There are at least two ways to write a biography of an individual The New York Times called the most-published person in human history. In a little over half a century, Jacob Neusner published more than a thousand scholarly and popular books and countless essays, op-eds, and public and private letters, and was part of almost every significant American Jewish controversy since World War II. The first way to write the biography of such a person would be to write a multivolume 1,000-page tome plodding through each work, each period, each controversy, each accomplishment. The second would be a concise 300-page book that adeptly touches on the most important dimensions and contributions of this paradoxical intellectual figure (who remains the only person to be appointed to both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Council on the Humanities), and to simultaneously honestly engage with, but not get mired in, the many controversies that he compulsively generated. To write such a biography the author would need to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff and how not to get seduced by the lure of tabloid scholarship. Thankfully, Aaron Hughes, the author of an extensive study of Neusner’s scholarly work on religion titled Jacob Neusner on Religion: The Example of Judaism, chose the second option in his Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast (NYU Press), which navigates through the often-turbulent waters of a complicated, colorful, and in many ways unappreciated, intellectual life.

The sad irony about Jacob Neusner is that he is arguably one of the most influential voices in American Jewish intellectual life in the past half-century—yet outside of the academy, and more specifically outside the academic study of Judaism, while many people know his name, few are actually familiar with his work. He is perhaps most widely known for his irascible, sometimes quite nasty, and often pugnacious personality, his famous excoriating reviews, sometimes book-length critiques, and his fallings-out with almost every institution he worked in, almost every teacher who taught him, many of his students—as well as the errors that scar his many translations and publications. He sued institutions he worked for and individuals who attacked his work. And yet, as Hughes shows, the importance of his contribution should not be underestimated.

There is a joke that in 200 years when scholars study Neusner they will think Neusner was a “school” and not a person. No one would imagine one individual could have produced that much work in such disparate areas, from late antique Judaism to the Holocaust, Zionism, Jewish-Christian relations, higher education, the humanities, and American politics (just to name a few). Hughes notes in his conclusion that Neusner may be “the most important American-born Jewish thinker this country has produced.” It is a huge claim, for sure, and therefore contestable, but upon reflection, it is actually quite reasonable.

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Jacob Neusner was born July 28, 1932, in West Hartford Connecticut. The Neusner family was characteristically assimilated, had no direct connection to family in Europe and thus no direct familial connection to the Holocaust. His was a quintessentially American Jewish family in a small American city. His father was in the newspaper business and Neusner quickly learned the power and influence of words, writing for his father’s local newspapers when he was barely a teenager. Writing, and writing quickly, would become his trademark.

Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast by
Aaron W. Hughes
(Photo courtesy of NYU Press)

Neusner’s reputation as a difficult person began quite young. Hughes notes that a comment on his third-grade report card read as follows: “He prefers not to do as the others are doing, which causes many difficulties.” This assessment would follow him through his entire adult life and, in some way, may be the very source of some of his greatest accomplishments.

Neusner had no formal Jewish education, and by the time he reached late adolescence he could not read Hebrew. He first really encountered Judaism when he met Professor Harry Wolfson his first year as a Harvard undergraduate. Wolfson was committed to studying Judaism within the broader category of religious philosophy, an idea that Neusner would adopt in a different form later on. But Wolfson was an Old World Jew with a heavy Yiddish accent who, while respected, never fully integrated into the culture at Harvard. And he was of the view, common at that time, that if you were not reared within the walls of the Jewish study house (i.e. a yeshiva), you could never seriously contribute to the academic study of Judaism. Thus Wolfson, even as he acknowledged the talent of this young conscientious assimilated Jew, discouraged Neusner from the pursuit of an academic career in Judaism. But as his third-grade teacher noted, Neusner rarely did as others told him.

While being reared in a traditional education gives one the linguistic and even cultural tools to read texts in their original, and often know them intimately, it can also stifle one’s ability to read and analyze in the creative ways that characterize the best scholarship. Many, but certainly not all, scholars steeped in the traditional world from youth either spend their careers fighting against their upbringing or apologizing for it. Neusner writes, “I had the advantage of seeing everything fresh because I didn’t know anything.” In other words, freedom from tradition enabled Neusner to know it as an outsider, and then change it.

But Neusner did not come from nothing. He was reared in elite American universities and studied with many of academic luminaries, and it may have been the very particular American lenses through which he absorbed the tradition that enabled him to forge a new path. One could look at European predecessors others such as Gershom Scholem, Franz Rosenzeweig, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Emil Fackenheim as examples of those who came to Judaism late, and fresh. While Neusner’s neophyte status coheres with theirs, his Americaness is distinctive.

Perhaps by accident, in his early years, Neusner studied with the most illustrious scholars of Judaism in America, from Wolfson to Saul Leiberman, Salo Baron, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Morton Smith. While many others shared that path, none absorbed, adapted, and then largely rejected the work of these giants in a way that created something quite new and lasting in the study of Judaism.

After graduating from Harvard and spending a year at Oxford, Neusner enrolled in Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. At that time, he wrote, JTS would take anybody, even someone like Neusner, who was wholly unprepared for its course of study. It was there, under the tutelage of one of the greatest Talmudists of his generation, Saul Lieberman, that Neusner discovered Talmud. This discovery would change his life and, unbeknownst to either, would change the course of the study of rabbinics in America.

Neusner did not like JTS. He did respect Lieberman but never really liked him, thought he was an “uninspiring teacher,” and rejected Lieberman’s philosophy that academic Jewish studies was primarily about advocacy and, as Neusner described it “apologetics.” Neusner wrote: “He not only taught texts … but a positive, reverential attitude toward texts.” Neusner’s rejection of this approach would result in one of his most lasting contributions to the study of Judaism: The study of Judaism today in the academy is, at least in part, Neusner’s rejection of a previous generation’s greatest rabbinic scholar. Neusner was never private about his disdain for Lieberman, and Lieberman, very soon before his sudden death, penned a nasty, scathing critique of Neusner’s translation of the Jerusalem Talmud that has its own history in the halls of Jewish academe. It was certainly devastating for Neusner, yet it did not stop the forward motion of his massive intellectual work. While sometimes vicious in his own criticism of others, Neusner was often surprisingly able to accept critique quite well, sometimes publishing revised versions of books that took into consideration criticisms from colleagues and reviewers. While he never liked to do what others were doing, he apparently often listened to what they had to say about his work.

In 1958 Neusner moved down the street from JTS (122nd Street and Broadway) to Columbia University (116th Street and Broadway), where he began his studies in religion. The move marked a significant change in his outlook. As he wrote, this “marked the first time that I saw Judaism as not particular but exemplary, and Jews not as special but (merely) interesting.” His major influence at Columbia would be the great historian of Mediterranean antiquity Morton Smith, whom Neusner described as “the best teacher I ever had.” Smith, who would eventually turn against Neusner in light of Lieberman’s scathing review, cultivated Neusner’s love of rabbinics as part of the study of religion. At Columbia he also studied with the great Salo Baron but had little regard for his work, viewing Baron as a distinctly erudite but largely unoriginal thinker.

This shift from Judaism as part of “ethnic studies” to the study of Judaism as a religion may have begun for Neusner with Smith at Columbia, but was cultivated during Neusner’s brief time teaching at Dartmouth College, where he was part of a lively discussion group that included Jonathan Z. Smith (who Neusner knew from Morton Smith’s seminars at Columbia, which J.Z. attended while still a teenager), who would change the face of religion a few decades later. It also included Hans Penner, a scholar of religion and student of Mircea Eliade, and the great New Testament scholar Wayne Meeks. It was at Dartmouth that Neusner really began to formulate his notion of Judaism as part of the humanities, which would undergird the most prolific part of his career. Much of this dovetailed with a major shift in the study of religion in the American university in light of the 1963 Supreme Court decision in School District of Abington Township, PA v. Schempp that made it unconstitutional to have school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools. The distinction between “teaching religion” and “teaching about religion” would spearhead the emergence of secular religious-studies departments in universities. Neusner was an early proponent of this shift at a time when the study of Judaism was still primarily theological in nature and scope.

One thing that emerges from this early period is Neusner’s rejection of the notion of Judaism as a stable historical category. He prefers “Judaisms” as a more accurate description of how religion functioned in disparate Jewish communities. On this he wrote, “The continuities of Judaism will emerge from the study of their complexities; to reduce ‘Judaisms’ to ‘the essentials of Judaism’ yields something neither authentic nor even recognizable.” While the scholarly debate today has largely rejected the “Judaisms” option, the contemporary framing of a revised version of Judaism as a scholarly category is indebted to Neusner’s earlier intervention.

Neusner’s suggestion to shift Jewish studies from ethnic studies (to part of area studies) or become a more integral part of the humanities would also include Neusner’s rejection of any specialness or exceptionalism of the Jews as a prerequisite for responsible academic work. On this Hughes writes: “Neusner refused to make the Jews special or chosen. To him, they represented one social group trying to make sense of their immediate situation in light of a host of ideas and textual strategies developed in relation to other social groups.” At the time (the 1970s) this was anathema, even blasphemous, in Jewish studies. Today it is a much more accepted, albeit not uncontested, idea.

Neusner’s formative books that rewrote the approach to the study of rabbinics are numerous and have had a deep impact in the field. J.Z. Smith called one important book, Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishna (1981), “A Copernican revolution in rabbinic studies.” A respected colleague and historian of Ancient Israel who is open about his debt to Neusner but also critical of him wrote privately to me that “very little historicist rabbinics written before him, or written later but oblivious to him, can be taken seriously [today]. I also have a feeling he may have done more than anyone to naturalize the study of Judaism in modern American religious-studies departments.”

Neusner may hope that his greatest legacy will be his contribution to rabbinics. For example, his five-volume History of the Jews in Babylonia (1965-1969) was the first foray in what now has become a cottage industry, albeit hotly contested, of reading the Babylonian Talmud in its Iranian context. Neusner studied Farsi and Middle Persian in order to understand the Bavli in context decades before it had become fashionable to do so. In addition, Neusner early on made the suggestion that both Judaism and Christianity are fourth-century religions, which led scholars to rethink questions of the origins of Judaism and Christianity and the “parting of the ways.” These are not incremental shifts in emphasis but major calls for rethinking rabbinics and early Christianity.

Yet while Neusner’s contribution to rabbinics has indeed been profound, even given his errors and misreadings, Hughes suggests his legacy may lie elsewhere. In fact, there are at least three other areas in which Hughes suggests Neusner’s works, largely unnoticed, have changed the way American Jews experience Judaism.

The first is a series of books Neusner wrote in the early 1980s, most notably Strangers at Home: The ‘Holocaust,’ Zionism, and American Judaism (1981) about the American Jewish obsession with Israel and the Holocaust. One reviewer called it one the best books about American Judaism written in postwar America. This book, not widely known, was one of the first real assessments of the troubling impact that overemphasizing the Holocaust and an obsession with Israel continue to have on American Jewish life. Robert Alter published “Deformation of the Holocaust” that same year in Commentary Magazine, making similar points, but it was not until the 2000s that this topic would become part of the American Jewish conversation. Neusner’s call in the 1980s for the reinvigoration of Jewish learning as the antidote for assimilation—an idea he shared with Will Herberg who made the point differently in 1955—has only now become institutionalized. About this Neusner once wrote, “I favor more Judaism and less Jewishness.”

The second contribution is a three-volume series written in the mid-1970s titled The Academic Study of Judaism: Essays and Reflections. While these books have largely gone unnoticed today, they changed the field of Jewish studies in the academy. Even though the books are somewhat dated, in my view, these volumes should be read by every Jewish studies graduate student pursuing a career in the academy if only because the field today is in large part an extension of what Neusner was advocating more than 30 years ago.

I say that much of Neusner’s work in these areas goes unnoticed because none of these books are widely read or taught today. Yet they should be. For example, Neusner fought against the idea that non-Jews should not be scholars of Judaism, even threatening to sue universities that he thought passed over his non-Jewish students because they were non-Jews. He was highly critical of the Association of Jewish Studies (founded in 1969) in its early years for being too Judeo-centric, so much so that he became alienated from the organization and put his energies into the American Academy of Religion, serving as its president in 1969. And yet at the 2014 Association of Jewish Studies banquet, association President Jonathan Sarna proudly announced the increasing numbers of non-Jewish members of the scholarly society as a celebration of the success of the association in promoting Jewish studies beyond the ethnic bounds of Jewry. Even though in my view AJS has a long way to go before adequately moving beyond its “ethnic studies” past, few in that audience in 2014, certainly not younger scholars, knew that Neusner was making that case in the 1970s.

The third contribution is Neusner’s theological turn in the 1990s, which is best known in his book A Rabbi Talks to Jesus (1992), which Cardinal Ratzinger (soon to be Pope Benedict XVI) wrote was “by far the most important book for the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last decade.” In 2010 Neusner was awarded the Medal of Pope Benedict XVI. Much of Neusner’s work on Jewish-Christian relations was done in conjunction with Professor Bruce Chilton: That work accelerated when Neusner joined the faculty of Bard College in 2006 and, with Chilton, became a founding member of the Institute for Advanced Theology there.

The move from history to theology in the 2000s is also part of Neusner’s argument that we can view Rabbinic Judaism as “philosophy” that is a worldview that extends beyond law and ritual. It is unusual for a scholar so dedicated to history to take the same data to argue for its philosophical and theological import. But it is this transition that marks the final phase of Neusner’s intellectual oeuvre.

Interestingly, because of the way Neusner crossed disciplinary boundaries, few appreciate the trajectory of his work. For example, historians of Judaism do not usually read his theology, and those interested in his theology do not read his earlier historical scholarship. The result of his fecundity is that few will take the time to draw the connections between the various dimensions of his intellectual projects. I think Hughes gets it right when he writes: “This more theological Neusner was a natural extension of the Neusner who wrote so forcefully about what the study of Judaism must look like in order to be a viable field of study.” Future scholars will hopefully show this in greater detail.

As a public political figure, Neusner was iconoclastic almost to the point of self-contradiction (that is, he was iconoclastic even to himself). With the rise of the New Left and the move toward more progressive policies of many in the humanities, Neusner became a Republican; befriended paleo- and neoconservatives such as Lynn Cheney, William F. Buckley, William Bennett, and Jesse Helms; fought mightily against affirmative action and the Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibit; and supported many conservative policies, cultural and political, any one of which might have sufficed to make his name anathema to younger scholars who worked without knowing it within an intellectual landscape that Neusner helped to define and create.

His relationship to Israel and Zionism is more complicated. In the 1970s he was an early critic of the Occupation (for a short time he was a member of the American Jewish protest movement Breiria, founded in 1973), and he was an unrelenting critic of the Israeli academy, which he felt contributed almost nothing to furthering the study of Judaism as he saw it. He was a quintessential American Jew, once writing that as a Jew he felt safer in New York than in Jerusalem. In an address he gave to Hillel at MIT in 1952, a mere four years after the founding of the state of Israel, he said, “Israel’s flag is not mine. My homeland is America.” And while he considered himself a Zionist, he did not advocate for American Jews to immigrate to Israel and spent very little time there, going occasionally when he was invited to give lectures. What his views are on the Israel/Palestine conflict now I do not know. In any case, his seemingly quite progressive views, at least early on, somehow co-existed with a sharp neoconservative turn on other matters. His third-grade teacher was indeed right once again.

Finally, one cannot write about Jacob Neusner without addressing his irascible character. There was hardly any controversy (many of his own making) he did not become entangled in. And he readily owned that choice. He once wrote, “I think to any person enjoying the privileges of tenure of a university the question should be asked about not being ‘controversial.’ The facts speak for themselves. I bear my scars and wounds of various controversies as marks of honor and dignity: They show I have done my duty.” Part of the problem here is that he is a man who is still very much among us, a man many of us know or have heard stories about. This is the occupational hazard of evaluating a living intellectual: We either become overly sentimental or overly critical of their personhood. We readily, perhaps conveniently, forget the personalities of luminaries of the past. For example, even from hagiographical data, the great student of the Baal Shem Tov, R. Jacob Joseph of Polonne, who today is revered and widely read, was known to be an intolerable human being. And the antics of R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk are well documented, not to speak of more contemporary figures like Gershom Scholem or Jacob Taubes. The point is that Neusner was sometimes his own worst enemy, and his personal behavior certainly needs to be part of his legacy. That, and his choice to write as much as he did, have certainly diminished his short-term impact. And yet he persisted. When Hughes asked him if he thought he wrote too much, Neusner responded, “I don’t understand the question.” And I think he was being honest. As with most of us, who he was, and what he did, are integral to one another.

Hughes suggests that “Neusner’s most profound work paradoxically had very little to do with the field he is known for pioneering in the country, rabbinics. Rather, Neusner, for me, is at his most innovative when he deals with the place of Judaism in the American humanities and his more theological work, both of which grew out of his journalistic training.” Which, of course, takes us back to that pugnacious all-American boy in prewar West Hartford, Connecticut. Whether Hughes is right remains to be seen, although I am sympathetic to his view. It is certainly the case that Jacob Neusner’s work on Judaism in the humanities, on American Judaism, and his theological work, is less known than his work on rabbinics or his personal antics. But like it or not, that is part of the messiness of the human condition in the battleground of academe. To my mind, Hughes’s biography accomplishes an important task: introducing to America one of the most important Jewish scholars of Judaism that America has ever produced.

(The author would like to thank the following people for their help in some of these formulations. Annette Yoshiko Reed, Seth Schwartz, Paul Nahme, Martin Kavka, Aryeh Cohen, and Menachem Butler.)

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