The Awkward Silence in the Wake of Jacob Neusner’s Passing

—Laura S. Levitt

In the weeks since Jacob Neusner died earlier this fall, there has been a deafening silence from all of those whose lives he took into his hands, from those whose careers he crafted, whose books he published, whose lives he so fully encompassed. There were no words. Virtually all of these scholars in Neusner’s orbit have remained stunningly silent, as if virtually all of them—many of whom I knew as my teaching assistants at Brown, and later as senior scholars in Jewish studies—had made a collective vow. They would not speak of their teacher even at the moment of his death. They have neither spoken of his cruelty nor his gifts. They have simply allowed this occasion to pass without comment.

Jacob Neusner’s death came between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this liturgical year. He died during this time of reckoning and judgement, a period set aside for making amends. Perhaps the most intense portion of the season of awe, it’s a time when humility, anger, and reconciliation intermingle in provisional acts of forgiveness and carrying on.

Almost thirty years ago I studied with Mr. Neusner as an undergraduate at Brown. At that time, I was an ebullient, serious, and deeply insecure religious studies concentrator. (Those were the days long before therapy.) As my senior year began, a fellow student—a brilliant young Orthodox Jewish man—became the first person to teach me about these rituals of atonement, which he used to help mark the end of his studies with Mr. Neusner, a period punctuated by ridicule, insult, and regular reproach.

He decided to tell our teacher exactly what he really thought of him, so my fellow student let loose, and he did so in writing. I never read what he wrote or learned of our teacher’s response but the enactment, the very fact, of this letter became legendary. It was this act of reckoning that has most fully haunted me since I received word of my teacher’s death, for I never did ask him to apologize for how he had mistreated me. And I wasn’t alone. It was only in the rarest of cases that a student would call Neusner to account.

To say that Jacob Neusner was cruel to his students is to tell the truth. I call him my teacher, but in truth he never claimed me as a student. I was just one of the many awestruck undergraduates to whom he paid intense attention for a brief moment. It was that attention that mattered. And, for that, I owe him a great deal. He taught me many things as he ushered me into the world of the rigorous scholarly study of Judaism. It was because of Jacob Neusner that I became a professor of religion and Jewish studies.

To say that Jacob Neusner was a force of nature is, again, to tell the truth. For a long time, he was a larger-than-life figure not only in my imagination but in the profession. To put this plainly, he was never simply my own private provocateur and goad. My career was built on a foundation formed not only in our private interactions, but also in his classroom. That space is where he performed, in public, his belief in me. That engagement changed my life. He demanded, in public, that I use my imagination and do the work that he said, in public, that he was sure I was capable of doing.

He pushed me harder than anyone else has ever pushed me. Sometimes, he pushed me too far. In those moments, he was no longer asking me to use my imagination, but instead insisting that I give him something specific that he wanted from me. It took me a long time to be able to distinguish between these quite different commands. I suspect that in the end, I disappointed him. He also disappointed me.

Perhaps this disappointment was the greatest gift. Because he never claimed me as his, I remained free. In the years after I entered the academy, Jacob Neusner never acknowledged or responded to any of my scholarly work, although there were many times when I would have loved a response, any sliver of recognition. But in the end, I was one of the lucky ones. I’ve had a career all my own. Since I left Brown, I’ve been beholden to no one. Without him, I’ve been free to cultivate my imagination, to read and write, research and teach exactly what I want.

Since he loomed so large for me and so many others, I find this lack of any form of public acknowledgment noteworthy. Who else can or should speak of this man, this scholar and teacher, and what he meant to so many of us for better and for worse? Who of those who really knew him can speak to his legacy?

As someone who only glimpsed at what that experience might have been, I can only marvel at the sheer audacity of this refusal. Not unlike my college classmate, it seems the full cadre of his doctoral students—the students he claimed so fully—also found a way of talking back. But unlike my college classmate, they ultimately needed to say nothing at all. At precisely this same liturgical moment instead of going to him and asking him to apologize or whatever else, they chose silence. In some relationships, there are simply no words and no reckoning.

Jacob Neusner believed in me. In his classroom, my future opened. He recognized my potential and helped me forge my critical voice. He also knew my every weakness, each and every one of my vulnerabilities, and used them against me. This remains a confusing and painful legacy.

This article originally appeared on USC Annenberg’s Religion Dispatches.

Dr. Laura S. Levitt is a Professor of Religion, Jewish Studies and Gender at Temple University. She is also an NYU Press author and series editor.

Jacob Neusner, An American Jewish Iconoclast, is available now from NYU Press.


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