Dr. Jacob Neusner, author of hundreds of books on Judaism, has died at the age of 84. I have more of Neusner’s books than any other Jewish scholar. He has been an interpreter of Judaism to millions around the world for decades.
My rabbi friend, Stuart Federow, was a student of Neusner’s at Brown University. He writes a fitting tribute to him on his facebook page. I’ve copied it here without editing it. I’ve included it here for you. If you are a professor, take note of some of the ways Prof. Neusner engaged students. Go thou and do likewise.
by Rabbi Stuart Federow
I just read the incredibly sad news on the Facebook page of RabbiSeymour Rossel, that my mentor, my professor, my teacher, my friend, has passed away. Jacob Neusner was a professor at Brown University when i was a student there. A student there… HA! He is the one who turned me into a student. First paper for him, he handed back to me 6 times.. Seven times he would look over it and six of those times he would say, “wow, Stuart, so much better. Here, re-write it.” And i would say nothing, and re-write it, and hand it back in. The last time i handed it to him, he looked it all over, then started reading it with me sitting there. When he finished he looked up and said, “Good. Good Stuart.” I may have been upset with him, to say the least, But those words, “Good. Good Stuart,” had me walking out of his office on air. A couple of quick stories… He always showed up to class fifteen minutes early, so anyone who wanted to, could talk to him. The first class with him after the ’73 war began, the Yom Kippur war began, he showed up 15 minutes late. He came in, very upset, and announced to the class that Israel had lost the war, and that as he was speaking the Israelis were being slaughtered, Israel was no more. Then he sat down, and watched the reaction of the students. I was not prepared, as he must have been, for the reaction of the students. Weeping, wailing, crying. People saying that they were just not going to be Jewish any more. Anger. Questions said aloud about where was Gd? He let this go on, for I-dont-know-how-long, an eternity, which means probably only for ten minutes or so. Then he stood up, and told the class, after he settled them down, “I lied. Israel is struggling but she is not losing this war. I just wanted you to see your reaction.” He went on to say, to teach, that if we were so willing to give up on Judaism, to question Gd, with the loss of a country, when they can come up in a day and go down in a day, then perhaps our faith in our faith was not so strong after all. He reminded us of the psalm, “If i forget thee oh Jerusalem…” He reminded everyone of the faith of those who wrote that, They just promised to remember. Of course, the class wanted to lynch him. I didnt. I thought it was brilliant, even if everyone else wanted to slit his throat. That is what he did. Maybe not always the most adept at social graces, but much of my attitudes toward so much i learned from him. He was the first to voice an objection to the Secular Jewish community replacing Judaism’s system of Religion, namely of Gd, Torah, and Israel with the Death and Resurrection System of religion, exemplified with the pairing of The Holocaust (death) with Israel (resurrection). That Judaism’s system of religion was Gd (One, Indivisible, Unique) who gave a Divine Revelation (the Torahs both Written and Oral) to a specific People (the Jews). He foretold that trips to Israel would be paired with trips to European Concentration Camps, to exemplify this new system of religion foreign to Judaism’s thousands of years of history, and he was right. The Holocaust was death, and the rebirth of The State of Israel was resurrection, and as a system it had more in common with the Christian system of Religion than with anything that Judaism had ever been. Another story. He had just come from speaking at a small college, i think in the D.C, area, but i cant remember where. Maybe it was closer to Rhode Island, i just cant remember. I had to go see him for something and i walked into his office and he was just dejected. he said that he was asked by the students at that college, as they were used to doing so with their own professors, if they could call him Jack, or did he prefer Professor Neusner. He answered them by saying, I would prefer to be called Mr. Neusner. Those students were shocked and upset. He could not understand why. He said that on campus, it was always ‘professor this,’ ‘doctor that,’ even ‘Jack…’ But he never got to be called Mr. Neusner. He was not being standoffish or stiff, he thought he was being open and they asked him what he wanted to be called, so he answered them honestly. I told him that they misunderstood his response but that was their problem, and not his problem. He did not respond to that, but he asked me why I came by, and we started talking about something else. However, I felt it was just another example of how he was not exactly adept at people skills. One more story. A few years ago, he was invited to speak at The University of St. Thomas. Since he was always fifteen minutes early at classes way back in the early 70’s, i decided to get there early for his lecture. Sure enough he was helped in by his wife, Susan, if my memory serves me right. And shame on me if i got her name wrong, i spent enough time in her kitchen to not remember it. But he was already showing signs of not being well. They seated him at a table, from where he would deliver his speech. And he sat there alone. So, i decided to go up to him and introduce myself to him. I walked up to the stage and up the stairs and then i walked up to him. He looked up at me, and immediately said, “Hello Stuart.” Just like that. After almost 40 years. As we age, either our bodies betray our minds, or our minds betray our bodies. For Professor Neusner, obviously, it was the former. We chit chatted, and then i sat down. And, once again, i was transported over time to my student days listening, learning, as he spoke. He is the author of over 900 books. No, i never sent him a copy of mine. If he would have critiqued it, i am not sure i could have stood that, he would probably have given it back to me 100 times. Ive just wanted to do him proud. At any rate, at the end of his lecture, at the very end, he immediately did what I had noticed so many decades before, again, his first look after completing a speech, with her in the audience was to look at his wife for approval. Every time i saw him speak with her in the audience, he did that. And he did it again. I mentioned this to her at the reception, and she just smiled at me. Ok. Well. So pardon me for just waxing nostalgic. But he meant so much to me. Once a long time ago, over 20 years, it has to be, i fulfilled a promise I made myself. I had written down when his 65th birthday was going to be, and i promised myself that i would send him a birthday card when it rolled around. When he turned 65, i sent him a birthday card. I wrote that he had said in class that our perspectives change, and how he saw things then, would not be how he saw things at 65, and he gave that date, and I wrote it down and promised myself to send him a birthday card on his 65th birthday. I signed it, ‘Your student, Stuart.’ When he wrote me back to thank me for remembering, he mentioned that I was no longer his student. I wrote him back, and objected, saying that i still tried to read what he wrote, and i had some of his books, and had read most of the ones I had, and that, regardless of what he said, I was still his student.
I will always be his student.
Now, i envision him in the Yeshiva Shel Mala, the Yeshiva above, meaning the Yeshiva in heaven, and continuing to teach, even there. Baruch Dayan Emet.
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