Sifre to Numbers and the Judaic Exegetical Tradition

The intellectual program of the exegetes of Sifre to Numbers, so far as I can define it whole, just as, with Kelly's help, I have briefly defined Jerome's intellectual program whole, emerges from the confluence of form and meaning, structure and sustained polemic. Here I find myself on firmer ground (see Neusner 1968b, 1:1-43). On the face of it, the framers of Sifre to Numbers proposed to write a sustained commentary on passages from the book of Numbers. For that is-precisely what they did provide. We know only that they had the Mishnah in hand. So the document derives from redactors who worked at some point after 200 but, it is generally assumed, before the closure of the Talmud of Babylonia in 600. Whether the work was done before 400, no one up to now has demonstrated. The comparison with Jerome, who lived in the fourth century, would prove more apt if we knew that the document reached closure in the time in which Jerome flourished. But since the work on Numbers falls into the same classification as Jerome's work on diverse books of the Hebrew Scriptures, a characterization of the program of exegesis proves not entirely inappropriate for the exercise of comparison. For both works constitute commentaries, and both commentaries are of the same kind, namely, sustained, not episodic; focused on phrases and words, not on large-scale compositions or cogent theological propositions. With that much in common, the two writings may be compared, even though, admittedly, the comparison proves inexact.

The description of the exegetical program of Sifre to Numbers will require somewhat of a detour, since we shall concentrate on that book and the problem of stating its fundamental hermeneutical program, and only at the end recover the focus of comparison. I characterize the program of this document not by summarizing its many individual messages but by treating the recurrent formal-exegetical traits and modes of the document as a whole. These are few, characteristic, and intellectually, as much as formally, definitive. My purpose is to describe the incremental message, the cumulative effect, as to the points of exegetical interest and concern, of the formal traits of speech and thought revealed in the uniform rhetoric and syntax of the document. That characterization will permit us to ask what, if anything, the sages' document has in common with the writings of Jerome as these have been described here. So I ask this question: What do the formal structures of our document emphasize, and what (as in the case of stories about sages) do they ignore? Let me rapidly review these structures, highlighting their main traits.

1. Extrinsic exegetical form. The form consists of the citation of an opening verse, followed by an issue stated in terms extrinsic to the cited verse. The formal traits: [1] citation of a base verse from Numbers, [2] a generalization ignoring clauses or words in the base verse, [3] a further observation without clear interest in the verse at hand. The form yields a syllogism proved by a list of facts beyond all doubt.

2. Intrinsic exegetical form. The verse itself is clarified. The focus is on the base verse and not on a broader issue. There are diverse versions of this exercise, some consisting only of a verse or a clause and a statement articulating the sense of the matter, others rather elaborate.

3. Dialectical Exegesis: Intrinsic. A sequence of arguments about the meaning of a passage, in which the focus is upon the meaning of the base verse. This is the internal exegetical counterpart to the on-going argument on the efficacy of logic. Logic pursues the sense of a verse, but the results of logic are tested, forthwith and one by one, against the language at hand, e.g.: Why is this stated? Or, you say it means X but why not Y? Of, if X, then what about Y? If Y, then what about Z? All of these rather nicely articulated exegetical programs impose a scriptural test upon the proposals of logic.

4. Dialectical Exegesis: Extrinsic. The Fallacy of Logic Uncorrected by Exegesis of Scripture. The formal indicator is the presence of the question, in one of several versions: Is it not a matter of logic? The exegesis of the verse at hand plays no substantial role.

5. Scriptural Basis for a Passage of the Mishnah. What we have is simply a citation of the verse plus a law in prior writing (Mishnah, Tosefta) which the verse is supposed to sustain. The Mishnah's or the Tosefta's rule then cannot stand as originally set forth, that is, without any exegetical foundation. On the contrary, the rule, verbatim, rests on a verse of Scripture, given with slight secondary articulation: verse, then Mishnah-sentence. That suffices, the point is made.

Let us now characterize the formal traits of Sifre to Numbers as a commentary. These we may reduce to two classifications, based on the point of origin of the verses that are catalogued or subjected to exegesis: exegesis of a verse in the book of Numbers in terms of the theme or problems of that verse, hence, intrinsic exegesis; exegesis of a verse in Numbers in terms of a theme or polemic not particular to that verse, hence, extrinsic exegesis. The forms of extrinsic exegesis are easy to characterize. The implicit message of the external category proves simple to define, since the several extrinsic classifications turn out to form a cogent polemic.

1. The Syllogistic Composition. Scripture supplies hard facts, which, properly classified, generate syllogisms. By collecting and classifying facts of Scripture, therefore, we may produce firm laws of history, society, and Israel's everyday life. The diverse compositions in which verses from various books of the Scriptures are compiled in a list of evidence for a given proposition— whatever the character or purpose of that proposition—make that one point. And given their power and cogency, they make the point stick.

2. The Fallibility of Reason Unguided by Scriptural Exegesis. Scripture alone supplies reliable basis for speculation. Laws cannot be generated by reason or logic unguided by Scripture. Efforts at classification and contras-tive-analogical exegesis, in which Scripture does not supply the solution to all problems, prove few and far between (and always in Ishmael's name, for whatever that is worth). This polemic forms the obverse of the point above.

So when extrinsic issues intervene in the exegetical process, they coalesce to make a single point. Let me state that point with appropriate emphasis the recurrent and implicit message of the forms of external exegesis:

Scripture stands paramount; logic, reason, analytical processes of classification and differentiation, are secondary. Reason not built on scriptural foundations yields uncertain results. The Mishnah itself demands scriptural bases.

The forms of intrinsic exegesis present problems when we come to attempt an equivalent characterization. At least three intrinsic exegetical exercises focus on the use of logic, specifically, the logic of classification, comparison and contrast of species of a genus, the explanation of the meaning of verses from the book of Numbers. The internal dialectical mode, moving from point to point as logic dictates, underlines the main point already stated: logic produces possibilities, Scripture chooses among them. Again, the question, why is this passage stated? commonly produces an answer generated by further verses of Scripture, e.g., this matter is stated here to clarify what otherwise would be confusion left in the wake of other verses. So Scripture produces problems of confusion and duplication, and Scripture—not logic, not differentiation, not classification—solves those problems. To state matters simply: Scripture is complete, harmonious, perfect. Logic not only does not generate truth beyond the limits of Scripture but also plays no important role in the harmonization of difficulties yielded by what appear to be duplications or disharmonies. These forms of internal exegesis, then, make the same point that the extrinsic ones do.

In so stating the basic exegetical polemic that animates Sifre to Numbers, of course, we cover all but the single most common category of exegesis, which we have treated as simple and undifferentiated: (1) verse of Scripture or a clause, followed by (2) a brief statement of the meaning at hand. Here I see no unifying polemic in favor of, or against, a given proposition. The most common form also proves the least pointed: X bears this meaning, Y bears that meaning, or citation of verse X, followed by, [what this means is]. . . . Whether simple or elaborate, the outcome is the same. What can be at issue when no polemic expressed in the formal traits of syntax and logic finds its way to the surface? What do I do when I merely clarify a phrase? Or, to frame the question more logically: what premises must validate my intervention, that is, my willingness to undertake to explain the meaning of a verse of Scripture? These seem to me propositions that must serve to justify the labor of intrinsic exegesis as we have seen its results here:

1. My independent judgment bears weight and produces meaning. I—that is, my mind—therefore may join in the process.

2. God's revelation to Moses at Sinai requires my intervention. I have the role, and the right, to say what that revelation means.

3. What validates my entry into the process of revelation is the correspondence between the logic of my mind and the logic of the document.

Only if I think in accord with the logic of the revealed Torah can my thought processes help to clarify what is at hand: the unfolding of God's will in the

Torah. To state matters more accessibly: if the Torah does not make statements in accord with a syntax and a grammar that I know, I cannot so understand the Torah as to explain its meaning. But if I can join in the discourse of the Torah, it is because I speak the same language of thought: syntax and grammar at the deepest levels of my intellect. Then to state matters affirmatively and finally: Since a shared logic of syntax and grammar joins my mind to the mind of God as revealed in the Torah, I can say what a sentence of the Torah means. So I too can amplify, clarify, expand, revise, rework: that is to say, create a commentary. It follows that the intrinsic exegetical forms stand for a single proposition:

While Scripture stands paramount, and logic, reason, analytical processes of classification and differentiation are secondary, nonetheless man's mind joins God's mind when man receives and sets forth the Torah.

In few words and in simple language what do the formal rules of the document tell us about the purpose of Sifre to Numbers? Beyond all concrete propositions, the document as a whole, through its fixed and recurrent formal preferences or literary structures, makes two complementary points.

1. Reason unaided by Scripture produces uncertain propositions.

2. Reason operating within the limits of Scripture produces truth.

To whom do these moderate and balanced propositions matter? Sages in particular, I think. The polemic addresses arguments internal to their circles. How do we know, and how may we be certain? If we contrast the polemic of our document about the balance between revelation and reason, Torah and logic, with the polemic of another canonical document about some other topic altogether, the contrast will tell. Then and only then shall we see the choices people faced. In that way we shall appreciate the particular choice the authorship at hand has made. With the perspective provided by an exercise of comparison, we shall see how truly remarkable a document we have in Sifre to Numbers. By itself the book supplies facts. Seen in context, the book makes points. So we require a context of comparison. But, it seems scarcely to require saying, Jerome does not define that context. He follows a different program, because the issues that interest him in no way coincide with the issues that are paramount for the framers of Sifre to Numbers.

So we return, via this rather circuitous route through familiar territory, to the (to me) unfamiliar ground of Jerome. Having seen how a Judaic work of sustained exegesis, Sifre to Numbers, makes large points through repeated resort to a given theme, we realize that the character of an exegetical program does dictate the substance of the exegesis of a given verse. Then we ask whether or not the character of the program of Jerome, so far as we have lightly touched on it, bears any resemblance to that of the Judaic exegetes of (for Sifre to Numbers) an indeterminate period? The answer, for Sifre to Numbers, is no, there is no point in common between the issues important to Jerome and those important to the Judaic exegetes, nothing whatsoever in common, let alone a point of intersection. Why not? Because what troubles the framers of the work on Numbers is an issue deeply internal to the rabbis who received the Mishnah and worked on it. Since the authors of the Mishnah rarely cited proof-texts of Scripture in support of their statements, the framers of Sifre to Numbers7 ask whether the laws of the Mishnah, and others like them, may stand unsupported by verses of Scripture. The authors wonder, further, whether on the basis of logic alone, without resort to exegesis, people may come to a correct and reliable definition of the law. And they answer, no, people may not do so. Who wants the answer to that question? Obviously sages, obviously not Christians. So the exegetes of the sages' group worked on an issue deeply particular to the unfolding of the canon in their hands, and the exegetes of the Christian theologians' circle pursued issues equally distinctive to the problems of discourse—whether internal to the Church or otherwise—of their own setting.

As to exegesis, we find nothing in common between the program of Jerome and the program of the authors of Sifre to Numbers. They studied the same Hebrew Scriptures, and they pursued the same sort of inquiry, namely, the exegetical past. But they rarely worked on the same texts of those Scriptures, and such formal points as they had in common mask essentially independent exercises on the part of the respective groups of intellectuals. The one authorship answered its question, the other dealt with its issues, and neither party pretended to take up a program shared with the other (despite Jerome's interest in arguing with Jews). In fact, we have a case of different people, while reading the same Scripture, talking about different things to different people. As to exegesis, the Christian theologians and the Judaic sages did not compose and carry through a common argument. Now we proceed to a second exercise of falsification, the matter of a canon.

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