How a Jewish Kid from the Suburbs Transformed Jewish Studies in America

tags: Jewish studies

Related Link Jacob Neusner, Judaic Scholar Who Forged Interfaith Bonds, Dies at 84

The existence of Jewish Studies on American campuses today is largely the legacy of one man, Jacob Neusner (1932-2016), one of the most important scholars in the history of Judaism. He was instrumental in transforming the study of Judaism from an insular project conducted by, and primarily of interest to, religious believers into a dynamic field of study at home in the secular setting of the modern university. Neusner redefined the academic study of Judaism, taking it out of the Jewish seminary, where it had remained for centuries, and he found and nourished a place for it within the secular academy. In so doing, he essentially created the contemporary field of Judaic Studies. 

This represented a momentous shift in how Jewish texts and traditions should be studied. Most significantly, he realigned who possessed the authority to engage in the study of such texts. Neusner made the study of traditional Jewish texts open to anyone, regardless of gender, religion, or ethnicity. He did this by showing how Judaism answered timeless questions supplied by the Humanities. Neusner’s career thus represented a shift in focus for the study of Judaism and it offers an alternative, then and now, to those who want to keep the study of Judaism exclusive and ethnic.

Neusner grew up in Hartford, CT, attending public school as opposed to Jewish day school, and his values largely reflected those of other assimilated and suburban Jews who came of age in 1940s and 1950s America. Despite this, however, Neusner realized, from a young age, that he wanted to be a rabbi; though he admitted later that he had no idea at the time what that meant.  He had, for example, no formal education in Judaism and only a rudimentary knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet.

All of this was to his advantage. Because he was not from the “old world” and because he lacked a traditional yeshiva education, he was neither limited by tradition nor aware of his own shortcomings. Neusner, instead, represented a new and previously unheard of paradigm: a suburban Jew, a second generation American, with no formal Jewish education outside of Reform Sunday school, and someone who could barely read a line of Hebrew. Only such an individual, as paradoxical as it may sound, could propose a new model for examining the sacred texts of Judaism.

At the time of his entry into Harvard as an undergraduate in the Fall of 1950 there was, for all intents and purposes, no such thing as Jewish studies within the American academy. Certainly the sacred texts of Judaism had been studied and were still studied in the context of the yeshiva world. Therein, texts such as the Bible, the Mishnah, and the Talmud were read according to the rhythms of Jewish life with very little, if any, concern for integration into the higher criticism associated with the university. Although the Mishnah and the Talmud would increasingly find their way into the curricula of American institutions of learning, they still tended to be examined using traditional methods. This approach would prove anathema to the young Neusner, who sought to integrate Jewish texts with the themes and issues that were of concern to others working in the Humanities in general and the academic study of religion in particular.

Even his mentor at Harvard, the towering Harry Austryn Wolfson (1887-1974), discouraged the young Neusner from pursuing the study of Jewish texts owing to the fact that he lacked the requisite language skills and the traditional training necessary for such study. But in Neusner’s own words, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” so the young Neusner persisted. After a year in Oxford, he entered rabbinic school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1954 where he now began to read Jewish texts for the first time. “I found myself in a strange and wonderful world” he later reminisced, “a world of question and answer, thrust and parry, tradition and innovation, persistently fresh and original perspectives and modes of thought.”

Increasingly aware that he was not cut out to be a pulpit rabbi and fed up with the parochial nature of seminary life he enrolled after a couple of years in the doctoral program in religion at Columbia University. This marked the first time, again in Neusner’s own words, that “I saw Judaism as not particular but exemplary, and Jews not as special but (merely) interesting.” The knowledge of rabbinic texts provided by JTS and awareness of the academic study of religion provided by Columbia, Neusner was now in an unprecedented position to combine the two.

At around the same time a further change was in the air courtesy of the Supreme Court. In 1963 the School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, the Court ruled in favor of the respondent, Edward Schempp, and declared school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools in the United States to be unconstitutional. This case—especially the distinction between teaching religion and teaching about religion—would revolutionize the academic study of religion in this country. It led to the creation, for example, of new Religious Studies departments in state universities. This transformation formed the larger background that permitted Neusner to undertake his revolution.  Rather than keep Jewish texts on the margins of the academic world, a place where many—both Jewish and non-Jewish scholars—would have liked such texts to remain, Neusner would demonstrate how these texts could transform traditional intellectual categories, just as these categories had the simultaneous potential to transform the ways in which Jews thought about their texts.

Others before Neusner had certainly taught Judaism in university contexts. Many of these individuals, however, were either local rabbis or positions created and funded by the local Jewish community. They could therefore be easily dismissed on account of this. Neusner was unique in that he was not only a scholar of Judaism, he was also the most prolific scholar on the faculty. He could be neither written off nor dismissed. As a result, he forced the Christocentric, if largely secular, Academy to make room for Judaism.

Neusner sought to create a systematic and non-partisan study of Judaism that took place within the context of the discipline of Religious Studies. Today we may well take this for granted. One can now go to college and take a course on Jewish texts taught by someone with a PhD in religion and with a specialization in Judaism, as opposed to being taught by the local rabbi. However, this required real intellectual battles. Neusner was the instigator of many of these conflicts, and he was in the thick of many others. In this way, he created an intellectual space for the academic study of Judaism in the secular setting of higher learning.

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