The Mishnah is the first canonical writing of Judaism after the Hebrew scriptures of ancient Israel (the Old Testament) and the foundation of the two Talmuds and of all Judaism thereafter. According to Jacob Neusner, the key to understanding the Mishnah is to read it as philosophy, in accord with the generally accepted understanding of philosophy in its time and place. In this text, Neusner studies a large sample of evidence, and identifies the philosophical side of the Mishnah’s system, method and message alike. The philosophical tradition in which the Mishnah takes its place, Neusner explains, utilizes the method of Aristotle to demonstrate the proposition important to Middle Platonism. While given in the form of a law code, the Mishnah sets forth a Judaic system of the social order that employs a method that in its context was distinctly philosophical in order to reach a conclusion that in its time was particularly philosophical. Demonstrated through the systematic and orderly hierarchical classification of the things of nature, the framers of the Mishnah illustrate the ultimate unity of all being emanating from the One on high.
Arguing that the document’s writers chose a legal form for a philosophical proposition, this book seeks to change a centuries-old way of reading the Mishnah. Judaism emerges as a sustained demonstration of the unity of all being under one God.