Forked Lightning

On Shabbat Shuva 5777, the incomparable scholar of Judaism, Jacob Neusner, returned to his Maker. From his histories, to his comprehensive translations and studies of rabbinic texts, his biographies, his thematic studies, his theologies and taxonomies, introductions and invitations, personal ruminations and reflections, interfaith writings, methodological and theoretical treatments, and, of course, his vigorous polemics, Neusner’s output was simply astounding.

By writing on virtually anything and everything in the classical Jewish canon, Neusner was the ever-present interlocutor – the pithy words on the page that greet you with the morning coffee, the opinion you push back against in that certain slant of afternoon light, to the final thoughts echoing in your head as you drift off to sleep. During my very first semester of graduate school at Yeshiva University, I was repeatedly exposed to Neusner’s work in Yaakov Elman’s course on tannaitic literature, where the New England born Talmudist was consulted and debated on the course’s central topics, including how to reconstruct tannaitic history using (or disavowing) rabbinic attributions, how best to classify the Mishnah, and how to address the synoptic problem of Mishnah and Tosefta. As I progressed in my studies and was drawn by Elman to Irano-Talmudica, Neusner reappeared like the Cheshire cat, arguing – mistakenly, I now believe – that there was not very much “Iranian in Babylonia,” yet in the process, building up so much of the scaffolding – especially in his History of the Jews in Babylonia. Even as I was up late in Jerusalem just this past Friday night, perusing Yair Furstenberg’s Purity and Community in Antiquity, I noticed how the author primarily formulates his thesis against Neusner’s still influential claim that the rabbis broadened and adapted a priestly ritual that had been rendered impotent with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. I could not have guessed that as I read of Neusner’s early work on purity in the still Sabbath air, the scholar himself was taking his last breaths.


While often measured in dizzying numbers and factoids, the singular, lasting accomplishment of Neusner’s legendary career was his success in building a proper home for Jewish studies and its rabbinic core in an otherwise indifferent American academy. More than anything, he achieved this not through quiet, measured prose but by pecking at a typewriter sharper than any saber, tirelessly writing Jewish texts and religion into the western canon.

Neusner was infamous for being on both the receiving and giving end of some of the toughest critiques academic Jewish studies has ever known. He penned harsh articles and later, still harsher full-length monographs, which attacked established scholars and aspiring graduate students; Neusner also was the victim of particularly cruel criticisms by scholarly giants and midgets alike. He publicly resigned from the Association of Jewish Studies, largely because of the way he felt it closed Jewish studies off from the larger academic discourse, had a tense relationship with Israeli academia, arguably because of the necessarily different, national role that Jewish studies plays there, while he made numerous costly decisions over the course of his five-decade long career, hazarding many claims and scorching much earth. Kissinger’s maxim about the stakes of academia and the viciousness of academic debate was proved wrong; the stakes could not have been higher.

While it is common custom that after someone’s death we speak only of their pleasant, palpable parts, I think it would be a disservice to Neusner if I highlighted only his easily endearing qualities – of which there were many. His agitation was not incidental to his legacy. It was part and parcel of his mission to mold academic Jewish studies into something other than traditional yeshiva learning on the one hand, and parochial area studies, on the other; to treat Jewish studies with respect and also to bring it into conversation with Religious studies and other relevant scholarly conversations taking place across the humanities. If he had gone about it quietly, I doubt he would have achieved his goals.


For the last stop on his journey, Neusner made his way to Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, the home of the bucolic and beautiful Bard College. I have been told that during those good days, his classroom persona mellowed and he enjoyed some of his best teaching years, introducing liberal arts undergraduates – many of whom had no biographical connection to the topic – into the intricate  world of Judaism and its texts. Through his collaborations with Bruce Chilton and other Christian scholars, he gave more time and energy to the study of theology and interfaith discourse. And he also let up, if only slightly, on his crushing, self-imposed workload, enjoying concerts and other cultural events held on and off campus, punctuated by visits with children and grandchildren, family and friends.

Having recently accepted a chair in his illustrious name, this past August I moved to Bard to begin teaching in the Religion department. At the beginning of September, I was invited to dinner at the Neusner’s, and warmly taken in to their Rhinebeck home by Suzanne, Jack’s incredibly devoted wife. Although much diminished by his fight with Parkinson’s disease, Jack was keen to hear about my plans at Bard. Towards the end of the meal, we had a short conversation about the figures involved in the study of the Talmud’s Iranian context. We went back to the nineteenth-century and talked a bit about Y. L. Schoor and other Maskilim, and on to the current efforts spearheaded by my own mentor, Elman. I then reminded Jack that he had played a critical role in this endeavor, as well as so many others.

For me personally, Neusner’s final, lasting lesson shown by example is that unlike many academics of this late, professionalized generation, scholarship was neither job nor calling, but the beating heart of life. He was the rare wise man whose words had forked lightning. He has earned his gentle journey into that good night. .יהי זכרו ברוך

One response to “Forked Lightning

  1. Without Neusner’s five volume “History of the Jews in Babylonia,” which I read in their entirety and own in a first edition, I never would have been able to write my historical novels about Rav Hisda’s Daughter.

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