[Paleopsych] NYT: (Neusner) Scholar of Judaism, Professional Provocateur
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Scholar of Judaism, Professional Provocateur
April 13, 2005
By DINITIA SMITH
Jacob Neusner, a mild-seeming, grandfatherly man relaxing in his easy
chair, might have published more books than anyone alive. "As of this
morning, 905," he said recently. It was 4 p.m. The count was still
Hold it! Mr. Neusner, 72, a professor of theology at Bard College in
Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., has just called to say there are 924. This
year alone there have been 22 books, most in his field, ancient
Judaism. And no, he doesn't count revisions or translations.
Mr. Neusner studies rabbinical writings of the first 600 years A.D.,
when rabbinic Judaism evolved. He has translated both the Palestinian
Talmud (35 volumes) and the Babylonian, twice (second translation, 46
volumes). In fact, he has translated most of the ancient rabbinic
literature. The Chronicle of Higher Education has called him probably
the most prolific scholar in the nation.
The majority of Mr. Neusner's books are published by academic presses,
including Brill, the University of Chicago Press and the University
Press of America. Most are bought by libraries and scholarly
institutions, though some, like "Judaism: an Introduction," published
by Penguin in 2002, are trade books.
Mr. Neusner said it was impossible to know the total sales figures for
all 924 books, though he does receive annual royalties for them
ranging "between the high four and low five figures." For instance, he
said, reading from a recent royalty statement, his 1988 book "The
Mishnah: A New Translation," published by Yale University Press, sold
698 copies last year. "Comparing Religious Traditions," published in
2000 by Wadsworth, a textbook company, sold 535 volumes in 2004.
In his early work, Mr. Neusner challenged the traditional belief that
the Talmud - the Jewish laws and the commentaries on them by ancient
rabbis - incorporated the stories and deeds of specific men. Rather,
he said, they were texts designed to teach Judaism. "It's like reading
the Iliad," said William Scott Green, who has written and edited books
with Mr. Neusner. "Do you think the characters actually said
everything that was written?"
"He was saying, 'Maybe that's not the point,' " added Mr. Green, a
professor of religion and Judaic studies at the University of
Rochester and dean of the college there. Mr. Neusner is not strictly
speaking an Orthodox Jew, though he said he was "most taken with the
intellectual depth of orthodoxy." He doesn't wear a yarmulke or attend
temple regularly, but keeps kosher. His parsing of the Talmud, he
said, has led him to believe that "there was more than one Judaism."
Recently, though, he has been searching for similarities between texts
in an effort to develop a coherent view of the religion.
Just as Mr. Neusner has been prolific, he has been criticized for
sloppiness, especially in his translations. One critic was Saul
Lieberman, who was head of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish
Theological Seminary, in New York, until his death in 1983. Mr.
Lieberman wrote that one of Mr. Neusner's translations "belonged in
the wastebasket," Mr. Neusner recalled.
Mr. Neusner's sharp tongue has also made him enemies among his
colleagues. He has been known to sign letters to opponents, "Drop
Dead." Did he really do that? "Not very often," he said dryly. Can he
explain? "I'm too old to remember what the occasion was."
In 1996, Mr. Neusner published a devastating critique of a doctoral
thesis by a young scholar, Christine Hayes. There, for all to see, was
"Are the Talmuds Interchangeable? Christine Hayes's Blunder." Ms.
Hayes is now a professor at Yale. "I have no comment about Professor
Neusner," she said in an e-mail message.
Prominent scholars in his field declined to discuss him for this
article. Two called his early work "brilliant," but said they were
afraid of retaliation for any critical comments.
Politically, Mr. Neusner is conservative. He has attacked affirmative
action and feminism. While serving on the council of the National
Endowment for the Arts, he defended Senator Jesse Helms. "It gets
worse," he said, noting that he was also on the council of the
National Endowment for the Humanities. "I was a bigger supporter of
William Bennett," its conservative chairman, he added.
In 1981, while a professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I.,
Mr. Neusner wrote "A Commencement Address You'll Never Hear" for the
student newspaper, blasting colleagues for lax standards. "We created
an altogether forgiving world, in which whatever slight effort you
gave was all that was demanded," he wrote to the students.
"When you were boring," he said, dripping with venom, "we acted as if
you were saying something important."
Mr. Neusner left Brown in 1989. He had a residency at the Institute
for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where he is still a member, and
then went to the University of South Florida. In 2000 he joined Bard
Meanwhile, he has also written that Christians must inevitably embrace
Judaism. "If Christians take the Hebrew Scriptures to their height,"
he said, "they will find that Judaism embodies those imperatives, the
commandments of the Old Testament, in a way Christianity does not."
Still, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican prelate in charge of
church doctrine, gave him a blurb for his 1993 book "A Rabbi Talks
With Jesus," praising "the union of respect for the other party with
carefully grounded loyalty to his own position."
All this from a benign-appearing figure who spends his days poring
over ancient Hebrew, Syriac and Aramaic tracts. "You can do more than
one thing at a time," he pointed out. Still, he added: "I rewrite
incessantly. I can work on a preface for 10 days." When the material
is difficult, he works only in the mornings. If it's easy, he
continues into the afternoon.
Mr. Green attributes Mr. Neusner's productivity to his powers of
concentration and his "intellectual discipline." Another explanation
for his prodigious output is that some books are similar. "First there
is a scholarly version, then a popular version," said David Kraemer,
librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a professor of Talmud
and Rabbinics. "If 300 of them are independent works, it's still
Mr. Neusner might have learned his practical approach to writing from
his father, Samuel, the founder and publisher of The Jewish Ledger in
West Hartford, Conn., where Mr. Neusner grew up. At 13, he published
his first article in the paper.
He graduated from Harvard, and in 1953, on a fellowship to Oxford,
read Gerald Reitlinger's "Final Solution" and discovered the enormity
of the Holocaust. "The question of my career became, 'What do we do
now?' " Mr. Neusner said.
He returned to New York, to the Jewish Theological Seminary, then to
Columbia University. "I was not intellectually challenged until I met
the Talmud, in October 1954," he said.
Today Mr. Neusner lives on a suburban street in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He and
his wife, Suzanne, an artist, have four children. One, Noam, a former
speechwriter for President Bush, is the White House liaison to Jewish
groups and an associate director of the Office of Management and
At the moment, Mr. Neusner is writing a rabbinical bestiary. "I'm a
dog person," he said. "I've had 32 years of dogs. When the last child
left, I let the last dog die."
But he's already looking ahead to the next project. Maybe it will be
an intellectual history of ancient Judaism. "I'm daydreaming," he
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