Jacob Neusner, renowned Jewish scholar, dies at 84

Professor-rabbi wrote almost 1,000 books, courting controversy throughout his six-decade career

Jacob Neusner in 2008 (Emily Darrow, courtesy Bard College)
Jacob Neusner in 2008 (Emily Darrow, courtesy Bard College)

Professor Jacob Neusner, renowned Jewish scholar and author, passed away on Saturday morning at age 84 after a long illness.

Neusner, an ordained Conservative rabbi and scholar, was one of the most prolific writers in history, author of almost 1,000 books and countless articles, op-eds and other writings. He had a deep influence on the study of traditional Jewish texts and courted controversy in almost everything he did.

Neusner was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and had no formal Jewish education until his teenage years, when he first learned to read Hebrew. He was first inspired to begin studying Jewish texts at Harvard after meeting and studying under Professor Harry Austryn Wolfson. He went from Harvard to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he studied under Rabbi Saul Lieberman and was first introduced to the Talmud. “I was not intellectually challenged until I met the Talmud, in October 1954,” Neusner said according to a New York Times report.

He later studied at Oxford and Yale and went on to teach at Columbia University, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Brandeis University, Dartmouth College, Brown University, the University of South Florida, and, since 1994, at Bard College in New York.

Neusner rejected the approach of his early teachers, who were European and educated in traditional yeshivas. He felt that their approach sought to justify the Talmud and early rabbinic writings, and in doing so became apologetic. Coming from outside the system, Neusner held that the texts should be treated as literature, and that they were not necessarily records of actual conversations or statements of real rabbis.

To facilitate the study of these early rabbinic texts Neusner translated the entire Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, and almost all of the traditional Jewish writings of that era. His translations offer almost no commentary or guidance for the reader.

This approach of separating the Talmud from the traditional approach earned Neusner the ire of his former teacher Lieberman, who wrote in a review that “after a superficial perusal of the translation, the reader is stunned by [the author’s] ignorance of Rabbinic Hebrew, of Aramaic grammar, and above all of the subject matter with which he deals.” He finished his review with the following statement: “I conclude with a clear conscience: The right place for [Neusner’s] English translation is the waste basket.”

Neusner later hit back at Lieberman in several articles and a 193-page book entitled “Why There Never Was a Talmud of Caesarea: Saul Lieberman’s Mistakes” published in 1994.

Neusner was well known for courting controversy and attacking those who disagreed with him. He was asked about this by Tablet Magazine in an article entitled “Is It Time to Take the Most-Published Man in Human History Seriously?” Neusner told them that “I bear my scars and wounds of various controversies as marks of honor and dignity: They show I have done my duty.”

Neusner also published on a range of other topics. His 1993 book “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus” earned the praise of pope Benedict and began an interfaith dialogue with the Catholic pontiff.

His controversial views also extended outside Jewish studies. In 2000 he was a signatory to the Cornwall Declaration which rejected the concept of man-made global warming.

Neusner is survived by his wife Suzanne and four children, one of whom, Noam, was the White House Jewish liaison under George W. Bush.

Neusner’s funeral will take place Monday at 10:30 a.m. at Blithewood Manor on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed