Jacob Neusner was one of those incredibly brilliant individuals who always seem destined to create havoc through their combination of ingenuity, intellect, and industriousness. Neusner possessed all three. He related how he was never intellectually challenged in his youth until he encountered Talmud in October 1954.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut to Reform Jewish parents who did not raise him in the Hebrew language. He began learning Hebrew much later than his Jewish peers. Still, he ended up resetting the paradigm for the study of Judaism, from its earlier apologetic form to rigorous critical inquiry through the use of academic methods.
Neusner graduated from William H. Hall High School in West Hartford and went to study atHarvard University, where he met Harry Austryn Wolfson and first encountered Jewish religious texts. After graduating from Harvard in 1953, Neusner spent a year at the University of Oxford. Neusner then attended the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he was ordained as a Conservative Jewish rabbi.
The Israeli rabbi and a scholar of Talmud Saul Lieberman who served as Professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA) for over 40 years, got also Neusner as one of his students. Saul Lieberman would later write a famous, and highly negative, critique of Neusner’s translation of the Jerusalem Talmud, also called Palestinian Talmud or in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish Talmud Yerushalmi.
After his graduation in 1960 with a master’s degree he, later in the same year, received a doctorate in religion from Columbia University.
He was president of AAR, received 10 honorary degrees, was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and taught at Dartmouth College (1964–68), Brown University (1968–90), and Bard College (1994–2014), where a chair was named in his honour.
In Judasim: The Evidence of the Mishnah (1981), Neusner advanced the idea that rabbinical literature in the period after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem (70 ce) must be understood within the varying contexts of the local conditions under which the texts were created.
Study of Jewish material, in particular rabbinic texts, was limited to the yeshivahs, or Jewish rabbinic training schools. Neusner breached the wall of the academy with an overarching methodology that is consistent throughout his writings and functions in a threefold manner: that
- There is no such thing as a monolithic Judaism
- The Talmud does not interpret the Talmud
- Academic methods must be applied to Jewish texts
Neusner was convinced that
“each document of the rabbinic canon has a discrete focus and agenda”.
and that Palestinian Judaism was described through three bodies of evidence: the Tannaitic literature, the dead Sea Scrolls and apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, in that order.
Neusner rejected the study which adhered to a type of Analogy of Scripture and Analogy of Faith. According to him each text in the corpus of rabbinic writings had to be treated on its own merit.
There is no room for an Analogy of Scripture or Analogy of Faith in a truly critical study of Rabbinic Judaism.
He translated the Mishnah, two Talmuds, and collections of Midrash, tying each text to its particular place, authors, times, editors, and more. For him, the texts did not represent real people in the past, as though the Talmud was factual historical accounting of the deeds of past men. For him these texts, rather, represent a history of ideas.
Judaism, in his view, was also not untouchable or better than any other religious system, but rather, it was “interesting.” This was the mark of his scholarly integrity. He was willing to ask the questions of the texts that nobody else would, and he had the conviction of character to publish what were highly unpopular conclusions at the time.
Neusner published Jewish texts previously taken at face value in the the same spotlight of critical analysis that had for generations been lighting the Bible. In other words, a hermeneutic of suspicion was now introduced into the study of Talmud, a text which until this point had been the reserve of Jewish seminaries. Jewish Studies had now entered the conclave of the humanities, and it would never be the same. According to his biographer, Aaron Hughes, Neusner “pretty much single-handedly created the field of Jewish studies” in the United States. He brought critical studies of Jewish texts and ancient Judaism into the mainstream, where it has remained and continued to flourish until today.
Neusner stated that
“Judaisms and Christianities never meet anywhere. That is because at no point do Judaism, defined by Torah, and Christianity, defined by the Bible, intersect”
We should know that Jesus is the Jewish rebbe Jeshua who did not want to create a new religion, but wanted to show the people how they could come to God and should worship that Only One True God, The God of Israel, the God of Abraham. He saw how several Christians went away from the Scriptures implying their own thoughts and forcing their own doctrines to others, handling in the same way as the Pharisees. Though the problem with those trinitarian Christians was that they would be so stubborn, not wanting to see the Jewish context and loving to hang on their completely different definitions of “Israel” to the point that they could not even have dialogue.
Christians say “Israel” as salvation, while Pharisees saw “Israel” as a way of life. Christianity is all about salvation (in the next life), while the Pharisees is all about sanctification (in this life).
“Judaisms and Christianities never meet anywhere. That is because at no point do Judaism, defined by Torah, and Christianity, defined by the Bible, intersect.”
This idea or concept of Neusner may have been so deeply rooted in his head because he probably did not have enough contact with real Christians who worship the Only One God. But by living in the united states where the trinitarians are such a strong group silencing the non-trinitarians, and many even being against Jews, cross with the Jews, saying that the Jews killed Jesus and those evangelicals also not open for Jewish Christian literature. Neusner his main contacts with Christians being contacts with those who take Jesus as their god and people who could not make the difference between divinity, divine and The Divine God, made it impossible for him to come to good terms with them.
Neusner also notes that the messiah was never the pivotal force in a history shadowed by the defeat and suffering of Israel. Instead, the messiah and other related figures are part of an “undifferentiated background of ideas” (158, 163).
Neusner’s interests over his career changed as well. They range from robust scholarly works on ancient Judaism and the Talmud, to work on the Holocaust, notably Stranger at Home: “The Holocaust,” Zionism, and American Judaism (1981), as well as efforts at inter-faith dialogue (he was Pope Benedict’s “favourite Rabbi”). It has been said that his earlier work in the texts of Rabbinic Judaism led naturally into attempting to answer the deeper existential questions posed by the Holocaust and contemporary religious dialogue. It is said that after reading deeply into the Holocaust in his university years, the driving question of his career became, “What do we do now?”
Torah retained its status as an enduring pattern of kedusha in
The difference is between “doing” and “being.” “Israel could do absolutely nothing. But Israel could be –become—holy,” thereby by making itself worthy of
“God’s sudden intervention, the institution of God’s rule through King-Messiah.”
Neusner also looking at the figure of the Messiah as a mythical figure could not bring him and Christians on exchanging lines and got him also not on the same foot as Messianic Jews, for whom the Messiah is a reality. He collaborated with other scholars to produce comparisons of Judaism and Christianity, as in The Bible and Us: A Priest and A Rabbi Read Scripture Together. He collaborated with scholars of Islam, conceiving World Religions in America: An Introduction, which explores how diverse religions have developed in the distinctive American context.
Though he called himself a Zionist he considered himself a true American, saying
“Israel’s flag is not mine. My homeland is America.”
Neusner could be extremely forthright in his criticism of other scholars (he wrote an entire 193-page book refuting his doctoral supervisor’s view of Judaism). He was also notoriously difficult to work with if you happened to be in the same academic department as him, and although he taught at some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, including Dartmouth, Brandeis, and Brown, they were short-lived posts until he landed at Bard College, where he stayed for 20 years. There are stories of him writing letters to colleagues with the following words at the end:
Despite this, he was a man who cherished family and friends. They knew him as a great lover of all people of all walks of life, who held strong convictions nonetheless. Neusner especially loved dogs, and for 35 years always had at least one dog in the house to keep him and his children company.
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