Neusner never stopped excoriating American Jews for their naiveté.
[/pullquote]I attended the funeral of Jacob Neusner earlier in the week. As I sat in the chapel on the bank of the autumnal Hudson River, a string quartet appropriately played the Andante con moto from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” I wondered then and there how it might be possible to translate Jacob Neusner for a new generation of American Jews. His intellectual battles had largely been concluded by the mid 1990s and his political Conservativism was, and I imagine still is, out of sync with most American Jewry. Now that he has departed, I would like to reflect on his life in the most general terms.
Jacob Neusner was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1932. His father owned the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, a Jewish weekly that continues to serve the Connecticut region and Western Massachusetts. He attended public school as opposed to Jewish day school, and his values largely reflected those of other assimilated and suburban Jews who came of age in 1940s and 1950s America. But whereas many of his friends would go on to more lucrative careers in the legal and medical professions, Neusner always wanted to be a rabbi. Though he admitted later to me that he had no idea at the time what that meant, I suspect it was to lead a life immersed in the Jewish texts that he had yet to encounter.
[pullquote align=left] Neusner’s role in all of these conversations was that of critic, not caretaker.
[/pullquote]This early desire to “become a rabbi” was auspicious, at least in retrospect. For Neusner was always more than a scholar. In his singular life we witness rabbi, author, professor, critic, and public servant all rolled into one. He made contributions, often many, in all of these fields.
He received his first typewriter at age twelve, and began publishing newspaper articles and book reviews as early thirteenth year. His typing skills would serve well a man who went on to publish over 1000 books, probably twice as many chapters and articles, and countless op-eds. He wrote a lot. Perhaps too much. In fact, he wrote so much that it is difficult to find an opening into his corpus. If one reads the later theological work, one misses the truly transformative work of the younger Neusner who sought to apply higher criticism to rabbinic texts. So thought-provoking and original was his contribution that he received disciplinary censure. Though, not surprisingly, scholars in the field have largely absorbed his efforts and many have gone beyond them.
In addition to his work on rabbinic texts, Neusner never stopped excoriating American Jews for their naiveté. In the op-ed pages of Jewish newspapers and in books with titles such as Stranger At Home: “The Holocaust,” Zionism, and American Judaism (1981), he argued that the freest Jews in history needed positive Jewish content as opposed to slogans based on other times and on other continents.
[pullquote align=right] Thanks to him students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, learn about previously arcane texts like the Mishnah alongside the Bhagavad Gita
[/pullquote]There were the contradictions to be sure. He had an uncanny ability to put his hand on the pulse of American Jewry, but was largely alienated from it. He had the mind of a late antique rabbinic Jew, but eschewed Orthodoxy. He was ordained as a Conservative rabbi, but repudiated that Movement in 2009 when he returned to his Reform roots. Every life has contradictions, so why should we expect Neusner to be any different?
Neusner’s role in all of these conversations was that of critic, not caretaker. He wanted no part in a community or organization that would have someone like him in it. He thought Jews should learn Judaism and not hide behind the atavistic veils of ethnicity and identity politics. He was critical of Israel, but less on accounts of the Occupation than the fact that he felt Israeli scholars ignored his work.
[pullquote align=left] Today, largely on account of his herculean efforts, most universities in the country have programs, centers, and even departments of Jewish Studies.
[/pullquote]His political Conservativism simultaneously fed and was fed by his concerns about Affirmative Action in the university. Jews, he reasoned, had to make a case for their inclusion on both intellectual and aesthetic grounds as opposed to reverting to some inner core of identity that they perceived to be special and that they sought to validate by excluding others. Since he had successfully expanded this traditional model to include Judaism, he demanded that others—African Americans, First Nations, Latinos and Latinas—had to do the same.
And expand the canon he did. Today, largely on account of his herculean efforts, most universities in the country have programs, centers, and even departments of Jewish Studies or, as he preferred to call it, “Judaic Studies.” The latter, he maintained, put the emphasis on the dataset “Judaism” as opposed to ethnicity. Thanks to him students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, learn about previously arcane texts like the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud alongside the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran. As I have said on many occasions, Neusner took the study of Jewish texts out of the yeshivah and put them in the secular academy.
[pullquote align=right] Jewish texts, in other words, exemplify larger human questions. It is up to the scholar to show the mutual filiations.
[/pullquote]We owe him a tremendous debt. What we do in Jewish Studies today we largely do because of him. When he did it, he had no roadmap. But he provided us, his heirs, with the one he wrote. He was a presidential appointment to both the NEA and the NEH, and his time spent on the latter saw him produce a number of small books devoted to Judaism and the American Humanities. Therein, he set the agenda for how Judaism out to be conceived in the Academy. To this day I maintain that they should be required reading for every student in Jewish Studies. Among other things, he makes the case that nothing is unique, only exemplary. Jewish texts, in other words, exemplify larger human questions. It is up to the scholar to show the mutual filiations.
As we say goodbye to Jacob Neusner, we say goodbye to an era: both to the study of Judaism and to Jewish America. Time will tell if Neusner’s pioneering and universalist vision will carry they day. Zekher tzadik livrakha. May the memory of the righteous be a blessing.
Earlier this year, Prof. Aaron Hughes authored Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast, published by NYU Press.