JACOB NEUSNER, THE MISHNAH, AND VENTRILOQUISM

John C. Poirer writes:

Jacob Neusner’s ideas on the Mishnah have already been roundly criticized. Nevertheless many of Neusner’s extraordinary ideas still need to be examined. This response to Neusner’s reading of the Mishnah raises questions in four areas: (1) his treatment of all documents as manifestos that in some way disclose their authors’ self-definitions; (2) his adduction of the Mishnah’s ritual map as a datum that helps locate it among the philosophies of the ancient world, as if philosophies of sacred space were the exception and not the rule (thus typifying the Mishnah through what does not distinguish it, since the concept of “sacred ontology” typified the Mediterranean world); (3) his use of the Mishnah’s “ahistorical” language (including its choice of verb tense) as evidence that the Mishnah has no interest in history (thus again typifying the Mishnah through what does not distinguish it, in that it is not present at all); and (4) his unprofessed but evident use of structuralist analysis to use conclusions about the Mishnah’s “ahistorical” language as a corroboration and refinement of his “discovery” of the Mishnah’s “‘sacred ontology.” He ends up talking about an anti-eschatological Judaism that hierarchizes the cosmos in the same way as Aristotle. These unusual results are based not so much upon the data of the Mishnah as upon Neusner’s eisegetical reading of the text.

Jacob Neusner has written more on the Mishnah than anyone else. This article asks what we have gained from his efforts. As the title suggests, this review will argue that Neusner’s works on the Mishnah have not provided us with exegesis but rather ventriloquism. In his long list of commentaries and studies on the Mishnah, we continually hear Neusner’s voice recast in the guise of “the Mishnah’s philosophy.” Some of the substance of this study can be found elsewhere-the trenchant criticisms by Cohen, Maccoby, Sanders, and Evans should not be missed-but Neusner’s proposals about the Mishnah are so ambitious and extraordinary that they have not tired of criticism.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in Jacob Neusner. Bookmark the permalink.