Tribute to Jacob Neusner, 84, columnist and friend

Jacob Neusner

Jacob Neusner

Neusner who passed away on Oct. 8, at his home in New York was one of the most influential voices in American Jewish intellectual life in the past half-century.

A tribute to Jacob Neusner

This followed his lecture and receipt of an honorary doctorate from HUC-JIR, NY on Dec. 1, 2009 and was published in our Jan. 10, 2010 edition.

By Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, DD

In his introduction earlier this evening and in the citation he read, Dr. Ellenson gave you a sense of Jack’s impact as a scholar. I would like to give you a taste of Jacob Neusner as a teacher:

Through his example, he taught us discipline. He swam every morning except Shabbat. And he wrote for hours every morning except Shabbat. He classes and appointments did not begin until the afternoon, when his morning of exercise and writing was complete.

He taught us respect for one another’s time: He did not begin his undergraduate seminars until every student was present. And if you were five minutes late, he multiplied those minutes by the 30 people in the room and reminded you that you had thus wasted 150 people-minutes.

He taught us the importance of clear and engaging writing. In his graduate seminars, in which undergraduate thesis students also participated, every word of every student’s thesis was read aloud and critiqued by the group and revised, if need be, and read aloud again. In his undergraduate seminars, he’d draw a tombstone in the margins of a paper at the very point he became bored and stopped reading it. It was pointless to plead, “The best part of the paper is on the next page.” Every sentence had to further the argument and propel the reader along.

He taught us the value of hachnasat orchim (hospitality) by inviting every one of his students (graduate and undergraduate, Jew and non-Jew alike) to his home for Shabbat dinner. This way, non-Jews also saw Judaism as it was lived.

He taught us the value of limits. Those Shabbat dinners and shmoozes afterward ended when Jack indicated they were over. I always assumed the terminus was designed to ensure that Jack had time to spend alone with wife.

He valued good questions as much as learned answers. He taught us that good questions further scholarly inquiry. A good question, perhaps more than anything, made him smile and elicited his praise.

He taught us the value of honest criticism. He never gave gratuitous praise or offered words of encouragement just to bolster a student’s self-esteem. His criticism was direct and untempered. I experienced it as generosity and as an expression of respect, even love. He insisted that honest criticism be one of the things students had a right to expect from their teachers.

He taught us the value of hard work. He assigned a good deal of reading each week and expected us to master it, not to regurgitate facts but to discern methods. Thesis writing was on a strict schedule: If there were five students in seminar, then each student read a chapter aloud every five weeks. Lateness or incompleteness was simply not tolerated.

There were skills and experiences he knew we could not get at Brown, in his classroom or on our own, so he sent all of his graduate students to study for at least a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and insisted, even if they weren’t religious, that they all attend shul every Shabbat and yuntif for a full year, to experience a full liturgical cycle. All of his students were required to master the methodologies of what was then called “History of Religions” including anthropology and also to study the history of Christian thought.

He cared for his students’ careers: All of his graduate students worked as TAs and then Instructors at Brown and sometimes also as teachers in the local Conservative Hebrew High School. He made sure each student had adequate funding to remain a full-time student until his or her doctorate was completed. No student was allowed to go on the job market without a finished dissertation. Every student’s thesis was publishable and was published and Jack never took credit for or stole his students’‚ work or ideas.

Though he held little respect for most rabbis, he had great respect for some (e.g., Rabbi Joel Zaiman, then of the Conservative, Temple Emanuel in Providence) and sent many of his students into the rabbinate. In the years I was at Brown alone, I can think of six undergraduates who went on to HUC-JIR (Danny Zemel, Howard Apothaker, Laurie Rutenberg, Shira Stern, myself and Ted Lowitz.) Among the six of us, only Ted eventually chose another vocation. Jack “sent” us to the NY school specifically to study with Gene Borowitz and Larry Hoffman.

He cared for his students’ personal lives, matchmaking from time to time, interviewing potential mates and often officiating or participating in wedding ceremonies of his students, even if they were not held locally.

He taught us to place our own work in a broad context both by allowing us to participate in his long-term scholarly projects and by teaching us how to articulate the place of our work in a broader scholarly agenda.

He taught us to collaborate and help one another. His graduate students were not given any reason to compete with one another for his attention or approval. They were expected to and did help one another with their work and to help the occasional undergraduate in their midst. If I recall correctly, they were not even allowed to apply for and compete with one another for the same job.

He taught us how to think like historians. He taught us that reports in rabbinic literature of names and events did not qualify as history. Other sources were necessary to corroborate an event. (This may seem obvious now but when Jack began writing history this notion was revolutionary.) He taught us to ask of a secondary source that proports to recount history: “How do you know?” And he asked the same of us when we made historical claims.

And even more revolutionary, he taught us that analyzing the forms of the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Bavli, the Yerushalmi, and various midrashim was crucial to understanding their meanings. And he taught us that the world view of the rabbis was a system of thought, not merely details about this matter or that.

He taught us that a good American college education was not about the amassing of facts, but about learning how to learn, acquiring methods of inquiry that we would practice every day of our lives for the rest of our lives. That’s the kind of education he gave us and it changed our lives.

Margaret Moers Wenig, DD, Rabbi Emerita of Beth Am, The People’s Temple, teaches liturgy and homiletics at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

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