments in history. This is a question which Professor Neusner might wish to consider in some future work of his.

Under any circumstances, since Jacob Neusner has written so extensively on the nature of Judaism and its place in history, we have in him an interpreter of history from the standpoint of Judaism whose work challenges the secularized versions of world history which dominate the intellectual landscape of our time. In addition, Christians will discover in his thought a valuable aid to understanding the Jewish tradition and the various ways in which it seeks to confront the contemporary crisis in our culture.

Taken from the Winter 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702. John J. Mulloy, Editor