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Neusner, Jacob

NEUSNER, JACOB

NEUSNER, JACOB (1932– ), leading figure in the American academic study of religion. He has achieved this prominence and influence in three ways. First, he revolutionized the study of Judaism and brought it into the field of religion. Second, he built intellectual bridges between Judaism and other religions and thereby laid the groundwork for durable understanding and respect among religions. Third, through his teaching and his publication programs, he advanced the academic careers of younger scholars and teachers, both within and outside the study of Judaism. Neusner's influence on the study of Judaism and religion is broad, powerful, distinctive, and enduring.

Judaism and the Study of Religion

Educated at Harvard, Jewish Theological Seminary, Oxford, and Columbia, Neusner began his career in the early 1960s, when religion was a minor field in American universities, largely limited to biblical studies and Christian (mostly Protestant) theology. Judaism was studied parochially, confined primarily to Jewish institutions. Neusner changed this. He understood that the power of the study of religion is its capacity to generalize, to discern common structures across religions, and, through them, to understand the similarities and differences among diverse traditions. Neusner also knew, as did no other student of Judaism, that scholars cannot generalize about religions that are closed to them.

Neusner addressed these problems in two ways. First, he established a career agenda to bring critical questions to the study of Judaism. His staggering success transformed not only the study of Judaism; it also affected the study of religion. Neusner was the first to see that the sources of classical Judaism were not constructed to answer standard historical questions. He invented the documentary study of Judaism, through which he showed, relentlessly and incontrovertibly, that each document of the rabbinic canon has a discrete focus and agenda, and that the history of ancient Judaism has to be told in terms of its texts rather than personalities or events. His Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago, 1981, translated into Hebrew and Italian) is the classic statement of his work and the first of many comparable volumes on the other documents of the rabbinic canon.

Neusner's discovery of the centrality of documents led to his even more decisive perception of Judaism as a system: an integrated network of beliefs, practices, and values that yield a coherent worldview and picture of reality for its adherents. This approach generated a series of very important 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's work shows, for instance, how deeply Judaism is integrated with the system of the Pentateuch, how such categories as "merit" and "purity" work in Judaism, and how classical Judaism absorbed and transcended the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 c.e. His work depicts Rabbinic Judaism as the result of human labor in response to what its adherents believe is God's call and demonstrates its persistent vitality and imagination.

Second, in the process of producing his scholarship, Neusner translated, analyzed, and explained virtually the entire rabbinic canon – a massive compendium of texts – in English. The Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Jerusalem Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud, and nearly every work of rabbinic Bible interpretation are available to scholars of all backgrounds because of Neusner's scholarship. In the study of Judaism, no one in history can match Neusner's work.

In all of this, Neusner made Judaism and its study available to scholars and laypeople of every background and persuasion. That Judaism is now a mainstream component of the American study of religion is due almost entirely to Jacob Neusner's scholarship.

Bridges of Intellect and Understanding

Neusner's work did not stop with his exposition – in translation, description, and interpretation – of Judaism alone. To the contrary, unlike any other scholar of his generation, Neusner deliberately built outward from Judaism to other religions. He sponsored a number of very important conferences and collaborative projects that drew different religions into conversation on common themes and problems. Among other topics, Neusner's efforts have produced conferences and books on the problems of religion and society, religion and material culture, religion and economics, religion and altruism, and religion and tolerance. These collaborations build on Neusner's intellectual vision, his notion of a religion as a system, and would not have been possible otherwise. By working towards general questions from the perspective of a discrete religion, Neusner produced results of durable consequence for understanding other religions as well.

In addition to these efforts, Neusner has written a number of works exploring the relationship of Judaism to other religions around difficult issues of understanding and misunderstanding. For instance, his A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (Philadelphia, 1993, translated into German, Italian, and Swedish; second edition Montreal and Kingston, Ithaca, 2004) establishes a religiously sound framework for Judaic-Christian interchange and earned the praise of Pope Benedict xvi. He also has collaborated with other scholars to produce comparisons of Judaism and Christianity, for instance, The Bible and Us: A Priest and A Rabbi Read Scripture Together (New York, 1990, translated into Spanish and Portuguese; second edition Common Ground: A Priest and A Rabbi Read Scripture Together (Eugene, 2005). He has done the same with scholars of Islam on Judaism and Islam. Neusner conceived the very effective textbook World Religions in America: An Introduction (third edition, Nashville, 2004), which explored how diverse religions have developed in the distinctive American context. It has had a strong impact in both colleges and secondary schools. He also has composed numerous college and school textbooks and general trade books on Judaism. The two best known examples are The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism (seventh edition, Belmont, 2003) and Judaism. An Introduction (London and New York, 2002, translated into Portugese and Japanese). No American scholar of any religion replicates Neusner's intellectual outreach.

Advancing the Careers of Others

Throughout his career, Neusner has established publication programs and series with various academic publishers. Each of these he has opened to the widest range of scholars and scholarship. Through these series, through numerous reference works that he conceived and edited, and through the conferences he has sponsored, Neusner has advanced the careers of literally dozens of younger scholars from across the globe. By fostering scholarship, he has stimulated the research of others and helped many younger scholars from around the world realize their potential. There is no one else in the American study of religion who has had this kind of impact on students of such a broad range of approaches and interests.

Conclusion

Jacob Neusner is often celebrated as the most published scholar in history. He has written or edited more than 900 books. He has taught at Columbia University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Brandeis University, Dartmouth College, Brown University, the University of South Florida, and Bard College. He is a member of the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, nj, and a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. In addition, he is the only scholar to serve on both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. He also has received scores of academic awards, honorific and otherwise.

The real measure of Jacob Neusner's contribution to the study of religion emerges from the originality, excellence, and scope of his learning. He founded a field of scholarship: the academic study of Judaism. He built out of that field to influence a larger subject: the academic study of religion. He created durable networks and pathways of interreligious communication and understanding. And he cared for the careers of others. Ever generous with his intellectual gifts, Neusner is one of America's greatest humanists. In all aspects of his career, he exemplifies the meaning of American learning. In all he has done, Jacob Neusner fulfills the distinctive promise of the academic study of religion in an open and pluralistic society that values religion as a fundamental expression of freedom.

For a discussion of Neusner as a Talmud scholar see *Mishnah.

[Wm. Scott Green (2nd ed.)]

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