Jacob Neusner, an influential teacher and writer whose focus was Jewish life and religion has died. Below is an excerpt from Neusner’s obituary written by William Grimes and published by The New York Times today:
Jacob Neusner, a religious historian of enormous breadth and productivity and one of the world’s foremost scholars of Jewish rabbinical texts, died on Saturday at his home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He was 84.
A spokesman for Bard College, where he taught for 20 years, confirmed his death, saying he had been treated for Parkinson’s disease for many years.
Professor Neusner (pronounced NOOSE-ner) gave new meaning to the adjective “prolific.” “A Life of Yohanan ben Zakkai,” his 1962 study of one of the most important Jewish sages, marked the beginning of an astonishingly productive scholarly career. Over the next half-century, he published more than 900 books devoted to history, source analysis, comparative religion and legal theory.
He also edited and translated, with others, nearly the entirety of the Jewish rabbinical texts. His editions of the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud run to more than 50 volumes. In “Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast,” the Judaic scholar Aaron W. Hughes called him “perhaps the most important American-born Jewish thinker this country has produced.”
Professor Neusner was instrumental in bringing the study of rabbinical texts into nonreligious educational institutions and treating them as historical, literary and social documents. In so doing he courted controversy by asserting that multiple Judaisms, arising from local conditions, coexisted in the period after the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. He put forth this thesis in “Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah” (1981), which the religious scholar Jonathan Z. Smith called “a Copernican revolution in rabbinical studies.”
Jacob Neusner was a very controversial writer. Grimes quotes Shaul Magid who said that Neusner was “part of almost every significant American Jewish controversy since World War II.” Neusner was also very interested in having dialogue with Christians. In Neusner’s obituary, Grimes wrote:
Professor Neusner’s interest in comparative religion and interfaith understanding led him to write several books on Christianity, notably “The Bible and Us: A Priest and a Rabbi Read Scripture Together” (1990), with Andrew M. Greeley, and “A Rabbi Talks With Jesus” (1993), which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, called “by far the most important book for the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last decade.”
For more details about Neusner’s life and work, read the obituary that was published by The New York Times.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary