Jacob Neusner: In Memoriam


Jacob Neunser (1932-2016) died early shabbat morning of Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Ha-Shana and Yom Kippur.
The New York Times called him the most published individual in history. In his excellent book, Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast (NYU Press, 2016) Aaron Hughes suggests he is the greatest Jewish scholar of Judaism born in the United States. Whether either of these claims are true, and they are certainly reasonably so, he was surely one of the most towering figures in the study of Judaism in the past half century.
An irascible and often difficult personality, Jacob Neusner could also be extremely generous toward those with whom he shared mutual interest. His body of scholarly work is enormous, and also sometimes quite repetitive, and his innovations in the study of rabbinic literature have influenced at least two generations of scholars, even those who disagreed with him.
Two rabbis studying the torah together with another man in the background.
He is less well-known among younger scholars even as their own understanding of their subject is in large part made possible by his work.
Neusner studied with some of the most illustrious scholars of Judaica in the 20th century; from Harry Austryn Wolfson of Harvard to Salo Baron and Morton Smith at Columbia, to the scion of modern rabbinics Saul Lieberman at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He retained a lifetime friendship with renowned scholar of religion Jonathan Z. Smith among many others.
Most of Neusner’s life was spent in the academy although he was also an ordained rabbi and took that vocation very seriously. But for Tikkun readers not interested in the study of rabbinics, or of a detached version of academic learning that deadens the mind, Neusner should be remembered as an exemplar of an engaged scholar, a social activist in causes he believed in, even as those causes may have often been antithetical to Tikkun’s progressive agenda.
Neusner entered the academy just before the New Left began to gain momentum in America. Raised in a fairly liberal assimilated home on West Hartford Connecticut, Neusner discovered Judaism as an adolescent, a discovery that drove his entire life. In the late 1960s when the New Left was becoming more vocal, more strident, and in some cases more violent, Neusner with many others began to resist the universal calls of the post 1968 anti-war movement, some of whose activists articulated anti-Zionism and in some cases publicized by sensationalist media real anti-Semitism, to formulate a new found liberal Jewish identity.
People like Arthur Waskow and Michael Lerner brought a New Left ethos into the realm of progressive Jewish politics and theology. Others abandoned the left and moved to the right. Neusner was part of that second group yet in a somewhat complicated way. For example, after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 Neusner was one of a group of young scholars who formed a Jewish organization called Breira that was committed to ending the Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian State. He soon abandoned that project and turned more toward neoconservatism as it emerged in those years. He was particularly disturbed by affirmative action which he believed was both unfair and ineffective and lamented the excesses of the counter-culture and its stridency.
Unlike the circle of intellectuals around Commentary Magazine, Neunser was not a secularist but a strong advocate of religion, even as his religious practice was not traditional by any means. He once wrote that he wanted “more Judaism and less Jewisheness.” He was a staunch critic of religious apologetics in the academy and fought against confessional scholarship, arguing long before almost anyone else, for example, that non-Jewish scholars of Judaism must be fully integrated into the academic field of Jewish Studies. He even threatened to sue universities who he claimed passed over non-Jews in Jewish Studies searches. But in his private life, outside the seminar room and away from the campus, Neusner seemed to have a strong affinity for, and pride about, his Judaism.
While widely known as a scholar of rabbinics, he is less known as a critic and defender of American Judaism. Tikkun readers might be interested in three books Neusner wrote, one in the early 1960s and two in the early 1980s that have largely gone unnoticed by scholars and non-scholars alike. The first is called Fellowship in Judaism: The First Century and Today (1963), the second is The Jewish War Against the Jews: Reflections of Golah, Shoah, and Torah (1984), and the third is Israel in America(1985).
In 1963 Neusner wrote a small book about the concept of fellowship in Judaism, using his work on first century Yavneh as a model for a similar kind of experiment in postwar America. It is not exactly a programmatic work but a very suggestive one. Less than a decade later, a group of young progressive Jews coming out of the New Left began an experiment that in many ways used Neusner’s book as a template. In the coming years it became known as the Havurah Movement that had a significant impact on American Jewish life.
In the early 1980s with post-Holocaust theology already almost two decades old and the Israel occupation now official Israeli policy with the election of Menachem Begin in 1977, American Jews began rethinking American Jewish identity, Israel, and the Holocaust. In February 1981 Robert Alter published a widely read essay “Deformations of the Holocaust” in Commentary questioning the role of the Holocaust in American Jewish identity. In 1984 Neusner published The Jewish War Against the Jews: Reflections of Golah, Shoah, and Torah a concise and provocative critique of American Jewry’s dependence on the Holocaust and Israel as crutches preventing a necessary renaissance in the study of Jewish texts. This was followed in 1985 with Israel in America a broadside critique of what he considered the distorted and unhealthy role of Israel in American Jewry.
By this time Neusner was no liberal, he was a committed neoconservative, so his criticisms were not the stock and trade liberal critique that was common at the time. Rather, Neusner believed in Judaism as religion and he had little sympathy for those who outsourced their Judaism to an event that took place an ocean, and a generation, away or a country that existed half way around the world. Neusner may have been a Zionist but he was, as I read him, an American first. He once said to a group of students at M.I.T. Hillel in the early fifties, “The Israeli flag is not my flag and Israel is not my home.” As much as he was a supporter of Israel, although he did not visit often and only had loose academic ties there, I do not think he wavered much from that precocious youthful flourish.
Neusner’s politics were not in line with Tikkun Magazine and yet 27 years ago he published an essay in Tikkun and praised it for the work that is was doing, even saying that he thought Tikkunn (and Jewish thinkers like Zalman Schachter Shalomi, Waskow and Lerner)  might be articulating precisely the kind of Judaism that could take the Jewish world beyond its stuckness in early 20thcentury boring denominational forms. The iconoclasm of Jacob Neunser went beyond his subversive inclinations and his difficult character. He held views that sometimes stood in stark contradiction to one another, not necessarily irreconcilably so, but because he was a person who had multiple interests and commitments. He was a staunch advocate of academic freedom once writing that “I think to any person enjoying the privileges of tenure in a university the question should be asked about not being ‘controversial’.” He was a believer in the flourishing of Judaism and the Jewish people but was a critic of confessional Judaic scholarship and Jewishness not based in religion. He was a Zionist but also a critic of the role Israel played in the American Jewish imagination. Teaching at many universities, he spent his final years at Bard College an innovative and progressive liberal arts college, a testament to his ability to cross ideological borders and affiliations.
I think he may be one of the most underrated Jewish intellectuals in America in the past fifty years. Perhaps soon his writings will attract the attention of younger scholars who are interested in postwar American Judaism. But it will be too late for Jacob Neusner to offer his acerbic critique. His pen has been put to rest. What remains is his legacy. May it be for a blessing.
Shaul Magid, a member of Tikkun Magazine’s editorial board, is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Chair in Jewish Studies and Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University.
Overcoming High Holiday Hypocrisy by Gabi Kirk
In Loving Memory: The Yizkor Booklet by Lisa Braver Moss
Israel Demolishing Homes by Penina Eilberg-Schwartz

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *