Prolific Neusner Takes on Mishnah


“Making God’s Word Work: A Guide to the Mishnah,” by Jacob Neusner (Continuum, $29.95).

I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a conversation with a Christian who suddenly out of nowhere asked, “What do you think of Neusner?” They don’t even feel a need to mention the man’s first name, which is Jacob, assuming that as a Jew I would obviously be familiar with the rabbi and scholar who, for non-Jews interested in Judaism, is the No. 1 go-to guy.

When a Christian wants to know something about Judaism, which lately more and more do, a typical first course of action is a visit to Barnes & Noble, to the Jacob Neusner section of the Judaica shelves. His singularity is worth pondering.

As the book of Exodus puts it, Jews are meant to be a “kingdom of priests,” educating and uplifting other nations. It hasn’t always worked out that way, particularly when you consider the teachings of Judaic scholars, which tend to be known only to other Jews. In our time, the late theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a favorite with Christians, was an exception. Of rabbinic scholars still living and working, Neusner is pretty much the only other.

When I say he’s still “working,” I mean working. Author or editor of 909 books — yes, 909, that’s not a misprint — Neusner was one of my professors at Brown, before he got thoroughly disgusted with the place and left. A 71-year-old whose critical, owlish expression hasn’t changed in the 20 years since I last saw him, he greets me at the train station in Rhinecliff, N.Y., where he now lives and teaches at nearby Bard College.

He warns, “When you get past asking how I can write so many books, then we can discuss something substantive.”

Prolific, controversial and relevant, he was sometimes alarmingly forthright when I knew him back then. Since then he’s mellowed only somewhat. So let’s get past the matter of the books, mostly dealing with the period of about 500 years following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

He has translated the encyclopedia-length Babylonian Talmud — twice — plus the Jerusalem Talmud, the Mishnah and every midrashic work you can think of. His own works of scholarly investigation, many for a popular audience and many not, include “Judaism: An Introduction,” “Introduction to Rabbinic Literature,” “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus,” “Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era,” “The Classics of Judaism: A Textbook and Reader,” “Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah,” “Rabbinic Political Theory,” and so on and on. His latest, “Making God’s Word Work,” illuminates the philosophy he finds coded in the Mishnah’s seemingly dry and abstract rendering of Jewish law.

Neusner would seem to embody the Mishnah’s injunction to “say little and do much” — except that he somehow finds ample time, apart from doing much, to say much as well in a variety of media. Sometimes his sayings are in acidic tones that haven’t always won him the affection of other scholars, whose denunciations of him can depart sharply from the sleep-inducing norms of professorial discourse.

Perhaps the only other Judaic scholar with a semifamiliar name outside academia, NYU’s Lawrence Schiffman, explains that this partly stems from the fact that Neusner seriously shook up the field early on, defining the major questions that other professors would have to deal with for the rest of their careers.

“I had to invent what the field would look like,” Neusner says.

Schiffman doesn’t deny the credit-taking. In American university religion departments before Neusner, Schiffman says, “The missing element was Talmud, the real core of Judaism. You went right from the Bible to the Middle Ages.”

Neusner upset Israeli academics, among others, by arguing that the teachings given in the name of individual rabbis in the Talmud couldn’t, as a rule, be attributed to those individual rabbis. Schiffman, best known for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, also speculates that “there are some who disdain him because he’s not a philologist,” an expert on the technical aspects of the definition and history of words.

Maybe so, although hating Neusner because he’s not a philologist calls to mind Lenny Bruce’s explanation of why the Jews killed Jesus: “We killed him because he didn’t want to become a doctor.”

One suspects it wasn’t anything to do with philology that made his years at Brown such a frustration. Over lunch with his wife, Suzanne, she remembers how faculty wives were always saying, “Oh, your husband said something controversial!” Neusner recalls finding certain faculty colleagues to be neither “cordial nor welcoming,” nor productive in their scholarship: “They were not book writers or continuing book writers. There was a sense that if you published a book you had to apologize.”

Probably, however, it wasn’t simply jealousy either that caused Neusner to be trailed for years by acrimony.

Whatever the case, there remains the man’s relevance, both to non-Jews and to Jews. Of his popularity with Christians, Neusner thinks “That’s because I work in the first couple of centuries. Their interest in Judaism ends about the year 33 A.D. [when Jesus died], but I’ve been able to persuade people that they should also take an interest in Judaism through its classical period. They respect me because, while I’m not asking them to stop being Christians, I do so say ‘I think you’re wrong. When your religion reaches its fulfillment, you’re going to adopt Judaism.'”

What he has to say specifically to Jews is crystallized in “Making God’s Word Work.” He recounts how in 1953, having graduated Harvard, he was a 21-year-old grad student at Oxford University. There he came across Gerald Reitlinger’s book “The Final Solution,” which brought the full extent of the Holocaust, with the resulting urgent need to recover and rebuild, into Neusner’s consciousness.

He realized that the “the age closest in its principal issues to the one in which I would make my life, an age of reconstruction and renewal, was late antiquity, when the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and Jewry reconstructed its life on the foundations of hope.”

Lucky the person who discovers at age 21 the single “question that would define my life,” as Neusner puts it. In his case it was, “What next? Can there be another chapter in the biography of God’s people?” Starting with rabbinic school at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a doctorate at Columbia, Neusner has been working on the question ever since.

What’s his answer? The overarching theme of the Mishnah — a book edited at a time (200 C.E.) when the Temple was long ago demolished but describing a system of laws for a time when the Temple stands again — is an almost defiant insistence that Jews can be masters of their own fate.

But not only Jews, “the human being, through will and deed, is master of this world…. But the world in which the human being is the measure of all things is within: in intellect, imagination, sentient experience.”

At a time like ours when some Americans assert that human beings are morally free and thus responsible for our actions, while others deny it — which is the culture war in a nutshell — those are fighting words.

Neusner writes, “In the aftermath of the two world wars and defeats of millennial proportions, the message of the Mishnah cannot have proved more pertinent.”

Of his own message, you could say the same thing.

David Klinghoffer’s new book, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History,” will be published in March by Doubleday.