Jacob Neusner

The Example of Judaism

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Aaron W. Hughes
  • New York, NY: 
    , November
     132 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Aaron W. Hughes’s Jacob Neusner on Religion is a welcome contribution, and not only for its concision and clarity. It serves as a crucial companion to Hughes’s longer biography of Neusner (published in 2016, and reviewed here), delving into what Hughes identifies as the four main phases and contributions of Neusner’s enormous oeuvre without getting too bogged down in the often messy vicissitudes of a scholar with a long, important career. Hughes argues that Jacob Neusner, more than any other scholar, helped to integrate the study of Judaism into the context of the academy, and that in so doing, he made major theoretical contributions to the study of religion (1, passim). Hughes is worried, however, that Neusner’s contributions are neither fully understood, nor even fully integrated into the contemporary study of religion, Judaism, or rabbinics (106). In that sense, this book serves as both an introduction and an elegy.

Hughes begins with a short biographical sketch of Neusner’s life. More is contained in Hughes’s longer biography, as the point of this short chapter is mainly to highlight some of the correlations between Neusner’s scholarship and his institutional affiliation. Following this chapter, Hughes outlines what he considers the four main periods of Neusner’s scholarship, with a chapter devoted to each; he concludes with a short assessment of Neusner’s work and its reception in religious studies, Judaic studies, and rabbinics.

The simple division of Neusner’s life’s work might seem crude, but for a corpus that spans over a thousand books and forty years, such heuristics are helpful and necessary. Hughes’s divisions are: history, literature, religion, and theology. Scholars of ancient Judaism, and rabbinics in particular, are likely to be familiar with work from the first three periods. It is in the attention that Hughes devotes to the fourth period, the theological, that he makes one of his major contributions, contextualizing the latter part of a career whose zenith, many might claim, had come much earlier.

The initial portion of Neusner’s career was devoted to the reconstruction of Jewish history from the corpus of classical rabbinic texts. Neusner’s initial attempt to write history was characterized by a naïve belief that the content of these texts, once properly decoded and understood, was ultimately reliable. This is the same naiveté of which he later accused Israeli scholars. The turning point for Neusner, and the initiation of both the critical phase of his historical inquiry and the shift into interrogating literature and religion, came, as it does for so many of us, after contact with Jonathan Z. Smith. In Neusner’s case, however, this contact was in person, in a faculty seminar at Dartmouth College that included Hans Penner as well.

The critical phase of Neusner’s career was by far the most prolific. Some of his best-known works are from this phase, as are the bulk of his translations. Hughes selects from this period well: the works that he singles out for extended discussion are works that contain some of Neusner’s most innovative ideas and succinct distillations of his project. The discussion of Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (University of South Florida, 1988), for example, clearly demonstrates how reliant Neusner’s broader theorizations about rabbinic Judaism were on his prior translation activity, and how masterfully he constructed historical worlds based on the rhetorical evidence of important texts read as documents. There are gaps, of course: Hughes only engages substantively with a few of Neusner’s critics. When he does, such as in the case of Saul Lieberman’s review of Neusner’s translation of three volumes of the Palestinian Talmud, the claims of the review are left unevaluated, and Neusner’s response is, for the most part, valorized. As one-sided as this approach might seem, it can also be read as a necessary corrective: so much of Neusner’s legacy among academics rests in responses to his work, rather than a sincere engagement with his ideas.

Hughes considers the fourth and final stage of Neusner’s work, the theological stage, to comprise the “mature expression” of his thinking (80). No longer content to simply read texts piecemeal, Neusner began to write about the overarching structures that link rabbinic texts together, that render them manifestations of a broader rabbinic movement. This period was also characterized by Neusner’s close association with theologians from other religions, most notably Bruce Chilton and Pope Benedict XVI. Hughes is careful to continually note that Neusner was not engaging in constructive or systematic theology, but rather theology as a descriptive, analytic enterprise. We could even say that Neusner was interested in contrasting various theologies as ultimately incompatible structures, and in so doing casting aside any claims that he might be engaged in a sort of facile interfaith dialogue. Neusner produced an enormous amount of work in this category, not all of it limited to rabbinics: he wrote about Holocaust theology, American Judaism, and early Islam as well as the deep structures of rabbinic Judaism. This chapter represents one of Hughes’s most valuable contributions, as scholars who are familiar with Neusner’s work tend to be aware only of the first three periods.

To read Hughes’s last chapter, the assessment of Neusner’s legacy, is to be left with an impression of a vanishing giant: Neusner is painted as someone who single-handedly worked to push the study of Judaism and rabbinic literature into the umbrella of American academic religious studies, and whose innovative vision remains, according to Hughes, largely unfulfilled. The teaching of Judaism in American universities, he contends, still largely falls along the lines that Neusner opposed: removed from religion departments, and often oriented toward Jewish students and Jewish groups. This author, however, is a little more circumspect: there are religion departments across the country where Judaism is taught as part of a much broader context and where graduate students study rabbinic Judaism alongside other ancient Mediterranean religions. Neusner’s vision for the academic study of Judaism might not have been fully realized, but Hughes’s book helps us to see just how responsible Jacob Neusner is for the shape it holds today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Picus is Robert A. Oden, Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow for Innovation in the Humanities and Judaism at Carleton College.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aaron W. Hughes holds the Philip S. Bernstein Chair in Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester. He has taught at McMaster University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Calgary, and the University at Buffalo. 



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.