Looking Back at Jacob Neusner’s Complicated Legacy

During the turmoil of the election campaign, the death of Jacob Neusner, one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the past century, received relatively little attention.

Neusner, who died in October, was one of the giants who established Jewish studies in the 20th century, and a central figure in the history of critical scholarship on our holy texts. He was also my mentor and inspiration.

And I still haven’t forgiven him.

With the end of this secular year approaching, my year-end reflection on Neusner’s passing has moved me to come to terms with the many ways in which this intellectual colossus both shaped me and shafted me. In fact, it’s only now, decades later, with the man who launched 1,000 books now at rest, that I feel able to look back and assess his impact, both on my life and on the world.

As the many scholars who knew him can testify, Neusner was famously cruel — one might even say abusive —- to students and colleagues, and in particular to those students in whom he saw promise. I was one of them.

He was fundamental in shaping my perspectives on ancient and contemporary Judaisms, while challenging me to question my own faith system with an ultra-critical eye. He fed my insatiable need to smash idols and my deep desire to seek common threads linking Judaism to the universal human enterprise. He took this Ramah/USY-bred insider and ripped him from the womb of a Jewish establishment that had been ossifying for years, replacing spoon-fed platitudes with a far bolder quest. He is the reason I became a rabbi — and for the kind of rabbi I became.

In “Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast,” published shortly before his death, Neusner’s biographer, Aaron Hughes, wrote of the struggle young American Jews have in forging a more nourishing, positive Judaism, due to their ambivalence toward Israel and their aversion to the mindset of negativity engendered by the Holocaust. This was no less true for young Jews in my generation. And Neusner understood this many decades ago.

He boasted that he single-handedly founded the Havurah movement — somewhat ironic, given his conservative political leanings. But I do see a straight line from his iconoclasm to the creative paroxysms of the past quarter-century. He spawned new visions across the ideological spectrum, from Habad to Havurah to Renewal. The congregations and fellowship groups that thrive today are those aiming to revitalize authentic Jewish practice, not for its own sake but in search of deeper universal truths. He understood that the potency of a religious system depended entirely on that system’s ability to answer the most human of questions, to respond to life’s deepest joys and most cruel injustices and the overwhelming certainty of death. Wherever people are questioning stale truisms and plumbing ancient texts for undiscovered wisdom, Neusner’s influence can be felt — his academic model has become part of the zeitgeist.

Neusner encouraged me to go to rabbinical school, but simultaneously he completely ruined my experience at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I chose to learn. Conservative Judaism lifer that I was, JTS, the movement’s main academic institution, was the natural choice for me. But the JTS of my rabbinical school years had all the academic independence and intellectual vigor of a 1950s Hebrew School. Though the seminary prided itself on being the home of the scientific study of Judaism (aka “Wissenschaft des Judentums,” the antiquated German expression it fancied, as if nothing significant had happened between Jews and Germany since the 19th century), it was less a university and more a vocational school. Rabbis were trained to be apologists for the previous generation’s dusty visions, rather than a pulsating laboratory to forge new ones.

There were exceptions to this rule, of course — I had some marvelous teachers — and the seminary today is quite different. But Neusner’s prime critique of JTS — that it wasn’t truly critical and that it squelched leading prophetic voices, like Abraham Joshua Heschel’s —became mine. In fact, Neusner could easily have written this entire paragraph and the one preceding it.

So what was life like under the tutelage of my crazy ex-rebbe?

If you started college in the mid-1970s, you already had missed the big revolutions. My freshman classmates were too young to have protested Vietnam or slogged through Woodstock. But we were still old enough to rise up against the status quo, and for my Jewish contemporaries, Brown University, where Neusner taught, was the place to be. My class included some of American Jewry’s best and brightest young Jewish freethinkers, and we were all there to sit at the feet of the master.

In my first semester, I jumped right in and took Neusner’s most popular course, Religious Studies 68, American Judaism. He had me at hello. Although we were analyzing a world I had been part of since birth, everything was turned upside down; it was as if I were an anthropologist from Mars examining the subject for the first time. American Judaism’s holy trinity consisted not of Torah, prophets and writings, but of Holocaust, Israel and philanthropy. Our prime rabbis were not Moses and Akiba, but Roth, Malamud and Bellow — and of course, Neusner himself.

My final paper offered a creative analysis of a federation campaign as an example of American Jewish civil religion. Neusner loved it so much that he wrote a letter to my father in Boston:

Dear Cantor Hammerman, I expected Joshua to do good work in my course, but I did not expect that he would produce the most brilliant final, which he did. His paper is simply exceptional, beginning in a completely original conception, worked out through disciplined and restrained modes of thought and expression; for any Brown student it is no less extraordinary. You should be very, very proud of Joshua, both as a student and as a person. I hope my children develop as he has. Sincerely, J. Neusner

Because the school was on winter break, my father received this before I had any knowledge of my grade or of Neusner’s reaction. To add to the surreal nature of all this, I had spent that week of intersession visiting friends in Philadelphia. When I stopped off in New York on my way home, my aunt was the first to show me the letter, which my dad had mailed to every relative east of the Rockies. I reveled in the glory without reflecting on how inappropriate it was for my professor to communicate directly with my parents before talking to me. And my dad, a central figure among Boston Jews, even submitted the letter to The Jewish Advocate, where it was hailed in print. Before this prodigal son could find his way home, half of Greater Boston, it seemed, had already anointed me as Neusner’s chosen one.

And I made the mistake of believing it.

Hughes writes in his new biography: “Neusner took an interest in virtually all aspects of his students’ lives. This involved everything from how they dressed for class to giving them wake-up calls every morning so that he knew they were up and working. He, thus, became a father figure, for better or for worse, to his students.”

That’s precisely what happened to me. I returned to school and immediately signed up for another class with Neusner, on the ideological roots of Zionism. I visited him often during office hours, and he advised me on topics ranging from my faraway girlfriend (“Distance relationships aren’t good, dump her”) to my summer plans to work at Camp Ramah (“Good, you’ll improve your Hebrew”). I was invited for Sabbath dinner, where his children performed for us and he explained his preference for avocado spread on his challah.

At one point, Neusner suggested that I join his graduate seminar. I was wary. I knew how obsessively he controlled the lives of his graduates, who gave their souls to him 24/7. I also feared the increased workload — this was still my freshman year — and so I asked him if it would be okay for me to sit in without completing all the readings. He said that would be fine.

It was not fine. We were assigned a very lengthy book and given just a couple of days to read it. At the very first session, I made the mistake of saying that I had, um, skimmed it. He was not happy. “Then you don’t exist for the rest of this class,” he snapped, after which he proceeded to snipe at my nonexistent self for the rest of the hour. Lesson learned. I quit the class.

Fast forward to my sophomore year, and Neusner’s showcase course, Religious Studies 164: Judaism in Late Antiquity. This was the class where he would unveil the secrets of Neusner World and in particular his analysis of how the early rabbinic period marked a dramatic break from all that had come before, rather than a natural continuation of biblical Judaism. The destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. was an existential earthquake that shattered all preconceptions. Judaism had to be reinvented, virtually from scratch. This would lead to a greater understanding that there was — and is —no singular, “normative” Judaism, but rather a variety of Judaisms, of which the rabbinic variety was merely one of many. Rabbinic Judaism was, to be sure, a very potent vision, one that would guide the Jewish world for over a millennium. But we would learn that long after the Mishna and Talmud were in formation, Jews continued to resist the rabbinic worldview, as is evidenced by graphic frescos of human images, Greco-Roman mosaic floors filled with astrological signs and bowls engraved with magical incantations.

The class was enthralling, but somewhere along the way, I fell from Neusner Heaven.

Each student had to present an in-class paper that would account for a large percentage of the final grade. I examined how the rabbis confronted their essential powerlessness both within and beyond the Jewish community of Babylonia, by creating a hagiography of miracle-working wonder rabbis.

Before I was to present the paper, Neusner required that I make several revisions. He seemed more concerned with my writing style than with my ideas. But fine. I would do what he wished.

But when I actually stood to present the paper, what transpired in that class was a full-scale verbal assault on my character. In a tirade that stretched for what seemed like hours, far eclipsing any other dress down that had occurred for any other student, Neusner lashed out, calling me a “high school baby” whose “writing is sh-t.” He alleged that I had slandered two classmates (who were sitting right there) and had insulted him personally. He would not let me read my paper, and dismissed the class abruptly.

Spring break followed, which allowed me time to cobble together a letter expressing my shock at the humiliating way he had treated me. “The atmosphere of personal antagonism is not the atmosphere of education,” I wrote, adding, “I would like to continue, if not enhance, the working relationship we’ve had in the past, and see no reason we can’t continue to interrelate in mutual respect.”

When I returned to school, his reply was waiting in my mailbox:

“You humiliated yourself by having no paper to read. What did you expect, a big mazal tov? You behaved contemptuously and were treated exactly the same way. When you take pride in your work and yourself, no one will give you anguish. You should be ashamed of yourself for your performance in R.S. 164. I don’t owe you any apologies. J Neusner 3/31/77

If his goal was to isolate me from my friends — and he routinely pitted one student against another — it didn’t work. One of the graduate students showed my paper to a different religious studies professor, who praised it. A classmate with close ties to the department mentioned that on the day of the fateful class, Neusner had gotten a damning letter from an academic rival in Jerusalem, tearing apart his work and character. So evidently he had taken out his anger on me.

When I entered the room for the first session after the break, he looked over at me, almost paternally, and asked, “You okay?” I nodded, not knowing what to make of this nearly empathetic gesture. Classmates told me that he had looked visibly concerned beforehand and asked whether I would be showing up.

He then broke the tension with an uncharacteristic moment of pathos, saying, “My dog died last night.”

Then, reverting to form, he added: “It’s all right. It’s not as if it was a canary or something.”

I recalled that quip when reading, in a moving eulogy by his son Noam Neusner, about how much Jacob Neusner loved his dogs.

For my final paper, I used rabbinic methodology to create a Jewish holiday, a plausible celebration that could have existed in an alternate rabbinic universe. It earned me an A for the course, a University Prize and a “Get out of jail free” card. and, presumably, a return trip to Neusner Heaven.

But I decided it was time to get off this roller coaster and unlink myself from what had become a very unhealthy relationship. When senior year rolled around, I did not ask him for a recommendation to rabbinical school.

A few years later, my first major article was published in the Baltimore Jewish Times. A week later, I saw that my old mentor had attacked me personally with a snarky letter to the editor. It crushed me to think that I might never escape the long reach of this teacher whom I had once revered.

But I moved on, and he did, too. He never commented publicly again on my work, taking out his rage on others: academic rivals, unsuspecting students and public purveyors of political correctness. He cavorted with popes and presidents while I toiled in the trenches of the pulpit rabbinate, imparting on generations of American Jews a decidedly Neusnerian perspective of the human condition and Judaism’s place within it.

Jacob Neusner did communicate with me directly one time after I left Brown. It was in the form of a handwritten note following my father’s sudden death during my first year in rabbinical school, a swiftly scribbled bromide about our tears being the price we pay for love. At the time I was profoundly moved. But the correspondence went no further.

I know that this “tribute” to my mentor will leave many confused, shuttling so effortlessly as it does between “Thank you” and “Damn you.” But that’s exactly how it felt to be in a student-professor relationship with this complicated man.

Now that he is gone, I’ve only a little fear of him appearing in my dreams to slam me for sharing my story, or even to say to me, in some perverse, turn-it-on-its-head Neusner-like way, “Well done, Joshua.” Or to remind me of his 1,000 books and mock my relative lack of productivity.

Or to quip about, at long last, being reunited with his canary.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is a spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut. Contact him at feedback@forward.com

Recommend this article

Looking Back at Jacob Neusner’s Complicated Legacy

Thank you!

This article has been sent!