Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Neusner was educated at Harvard University, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where he received rabbinic ordination), the University of Oxford, and Columbia University.
Neusner is often celebrated as one of the most published authors in history (he wrote or edited more than 950 books.) From 1994 onward, he taught at Bard College. He also taught at Columbia University, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Brandeis University, Dartmouth College, Brown University, and the University of South Florida.
Neusner was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. He was the only scholar to have served on both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. He also received scores of academic awards, honorific and otherwise.
Neusner's scholarly activity was vast. Generally, his research centered around rabbinic Judaism of the Mishnaic and Talmudic Eras. He was a pioneer in the application of the "form criticism" approach to Rabbinic texts. Much of Neusner's work was to de-construct the prevailing approach viewing Rabbinic Judaism as a single religious movement within which the various Rabbinic texts were produced. In contrast, Neusner viewed each rabbinic document as an individual piece of evidence that can only shed light on the more local Judaisms of such specific document's place of origin and the specific Judaism of the author. 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 method of studying documents individually without contextualizing them with other Rabbinic documents of the same era or genre, led to 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 translated into English nearly the entire Rabbinic canon. This work has opened up many Rabbinic documents to scholars of other fields unfamiliar with Hebrew and Aramaic. His translation technique utilized a "Harvard-outline" format which attempted to make the argument flow of Rabbinic texts easier to understand for those unfamiliar with Talmudic reasoning.
Neusner's enterprise was aimed at a humanistic and academic reading of classics of Judaism. Neusner was drawn from studying text to context. Treating a religion in its social setting, as something a group of people do together, rather than as a set of beliefs and opinions.
In addition to his historical and textual works Neusner also contributed to the area of Theology. He is the author of "Israel:" Judaism and its Social Metaphors and The Incarnation of God: The Character of Divinity in Formative Judaism.
Contributions to academia
In addition to his scholarly activities, Neusner was heavily involved in the shaping of Jewish and religious studies in the American university. He sponsored a number of conferences and collaborative projects that drew different religions into conversation on common themes and problems. Neusner's efforts produced conferences and books on, among other topics, the problem of difference in religion, religion and society, religion and material culture, religion and economics, religion and altruism, and religion and tolerance. These collaborations built on Neusner's intellectual vision, his notion of a religion as a system, and would not have happened otherwise. By working in the realm of Judaism and Jewish Religion, he developed methods and theories applicable to the study of religion generally.
Neusner wrote a number of works exploring the relationship of Judaism to other religions. His A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (Philadelphia, 1993; translated into German, Italian, and Swedish), attempts to establish a religiously sound framework for Judaic-Christian interchange. It has earned the praise of Pope Benedict XVI and earned Neusner the nickname "The Pope's Favorite Rabbi". In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict refers to it as "by far the most important book for the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last decade."
Jacob Neusner also collaborated with other scholars to produce comparisons of Judaism and Christianity, as in The Bible and Us: A Priest and A Rabbi Read Scripture Together (New York 1990; translated into Spanish and Portuguese). He has collaborated with scholars of Islam, conceiving World Religions in America: An Introduction (third edition, Nashville 2004), which explores how diverse religions have developed in the distinctive American context.
He also composed numerous textbooks and general trade books on Judaism. The two best-known examples are The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism (Belmont 2003); and Judaism: An Introduction (London and New York 2002; translated into Portuguese and Japanese]).
Throughout his career, Neusner established publication programs and series with various academic publishers. Through these series, through reference works that he conceived and edited, and through the conferences he sponsored, Neusner advanced the careers of dozens of younger scholars from across the globe. Few others in the American study of religion have had this kind of impact on students of so many approaches and interests.
Neusner aimed to make Rabbinic literature useful to specialists in a variety of fields within the academic study of religion, as well as in ancient history, culture and Near and Middle Eastern Studies. His work concerned the classic texts of Judaism and how they form a cogent statement of a religious system.
Critical assessment of Neusner's work
Although he was highly influential, Neusner has been criticized by scholars in his field of study. This summarizes the published studies that are critical of Neusner's work. Some scholars are critical of Neusner's methodology, and assert that many of his arguments are circular or attempt to prove "negative assumptions" from a lack of evidence (e.g., Cohen, Evans, Hyam Maccoby, Poirier, Sanders). Others are critical of Neusner's reading and interpretations of Rabbinic texts, finding that his account is forced and inaccurate (e.g., Cohen, Evans, Maccoby, Poirier and in detail, Zuesse).
One methodological and historical critique of Neusner is by E. P. Sanders. In his earliest work, Neusner had argued that the most credible evidence showed that the Second Commonwealth Pharisees were a sectarian group centered on "table fellowship" and ritual food purity practices, and less interested in wider Jewish values or social issues. Zeitlin and Maccoby challenged this account. Sanders proposed that many of Neusner's interpretations of Pharisaic discussions and rulings were questionable (e.g., Neusner concluded that 67% of the debates between Pharisaic "houses" dealt with ritual food purity; Sanders concludes that less than 1% do. p. 177).
- David Van Biena (24 May 2007) "The Pope's Favorite Rabbi", Time. Retrieved 12 October 2016.
- Shaye J. D. Cohen, "Jacob Neusner, Mishnah and Counter-Rabbinics," Conservative Judaism, Vol.37(1) Fall 1983 p. 48-63
- Craig A. Evans, "Mishna and Messiah 'In Context'," Journal of Biblical Literature, (JBL), 112/2 1993, p. 267-289
- Saul Lieberman, "A Tragedy or a Comedy" Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.104(2) April/June 1984 p. 315-319
- Hyam Maccoby, "Jacob Neusner's Mishnah," Midstream, 30/5 May 1984 p. 24-32
- Hyam Maccoby, "Neusner and the Red Cow," Journal for the Study of Judaism (JSJ), 21 1990, p. 60-75.
- John C. Poirier, "Jacob Neusner, the Mishnah and Ventriloquism," The Jewish Quarterly Review, LXXXVII Nos.1-2, July-October 1996, p. 61-78
- *E.P.Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah. Philadelphia, 1990.
- Solomon Zeitlin, "A Life of Yohanan ben Zakkai. A Specimen of Modern Jewish Scholarship," Jewish Quarterly Review, 62, 1972, p. 145-155.
- Solomon Zeitlin, "Spurious Interpretations of Rabbinic Sources in the Studies of the Pharisees and Pharisaim," Jewish Quarterly Review, 62, 1974, p. 122-135.
- Evan M. Zuesse, "The Rabbinic Treatment of 'Others' (Criminals, Gentiles) according to Jacob Neusner," Review of Rabbinic Judaism, Vol. VII, 2004, p. 191-229
- Evan M. Zuesse, "Phenomenology of Judaism," in: Encyclopaedia of Judaism, ed. J. Neusner, A. Avery-Peck, and W.S. Green, 2nd Edition Leiden: Brill, 2005 Vol.III, p. 1968-1986. (Offers an alternative to Neusner's theory of "Judaisms.")
- Saul Lieberman, "A Tragedy or a Comedy" Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.104(2) April/June 1984 p. 315-319. Lieberman wrote: ...one begins to doubt the credibility of the translator [Neusner]. And indeed after a superficial perusal of the translation, the reader is stunned by [Neusner's] ignorance of Rabbinic Hebrew, of Aramaic grammar, and above all of the subject matter with which he deals.
- Prof. Jacob Neusner's homepage
- Scholar of Judaism, Professional Provocateur, Dinitia Smith, The New York Times, April 13, 2005
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