Sunday, June 7, 2015

Israel and Idolaters, the Two Segments of Humanity: How the World's Most Prestigious Jewish Scholar of Rabbinic Judaism Defines "Israel"

Not too long ago, I talked about how Neusner, a scholar who has written over 950 books, translated the entire rabbinic corpus, given lectures in 6 or 7 different languages, and is quoted in every major work of Christian and Jewish scholarship on the topic of Rabbinic Judaism, how he happens to be...drum roll.......One Law.  His primary work on One Law is entitled Recovering Judaism.  But in reality there's a bit of One Law in all his writings.

Well, just today I was reading another of his books, the Emergence of Judaism, and noted that he provided a similar definition of Israel to the one he offered in Recovering Judaism.  So, for anyone interested in how a well-respected Jewish scholar defines Israel, here ya go:


"The Definition of Israel

Israel in Judaism, and What about the Gentiles?

Today when people speak of 'Israel,' they refer only to the state of Israel.  But that usage is very recent.  It began in 1948, when the State of Israel was proclaimed.  From that time the meaning of 'Israel' has varied, sometimes referring to a place, sometimes to the community of Judaism as it did until 1948.
      The point is that in Judaism from Scripture forward the word Israel has had a different meaning.  In the Torah and in prayers 'Israel' refers to the holy people of God:  the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who stood at Sinai.  'Israel' refers to those who receive the Torah--God's revealed will-and enter the covenant with God.  'Israel' then encompasses those born into the people and those that join the people by choice.
      What difference does it make to be part of Israel?  When people call themselves 'Israel,' they adopt for themselves and take personally the narrative of the Torah.  They regard themselves as part of that group of which the Torah speaks.  That is an act of religious faith and theological affirmation.  It is not a mere genealogical description, let alone a political platform," Jacob Neusner, The Emergence of Judaism."


"Then all things depend upon who and what is 'Israel.'  The universality of Judaic monotheism emerges when we realize that that 'Israel' will encompass all who know the one true God.  The restorationist theology provides for an eternal life matching the promise of Eden at the outset; to be Israel means to live and not die--Adam redivivus.  And every human being has the opportunity of eternal life.  By Israel then is meant those who know God and accept his dominion, and by gentiles or non-Israel, those who worship idols.  There are no other lines of differentiation in common humanity,"

"What about the charge that Judaism is an ethnic, particularistic religion, not a universalistic one?  We now realize full well that, in Judaic monotheism, eschatology forms a category that encompasses al humanity.  The world to come marks the final condition of world order.  It signifies the realization of correct and perfect relationships between God and humanity, God and Israel in particular.  Israel encompasses all those who worship the one God, and the rest are classified as idolaters."

"But because the sages set forth a restorationist Torah, guiding humanity back to Eden, now for eternal life, the sages underscore the universalistic vision of the written Torah.  The one and only God has given the Torah to show humanity embodied in Israel the way back to the land that is Eden"

"God formed creation in accord with a plan, which the Torah reveals.  World order can be shown by the facts of nature and society set forth in that plan to conform to a pattern of reason based upon justice.  Those who possess the Torah--Israel--know God, and those who do not--the gentiles--reject him in favor of idols.  To be Israel then means to know God, and to be gentile means not to know God.  What happens to each of the two sectors of humanity responds to their relationship with God."

"How does Judaism accomplish its universalistic aspiration?  In its world-encompassing conception, Judaism tells the story of God and humanity, specifically, of God's failure and hopes for ultimate success in making humanity.  The story takes shape in stories of beginnings, specifically accounts of Eden and the fall from grace to death, then Israel and its fall from the land to exile.  But Judaism carries the story forward to Israel's ultimate return, guided by the Torah, to the Eden of the land of Israel.  Then the Torah, within the tale of Judaism, comprises God's self-manifestation to Moses at Mount Sinai, God's will for humanity set forth to Israel in oral and written form.  Adam's fall from Eden, embodied in death that comes to everyone, finds its counterpart in Israel's exile from the land of Israel, but then the counterpart, Israel's return to the land at the end of time, inaugurates the final chapter in resurrection, judgment, and entry into life eternal in 'the world to come.'  Israel then stands for humanity, fallen into death, risen into eternal life.

     Now 'Israel' within the same story encompasses all those who know the one and only God:  the saving remnant of humanity in the aftermath of Adam and Eve, this time destined to life eternal."


  1. Beautiful. Just beautiful!

    Adds meat to the understanding that there is this great body of people coming out of the nations in this latter day to be joined to Judah.... The coalescing factor? Torah pursuance. melo hagoyim!

    1. Again pulling the wool on our eyes? "people coming out of the nations joining Judah?" You left me out...I am from Asher....Get a life....

  2. Lines up nicely with Paul's writings, it is interesting to use such a blanket statement concerning gentiles, but they are found all through the scriptures, and in most cases negatively:

    1 Thess 4:3-7

    For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.

    1 Peter 4:3
    For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries.

    Ephesians 4:17
    Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.

    The apostles definitely painted with a broad brush, and some might say because at that time, it was true that most gentiles were unaware of God, but I think they actually did so, because of the same reasoning Neusner gives us, they looked at Israel as the holders of the Wisdom of God and the nations as the opposite, which is made clear in many scriptures. They could have easily said, "be the best gentile you can", or "change the definition of what it means to be a gentile, by living a greater example", instead they simply said, "do not live like a gentile." Basically, stop living like the nations and live like Israel.

    In the 1 Thess 4:3-7 passage, Paul uses many words and understandings directly from the Torah, the same type of language:

    For example we see in Leviticus 11:44 For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

    Paul in 1 Thess 4, is stating gentiles are to keep the Torah, he was not redefining these words for gentiles, these words would have been used in the exact way he understood them from the Torah, where he acquired them, in the context they are used. If someone asked Paul, what does he mean by these words, sanctification, holiness, impure(defile), etc, it should be obvious, he would point to the Torah, the commandments of God. Not a new religion with new meanings, or a secondary definition, just for gentiles as some would like us to believe.

    We see this type of language used in many Jewish prayers that start with:

    "Blessed art Thou, LORD our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments"

    Sanctification, which Paul tells his gentile audience, is "the will of God" for their lives and it is found in keeping God's commandments. Clearly, Paul envisioned a similar universal Judaism, that would extand beyond, physical descent. Paul clearly saw gentiles also being sanctified by the Law of Moses.