Jacob Neusner

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Jacob Neusner (born July 28, 1932 in Hartford , Connecticut , † October 8, 2016 in Rhinebeck , New York ) was an American religious scholar and Judaist . He has published more than 900 books on the Torah , Talmud and other Jewish scriptures as an author or editor and also studied the Christian scriptures of the New Testament .


Neusner was born in Hartford (Connecticut) and grew up in a family belonging to American Reform Judaism in a Christian environment. He studied at Harvard University , at the University of Oxford and at the Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary , the Rabbinical Seminary of the American Conservative Judaism , where he completed his rabbinical ordination received. Neusner has taught at Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee , Brandeis University , Dartmouth College , Brown University , the University of South Florida and Bard College , New York.

Neusner was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and a life member at Clare College of Cambridge University . He was the only scientist to belong to both the United States National Foundation for the Humanities and the Foundation for the Arts. In addition, he has received numerous academic awards, honors and other signs of respect.

Neusner was a devout Jew of the American conservative tendency who, according to his own statements, returned to the American reform Judaism of his childhood. He taught with Christian theologians at the university and showed deep respect for the faith of his Christian colleagues without questioning the validity of the Jewish interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.

Research and Teaching

Neusner's scientific field of activity was very broad. At the center of his research activities were ancient rabbinic Judaism at the time of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Neusner was one of the pioneers in the application of the "form criticism" to the development of rabbinic texts. Much of his work aims to deconstruct the prevailing method in which rabbinic Judaism is viewed as a unified religious movement. Contrary to the prevailing view, Neusner saw every rabbinical document as an individual contribution to the evidence of Judaism, through which only a light is thrown on the local and specific Judaism of the author.

The method of understanding documents individually without placing them in context with other rabbinical documents of the same age or genre led to a series of studies on the formation of categories of understanding in Judaism and their mutual relationships - as exemplified in the diverse rabbinical texts appear. Neusner's work showed, for example, how strongly Judaism is integrated into the Pentateuch system, how categories such as “merit” and “purity” work in Judaism and how classical Judaism processed and transcended the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 .

Neusner translated many rabbinical writings into English and made them accessible to scholars in other fields who did not master Hebrew and Aramaic . His translation technique used the " Harvard outline " format, with which an attempt is made to make the arguments of rabbinic texts understandable even to those who are not familiar with Talmudic arguments.

In addition to his historical work and text adaptations, Neusner also wrote theologically oriented books, such as Israel: Judaism and its Social Metaphors and The Incarnation of God: The Character of Divinity in Formative Judaism .

Neusner wrote several books that explore the relationships between Judaism and other religions. His book A Rabbi speaks to Jesus is an attempt to develop a religious basis for the Christian-Jewish dialogue. In it, Neusner turns against both Christological efforts to bring Jesus' Judaism to the fore, as well as against Jewish attempts to recognize Jesus as a rabbi . The book was published by Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. , in his book Jesus of Nazareth. From the baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, it was positively appreciated. Neusner took the Pope in 2008 against the violent criticism from the Jewish side because of the recognition and revision of the "intercession for the conversion of Jews" in the Good Friday liturgy of the extraordinary rite and praised the prayer text as an expression of liberal thinking ("liberality of spirit" ), as it is also expressed in the prayer that Jews say daily, in which they ask that God enlighten the peoples and bring them together in his kingdom.

As part of his studies of Judaism and the Jewish religion, Neusner developed methods and theories that are generally applicable to the study of religions, and has also worked with scholars of other religions. A comparison between Judaism and Christianity is developed in The Bible and Us: A Priest and A Rabbi Read Scripture Together . In collaboration with scholars of Islam , World Religions in America: An Introduction gives an impression of how the various religions have developed in a typical American context.

In addition to his scientific activities, Neusner was involved in the development of Jewish and religious studies at American universities and sponsored several conferences and projects aimed at understanding religions. Topics such as “Differences in Religions”, “Religion and Society”, “Religion and Material Culture”, “Religion and Economy”, “Religion and Charity” and “Religion and Tolerance” were dealt with. In addition, he wrote numerous textbooks as well as books intended for a wider audience. The best known are The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism . and Judaism: An Introduction Neusner founded book series and publication programs with various scientific publishers, thanks to which the careers of many young scientists around the world could be promoted.


Neusner was criticized by numerous colleagues, including his former teachers Saul Lieberman , Solomon Zeitlin and Morton Smith . They accused him of many of his arguments being circular or trying to back up so-called “negative assumptions” with inconclusive evidence (e.g. Cohen, Evans, Maccoby , Poirier, Sanders ). In addition, many scholars are critical of Neusner's reading and interpretation of the rabbinical texts. Access to them is forced and imprecise (e.g. Cohen, Evans, Maccoby, Poirier and, in detail, Zuesse). They also question his knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic.

Neusner had tried to show that the Pharisees of the second temple actually only represented a sectarian fringe group, which had formed as a kind of table community with a special purity ritual with regard to food, but was not interested in other Jewish values ​​and social problems. These assumptions contradict the contemporary statements by Flavius ​​Josephus , who describes the grace period (Hebrew Birkat Ha-Mason ) as developed by the Pharisees, which is also confirmed in the early rabbinical literature. Neusner's portrayal is doubted by Zeitlin and Maccoby. A detailed criticism comes from EP Sanders, who came to the conclusion that Neusner's interpretations of the Pharisaic discussions and resolutions were imprecise and arbitrary and that the conclusions drawn from them were questionable. For example, Neusner claimed that 67% of the discussions held by the Pharisaic "houses" revolved around the topic of "purity of food", while Sanders assumes that this topic only accounted for less than 1% of the discussions.

Daniel Boyarin criticized Neusners' handling of the method of intertextuality and accused him of misunderstanding the concept of intertextuality when he understands it as a characteristic of one text as opposed to another. As an example of this misunderstanding, Boyarin named James Kugel 's Two Introductions to Midrash , which was criticized in Neusner's The Case of James Kugel's Joking Rabbis and Other Serious Issues . According to Boyarin, Neusner was obsessed with arguing against the concept of intertextuality, which he misunderstood, as a characteristic of the midrash, and in his endeavor to attack the representatives of intertextuality in every possible way, he opened fire against those scholars whom he viewed as a bullet and his friends or sometimes referred to as "Prooftexts Kreis".

The most famous and at the same time most devastating criticism, however, came from Neusner's former teacher, the respected Talmud specialist Saul Lieberman , regarding Neusner's translation of the Jerusalem Talmud . Lieberman wrote: “One begins to doubt the translator's credibility. And indeed, after even a cursory perusal of the translation, the reader is stunned by [Neusner's] ignorance of rabbinic Hebrew, Aramaic grammar, and especially the subject matter he is dealing with. "He concluded his review with the words:" I begin with a clear one Conscience together: the appropriate place for [Neusner's] translation is the garbage can. "

Bibliography (German)

  • A rabbi speaks to Jesus: a Judeo-Christian dialogue. Herder, Freiburg 2007, ISBN 978-3-451-29583-6 .
  • A rabbi speaks to Jesus: a Judeo-Christian dialogue. Claudius-Verlag, Munich 1997, ISBN 3-532-62208-4 .
  • The Formation of Judaism: The Jewish Religion in Response to the Critical Challenges of the First Six Centuries of the Christian Era. Lang, Frankfurt am Main / Vienna et al. 1994, ISBN 3-631-44571-7 .
  • Judaism in early Christian times. Calwer Verlag, Stuttgart 1988, ISBN 3-7668-0775-7 .
  • Pharisaic and Talmudic Judaism: New Ways to Understand it. Mohr, Tübingen 1984, ISBN 3-16-144795-6 .

Bibliography (selection in English)

  • The Case of James Kugel's Joking Rabbis and Other Serious Issues. In: Wrong Ways and Right Ways in the Study of Formative Judaism. Atlanta 1988, ISBN 1-55540-228-3 , pp. 59-73.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Scholar Jacob Neusner dead at 84 . JNi Media announcement on The Jewish Press website , October 9, 2016, accessed October 13, 2016.
  2. Haviv Rettig Gur: 'A utopian document, a utopian law'. In: The Jerusalem Post . August 14, 2008, accessed October 13, 2016 .
  3. Jacob Neusner. In: The Huffington Post . Retrieved October 13, 2016 .
  4. Jacob Neusner. Bard College , accessed October 13, 2016 .
  5. ^ Jacob Neusner: Returning to Reform. In: The Jewish Daily Forward . November 25, 2009, accessed October 13, 2016 .
  6. Benedict XVI. : Jesus of Nazareth. From the baptism in the Jordan to the transfiguration . Herder, Freiburg / Basel / Vienna 2007, ISBN 978-3-451-29861-5 , pp. 134-135.
  7. ^ Jacob Neusner: Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah . Chicago 1981 (translated into Hebrew and Italian).
  8. Original: A Rabbi Talks with Jesus . Philadelphia, 1993; translated into German, Italian and Swedish.
  9. ^ Jacob Neusner: Catholics Have a Right To Pray for Us. In: The Jewish Daily Forward . February 28, 2008, accessed October 13, 2016 .
  10. ^ New York, 1990; translated into Spanish and Portuguese.
  11. Third edition. Nashville 2004.
  12. Belmont, 2003.
  13. ^ London and New York, 2002; translated into Portuguese and Japanese.
  14. "While recent writers on rabbinic literature have already discussed it in terms of intertextuality, I believe that a misreading of this concept often shows up in their texts, for they speak of 'intertextuality' as if it were a characteristic of some texts as opposed to others. ”In: Daniel Boyarin: Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash . Indiana University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-253-20909-9 , p. 12.
  15. James Kugel: Two Introductions to Midrash. In: Hartman and Budick, pp. 77-105.
  16. ^ Jacob Neusner: The Case of James Kugel's Joking Rabbis and Other Serious Issues. In: ders .: Wrong Ways and Right Ways in the Study of Formative Judaism . Atlanta 1988, pp. 59-73.
  17. ^ "Neusner has a kind of obsession with arguing against his misconceived notion of intertextuality as a characteristic of midrash. In his zeal to attack the intertextualists on every possible front, he has opened here another battlefield against those scholars that he refers to as Kugel and his friends or sometimes the Prooftexts circle. “In: Boyarin, p. 13.
  18. ^ Saul Lieberman: A Tragedy or a Comedy. In: Journal of the American Oriental Society. Volume 104 (2), April / June 1984, pp. 315-319.