Filling the Awkward Silence: A Response to Laura Levitt on the Passing of Jacob Neusner

Entrance to Brown University
Entrance to Brown University

In a short piece earlier this month, Laura Levitt lamented the awkward silence that has followed the death of our teacher and colleague, Jacob Neusner. Mea culpa: I wrote the family but did not pay due public tribute to Jack.

I was not one of Jack’s undergraduate or graduate students. I came to Brown University as “his” assistant professor. I had met Jack at an Association of Jewish Studies conference while I was in my first year as a professor and, after a brief talk, he invited me to apply for the position at Brown. I came for the interview and gave a lecture about how medieval Jewish cosmology became more and more complex. At the end, Jack asked, “Did you figure all this out by yourself?” I replied, “Yes,” and the position was offered to me. I had no idea how much I would learn from Jack in those three years because Jack really taught me the “business,” the realities of academic life.

First, I learned that it really is (or at least, ought to be) “publish or perish.” A scholar must have a long-term project with which he or she wrestles. Not just a thesis and a follow-up book, but a long-term driving interest. For Jack, it was Judaism in late antiquity. For me, it was God in all the variations and depths of Jewish tradition. (In Jack’s view, I think God was a data point, not the center of Jewish consciousness). And, a scholar must also have a regular schedule for writing. With Jack, it was three hours every morning. Jack was right on both points. I adopted my long-term project and set aside three hours every morning to write. This has resulted in a very respectable professional production. Today, as then, academia does not always enforce this standard, and the result is mediocrity.

Second, I learned that, like many of us trained in Judaica, I was totally unaware that there was (and is) a broad universe of inquiry and discourse outside our specialties. Jack taught me that. He asked, “Do you understand Jewish mysticism?” and I replied, “Yes, a little.” He said, “Fine. Teach it.” I replied, “It can’t be done. There are no translated texts and the material is wickedly complicated.” Not to be put off, Jack said, “If there are no texts, translate them. And, if the material is complex and you cannot teach it to beginners, you really don’t understand it.”

Jack was totally right. So I translated the texts, learned the questions that needed to be asked, and wrote the two volumes of Understanding Jewish Mysticism. They were (and are) classics in the field precisely because they deal with very difficult material in a way anyone can understand. When I showed him the manuscript, Jack said, “I don’t understand any of this. Write it again.” I was offended, but I did so. When I showed him the second draft, he said, “This is better but still not comprehensible. Show it to your wife.” I did, and then we published it. The volumes are still in print.

The exercise of teaching mysticism under Jack (who really did not understand the material, and he knew that) taught me that we do share interests and methods with others even if our own material is unique. This brought me to Philosophic Mysticism and to Facing the Abusing God, both of which were innovative and influential conceptualizations in their fields. It also brought me to become active in the School of Law, the School of Theology, and to work in Religion and the Arts, as well as in interfaith dialogue.

Third, I learned (or rather, never did learn properly) the politics of academia. At one point, the Department of Religious Studies at Brown was discussing a proposal for a doctorate in some field of antiquity. Jack was opposed and was attacked. I looked at him to see if he wanted me to step in, but he indicated that he could defend himself. When the vote came, I looked at him again, and I thought he indicated that I should vote on the merit of the proposal, which I did, voting against him and thereby allowing that proposal to pass.

Jack was furious, but so was my wife and everyone else I knew. “You did what?” they all said, “You voted against your senior professor?” I never did learn the lesson of loyalty before mind, but Jack at least tried to teach it to me. Nor did I ever learn the art of academic infighting, at which Jack was so skilled, if often too blunt.

Fourth, Jack had a broad vision of what Judaism was. He asked me to teach Modern Judaism. I did the syllabus (Buber, Kaplan, Heschel, etc.) and when he looked at it, he said, “This is Jewish thought, not modern Judaism. Do it again. And, by the way, you left out the Holocaust and the State of Israel, which are certainly more important than the thinkers you listed.” I did the syllabus again and he asked, “What about Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Isaac Deutscher, etc.? And by the way, just what makes all this ‘modern’?”

I realized that he was right. I think the fourth version finally taught me how to think about Judaism. Then he made me do the same for late antique Judaism (which he had already done), and then for medieval Judaism (which was my area of expertise, but which no one else had yet done).

Fifth, sometimes I would drive with Jack to Brown and, on the way, I would ask, “What are you teaching today?” He would answer, and when I inquired how he prepared, he replied, “On my way to the office, I decide what are the three important points I want to make. That’s it.” I was dumbfounded but, here too, Jack proved correct. I still make a conscious effort to decide on the three main points of the lesson. The rest is communication.

Jack was the first person I ever saw who actually lit a fire in the fireplace on Shabbat—a fully committed Jew who was consciously non-halakhic.

I am also grateful to Jack for the kindness he showed to my wife, Ursula, during our stay in Providence, especially during the illness of her father. As he put it, “I am the rabbi, and you are my congregation of one.”

Yes, Jack could be blunt, even acidic, with his students and colleagues—but never cruel. That would have required intention, and although students certainly felt humiliated, I do not think Jack ever intended to humiliate. To embarrass us, yes; to push, even bully, us, yes; but to humiliate us, no. As I recall my interactions with Jack and as I re-read our correspondence, I see that Jack was tough, but almost always right; very demanding, but also very supportive. We learned to think, to take a stance and to defend it, and we had his ear, even in areas that he knew he did not understand.

Much will be said about Jack’s oeuvre and about his abrasiveness towards others. Both are part of his greatness, but for me, it was Jack’s mentoring that made him a model. I dedicated The Philosophic Questions of Hoter ben Shelomo to him in appreciation. It was the least I could do.

(For another appreciative note, see Noam Neusner, “The Surprising Quirks and Lesser-Known Pleasures of My Dad, Jacob Neusner.”)