Jacob Neusner (July 28, 1932 – October 8, 2016) was an American academic scholar of Judaism. He was named as one of the most published authors in history, having written or edited more than 900 books.
Early life and career
Neusner was born in Hartford, Connecticut to Reform Jewish parents. He graduated from William H. Hall High School in West Hartford. He then attended Harvard 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. After spending a year at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he returned to the Jewish Theological Seminary and studied the Talmud under Saul Lieberman, who would later write a famous, and highly negative, critique of Neusner's translation of the Jerusalem Talmud. He graduated in 1960 with a master's degree. Later that year, he received a doctorate in religion from Columbia University.
Afterward, he briefly taught at Dartmouth College. Neusner also held positions at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Brandeis University, Brown University, and the University of South Florida.
In 1994, Neusner began teaching at Bard College, working there until 2014. After leaving Bard College, he founded the Institute for Advanced Theology with Bruce Chilton.
He was a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. He was the only scholar to have served on both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Neusner's research centered on rabbinic Judaism of the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras. His work focused on bringing the study of rabbinical text into nonreligious educational institutions and treating them as non-religious documents.
He was a pioneer in the application of "form criticism" approach to Rabbinic texts. Much of Neusner's work focused on deconstructing the prevailing approach that viewed Rabbinic Judaism as a single religious movement within which the various Rabbinic texts were produced. In contrast, Neusner viewed each rabbinic document as an individual piece of evidence that can only shed light on the more local Judaisms of such specific document's place of origin and the specific Judaism of the author. His 1981 book Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah is the classic statement of his work and the first of many comparable volumes on the other documents of the rabbinic canon.
Neusner's five-volume History of the Jews in Babylonia, published between 1965-1969, is said to be the first to consider the Babylonian Talmud in its Iranian context. Neusner studied Farsi and Middle Persian to do so.
Neusner's method of studying documents individually without contextualizing them with other Rabbinic documents of the same era or genre led to a series of studies on the way Judaism creates categories of understanding, and how those categories relate to one another, even as they emerge diversely in discrete rabbinic documents.
Neusner translated into English nearly the entire Rabbinic canon. This work has opened up many Rabbinic documents to scholars of other fields unfamiliar with Hebrew and Aramaic, within the academic study of religion, as well as in ancient history, culture and Near and Middle Eastern Studies. His translation technique utilized a "Harvard-outline" format which attempts to make the argument flow of Rabbinic texts easier to understand for those unfamiliar with Talmudic reasoning.
Neusner's enterprise was aimed at a humanistic and academic reading of classics of Judaism. Neusner was drawn from studying text to context. Treating a religion in its social setting, as something a group of people do together, rather than as a set of beliefs and opinions.
In addition to his historical and textual works, Neusner also contributed to the area of Theology. He was the author of "Israel:" Judaism and its Social Metaphors and The Incarnation of God: The Character of Divinity in Formative Judaism.
In addition to his scholarly activities, Neusner was involved in Jewish Studies and Religious Studies. Neusner saw Judaism as "not particular but exemplary, and Jews not as special but (merely) interesting."
Neusner wrote a number of works exploring the relationship of Judaism to other religions. His A Rabbi Talks with Jesus attempts to establish a religiously sound framework for Judaic-Christian interchange. It earned the praise of Pope Benedict XVI and the nickname "The Pope's Favorite Rabbi". In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict referred to it as "by far the most important book for the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last decade."
Neusner also 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.
Neusner composed numerous textbooks and general trade books on Judaism. The two best-known examples are The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism (Belmont 2003); and Judaism: An Introduction.
Throughout his career, Neusner established publication programs and series with various academic publishers. Through these series, through reference works that he conceived and edited, and through the conferences he sponsored, Neusner advanced the careers of dozens of younger scholars from across the globe.
Neusner called himself a Zionist, but also said "Israel’s flag is not mine. My homeland is America." He was culturally conservative, and opposed feminism and affirmative action.
Neusner was a signer of the conservative Christian Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, which expresses concern over the "unfounded or undue concerns" of environmentalists such as "fears of destructive manmade global warming, overpopulation, and rampant species loss".
Critical assessment of Neusner's work
Although he was highly influential, Neusner was criticized by scholars in his field of study.
Some were critical of his methodology, and asserted that many of his arguments were circular or attempts to prove "negative assumptions" from a lack of evidence, while others concentrated on Neusner's reading and interpretations of Rabbinic texts, finding that his account was forced and inaccurate.
Neusner's view that the Second Commonwealth Pharisees were a sectarian group centered on "table fellowship" and ritual food purity practices, and his lack of interest in wider Jewish values or social issues, has been criticized by E. P. Sanders, Solomon Zeitlin and Hyam Maccoby.
Some scholars questioned Neusner's grasp of Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic. The most famous and biting criticism came from Neusner's former teacher, Saul Lieberman, about Neusner's translation of the Jerusalem Talmud. Lieberman wrote: "...one begins to doubt the credibility of the translator [Neusner]. And indeed after a superficial perusal of the translation, the reader is stunned by [Neusner's] ignorance of Rabbinic Hebrew, of Aramaic grammar, and above all of the subject matter with which he deals." He ended his review: "I conclude with a clear conscience: The right place for [Neusner's] English translation is the waste basket."
Neusner died on October 8, 2016 at the age of 84.