Judaic scholar Jacob Neusner forged interfaith bonds


Jacob Neusner, a religious historian of enormous breadth and productivity and one of the world’s foremost scholars of Jewish rabbinical texts, died Oct. 8 at his home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He was 84.

A spokesman for Bard College, where he taught for 20 years, confirmed his death, saying he had been treated for Parkinson’s disease for many years.

Mr. Neusner gave new meaning to the adjective “prolific.” A Life of Yohanan ben Zakkai, his 1962 study of one of the most important Jewish sages, marked the beginning of an astonishingly productive scholarly career. Over the next half-century, he published more than 900 books devoted to history, source analysis, comparative religion and legal theory.

He also edited and translated, with others, nearly the entirety of the Jewish rabbinical texts. His editions of the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud run to more than 50 volumes. In Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast, the Judaic scholar Aaron W. Hughes called him “perhaps the most important American-born Jewish thinker this country has produced.”

Mr. Neusner was instrumental in bringing the study of rabbinical texts into non-religious educational institutions and treating them as historical, literary and social documents. In so doing, he courted controversy by asserting that multiple Judaisms, arising from local conditions, coexisted in the period after the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. He put forth this thesis in Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (1981), which the religious scholar Jonathan Z. Smith called “a Copernican revolution in rabbinical studies.”

A fierce polemicist, Mr. Neusner was “part of almost every significant American Jewish controversy since World War II,” Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish and religious studies at Indiana University, wrote in the online Jewish magazine Tablet in August. He insisted on regarding Jews not as the chosen people, or marked in any special way, but simply as one religious and ethnic group among many.

Although he called himself a Zionist, in an address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1952, he said, “Israel’s flag is not mine. My homeland is America.” In Strangers at Home: The ‘Holocaust,’ Zionism, and American Judaism(1981), he maintained that American Jews had an unhealthy fixation on Israel and the Holocaust.

Mr. Neusner was a cultural conservative who opposed feminism and affirmative action. In 1989, while serving on the National Endowment for the Arts, he joined with Republican Senator Jesse Helms, and others in attacking the endowment’s support of a travelling exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.

In more recent years, he signed a 2009 declaration by the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a conservative Christian public policy organization, criticizing “unfounded or undue concerns” about climate change, overpopulation and species loss.

Tablet noted, “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.”

Mr.Neusner’s interest in comparative religion and interfaith understanding led him to write several books on Christianity, notably The Bible and Us: A Priest and a Rabbi Read Scripture Together (1990), with Andrew M. Greeley, and A Rabbi Talks With Jesus (1993), which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, called “by far the most important book for the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last decade.”

After the pope spent 20 pages discussing the book in Jesus of Nazareth, Time magazine called Mr. Neusner “The Pope’s Favorite Rabbi.”

Jacob Neusner was born July 28, 1932, in Hartford, Conn., into a family of Reform Jews. His mother was the former Lee Green and his father, Samuel, published The Jewish Ledger, a weekly newspaper.

His religious instruction was casual, and he did not study Hebrew. But early on, he gave clear indications of future trends. On one of his third-grade report cards, his teacher wrote, “He prefers not to do as the others are doing, which causes many difficulties.”

After graduating from William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, he enrolled at Harvard College. There, he encountered Jewish religious texts, taught by Harry Austryn Wolfson as works of religious philosophy. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1953.

He spent a year at Lincoln College, Oxford, before studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he was ordained a conservative rabbi. After a year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he studied the Talmud under Rabbi Saul Lieberman at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which awarded him a master’s degree in Hebrew letters in 1960.

That year he received a doctorate in religion from Columbia University, where he studied in a joint program in religion with Union Theological Seminary.

He developed his sociocultural approach to rabbinical texts while teaching at Dartmouth in the 1960s. He later taught at Brown University and the University of South Florida before joining the religion department at Bard College in 1994. At Bard, from which he retired in 2014, he founded the Institute for Advanced Theology with Bruce Chilton.

He had a bitter falling out with his former teacher, Mr. Lieberman, who, in a posthumously published review of Mr. Neusner’s Jerusalem Talmud, took the editor and translator to task for “ignorance of rabbinic Hebrew, of Aramaic grammar, and above all of the subject matter with which he deals,” pronouncing the work “for the wastebasket.”

Mr. Neusner fired back with several articles and, in 1994, a scathing book, “Why There Never Was a ‘Talmud of Caesarea’: Saul Lieberman’s Mistakes.”

Mr. Neusner leaves his wife, the former Suzanne Richter, four children and nine grandchildren.

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