Gershom Sholem and Jacob Neusner: their previously unknown relationship

Gershom Scholem. Image courtesy of National Library of Israel/Wikimedia.

Gershom Scholem and Jacob Neusner, two giants in the field of study of religion and Judaism, had corresponded with each other for almost three decades. Somehow, we did not know about this. Recent years have seen one biography of Neusner and at least three of Scholem, but not a single word is found in them about this relationship.[1] This is striking, of course, not only because of the stature of these two men, but because scholars have been peering over Scholem’s archive in Jerusalem, where the correspondence is found, for decades, and a significant number of Scholem’s correspondences have already been published.[2] Whatever the reason for this oblivion may be, the sixty-odd letters exchanged between Scholem and Neusner reveal the unknown tale of their relationship, which began with mentorship, developed into a friendship, and ended in a fuming fallout.

While the very comparison may come as a surprise to some, there are a number of parallels between Scholem and Neusner. Both spent their life researching Jewish texts, mostly of the distant past, both were intensely prolific in their scholarly output, and the work of both has been transformative to the academic field of the study of religion. The animating drive of their projects is also analogous: to confer respectability to religious texts and traditions that have long been at the periphery of academic acceptability and to contest an older generation of scholars whose assumptions, they believed, led to this marginalization. For Scholem, it was the Kabbalistic and Jewish mystical traditions to which he applied the methods of critical scholarship and which he claimed were central to historical Jewish life; and the world he rebelled against was the rationalistic world of Wissenschaft des Judentums to whom these traditions were anathema. For Neusner, it was the universe of rabbinic texts and Judaic studies more broadly that was sidelined in the wider context of the university; and the world he perceived himself to be rebelling against was the mode of scholarship of earlier generations, mainly of European origin, which he saw as ‘ghettoized’ - exclusively Jewish, or better, Yeshivish, apologetic, and methodologically unsophisticated. Neusner, rightly or not, identified the Israeli academia, and especially the Hebrew University, as a contemporary heir to the ‘old-school’ approach which took Jewish texts at face value and as conveying historically decontextualized and agenda-free content. This led to the well-known mutually contemptuous relationship between Neusner and Israeli academia. It would seem fitting, both generationally and geographically, that Scholem, the Berlin-born professor of Jewish studies at the Hebrew University, would be a key adversary to Neusner. The letters between them, however, tell a different story.

Toward the end of 1959, as a doctoral student at Columbia University writing what could be dubbed as an intellectual biography of Yohannan ben Zakkai, Neusner wrote to Scholem. In this letter, a typical plea for courtesy by an admiring young student, he asked Scholem for assistance. “Rabban Yohannan has been misunderstood up to now”, he explained to the undisputable doyen of the field, and boldly requested Scholem’s notes for lectures he had delivered on the mysticism of the Talmud and Jewish gnosis. It is unclear whether Scholem responded to this letter, part of which is missing, since the first letter we have by Scholem is from April 1963, where he thanks Neusner for sending him his published and revised version of his PhD, A Life of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, ca. 1-80 C.E. He cordially noted: “I am sure I will use your book quite a lot in my further endeavors to light up the history of Merkaba speculation.” After having read some of it, Scholem wrote that he found this work “valuable and highly instructive” and that he looks forward to the “much valuable work to be expected from you”. He also added a subtle critique: “From my personal taste I would have preferred less florid captions and sometimes also sentences”. Neusner would later become critical of this early work himself, seeing it as conforming to the very model of methodologically uninformed scholarship he sought to dethrone. But it is in the context of this study that what would soon become a steadfast stream of letters, in both directions, was inaugurated.

As could be expected, the correspondence is full of the stuff of academic life: it chronicles their publications, research plans for the future, complaints about journal editors, ‘the status of the field’, or boring conferences (“Some clown by the name of [Baruch] Kurzweil gave a public address”, Neusner reported in 1971. “He spoke for 111 minutes […] Next time I’ll pay my own expenses, so I don’t have to sit through such things”). During the two-plus decades of their epistle exchange, only the fewest references are made to events happening outside the walls of the university. In one case, for example, Scholem described the overall devastation in Israeli society in the wake of the 1973 war; in another, Neusner mentions in passing “the gas shortage” that kept his family from any “long-distance driving”. Yet there is no denying that over the years a clear personal accent began to take hold in these letters. Perhaps it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that something close to a friendship eventually flowered. At a certain point, they ceased addressing each other by their academic titles, ‘Dr. Neusner’ and ‘Professor Scholem’, and began to refer to each other as ‘Jack’, “R[abbi] Gershom”, or ‘my dear Gershom’. They even tried to meet whenever the opportunity presented itself, either during Scholem’s many visits to the East Coast or during Neusner’s rarer visits to Israel.

It is clear that the one pushing the communication was Neusner; Scholem responds. After all, their relationship, friendly and personal as it soon became, was never between two equals. Notwithstanding the academic credentials Neusner had managed to garner and his mind-boggling volume of publications, he was no Scholem - and he knew it. He constantly sent Scholem his work and his letters attest to his admiration toward the great scholar of Kabbalah. On one occasion he praised Scholem for his monumental book on Sabbtai Zevi: “I believe in the presence of so great a human achievement silence is the only appropriate response”. Scholem, typically, was more reserved - the generational, national, and temperamental differences between them are apparent in almost every letter. He clearly appreciated some of Neusner’s work, though. In 1970, after the fifth volume of Neusner’s History of the Jews in Babylonia appeared, Scholem wrote to congratulate him on “this comprehensive and most enlightening effort of yours”, adding that “I am sure it will stimulate much further discussion and research but it will also be a landmark in Jewish historiography.” Later he even expressed his hope that Neusner’s methodological interventions would be engaged with more seriously. When Scholem was critical of his work, Neusner accepted the master’s judgment with deference and gratitude. And when he commended his work, Neusner was moved. “My dear Professor Scholem, I was deeply touched by your kind letter,” he wrote in 1968. “In fact, when I read it, a tear or two came to my eyes. You are not one to flatter; your good opinion is something I prize; and I did not aspire to receive so encouraging a letter”.

This correspondence holds in store a number of – I believe – unknown episodes, which could be added to the numerous stories about the two men that have already made rounds in Jewish studies circles. I will relate two here. The first, Scholem’s erstwhile publisher, Schocken, apparently commissioned an English translation of his work Origins of the Kabbalah, written originally in German as Ursprung und Anfange der Kabbalah (1962), but Scholem found it unacceptable. Upon hearing this, Neusner proposed, “out of sheer friendship,” to translate it himself, together with Professor Horst Moehring of Brown University. After some hesitance, Scholem agreed that they begin with translating the first chapter, and proceed only if he approved of the result. He did not. Breaking the news to Neusner in a letter from early 1973, Scholem explained: “The result is, quite frankly speaking, that I do not recognize myself in this new dress”. He added that this in no way dims his appreciation for their effort, nor should it affect their friendship. From an unsent Hebrew draft of this letter we learn additionally that Scholem found “many mistakes and misunderstandings” in the “technically-styled sentences” of the Neusner-Moehring translation. The translation was aborted, and it would take almost a decade and a half more for this masterpiece to finally appear in English.[3]

The second episode is the one that proved fateful to their relationship. After the tragic death of his father-in-law, Max Richter, Neusner resolved to use some funds from the Foundation he had already established in Richter’s honor and which was already a generous source for many ventures within Judaic studies, to support “serious Jewish scholars” from Israeli universities. They were certainly erudite, he admitted when he pitched the idea to Scholem, but they were also “methodologically rather primitive”, lacked a coherent theoretical framework for their research, and did not “read unapproved books” - like, for example, those he himself had authored. “What I want is the Gershom Scholem of the 1970s, or the Saul Lieberman,” he explained, “and I can’t conceive that people less than Scholem or Liebermann will recognize the potential of their inheritors and continuators” (Neusner is referring to Saul Leiberman, the eminent Talmud scholar, who taught him at JTS and with whom he had an unstable relationship with some highs and some very low lows). Neusner then added: “if you could support the work of Rashi or Rambam, would you not regard that as an honor and an immortality?”

In his response to Scholem’s requests for clarification, it became clear that what Neusner had in mind was to fund a year abroad for promising Israeli students in which they would do nothing but read, preferably beyond the works of their own professors. The model he probably sought to emulate was the time he himself had spent abroad at Lincoln College, Oxford, during his early and formative student years, with the sole aim of reading and widening his scholarly horizon. “It is the future of Israeli scholarship (in my areas of interest) that seems to me so bleak and uninteresting”, he wrote. His vision was to provide Israeli students, who believed they were in the center of the world of Jewish scholarship, something of “the opportunities enjoyed in the Golah”.

Scholem responded with hesitance, finding difficulty to come to terms with the mixture of generosity and disdain toward Israeli academia that was reflected in Neusner’s proposal. Somewhat bewildered by these broad and bleak assessments, Scholem retorted: “I know of second rate scholars in Jewish studies […] I fail to know of ignorant ones at the Hebrew University.” Neusner, however, continued on the assault, reproaching Israeli scholars of ignorance, arrogance, and dogmatism. After he published an article with an acerbic account of the experience of the classroom of Israeli universities, Scholem countered that Neusner’s “all-comprehensive and undifferentiated way” of presenting the state of Israeli scholarship “tends to over-state the case” and “is a rather offensive way of putting things”. Notably, Scholem did not always disagree with Neusner. “I would not be so far away from your evaluation”, he wrote in one case, “although I disagree with the sweeping statements which you have made of a rather general nature”.

Scholem soon concluded that Neusner’s idea would yield no blessing. This took Neusener by surprise, calling it a “shocking allegation”, and the dissolution of their relationship was underway. Suspiciously, some of the letters from around this time are missing, so we do not have the entire picture of what transpired. But the stream of scurrilous accusations against Israeli academia in Neusner’s letters continued, finally interrupted by a glowing appraisal for the English publication of Scholem’s Shabbtai Zevi. “The book remains without competition the most brilliant, sophisticated, and profound work every done in modern Jewish scholarship”, Neusner announced. “The work is without peer in the Jewish field and I should imagine is without much competition in the humanities in any field”. He hastened to add, not without irony, that perhaps Israeli scholarship was not beyond redemption if it could appreciate Scholem’s work. But at this point, not even the warmest appreciation could rectify their relationship, and soon Scholem would have enough. “I am drowning in work and therefore cannot indulge now in a discussion about the merits of Israeli scholarship”, he informed, noting that he very much deplored the “outspoken” and “passionate” way in which Neusner vented his feelings. The exchange continues for a while, with Scholem reservedly responding to Neusner, promising to inquire whether things were as bad as Neusner claimed they were, and suggesting talking about these matters the next time they would meet.

What finally terminated their relationship was an ostensibly minor, even tedious, scholarly incident. Ephraim Urbach, a professor for Talmud at the Hebrew University and no friend of Neusner’s, accused him of making a mistake in one of his articles. Apparently, Neusner wrote that Rabbi Samson of Sens, known as the Rashba, one of the leading commentators on the Talmud from medieval France, followed Maimonides on a certain matter. Urbach, however, claimed that this cannot be, as the relevant Maimonidean text was not translated into the proper language for the Rashba to have read it until after his death. An unfortunate mistake, to be sure, but in the context of the bitter feud between the two, it proved Neusner’s ignorance in Urbach’s eyes. In defense, Neusner claimed that by ‘following’ he did not mean ‘following Maimonides’ example’, but ‘following in sequence’. In a letter we are missing, Scholem appears to have sided with Urbach, and for Neusner that was too much. Turning on Scholem in a letter from January 15, 1975, he wrote that he was appalled by Scholem taking sides with his accusers, and “appalled still more that someone who has done what you have done should make himself party (or, allow himself to be made party) to lo, these many years of vilification. Shame on you.” Quite a change in tune from the person who had just before written that Scholem was “an ornament of our world”. Scholem’s frigid response came two weeks later: “I have come to the conclusion, much to my regret, that there is no use in further written communication between us. There seems to be no longer that common ground of mutual trust between us that makes for a fruitful dialogue.”

Any fruitful dialogue certainly ended, but the communication did not completely dry up. Three years later, on November 24, 1978, Neusner made it his business to report to Scholem that despite the herem and Todschweigen that ‘you people’ – Scholem and his Israeli colleagues - had declared against him, he was actually experiencing much success and was about to receive his third honorary degree (from the University of Cologne). “It is not out of personal friendship for you, let alone the others, that I write”, Neusner remarked, “but out of self-respect as a Jew, and as a Zionist”. That Scholem did not respond can be attested from the handwritten note which he angrily penned in Hebrew on the letter: “there is no limit to the shamelessness! I stopped the correspondence with him - that is what is called Todschweigen!” For whatever reason, Neusner would continue to write Scholem on occasion, inviting him to contribute to collections he was editing and, somewhat surprisingly, with a proposal to edit a volume on Scholem’s legacy. These letters were all ignored (on the invitation from Neusner to contribute to a Festschrift for Yigal Yadin, Scholem wrote: ‘NO!’).

While this correspondence records yet another one of Neusner’s quarrels with high-profile scholars, it is hardly only that. For alongside the details of academic life, good or ill, it also sheds light on the evolution of twentieth century study of religion and study of Judaism, as seen from the perspective of two celebrated and controversial scholars. Moreover, it offers a ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse to the unfolding tensions between Israeli and American approaches to the study of Jewish texts and the rivalry over the ‘spiritual center’ that defined - and beleaguered - the field for decades. It also testifies to the painful price that was paid, individually and as a discipline, when these tensions were played out in such personal tones. In one of his last letters, Nesuner wrote to Scholem: “if the provinces don’t think the center is very central, then what? We all become peripheries of one another”. Perhaps that is not so bad.


[1] Interestingly, Aaron Hughes, the author of the biography of Neunser, did not find any letters from Scholem in his extensive research of Neusner’s papers. What did Neusner do with them? See Aaron W. Hughes, Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast (New York: New York University Press, 2016). See also Shaul Magid, “Is it Time to Take the Most Published Man in Human History Seriously?”, Tablet, August 23, 2016.

[2] ARC.4* 1599 01 1885, the Gershom Scholem Archive, Israel National Library, Jerusalem.

[3] Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, edited by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, translated by Allan Arkush (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).


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