Rabbi Jacob Neusner, R.I.P.

My friend Marco Respinti just wrote to ask me about Jacob Neusner, who died (so I learned) on October 8.   Perhaps my readers will bear with me, if I share a few thoughts on an old friend.

How did I recruit Neusner for Chronicles?  I had read several of his popular articles in a number of places, including (as I recall) The National Review.  Finding writers is a large part of an editor's job, and that means reading a lot of often uninteresting articles and books.  While Neusner wrote too much and too quickly to become much of a prose stylist, his thinking interested me, and I began inviting him to write reviews and articles.  He became one of my contributing editors and served on one of the three-man jury panels that selected the winners of the Ingersoll prizes.

We had an excellent and friendly working relationship, though Jack (as he preferred to be called) was very prickly with any subordinates who put themselves on equal footing with him. Jack was, in fact, famous for his quarrels.  Treated with respect, he was respectful, but if he felt slighted in any way, he was out for blood.  I once told a friend of his that he reminded me of figures from the Old Testament, bloody-minded heroes who smote their enemies. When the friend told this to Jack, he smiled and remarked, “Fleming knows me very well.”  At Brown University—the ultimate hippy-leftist school in the Ivy League—Jack made himself a thorn in the university president’s side.  When the president, unwisely, said a few things about him in the student newspaper, he woke up a few days later to see Jack on network television—I think it was Good Morning, America or perhaps Today—calmly explaining how the president was ruining Brown.  When the president resigned, I wrote Jack:  “Scratch another notch on your gun!”
He was a loyal and courageous friend, and when New York neoconservatives attacked us—without any grounds or evidence—as somehow anti-Semitic, Jack told the New York Times that it was utter nonsense.  He read Chronicles every month and knew several editors personally, and, he declared, nothing could be further from the truth.
Jack was an unusual man in so many ways.  As a Talmudic scholar, he insisted on academic rigor and opposed any current of thought that would reduce scholarship on the Talmud to an ethnic study.  He once told me that he thought Talmudic ethics were a parallel to the casuistic approach of Aristotle, and there is some insight in that.  On the other hand, he was a faithful Jew.  Wherever he went, he sought out Jewish religious leaders and addressed their synagogues.
On the other hand, he positively liked Christians, especially but not only Catholics:  He worked well with my Evangelical religion editor, Harold O.J. Brown.  In Italy he became the friend of several bishops—particularly in Bologna and Rome.  I don’t know how much Italian he ever learned, but he took foreign languages seriously.  He would sometimes have to postpone one of our telephone conversations in order to have his Portuguese lesson.
Jack believed that Christ was a true messiah, but only for the gentiles, since Jews could be saved by keeping the law.  I never tried to argue the point with him—it would have been futile.  Besides, by believing this he able to then see some of the truths and beauties of Christian faith, which he otherwise would have been blind to.
I never had a cross word or moment with Jack.  He resigned as contributing editor because he thought we were too critical of Israel.  He did not think we were anti-Semitic or even opposed to Israel or necessarily even wrong, but he thought his name should not be on the masthead of a magazine that criticized Israel.  He suggested that we might reforge our alliance at some later date.  It did not happen, but we continued to exchange notes and articles.  Jack Neusner was a brilliant man, an honest man, and--rarest of all in these United States--a man with the courage of his convictions.
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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

9 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    Thank you for informing the passing of Rabbi Jacob Neusner. I read many of his articles in Chronicles and highly respected him. May he rest in peace and his memory by eternal.

  2. Dan Hayes says:

    He once stated that he could not bear watching any historic enactments of British cruelty to the Irish – for otherwise he would end up crying. I always wondered why he severed his relationship with Chronicles – now I know. I believe that one, if not the last, of his academic appointments was at Bard College – the ultimate academic redoubt of hippy-dippydom . (BTW Bard makes Brown to be an exemplar of academic probity!)

  3. Laura Brickman says:

    Enjoyed your essay on Rabbi Neusner. Thayer read it and thinks
    he has some of his books. We are both pleased to learn how open
    minded you are… Your description of Neusner’s attitude about
    religion is similar to Thayer’s. Your last sentence sums up a fine
    man very well; I’m sure it will give him family “nakhes”.

  4. James Kabala says:

    He sounds like a very good man. May he rest in peace.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The base line for human affections is first to love and protect our own–our spouses, children, grandchildren, cousins, neighbors, fellow-citizens, co-religionists. If we pass beyond the stage of the village peasant,–as some Greeks did, under the influence of poets and philosophers, and some Jews did, under the inspiration of their prophets, we are faced with the problem of how to deal with “the other.” The temptation is to jump whole-hog into a cosmopolitan universalism: Everything is beautiful in its own way, all religions and creeds are equal, people are pretty much the same everywhere. Such a decision is disastrous to both common sense and moral responsibility. The civilized alternative is to understand that goodness–like beauty–can come in many forms and types and degrees, and to respect what is good even if it is alien to your own tradition. I believe this is one of the writer’s great duties–or at least this writer’s: to learn to see things from an alien’s point of view without losing your own. Because Palestinians are human beings–Muslims as well as Christians–I have been critical of the government of Israel for its denial of ordinary civil rights to them, but since Israeli Jews are human beings, I have understanding of the position they are in. If it were my children getting blown up on the way to school, I am afraid I should be kinder than Ariel Sharon. This much I learned from spending just a week in Israel, though I very much wish to go back.

    This way of thinking lies behind my detestation of American propaganda that demonizes anyone who gets in our way–Russians, Serbs, American Southerners, etc. Everyone does it, right and left, white and black. All our problems are caused by the evil others. Of course we have to control our borders, of course we have to resist Islamic terrorism, but we should also pause from time to time to wonder why these things are happening to us. Yes, Donald is right that some Mexicans who come here are criminals. Others come simply looking for a job or the generosity of our welfare state. Our government’s decision should be based on what is good for the American people, not what is good for Mexicans or agribusiness. Hating and despising Mexicans across the board is simply stupid. They don’t know, apparently, how to manage an economy, run a country, or live in peace with each other, but in many important arts of living well, the Mexicans excel us.

    I have always recommended Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in the way that she presents each side in the former Yugoslavia–Serbs, Croats, Muslims–from their own point of view. This is how we learn, as I learned so much from reading and knowing Rabbi Neusner, a man of deep wisdom and strength, different from my own tradition and therefore capable of enriching my/our undertanding.

  6. Joe Porreca says:

    In Pope Benedict XVI’s book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” an important topic is the Sermon on the Mount, which the pope calls the new Torah. In the context of the Beatitudes, the pope reflects on Rabbi Neusner’s book, “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus,” saying, “More than other interpretations known to me, this respectful and frank dispute between a believing Jew and Jesus, the son of Abraham, has opened my eyes to the greatness of Jesus’ words and to the choice that the Gospel places before us” (p. 69). From pages 103 to 123 Pope Benedict directly discusses Rabbi Neusner’s thoughts, a wonderful exposition of two great theologians.

  7. Laura Brickman says:

    TOM: thanks for your explanation, re. “open mindness”. If more people embraced this thinking we might have PEACE! A friend of
    ours Paul Goda S. J. . law professor at Santa Clara Un., says
    enjoyed the article on Rabbi Neusner. LAURA BRICKMAN

  8. Alexander Coleman says:

    Both the remembrance and the comment are wonderful, Dr. Fleming.

    I just read the New York Times piece on Chronicles Magazine and Rabbi Neusner’s defense of Chronicles Magazine as well. Now I must add “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus” and “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” to my reading list.

  9. Robert Reavis says:

    Tom, You have always been a good and loyal friend for many. I admire both your subject, may God rest his soul, and his friend who remembered him.