Biography of one of the first American-born Jewish studies scholars

Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast Aaron W. Hughes New York University Press

Professor Jacob Neusner was without a doubt the most prolific academic scholar of Jewish studies in the 20th century. He authored or edited over 1,000 books. In 2005, an article about Neusner in the New York Times was entitled “Scholar of Judaism, Professional Provocateur.” In fact, he was just about as famous for his cantankerous and volatile personality as for his scholarship. He often wrote nasty letters to other professors of Jewish studies with whom he disagreed, some of which famously finished with the greeting, “Drop Dead.”

Just before Neusner’s own death last fall, Prof. Aaron Hughes published an intellectual biography, Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast, based on copious research, including lengthy interviews with Neusner and people who knew him. Wisely, Hughes concentrates not on Neusner’s fights, but on his remarkable accomplishments, and more specifically, on the changes he and others were responsible for in the field of Jewish studies in the second half of the 20th century.

Before Neusner’s time, few professors of Jewish studies existed at all in North America. While the Bible and biblical Hebrew were taught in many universities, usually by gentiles, later Jewish texts – especially texts from the rabbinic tradition – were hardly ever part of academic discourse. The few Jews who taught courses related to post-biblical Judaism in the academy were trained in Europe. Occasionally a philosophy department had an expert in Philo or Maimonides, or a history department had a scholar who did some research and teaching about Jewish history, but the academy offered no obvious home for core Jewish texts.

Neusner was one of the first American-born and American-educated scholars to enter the field of Jewish studies. He did not come from an observant Jewish home and had very little Jewish education in his youth. He first encountered serious study of Jewish texts as an undergraduate at Harvard, where he studied with European-born Prof. Harry Austryn Wolfson. Neusner later completed rabbinical ordination at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, but he wanted to become an academic, not a rabbi.


In the middle of the 20th century, many North American universities had not yet freed themselves from their Christian denominational roots. To choose an example close to home, the University of Toronto was originally founded in the 19th century “for the education of youth in the principles of the Christian religion, and for their instruction in the various branches of science and literature,” and at first was formally affiliated with the Anglican Church. At a later point, the Catholic St. Michael’s College opened. Various denominational schools for the training of Christian clergy remained an integral part of the university, and teaching of the Bible and of biblical Hebrew were generally part of these confessional schools. Jewish studies could not develop in a system like this.

As North American universities moved away from their Christian roots, two models developed to make room for the teaching of Judaism and Jewish texts: religious studies and ethnic studies. In the second half of the 20th century, many universities began to teach religion as a scholarly academic field – not for religious instruction and not denominationally based. At almost the same time, interdisciplinary programs (Latino studies, African-American studies, and women’s studies) opened on many campuses, creating the opportunity to develop another ethnic studies interdisciplinary program: Jewish studies.

Neusner advocated vociferously for the religious studies model. In 1982, looking back on the previous decades, Neusner wrote to his colleagues at Brown University:

“The emphasis upon ethnic studies, characteristic of the larger part of Jewish studies in this country, which we have avoided at Brown in our department, cheapens and diminishes the human achievement of the Jewish people…. In doing things the way we have – in insisting … that teaching and scholarship be based not on sentiment, but on demonstrated learning – we have fought a difficult battle.”

Neusner insisted that a universal academic, scholarly language and approach could be used to study Talmud and other classical texts of Judaism and all religions. He was among the small group of scholars who brought Jewish studies into the university mainstream. He also played a significant role in shaping the modern academic field of religious studies. He became active in the fledgling American Academy of Religion (AAR), which in 1964, as Hughes puts it, “rose from the ashes of the National Association of Bible Instructors.” By 1970, Neusner was president of the AAR. In these same decades, the Association for Jewish Studies was being created but, as Hughes writes, Neusner “always had a problem with the quasi-seminary feel and methodological approach of the AJS.”

Did his accomplishments live on? Today, Jewish studies professors are far more likely to find their place in the AJS than in the AAR. The “quasi-seminary” feeling that he claimed was found in many Jewish studies programs seems almost entirely absent (and may never have been there either). Contrast most Jewish studies scholarship with scholarship in fields like Muslim or Native American studies, which can be dominated by advocates for their subject whose approach is, in Neusner’s words, “based on sentiment,” and who might consider Neusner’s quest for “demonstrated learning” as “cultural appropriation.”

Sadly, interest in North American universities in Talmud and rabbinic texts (generated in part by Neusner and his students) is coming to an end. Today, in North American universities, alongside important Jewish studies courses about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, we are more likely to find courses like “Jews and Food” or “Jews and Money” than “Babylonian Talmud 101.” Professor Neusner would not be happy.