Judaism in Con­tem­po­rary Context

Jacob Neusner
  • Review
By – March 2, 2012

Jacob Neusner has con­tributed many vol­umes of schol­ar­ship as an aca­d­e­m­ic dur­ing the past fifty years. As an observ­er of Jew­ish life and a self pro­claimed pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al, he has also con­tributed numer­ous arti­cles to non-aca­d­e­m­ic Jew­ish pub­li­ca­tions. This col­lec­tion of twen­ty such arti­cles writ­ten between 1962 and 1999 reflects Neusner’s opin­ions on Judaism, Zion­ism, the Jew­ish con­di­tion, the Holo­caust, and some bio­graph­i­cal information. 

Many of his obser­va­tions are right on the mark, some may be debat­ed, and oth­ers are sim­ply out­ra­geous and mis­in­formed. His work cer­tain­ly makes for inter­est­ing read­ing and stim­u­lat­ing dis­cus­sion. Often his is a lone voice pro­claim­ing the ills and errors of Judaism, Jew­ish soci­ety, and con­tem­po­rary reli­gious move­ments. He does not shy away from con­tro­ver­sial positions. 

Neusner demands dia­logue with Judaism’s sacred texts, he decries Jew­ish illit­er­a­cy, and crit­i­cizes any Jew­ish world­view not based on intel­lect and Juda­ic canon. Amer­i­can Judaism, he com­plains, is plagued by its focus on a world in which its mem­bers do not live. He fur­ther cri­tiques Jew­ish lead­er­ship as being admin­is­tra­tive and devoid of intel­lect. Neusner describes third gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can Jews as being Jew­ish but not too Jew­ish. The sec­ond gen­er­a­tion became undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed Amer­i­cans to every­one but them­selves. He is opposed to eth­nic Jew­ish­ness, and do-it-your­self Judaism, and rais­es the ques­tion whether Zion­ism is Jew­ish sec­u­lar nation­al­ism or sec­u­lar Jew­ish Messianism. 

The mean­ing of Zion­ism and Jew­ish­ness” are con­stant themes. He bor­rows the term enlan­dis­e­ment” from Abd al-Tafâhum and accus­es Amer­i­can Jew­ry of cre­at­ing an ersatz spir­i­tu­al dimen­sion regard­ing Israel since we do not choose to emi­grate. Assim­i­la­tion did lead to some Jew­ish dynamism, and Jew­ish self-hatred is reflect­ed in pal­try sup­port for the cul­tur­al, schol­ar­ly, and reli­gious pro­grams and insti­tu­tions that make us Jew­ish. He prais­es the Fed­er­a­tion sys­tem as being pro­fes­sion­al, some­thing lack­ing in the rest of the Jew­ish community. 

Neusner com­plains about the anti-Semi­tism in Ger­many, yet still goes to cel­e­brate the 500th anniver­sary of the Uni­ver­si­ty Tübin­gen which coin­cid­ed with the 500th anniver­sary of the expul­sion of Jews from Tübin­gen! He seems to rev­el in the fact that he is con­tro­ver­sial and not tak­en seri­ous­ly in Jerusalem or in any rab­binic sem­i­nary in the U.S.

The essays may be a bit dat­ed, but the issues are still cur­rent and Neusner’s point of view is always inter­est­ing. The most impor­tant para­graph answers the ques­tion of Why be Jewish?”: 

What is impor­tant about being Jew­ish is the capac­i­ty of the Jew­ish peo­ple and its myth­ic cre­ations to pre­serve the ten­sion between the intense par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of their life and the human­i­ty they share with the rest of mankind. That ten­sion, prac­ti­cal­ly unique to Jew­ry, derives from its excep­tion­al his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence. Until now, it has been the basis for the Jews’ remark­able role in human history.

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions