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.