[Paleopsych] NYT: (Neusner) Scholar of Judaism, Professional Provocateur

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Scholar of Judaism, Professional Provocateur
April 13, 2005


    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
    full time.

    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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