Jacob Neusner, the foremost scholar of rabbinic Judaism in the world, died this past Shabbat at the age of 84.
That laudatory phrase — “the foremost scholar of rabbinic Judaism” — might have been enough for this man of singular intellectual achievement.
But, Neusner was also the subject of an oft-told joke.
A telephone call: “Hello, Mrs. Neusner, can I speak with Jack?” “I’m sorry – he’s finishing a book.” “That’s OK – I will hold.”
In fact, Jack Neusner would have finished that book while you were waiting.
Over a career that spanned six decades, Neusner — who taught at Columbia University, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Brandeis University, Dartmouth College, Brown University, the University of South Florida, and, finally, at Bard College — was the author of approximately a thousand books, including countless articles, chapters in other books, columns, and brief essays.
A number of years ago, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., suggested that he become the librarian of Congress.
(My own private joke: why not? .00003 of the books in that library were Neusner’s, anyway).
I had the blessing of knowing Jacob Neusner, and having contributed to several of his volumes.
He befriended me and mentored me. We had some sweet times together – most notably, in his sukkah at his gracious home in the Hudson Valley, along with his wife, Suzanne (and I have since come to respect his son, Noam Neusner).
This is what you need to know about Jacob Neusner.
We take Jewish studies on the college campus for granted. But, in those BN (Before Neusner) days, those academic opportunities simply did not exist. Jacob Neusner basically created Jewish studies on the American college campus.
He did so in a very significant way. Neusner had emerged from a classic Reform upbringing in West Hartford, Connecticut (and, despite his rabbinic ordination from Jewish Theological Seminary, he was always, at heart, a Reform Jew). His own Jewish educational background was, by his own admission, woefully inadequate.
Neusner insisted that Jewish studies adhere to the highest intellectual and critical standards. Jewish studies was not ethnic pleading. It was not there to create Jewish identity on campus, nor to stoke the fires of Jewish pride. To study Judaism was to seek truth, and to see how Judaism could be a model for studying any religious culture.
That, perhaps, is why the new biography of Neusner, which appeared only weeks before his death, is called Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast. And in this, there was truly no one better.
- He fought the onslaught of Holocaust studies on the college campus. For Neusner, those twelve years of horror could not become the sum total of Jewish intellectual engagement.
- He refused to allow the state of Israel to become the intellectual (and even spiritual) capital of the Jewish world (and his work was roundly criticized in Israeli intellectual circles). Jack was hardly an anti-Zionist. But, he did not want that which had happened in another time (the Shoah, and before that, the era of ethnicity) and another place (Israel) to become the center of Jewish identity.
- Neusner was a critic of synagogue life. He believed in far more intensity than the typical synagogue would allow. He was one of the pioneers of the havurah movement.
- Neusner refused to follow in the path of the liberal orthodoxy of American Jewish life. He was a Republican and a conservative.
What drove Neusner’s conservativism?
Quite simply: he was totally willing to plunge into the American culture wars. He disdained the identity politics of the university. He was critical of the work of the National Endowment of the Arts, believing that the work of Robert Mappelthorpe did not merit federal funding. No wonder he was friendly with the late Buckley, as well as William Bennett.
Neusner carried that iconoclasm into his relationships. He was a demanding, yet nurturing teacher. He formed lifelong friendships with his students, who often aided him in fundraising projects — and yet, he could just as easily walk away from those friendships. And then, he would make up with those people, and all would be forgiven.
Jack Neusner was an American Jewish original. He wanted to bring Jewish studies out of the ethnic ghetto, and in so doing, he became a national, and even international figure. Take his book, A Rabbi Speaks With Jesus – his “conversation” with Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount. No less a personage than Pope Benedict XVI called it “the most important book for the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last decade.”
As his third grade teacher wrote on his report card: “He prefers not to do as the others are doing, which causes many difficulties.”
His last book was the book that he had been writing all along – the Book of Life.
Jack is now studying Mishnah with God.
I only hope that God is ready for the fight.