Jacob Neusner

An American Jewish Iconoclast

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Aaron W. Hughes
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , September
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jacob Neusner was a very complex person. As Aaron L. Hughes puts it, “Jacob Neusner engenders all the complexities, messiness, and contradictions of a lived life. The colorful, mercurial, controversial, often bordering on the outrageous, nature of Neusner’s personality makes him the perfect candidate for a biography” (pp. 265-6). This is a leitmotif of Hughes’s empathetic, well written, and honest biography of the most published scholar of the twentieth century perhaps of all time. Admirably sketching the contours of Neusner’s professional life and writing, Hughes provides an important window into a scholar whose oeuvre both he—and I— fear might be incomprehensible to eager young scholars or readers from unrelated disciplines for whom Neusner’s many polemics and battles and expressions of complaint are mere history…and whose writings are so voluminous as to be impossible to control— a veritable paper mausoleum.

Hughes is a scholar of religion, and not of the literatures and periods that Neusner held dear. He writes this authorized biography based mainly upon Neusner’s archive, printed materials, and conversations with the aging Neusner and his community of scholars. His perspective projects from Neusner outwards, not from interaction with Neusner as commentator, nor through intense interaction with his interlocutors. Hughesvalorizes Neusner’s role in integrating Jewish text study into the study of “religion” by speaking the “language” of an ideally “secular” religious studies. As most of Neusner’s critics emphasized, and Neusner was loathe to confront, his own control of rabbinic sources was sometimes less fluent than expected of scholars of rabbinic literature, even of American-born scholars of his generation. His unique contribution was in bringing together the philology of the Talmudist—most prominently and symbolically, Saul Lieberman and Hebrew University luminary E.E. Urbach—with methods developed by scholars of religion. Included among these is Neusner’s Columbia dissertation advisor, the equally brilliant Morton Smith (lapsed Episcopalian priest, religious contrarian, bearer of a doctorate from the Hebrew University and member of the famed Eranos group), who introduced young Rabbi Neusner to the world of the mid-century Religionsgeschichte—the lessons of which Neusner applied to rabbinic sources.

Both the rabbinics of Lieberman and the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) of the 1960s, and the “religious studies” of Smith and his growing cohort of JTS and Yeshiva University trained doctoral students at Columbia was one tough neighborhood. Neither the Lithuanian-Germanic-Israeli culture of Talmudic scholarship that Lieberman epitomized, nor the history of religions that Smith nurtured, suffered fools. Neusner temperamentally fit well within that culture. Beyond that, the study of ancient Judaism was a battlefield, palimpsest, and surrogate for the process of Americanization that was tearing apart American Jewry at the time; nowhere more than within the bellwether “umbrella” centrist movement called Conservative Judaism and its flagship seminary. In the end, that harsh moment, so well documented by Hughes, turned against Neusner. Angry and often publicly insulted Talmudists, together with Smith himself (anxious, I think, to maintain his standing within the Jewish studies community) publicly and theatrically turned on Neusner. The drama that Neusner provoked is legendary, and Hughes hides none of this.

At the same time, scholars of ancient Judaism who “knew not Jacob” are now reading and rereading his really important work with the real appreciation that comes with critical distance, from his dual studies of Yohanan ben Zakkai and other early figures to his important work on Babylonian Jewry, the Mishnah, and his many literary and later theological studies. Even when wrong, Neusner was often ahead of his moment. I, for one, benefited from his kindness and early interest in what we now call Jewish visual culture. A one volume evaluation of Neusner’s real and lasting contributions to the study of Judaism in Roman, Sasanianand Byzantine antiquity is a desideratum. Hughes’s book is a partial start in that direction.

For Hughes, ironically the holder of a community-funded chair named for legendary Rochester reform rabbi Philip S. Bernstein at the University of Rochester, Neusner’s lasting contribution is the integration of a presumably “ghettoized” Jewish studies into the “secular academy” and its separation from communal concerns. This is a good that Hughes takes as natural, and here he (a sometimes provocateur himself, both within Islamic and Jewish studies) clearly finds a home.

My own sense is that the integration of which Neusner was a part was inevitable, as somewhat privileged and very self-assured third generation American Jews like him found and created their place in the vibrant culture of elite universities at mid-century. The sparks provoked by Neusner and his fellow travelers represent a Jewish subset of larger trends within American academic and religious culture. In recent years, the almost messianic drive to bring Jewish studies to the “secular” academy has slowed. The real value of Jewish institutions and more collegial approaches to creating Jewish knowledge without always responding to majoritarian (colonizing) impulses (and tenure decisions) have begun slowly to reemerge. Thanks in no small part to Hughes, when the larger history of Jewish studies in America is written, Neusner, whose rhetoric so many would happily forget, will undoubtedly be a prominent piece of the mosaic.

Beyond its work as biography, this volume is a marvelous glimpse into the ways that America’s best educated, wealthiest, and most “secularized” ethnic/religious community Americanized at a pivotal moment, and rewrote its story within and through the American academy. It is a case study of a fascinating senior scholar, created by a younger scholar who has taken up a piece of Neusner’s mantle. This volume reflects a remarkable process of acculturation and the importance of “counter-history” in that process. As he might surely have hoped, Neusner’s story has broad implications well beyond Jewish studies…though perhaps not in ways that he might have imagined. The life of Jacob Neusner, retold by Aaron Hughes, is an example and a warning to other up-and-coming Americanizing communities to anticipate the kinds of sparks that entering elite academic culture is prone to release.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Fine is Churgin professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aaron W. Hughes holds the Philip S. Bernstein Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester. 


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