Commentary Magazine

Jewish Studies

To the Editor:

In his review of Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History by David Biale [Books in Review, November 1979], Hyam Maccoby says that “Jewish studies in the universities are coming under the spell of a ‘crude inductivism.’” As a principal exponent of that “crude inductivism” (he could also have said, positivism) characteristic of Jewish studies in universities, and, indeed, of universities, against which Mr. Maccoby wants to represent Gershom Scholem as a bulwark, I want to point to the alternative. It is revealed when Mr. Maccoby criticizes me, as he does in the [London] Times Literary Supplement, for not “understanding” that there is historical information available to us a priori.

So there it is: a priori facts about history, so far as I can make out, are things we are supposed to know even though we have no evidence about them. How we must know them Mr. Maccoby does not tell us. As a crude inductivist, I can only hope that he has access, which I would not want, to the Holy Spirit. The alternative, which I represent, is to try to make sense of facts in our hand and always to remember that what we cannot show we do not know.

Whether or not Scholem will concur in this curiously credulous position, I do not know. Biale’s shoddy book does nothing to help us find out. For he persistently ignores what is important about Scholem and to Scholem, which is Scholem’s scholarly oeuvre: Biale insists that Scholem always means something—anything—but what he actually says. In all, a review by Maccoby of Biale on Scholem has a know-nothing review a know-it-all. Poor Scholem.

Jacob Neusner
Department of Religious Studies
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island



Hyam Maccoby writes:

Jacob Neusner writes with his customary courtesy. His letter is an excellent expression of the “crude inductivism” of which I complained. I have never asserted the existence of anything so absurd as “a priori facts,” but have been concerned to point out that the relation between facts and theory is far more intimate than Mr. Neusner realizes. We do not amass facts which then automatically generate a theory; we form hypotheses at a very early stage of inquiry and our amassing of facts (and even our definition of what is to count as a fact) is directed by our hypothesis (which may of course be discarded in favor of a new hypothesis during the investigation). I can hardly believe that Mr. Neusner has read, or even heard of, the work of writers on scientific method such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, in view of his simple-minded and outdated notions of “inductivism” and “positivism,” which have hardly progressed as far as John Stuart Mill.

This may seem abstract, but it is not, for Mr. Neusner’s own investigations have been vitiated by his imperfect grasp of scientific method. He has been so bewitched by his belief in his own theory-free objectivity and self-propelling methodology that he has failed to notice the presuppositions and hidden theories underlying his work. There is no one so much at the mercy of theory as he who thinks that he has no theory.

The directing theory of Mr. Neusner’s work on the Talmud is that the Pharisees from Hillel onward were obsessed with the minutiae of ritual observance and with ratiocination about them. The whole areas of ethics, politics, and aesthetics are absent. It is significant that in a recent would-be comprehensive essay on the Talmud, Mr. Neusner scarcely mentions the Aggada, ethics, politics, or justice. Of course, this accords with the traditional Christian representation of the Pharisees (see Matthew 23: 23-6). But many writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, from Travers Herford to E. P. Sanders, have combated this picture, and have shown that the Pharisees and the Talmud were indeed much more concerned with “the weightier demands of the Law, justice, mercy, and good faith,” than with “tithes of mint and dill and cumin” and “cleaning the outside of cup and dish.” All this corrective work is in danger of going for nothing, since Mr. Neusner (widely regarded as an authority) confirms the Christian stereotype. True, Mr. Neusner professes to find spiritual values in the alleged talmudic obsession with ritual and ratiocination; but these values form a special enclave that does not challenge or rival Christian spiritual values.

The reaction of some Christian scholars to Mr. Neusner shows that they are happy to allow this limited spiritual value to ritual obsessiveness in the interests of confirming the Gospel picture of the Pharisees, and of confining to Christianity an interest in “justice, mercy, and good faith.” It is at this cost that Mr. Neusner has been able to free himself from despised “apologetics.”

Related to Mr. Neusner’s overriding theory is his constant assertion that the conviction of the Pharisees was “that ordinary folk should behave as if they were priests,” belonging to table-fellowships concerned with ritual purity. Simple considerations make this view untenable: the table-fellow-ships were never regarded as obligatory; the degree of ritual purity required for them was lower than that required for priests; backsliders were not regarded as guilty of sacrilege; non-members were regarded with respect. These considerations are hardly mentioned in Mr. Neusner’s voluminous writings, which shows how powerful an unexamined dogma can be in the work of an inductivist, self-persuaded that he deals only in “facts.”

Theories never happen automatically through the collection of facts; they arise through the faculty of judgment. It is in this faculty (which some might call common sense) that Mr. Neusner is singularly lacking, partly because he does not believe in its existence, partly through mere incapacity. Time after time, he gets hold of the wrong end of the stick. Often he makes curious factual howlers (some of these were pointed out by the late Solomon Zeitlin, but there are many more).

Gershom Scholem has always recognized the role of theory in scientific inquiry. Consequently, he has never confused his own theories with facts, and has shown a flexibility that contrasts with Jacob Neusner’s rigidity and pose of infallibility.




A typographical error occurred on p. 73 of Samuel Lipman’s article, “The Russian Wave” [Music, February]. In the first column, the last sentence of the third paragraph should read: “And as with all these Russian artists, the choice of familiar program material—the Beethoven Sonata opus SO, no. 3, the Bach C-major unaccompanied Sonata, the Brahms Sonata in Dminor, and three Hungarian Dances—only concentrated maximum and unflattering attention on the soloist.”—Ed.

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