BARD COLLEGE ANNOUNCES ENDOWED PROFESSORSHIP IN HONOR OF RENOWNED SCHOLAR AND TEACHER JACOB NEUSNER
ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y.― Bard College has received a $2 million gift for the creation of an endowed chair in honor of the internationally renowned scholar of religion and Bard faculty member Jacob Neusner. “The College is delighted to have received this generous gift in recognition of the historic contributions by Jacob Neusner. It has been an honor for us to have Professor Neusner on our faculty, and now to have his name associated with Bard in perpetuity,” said Bard College President Leon Botstein. “He sets a high standard of excellence in teaching and scholarship.” Neusner will hold the chair beginning July 1, 2006. Upon his retirement, the holder of the endowed chair will be named the Jacob Neusner Professor of the History and Theology of Judaism.
Jacob Neusner, a leading figure in the American academic study and teaching of religion, has achieved this prominence and influence in a number of ways. He revolutionized the study of Judaism and brought it into the field of religion; he built intellectual bridges between Judaism and other religions and thereby laid the groundwork for durable understanding and respect among religions; and, through his teaching and his publication programs, he advanced the academic careers of younger scholars and teachers, both within and outside the study of Judaism. Neusner’s influence on the study of Judaism and religion is broad, powerful, distinctive, and enduring.
Educated at Harvard, Jewish Theological Seminary, Oxford, and Columbia, Neusner began his career in the early 1960s, when religion was a minor field in American universities, largely limited to biblical studies and Christian (mostly Protestant) theology. Judaism was studied parochially, confined primarily to Jewish institutions. Neusner changed all that. He understood that the power of the study of religion is its capacity to generalize, to discern common structures across religions, and, through them, to understand the similarities and differences among diverse traditions. Neusner also knew that scholars cannot generalize about religions that are closed to them.
Neusner addressed these problems by establishing a career agenda to bring critical questions to the study of Judaism. His success transformed not only the study of Judaism; it also affected the study of religion. Neusner was the first to see that the sources of classical Judaism were not constructed to answer standard historical questions. He invented the documentary study of Judaism, through which he showed, relentlessly and incontrovertibly, that each document of the rabbinic canon has a discrete focus and agenda, and that the history of ancient Judaism has to be told in terms of texts rather than personalities or events. His Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago 1981; translated into Hebrew and Italian) is the classic statement of his work and the first of many comparable volumes on the other documents of the rabbinic canon.
Neusner’s discovery of the centrality of documents led him to an even more decisive perception of Judaism as a system: an integrated network of beliefs, practices, and values that yields a coherent worldview and picture of reality for its adherents. This approach led to a series of very important studies on the way Judaism creates categories of understanding and how those categories relate to one another, even as they emerge diversely in discrete rabbinic documents. Neusner’s work shows, for instance, how deeply Judaism is integrated with the system of the Pentateuch, how such categories as "merit" and "purity" work in Judaism, and how classical Judaism absorbed and transcended the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. His work depicts rabbinic Judaism as the result of human labor responding to what its adherents believe is God’s call and demonstrates its persistent vitality and imagination.
In the process of producing his scholarship, Neusner translated, analyzed, and explained virtually the entire rabbinic canon—a massive compendium of texts—into English. The Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Palestinian Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud, and nearly every work of rabbinic Bible interpretation are available to scholars of all backgrounds because of Neusner’s scholarship. In the study of Judaism, no one in history can match his work.
In all of this, Neusner made Judaism and its study available to scholars and laypeople of every background and persuasion. That Judaism is now a mainstream component of the American study of religion is due almost entirely to Jacob Neusner’s scholarship.
Throughout his career, Neusner has sought to engage and encourage his students, both undergraduate and graduate. The centrality of teaching to his career has led him focus on his role of providing students with the knowledge and intellectual skills essential to achieving a great liberal education, the hallmark of which is not only to have read and understood important texts, but also to achieve the capacity to defend your arguments. He strives to inculcate in his students the desire to pursue active and engaged scholarship, an effort that has had a lasting impact on former and current Bard College students alike. Engaging with Neusner in the classroom, whether on the subject of religion or another field altogether, has animated his students for a lifetime.
“Since he joined the faculty of Bard College, Professor Neusner has shown that the acumen which brings progress in scholarship can also contribute to advances in teaching,” said Bruce Chilton, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Bard and executive director of its Institute of Advanced Theology. “Our students have benefited as much from his deep appreciation of their creativity as they have from his demands on them to be lucid in writing and cogent in oral expression.”
Chilton continued, “Especially because Professor Neusner has pioneered seminars that bring students together with established academics from Bard and elsewhere in collaborative projects, he has established himself not only as an exceptional instructor, but as the center of an innovative environment of learning. He personifies our profession at its best: engaged with students, dedicated to advancing the intellectual disciplines involved in the subject, and concerned to help colleagues excel in teaching and learning.”
Neusner’s scholarship did not stop with his exposition—in translation, description, and interpretation—of Judaism alone. To the contrary, unlike any other scholar of his generation, Neusner deliberately built outward from Judaism to other religions. He sponsored a number of very important conferences and collaborative projects that drew different religions into conversation on common themes and problems. Neusner’s efforts have produced conferences and books on, among other topics, the problem of difference in religion, religion and society, religion and material culture, religion and economics, religion and altruism, and religion and tolerance. These collaborations build on Neusner’s intellectual vision, his notion of a religion as a system, and would not have been possible otherwise. By working toward general questions from the perspective of a discrete religion, Neusner produced results of durable consequence for understanding other religions as well.
In addition to these efforts, Neusner has written a number of works exploring the relationship of Judaism to other religions around difficult issues of understanding and misunderstanding. For instance, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (Philadelphia 1993; translated into German, Italian, and Swedish), establishes a religiously sound framework for Judaic-Christian interchange and earned the praise of Pope Benedict XVI. He also has collaborated with other scholars to produce comparisons of Judaism and Christianity, as in The Bible and Us: A Priest and a Rabbi Read Scripture Together (New York 1990; translated into Spanish and Portuguese). He has collaborated with scholars of Islam, conceiving World Religions in America: An Introduction (Nashville 2004, 3rd Ed.), which explores how diverse religions have developed in the distinctive
American context. He also has composed numerous textbooks and general trade books on Judaism. The two best-known examples are The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism (Belmont 2003) and Judaism: An Introduction (London and New York 2002; translated into Portuguese and Japanese).
Throughout his career, Neusner has established publication programs and series with various academic publishers. Through these series, through reference works that he conceived and edited, and through the conferences he has sponsored, Neusner has advanced the careers of dozens of younger scholars from across the globe. Few others in the American study of religion have had this kind of impact on students of so many approaches and interests.
Jacob Neusner is often celebrated as one of the most published scholars in history. He has written or edited more than 900 books. He has taught at Columbia University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Brandeis University, Dartmouth College, Brown University, University of South Florida, and Bard College. He is a member of the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J., and a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. He is the only scholar to serve on both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. He also has received scores of academic awards, honorific and otherwise.
The real measure of Jacob Neusner’s contribution to the study of religion emerges from the originality, excellence, and scope of his learning. He founded a field of scholarship: the academic study of Judaism. He has profoundly influenced the academic study of religion. He has created durable networks of interreligious communication and understanding. And he cares for the careers of others. Ever generous with his intellectual gifts, Neusner is one of America’s greatest humanists, teachers, and mentors. In all he has done, Jacob Neusner fulfills the distinctive promise of the academic study of religion in an open and pluralistic society that values religion as a fundamental expression of freedom.*
In addition to his positions as Research Professor of Religion and Theology and Bard Center Fellow, Neusner is Senior Fellow of Bard’s Institute of Advanced Theology. He has taught at Bard College since 1994.
* Excerpted from the entry on Jacob Neusner in Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd ed., rev., by William Scott Green, University of Rochester.
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This event was last updated on 08-23-2006