Jacob Neusner: An Amer­i­can Jew­ish Iconoclast

Aaron W. Hughes
  • Review
By – November 14, 2016

Aca­d­e­m­ic schol­ars of rab­binic texts may not seem like the most inter­est­ing of peo­ple, but Aaron Hugh­es has pro­duced a com­pelling and very read­able biog­ra­phy of the recent­ly deceased Jacob Neusner. One of the most pro­lif­ic authors in human his­to­ry, with over 1,000 titles to his oeu­vre, Neusner led a col­or­ful life filled with con­tro­ver­sy and argu­ment, to a large degree of his own insti­ga­tion. Hugh­es calls him one of the most influ­en­tial Amer­i­can Jew­ish thinkers of the 20th cen­tu­ry, and presents a strong case in sup­port of that argument.

Hugh­es por­trays Neusner’s upbring­ing as par­a­dig­mat­ic of mid-20th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Judaism. His Jew­ish­ness was always framed by his Amer­i­can-born iden­ti­ty. He nev­er real­ly iden­ti­fied as a Zion­ist and sharply crit­i­cized those who used the Holo­caust as a pri­ma­ry means of pro­mot­ing Jew­ish affil­i­a­tion and iden­ti­ty, espe­cial­ly as opposed to tex­tu­al study and reli­gious prac­tice. In these ways, he dis­tin­guished him­self from the gen­er­a­tion of immi­grants who had come before him. In his schol­ar­ly work, he sought to bring the study of rab­binic texts to bear on larg­er ques­tions of reli­gion and eth­nic­i­ty, in con­trast to study­ing them for their own sake as it is done in reli­gious sem­i­nar­ies or, as he felt, in too many uni­ver­si­ty Juda­ic Stud­ies departments.

Hugh­es claims that Neusner suc­ceed­ed in his aca­d­e­m­ic mis­sion, almost sin­gle-hand­ed­ly, though at the cost of divorc­ing him­self from the main­stream aca­d­e­m­ic Juda­ic Stud­ies com­mu­ni­ty and its orga­ni­za­tions. Many of his for­mer men­tors, includ­ing such lumi­nar­ies as Mor­ton Smith and Saul Lieber­man, went out of their way to denounce Neusner and crit­i­cize his schol­ar­ship as flawed. Hugh­es frames these debates, which inevitably turned bit­ter, as expres­sions of Neusner’s aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly cos­mopoli­tan approach and his oppo­nents’ more parochial one. He does not real­ly focus on whether those schol­ars were cor­rect in their cri­tiques of Neusner, whose mis­takes, espe­cial­ly in trans­la­tion, were often real and whose approach has been large­ly super­seded by con­tem­po­rary scholarship.

As a tenured aca­d­e­m­ic, Neusner felt that a crit­i­cal part of his job was to cre­ate con­tro­ver­sy that would gen­er­ate dis­cus­sion. He did this by pub­lish­ing end­less­ly, often in response to his peers, and with a sharp­ness that often bor­dered on invec­tive. One pro­fes­sor com­ment­ed that while schol­ars typ­i­cal­ly write arti­cles in response to their peers’ books, Neusner would con­sis­tent­ly pub­lish book-length mono­graphs in response to their arti­cles. Hugh­es demon­strates the bit­ter per­son­al fights that Neusner’s caus­tic approach gen­er­at­ed, exac­er­bat­ing the fault lines that his inno­v­a­tive analy­sis cre­at­ed. By the end of his career, fol­low­ing sev­er­al explo­sive episodes, Neusner’s works were large­ly mar­gin­al­ized (delib­er­ate­ly boy­cotted, he claimed) in the greater dis­cus­sions hap­pen­ing with­in Jew­ish acad­e­mia, even in areas where his research had pro­vid­ed the intel­lec­tu­al scaf­fold­ing for lat­er schol­ars to build around.

As he matured, Neusner grav­i­tat­ed toward Repub­li­can pol­i­tics and fought against the lib­er­al­ism that he felt was eat­ing away at the mer­i­to­crat­ic aca­d­e­m­ic ideals that he val­ued so high­ly. In this capac­i­ty, he served on the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts and Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties, and was even nom­i­nat­ed to be Librar­i­an of Con­gress. As a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al, he opposed affir­ma­tive action poli­cies as well as iden­ti­ty and eth­nic stud­ies in the same way he crit­i­cized Juda­ic schol­ars that he felt were too parochial.

Neusner’s life does reflect the sto­ry of Amer­i­can Jews mov­ing from being an eth­nic minor­i­ty into main­stream white soci­ety. The ques­tions his lega­cy asks, then, are about the cost of that tran­si­tion and the Amer­i­can Jew­ish community’s oblig­a­tion toward oth­er minor­i­ty groups who have not been as fortunate.

Relat­ed Content:

Avra­ham Bron­stein writes fre­quent­ly on top­ics of Jew­ish thought, con­tem­po­rary issues, and their inter­sec­tion. A past Assis­tant Rab­bi of The Hamp­ton Syn­a­gogue and Pro­gram Direc­tor of Great Neck Syn­a­gogue, he lives with his fam­i­ly in Scran­ton, PA.

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