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Remembering Jacob Neusner, My Rebbe

In the 1950s, Jewish intellect Jacob Neusner studied Torah at Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. It was a year that changed his entire outlook. He died on Saturday in New York at the age of 84.

Carey Robinson Wolchok
October 10, 2016
Photo by Emily Darrow courtesy of Bard College
Photo by Emily Darrow courtesy of Bard College
Photo by Emily Darrow courtesy of Bard College
Photo by Emily Darrow courtesy of Bard College

Of the six questions the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells us we will all be asked by the heavenly court to account for our lives, half are dedicated to one topic—Torah—making it clear what God expects from us during our lives: study Torah, learn it deeply, and apply it to our lives. This past Shabbat morning, when Jacob Neusner was called upstairs to give his answers, it is safe to assume there was quite a tumult in heaven when he showed up accompanied by the more than 1,000 books on Judaism he published during his lifetime. I consider myself blessed to have had the great merit of studying with him at the University of South Florida in 1991 and our relationship blossomed from there. I helped facilitate a meeting between Professor Neusner and Pope Benedict XVI, and identify a fitting biographer to tell the story of his life.

At USF, he introduced me to a Judaism much different than the watered down Reform tradition in which I had been raised in Jacksonville, Florida. He forced his students to ask difficult questions about Torah, and to find the answers ourselves, through debate, analysis, exegesis, and exposition. I don’t recall ever having to read as many books in any other course in my undergraduate or graduate school, all of which, of course, he had written himself. And he was one of the harshest critics I had ever encountered, and remained so throughout our 25 year relationship. Over the years, I’ve met other students who had the same experience: his was undoubtedly the most difficult class they had ever taken, but by far the most rewarding. Some of his students went on to notable academic careers, including religion historian William Scott Green of the University of Miami, and Jewelnel Davis, the provost of Columbia University. Many also went on to integrate traditional Torah study into stellar careers, including David Klinghoffer, Tom Tisch, and Boston Philanthropist Jeffrey Swartz. But I’ve met even met students from the “ultra orthodox” Agudath Israel and ArtScroll Publications who remained in touch with him and sought his input and guidance.

After September 11 2001, when I decided to take a year off from the airline industry and move to Jerusalem to study Talmud full-time in a Yeshiva, many of my family and friends feared I was entering a cult. Professor Neusner not only encouraged me to go, but he also pointed out that he too had attended Yeshiva in Jerusalem in the late 1950s. While I am a product of the kiruv movement, where Orthodox Torah scholars devote their lives to teaching Torah to unaffiliated Jews (as I once was), encouraging us to grow in our mitzvah observance and commitment, Professor Neuser, on the other hand, had to create his own kiruv movement to study Torah in its classical form in 1957, while he was a student at Hebrew University. During his year in Israel, Neusner hired a study partner who worked at a bookstore in Mea Shearim and took a seat in the beit midrash of the Mir Yeshiva, then only 150 students strong (today there are 5,000) and a majority of whom were Yiddish speaking immigrants from Europe. He would later quip that the presence of a Connecticut-bred Reform Jew sitting in the Mir in the 1950s was as common as finding a ham and cheese sandwich and a cold glass of milk in synagogue on Yom Kippur. But, even as recently as this summer, when we discussed his study partner (a Jerusalem Torah scholar named Shlomo Schreiber) in the Mir Yeshiva from some 60 years ago, Professor Neusner still had a twinkle in his eyes as he recalled their learning tractate Gittin.

And this is the most important point I can make about my first “Rebbe,” which even Aaron Hughes missed in his recently published Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast. It was my experience with Professor Neusner that only Torah, which he came to study full-time first in the 50s in Jerusalem, mattered. Everything else in both academic and cultural life was, as he used to say, “tedious and obvious.” In a May 1992 op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, Professor Neusner reflected on his study at the Mir Yeshiva: “Yet when I studied in Jerusalem in 1957-58, I found Tora [sic] in the Mir Yeshiva, but only information in the classrooms of the Hebrew University. I thought then, and spent the next 30 years demonstrating, that the pseudo-history and dull philology of the Hebrew University classroom was merely instrumental in the reading of the Tora. I would spend 30 years translating into the language of mainstream academic learning that deep insight into the classics of Judaism at the Mir Yeshiva.”

In Neusner’s most stunning works, including A Rabbi talks to Jesus, in which he imagines himself as Rabbi Jack debating with Jesus during his sermon on the mount, he argues with his study partner from a position in harmony with the greatest of “Orthodox” rabbis. And in his poetic Judaism’s Theological Voice, he describes lovingly how God speaks to the Jewish people every week during the reading of the Torah in synagogue on Shabbat, while the Jewish people speak back to God through their learning Torah in the halls of the yeshivas. He never wavered from seeing the Judaism of the Dual Torah as the Judaism that has nourished and continues to nourish Jewish life since Mount Sinai, and any Judaism which has any staying power would need to appeal only to that same Torah, as it were.

In one of my final visits to see him at his home near Bard College this summer, between recollections of the Shabbat he spent on the Upper West Side with Abraham Joshua Heschel and Saul Lieberman, we spoke about Shai Secunda, who was recently appointed as the Jacob Neusner Chair at Bard College. Professor Neusner told me with pride that Secunda is an academic who was a classically trained Torah scholar from the yeshiva system, and would wear his yarmulke around campus.

Two weeks ago, I visited with Professor Neusner at the hospital, and his wife Suzanne asked if I brought along the shofar I blow each year for patients at Mt. Sinai Hospital on Rosh Hashanah. I had not thought to bring one along, but I did bring along a volume of an ArtScroll Talmud, pointing out to them both that one of his former students at Dartmouth is now an editor there. I made it a point to review with him the questions the Talmud says we will all be asked when we go up for judgement. And before I left, I assured Professor Neusner that the answers that both myself and my children will one day provide will to a large degree accrue to his merit.

May his memory be a blessing.

Carey Robinson Wolchok is a philanthropist and investor based in New York City. He is the co-founder of Meor, an outreach organization on 21 campuses which teaches Torah to unaffiliated college students.

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