Jacob Neusner

From Academic Kids

Jacob Neusner (1932- ) is a very controversial member of Jewish academia. Some describe him as an influential academic scholar of Judaism. Certainly, he is very prolific. He has written or edited over 924 books about the Torah, Tosefta, Talmud, Midrash and other Jewish writings.

Others describe him as a non-entity in Judaic studies, pointing out that many of his translations and other works, appeared immediately after another scholar had published and that much of the work was paraphrased and then criticized by Neusner for "missing the boat" as to the import of the text.

His supporters point to his prolific writings and ignore the controversies. The number of books that he has published does not include many more books in series that he edits; nor translations of his books into foreign languages; nor second or subsequent editions of his books, even when in some cases he rewrote the first edition.


Controversy Concerning Contributions to Scholarship

Neusner is most well known for introducing his particular variety of what he calls "critical-historical scholarship" to the documents of classical rabbinic literature. One of his innovations has been his form-analytical presentation of rabbinic texts, in which documents are presented in a Harvard outline format, which allow the reader to easily follow the flow of the argument.

But again, critics point out that this is hardly an improvement and justification to republish a text that has just been translated by a previous scholar.

Neusner has aimed to make that literature useful to specialists in a variety of fields within the academic study of religion as well as in ancient history and culture and Near and Middle Eastern Studies. His work has concerned the exemplary classics of Judaism and how they form a cogent statement of a religious system. These classical writings, produced from the first to the seventh centuries C.E., form the canon of a particular statement of Judaism, the Judaism of the dual Torah, oral and written. That canon defined the paramount Judaism in both Christendom and Islam from the seventh century to the present. Neusner addresses the circumstances of its formation, in the beginnings of Western civilization, the issues important to its framers, the kind of writings they produced, the modes of mediating change and responding to crisis.

Neusner has translated and reread for historical purposes the classic documents of Judaism of the dual Torah, the Judaism that took shape in the first through sixth centuries C.E. and that has predominated since then, the Judaism of the dual Torah. (i.e. the Torah and the oral law.)

These documents – the Mishnah, Tosefta, Midrash-compilations, the two Talmuds – represent the collective statement and consensus of authorships (none is credibly assigned to a single author and all are preserved because they are deemed canonical and authoritative) and show us how those authorships proposed to make a statement to their political and social situation – and, Neusner argues, also a judgment upon the human condition. What Neusner does in this reading of the canonical literature of Judaism is divided into stages.

Systematic analysis of documents

His work proceeds in a systematic way, document by document. First, Neusner places a document on display in its own terms, examining the text in particular and in its full particularity and immediacy. Here Neusner describes the text from three perspectives: rhetoric, logic, and topic (that is to say, the received program of literary criticism in the age at hand).

Reading documents critically

Reading documents one by one represents a new approach in this field though it is commonplace in all other humanistic fields. Ordinarily, in studying ancient Judaism people composed studies by citing sayings attributed to diverse authorities without regard to the place in which these sayings occur. They assumed that the sayings really were said by those to whom they are attributed, and, in consequence, the generative category is not the document but the named authority. But if we do not assume that the documentary lines are irrelevant and that the attributions are everywhere to be taken at face value, then the point of origin – the document – defines the categorical imperative, the starting point of all study.

Second, Neusner seeks to move from the text to that larger context suggested by the traits of rhetoric, logic, and topic shared between one document and some other. Here Neusner compares one text to others of its class and ask how these recurrent points of emphasis, those critical issues and generative tensions, draw attention from the limits of the text to the social world that the text's authorship proposed to address. Here too the notion that a document exhibits traits particular to itself is new with his work, although, overall, some has episodically noted traits of rhetoric distinctive to a given document, and, on the surface, differences as to topic – observed but not explained – has been noted. Hence the movement from text to context and how it is effected represents a fresh initiative on his part.

Finally, so far as Neusner can, he finds a way outward toward the matrix in which a variety of texts find their place. In this third stage Neusner moves from the world of intellectuals to the world they proposed to shape and create. That inquiry defines as its generative question how the social world formed by the texts as a whole proposes to define and respond to a powerful and urgent question, that is, Neusner reads the canonical writings as responses to critical and urgent questions. Relating these particular documents to their larger political settings has not been commonplace in scholarship in the field, and, moreover, doing so in detail – with attention to the traits of logic, rhetoric, and topic – is still less familiar.

Reframing the Paradigm: From Judaism to Judaisms

Neusner calls that encompassing Judaism that the canon presents a "system," when it is composed of three necessary components: an account of a world-view, a prescription of a corresponding way of life, and a definition of the social entity that finds definition in the one and description in the other. When those three fundamental components fit together, they sustain one another in explaining the whole of a social order, hence constituting the theoretical account of a system. Systems defined in this way work out a cogent picture, for those who make them up, of how things are correctly to be sorted out and fitted together, of why things are done in one way, rather than in some other, and of who they are that do and understand matters in this particular way. When, as is commonly the case, people invoke God as the foundation for their world-view, maintaining that their way of life corresponds to what God wants of them, projecting their social entity in a particular relationship to God, then we have a religious system. When, finally, a religious system looks to the Hebrew Scriptures of ancient Israel or Old Testamentas for an important part of its authoritative literature or canon, we have identified a Judaism.

Religions form social worlds and do so through the power of their rational thought, that is, their capacity to explain data in a (to an authorship) self-evidently valid way. The framers of religious documents answer urgent questions, framed in society and politics to be sure, in a manner deemed self-evidently valid by those addressed by the authorships at hand. For at stake in this oeuvre is a striking example of how people explain to themselves who they are as a social entity. Religion as a powerful force in human society and culture is realized in society, not only or mainly theology; religion works through the social entity that embodies that religion. Religions form social entities – "churches" or "peoples" or "holy nations" or monasteries or communities – that, in the concrete, constitute the "us," as against "the nations" or merely "them." And religions carefully explain, in deeds and in words, who that "us" is – and they do it every day. To see religion in this way is to take religion seriously as a way of realizing, in classic documents, a large conception of the world. But how do we describe, analyze and interpret a religion, and how do we relate the contents of a religion to its context? These issues of method are worked out through the reading of texts, and, Neusner underlines, through taking seriously and in their own terms the particularity and specificity of texts. This Neusner accomplishes by special reference to problems in studying Judaism in particular.

Viewing Religions As Systems, Illustrated By Cases Drawn From Judaism

Systems begin in the social entity, whether one or two persons or two hundred or ten thousand, and not in their canonical writings, which come only afterward, or even in their politics. The social group, however formed, frames the system, and the system then defines its canon within, and addresses the larger setting, the polis without. Neusner describes systems from their end products, the writings. He then works his way back from canon to system, not imagining either that the canon is the system, or that the canon creates the system. He sees the canon as the evidence left by the system as it was at the time. The canonical writings speak, in particular, to those who can hear, that is, to the members of the community, who, on account of that perspicacity of hearing, constitute the social entity or systemic community. The community then comprises that social group, the system, of which is recapitulated by the selected canon. The group's exegesis of the canon in terms of the everyday imparts to the system the power to sustain the community in a reciprocal and self-nourishing process. The community through its exegesis then imposes continuity and unity on whatever is in its canon.

While, therefore, Neusner posits that we cannot account for the origin of a successful religious-social system, we can explain its power to persist. It is a symbolic transaction, as Neusner explains, in which social change comes to expression in symbol-change. That symbolic transaction, specifically, takes place in its exegesis of the systemic canon, which, in literary terms, constitutes the social entity's statement of itself. So, he says, the texts recapitulate the system. The system does not recapitulate the texts. The system comes before the texts and defines the canon. The exegesis of the canon then forms that on-going social action that sustains the whole. A system does not recapitulate its texts, it selects and orders them. A religious system imputes to them as a whole cogency, one to the next, that their original authorships has not expressed in and through the parts, and through them a religious system expresses its deepest logic, and it also frames that just fit that joins system to circumstance.

The whole works its way out through exegesis, and the history of any religious system – that is to say, the history of religion writ small – is the exegesis of its exegesis. And the first rule of the exegesis of systems is the simplest, and the one with which Neusner concludes: the system does not recapitulate the canon. The canon recapitulates the system. The system forms a statement of a social entity, specifying its world view and way of life in such a way that, to the participants in the system, the whole makes sound sense, beyond argument. So in the beginning are not words of inner and intrinsic affinity, but (to echo the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo) the Word: the transitive logic, the system, all together, all at once, complete, whole, finished – the word awaiting only that labor of exposition and articulation that the faithful, for centuries to come, will lavish at the altar of the faith. A religious system therefore presents a fact not of history but of immediacy, of the social present.

The issue of why a system originates and survives, if it does, or fails, if it does, by itself proves irrelevant to the analysis of a system but of course necessary to Neusner’s interpretation of it. He says that a system on its own is like a language. A language forms an example of language if it produces communication through rules of syntax and verbal arrangement. That paradigm serves full well however many people speak the language, or however long the language serves. Two people who understand each other form a language-community, even, or especially, if no one else understands them. So too by definition religions address the living, constitute societies, frame and compose cultures. For however long, at whatever moment in historic time, a religious system always grows up in the perpetual present, an artifact of its day, whether today or a long-ago time. The only appropriate tense for a religious system is the present. A religious system always is, whatever it was, whatever it will be. Why so? Because its traits address a condition of humanity in society, a circumstance of an hour – however brief or protracted the hour and the circumstance.

When Neusner asks that a religious composition speak to a society with a message of the is and the ought and with a meaning for the everyday, he focuses on the power of that system to hold the whole together: the society the system addresses, the individuals who compose the society, the ordinary lives they lead, in ascending order of consequence. And that system then forms a whole and well composed structure. Yes, the structure stands somewhere, and, yes, the place where it stands will secure for the system either an extended or an ephemeral span of life. But the system, for however long it lasts, serves. And that focus on the eternal present underpins Neusner’s interest in analyzing why a system works (the urgent agenda of issues it successfully solves for those for whom it solves those problems) when it does, and why it ceases to work (loses self-evidence, is bereft of its " Israel," for example) when it no longer works. He explains that the phrase, "the history of a system," presents us with an oxymoron. Systems endure – and their classic texts with them – in that eternal present that they create. They evoke precedent, they do not have a history. A system relates to context, but, as Neusner has stressed, exists in an enduring moment (which, to be sure, changes all the time). We capture the system in a moment, the worm consumes it an hour later. That is the way of mortality, whether for us one by one, in all mortality, or for the works of humanity in society. But systemic analysis and interpretation requires us to ask questions of history and comparison, not merely description of structure and cogency. So in this exercise Neusner undertakes first description, that is, the text, then analysis, that is, the context, and finally, interpretation, that is, the matrix, in which a system has its being.


Neusner pioneered modern methods to study the history of Judaism in its formative period, the first six centuries C.E. Neusner aimed to find out how to describe a Judaism in a manner consonant with the historical character of the evidence, therefore in the synchronic context of society and politics, and not solely or mainly in the diachronic context of theology which earlier defined matters. The inherited descriptions of the Judaism of the dual Torah (or merely "Judaism") treated as uniform the whole corpus of writing called "the oral Torah". The time and place of the authorship of a document played no role in our use of the allegations, as to fact, of the writers of that document. All documents were ordinarily treated as part of a single coherent whole, so that anything found in any writing held to be canonical might be cited as evidence of views on a given doctrinal or legal, or ethical topic. "Judaism" then was described by applying to all of the canonical writings the categories found imperative, e.g., beliefs about God, life after death, revelation, and the like. So far as historical circumstance played a role in that description, it was assumed that everything in any document applied pretty much to all cases, and historical facts derived from sayings and stories pretty much as the former were cited and the latter told.

Prior to Neusner, ignoring the limits of documents, therefore the definitive power of historical context and social circumstance, all books on "Judaism" or "classical," "Rabbinic," "Talmudic" Judaism, promiscuously cited all writings deemed canonical in constructing pictures of the theology or law of that Judaism, severally and jointly, so telling us about Judaism, all at once and in the aggregate. That approach lost all standing in the study of Christianity of the same time and place, for all scholars of the history of Christianity understand the diversity and contextual differentiation exhibited by the classical Christian writers. But, by contrast, ignoring the documentary origin of statements, the received pictures of Judaism prior to Neusner presented as uniform and unitary theological and legal facts that originated each in its own document, that is to say, in its distinctive time and place, and each as part of a documentary context, possibly also of a distinct system of its own. Neusner corrected that error by insisting that each of those documents be read in its own terms, as a statement – if it constituted such a statement – of a Judaism, or, at least, to and so in behalf of, a Judaism. Neusner maintained that each theological and legal fact was to be interpreted, to begin with, in relationship to the other theological and legal facts among which it found its original location.

The result of that reading of documents as whole but discrete statements, as Neusner believes we can readily demonstrate defined their original character, is demonstrated in such works as Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah, Judaism and Society: The Evidence of the Yerushalmi, Judaism and Scripture: The Evidence of Leviticus Rabbah, as well as Judaism and Story: The Evidence of The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan. At the conclusion of that work, for reasons spelled out in its own logic, Neusner stated that the documentary approach had carried him as far as it could. Neusner had reached an impasse for a simple reason. Through the documentary approach Neusner did not have the means of reading the whole all together and all at once. The description, analysis, and interpretation of a religious system, however, require us to see the whole in its entirety, and Neusner had not gained such an encompassing perception. That is why Neusner recognized that Neusner had come to the end of the line, although further exercises in documentary description, analysis, and interpretation and systemic reading of documents assuredly will enrich and expand, as well as correct, the picture Neusner has achieved in the incipient phase of the work.

Neusner worked on describing each in its own terms and context the principal documents of the Judaism of the dual Torah. He further undertook a set of comparative studies of two or more documents, showing the points in common as well as the contrasts between and among them. This protracted work is represented by systematic accounts of the Mishnah, tractate Avot, the Tosefta, Sifra, Sifré to Numbers, the Yerushalmi, Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah, Pesiqta deRab Kahana, The Fathers According to RabbI Nathan, the Bavli, Pesiqta Rabbati, and various other writings. In all of this work Neusner proposed to examine one by one and then in groups of affines the main components of the dual Torah. Neusner wished to place each into its own setting and so attempt to trace the unfolding of the dual Torah in its historical manifestation. In the later stages of the work, he attempted to address the question of how some, or even all, of the particular documents formed a general statement. Neusner wanted to know where and how documents combined to constitute one Torah of the dual Torah of Sinai.

Time and again Neusner concluded that while two or more documents did intersect, the literature as a whole is made up of distinct sets of documents, and these sets over the bulk of their surfaces do not as a matter of fact intersect at all. The upshot was that while Neusner could show interrelationships among, for example, Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah, Pesiqta deRab Kahana, and Pesiqta Rabbati, or among Sifra and the two Sifrés, he could not demonstrate that all of these writings pursued in common one plan, defining literary, redactional, and logical traits of cogent discourse, or even one program, comprising a single theological or legal inquiry. Quite to the contrary, each set of writings demonstrably limited itself to its distinctive plan and program and was found not to cohere with any other set. He concludes that the entirety of the literature most certainly cannot be demonstrated to form that one whole Torah, part of the still larger Torah of Sinai, that constitutes the Judaism of the dual Torah.

Having begun with the smallest whole units of the oral Torah, the received documents, and moved onward to the recognition of the somewhat larger groups comprised by those documents, Neusner reached an impasse. On the basis of literary evidence – shared units of discourse, shared rhetorical and logical modes of cogent statement, for example – Neusner came to the conclusion that a different approach to the definition of the whole, viewed all together and all at once, was now required. Seeing the whole all together and all at once demanded a different approach. Neusner stated with heavy emphasis that it has to be one that takes full account of the processes of formation and grants full recognition to issues of circumstance and context, the layers and levels of completed statements. That is what Neusner proposed to accomplish in the exercise of systemic analysis. His explanation of the movement from text, to context, to matrix, took Neusner to an analysis of more concrete meaning.

Neusner continued to work on trying to find out how to describe that "Judaism" beyond the specific texts – now beyond the text and the context and toward the matrix of all of the canonical texts – that each document takes for granted but no document spells out. And that research inquiry brought him to the matter of category-formation, which, in this context, required him to specify the categorical imperative in the description of a Judaism. As Neusner saw it, there are three components of any Judaism, deriving their definition from the systemic model with which Neusner began: world-view, way of life, social entity. As is clear, " Israel" forms the social entity. The documents at hand, as Neusner shows, demand that we focus upon that same matter. So the category becomes clear both from the theoretical framework that Neusner devised, and from the inductive reading of the sources as Neusner read the bulk of them.

Two theological categories occupied Neusner’s further attention. The Judaic category, God "in our image" corresponds to the theoretical component of the world-view, and the Judaic category of the human being "after our likeness" corresponds – though not so self-evidently – to the theoretical component of the way of life. The correspondence will strike the reader as a simple one, when we recall that, in any Judaism, "we" are what "we" do. To all Judaic systems, one's everyday way of life forms a definitive element in the system, and if we wish to know how a Judaic system at its foundations defines its way of life, we do well to translate the details of the here and the now into the portrait of humanity "after our likeness." Neusner spells out both matters in " Israel:" Judaism and its Social Metaphors and in The Incarnation of God. The Character of Divinity in Formative Judaism.

Studies Critical of Neusner's work

Much of his work has been criticised by his peers. Scholars who have disagreed with Neusner's analysis of any given point claim that they find themselves subject to ad homenin rebutals.

  • "Mishna and Messiah 'In Context' " Craig A. Evans, Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL) 112/2 1993 p.267-289
  • "A Tragedy or a Comedy" Saul Lieberman,Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.104(2) April/June 1984 p.315-319
  • "Jacob Neusner, the Mishnah and Ventriloquism" John C. Poirier, The Jewish Quarterly Review LXXXVII Nos.1-2 July-October 1996, p.61-78
  • "Jacob Neusner,Mishnah and Counter-Rabbinics" Shaye J. D. Cohen, Conservative Judaism Vol.37(1) Fall 1983 p.48-63 Hyam Maccoby
  • "Jacob Neusner's Mishnah" Midstream 30/5 (May 1984) p.24-32


Neusner’s enterprise has been aimed at a humanistic and academic reading of classics of Judaism, yet with full regard for their specific statements to their own world. He demonstrates how people wrote these books as a way of asking and answering questions that we can locate and understand. According to Neusner, when we can find those shared and human dimensions of documents we can relate classic writings to a world we understand and share. That imputes a common rationality to diverse authorships and ages – theirs and ours – and, Neusner believes, expresses the fundamental position of the academic humanities.

Neusner has been drawn from studying text to context. Treating a religion in its social setting, as something a group of people do together, rather than as a set of beliefs and opinions, he says, prepares colleagues to make sense of a real world of ethnicity and political beliefs formed on the foundation of religious origins. He argues that if colleagues do not understand that religion constitutes one of the formative forces in the world today, they will not be able to cope with the future. He shows how to see precisely the ways in which religion forms social worlds. In the case of Judaism, a set of interesting examples is set forth. Here Neusner shows us that diverse Judaic systems responded to pressing social and political questions by setting forth cogent and (to the believers) self-evidently valid answers. That is one important aspect of the world-creating power of religion, and one illuminated in the formation of Judaic systems as interpreted by Jacob Neusner.

Books by Jacob Neusner

A complete list of works by Professor Jacob Neusner may be found here:

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