Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Feature Story on Jacob Neusner in the Providence Herald Magazine Written Shortly After the Break With Morton Smith

The uncommon scold World-renowned scholar Jack Neusner engages in debates so hot they threaten to wilt the ivy at Brown

By Doug Riggs, Providence Herald (Magazine) Aug 9, 1987

JACOB NEUSNER, Brown University's Ungerleider Distinguished Scholar of Judaic Studies, has been having an interesting year.

In March he was pilloried in Israel for suggesting in a Washington Post article that America, not Israel, was the Promised Land for Jews. In April he was considered for Librarian of Congress. In May he severed all contact with Brown's president, Howard Swearer. In June he was publicly attacked by a distinguished colleague as "the ultimate hypocrite," whose "behavior is unwarranted, highly destructive and unacceptable." Last month he learned he would be getting an honorary degree, his seventh, from the University of Bologna, in Italy.

Actually, it has been a humdrum year by Neusner's standards; 1984 and 1985 were more eventful. And the fuss in Israel was a shadow of the controversy he stirred up in 1981, when he wrote his famous "Commencement Speech That You'll Never Hear," and the whole world heard.

Even so, that attack in June was extraordinary. It was in a letter to the East Side Monthly, of Providence, signed by Brown physics professor Philip J. Bray, whose path had seldom crossed Neusner's. Only once before in anyone's memory had a senior professor at Brown publicly criticized a colleague so bluntly. That was in a letter to the Brown Daily Herald in 1985 from political science professor Edward N. Beiser. Then, too, Neusner was the target: "We're sorry for you, but go away and leave us alone," it concluded.

WHAT ACCOUNTS for these assaults? Bray and Beiser both say they wanted to expose Neusner's hidden agendas. Neusner says he is being persecuted.

This is how he responded to Beiser's letter:

"The gift of (academic) tenure impose(s) a heavy responsibility: to ask hard questions in a timely and urgent way. True, as people see, there are human costs, but duty demands paying them."

That's the kind of lofty self-justification some Neusner watchers find utterly outrageous. They maintain that the real issue is abuse: Neusner's abuse of his colleagues, his students, his position and, ultimately, of the truth. The question, they say, is how to deal with a genius whose scholarship has enriched the world, but whose bitterness has led him to distort the truth and wound the people around him.

"JACOB NEUSNER'S MIND is one of Judaism's greatest assets today," wrote New York Times columnist William Safire. It is that fact, his admirers and detractors agree, that makes the situation all the more tragic. Neusner not only holds Brown's highest faculty rank, university professor, he is also, at age 55, a giant in his field - many say its dominant figure.

Even his severest critics are awed by the volume of Neusner's work: He has published more than 250 books, turning them out faster than the Book-of-the-Month Club. The story goes that someone calls Brown's Program in Judaic Studies and asks for Neusner. "I'm sorry, he's not available," the receptionist says; "he's writing a book." Says the caller, "That's okay, I'll hold."

Neusner hates that story, which he says he's heard in eight languages. It's a way of trivializing his work, he says. But in truth there is little danger of trivialization - not with the scores of students whose lives he has affected (some of whom hold him in an esteem bordering on idolatry); not with the honors that academic institutions have showered on him; not with the presidential appointments he's received, from Carter and Reagan, to the National Council on the Humanities and the National Council on the Arts, respectively - his service on the latter leading to his being considered for Librarian of Congress.

IN PERSON, Jack Neusner - even those who would run him out of town call him Jack - seems a mild-mannered translator of religious texts, as unpretentious as the short-sleeved shirt he wears, open at the collar. His colleagues will tell you he's a family man of exemplary habits, whose wife of 23 years, Suzanne, and four perfectly normal children have somehow adjusted to Neusner's seven-day workweek and their life in a war zone. His kindnesses and loyalty to friends can be extraordinary; Ernest Frerichs, director of the Program in Judaic Studies, recalls Neusner's frequent bedside visits to Frerichs's mother when she was dying at Rhode Island Hospital.

A Harvard graduate, Neusner was teaching at Dartmouth when both Brown and Princeton beckoned, in 1968. He chose Brown, he says, partly because Providence reminded him of Hartford, where he had grown up.

As a child, Neusner seemed destined for a career in journalism. His father, publisher of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, gave him a typewriter when he was in the second grade; he was writing for the paper by his teens.

But Neusner always wanted to be a rabbi. He was, in fact, ordained, but has never practiced. "Some are defrocked, others are unsuited to begin with," he says, with a disarming smile, careful to note that the phrase is not original. "I just ended up being a very odd kind of a rabbi. I mean, I'm kind of a rabbi to the whole world."

IN 1981, the world listened to this rabbi, at least briefly. That was when Neusner became "more famous than God for about four seconds," as he put it, for tossing off an article for the Brown Daily Herald: his mock commencement speech.

"We the faculty take no pride in our educational achievements with you," it began, addressing the graduates. "We have prepared you for a world that does not exist, indeed, that cannot exist. You have spent four years supposing that failure leaves no record. . . ."

Brown was, and is, the only major university to hold out against the "back to basics" trend in education. It remains committed to the 1960s idea that students thrive on a campus that encourages experimentation by abolishing most requirements and such "penalties" as grades.

"For four years we created an altogether forgiving world," Neusner wrote. "When you did not keep appointments, we made new ones. When you were late to class, we ignored it. When your work came in beyond the deadline, we pretended not to care. . . ."

The newspaper got hundreds of letters, mostly from students. Almost all of them were angry. Neusner was amazed. His target had been the faculty, not the students; and the message was so self-evident, he said, that he had bet a friend the paper wouldn't get a single letter. Then the story was picked up by the Associated Press and ran in papers around the country and even overseas. Neusner ended up on TV's Today Show and Phil Donohue. "The president of Brown got mountains of mail telling him to fire me, and I got mountains of mail telling me to stick it out," he recalls.

That December, when Neusner was heading to a speaking engagement, President Swearer said, " 'Well, don't embarrass us again,' " Neusner says. "I said, 'I didn't embarrass you before!' . . . Until that time, the Brown administration thought I was a pain in the neck but they weren't embarrassed at having me at Brown. . . . After that point, for all the wrong reasons, they were very angry with me."

MEANWHILE, Neusner's relationship with the Religious Studies Department, his academic home since 1968, was drawing to a close. He contends he was forced out by a "systematic policy of humiliation," because of his "speech." Giles Milhaven, the only senior member of the department who would discuss the matter, says that's nonsense: The problem was not the "speech" but various longstanding conflicts. Milhaven said he himself was concerned about stories of Neusner's students' being reduced to tears.

Neusner says his department chairman then, B. Sumner Twiss, 1) appointed someone in Neusner's field without even telling him; 2) refused to authorize a course Neusner tried to introduce; and 3) called a meeting about Neusner's work, from which he was excluded. Neusner says he protested to President Swearer and Maurice Glicksman, Brown's provost, but they didn't respond.

Twiss, Glicksman and Swearer all decline to discuss the matter. Milhaven says the appointment issue was far more complicated. He says he doesn't know about Neusner's other charges but none of them was an issue at the time, and no one tried to oust Neusner, though when he threatened to resign no one tried to stop him.

Swearer ended the impasse by creating the Program in Judaic Studies, with Neusner and Frerichs - who had brought Neusner to Brown and remains his close friend - as co-directors.

IT PROVED a happy solution for everyone, especially Neusner, whom it gave more freedom to pursue the revolution he had launched almost single-handedly two decades earlier: the secularization of Judaic studies. He and Frerichs now brought in social scientists, historians and humanists, turning what might have become an academic ghetto into a cosmopolitan center of research.

In almost any other academic field, this kind of interdisciplinary approach would be standard operating procedure. In Judaic studies, it bordered on heresy. And here, too, Neusner has been dogged by controversy.

"This field had been boarded up in rabbinical seminaries for centuries," Frerichs explains. For an index of how much the field had been closed to outsiders, consider this: One of Judaism's central documents is the Talmud, a huge compendium of commentaries on the body of oral law known as the Mishnah. But in fact there are two Talmuds, the Babylonian and the Palestinian, each written in a different Aramaic dialect. The Palestinian Talmud had never been translated into English - until Neusner and a number of assistants he recruited undertook the massive task - 35 volumes - five years ago.

"The issue is, Can we challenge the accepted theology by studying the text as historians, social scientists, or whatever?" says Calvin Goldscheider, a sociologist who joined the Program in Judaic Studies in 1985. "Do we have to kiss the text before we start? Neusner says open it up for everyone. . . . And that makes him a dangerous person, right? What greater threat to the people who treat the material as sacred?"

To others, the threat has been the haste and violence of Neusner's approach. Specifically, he was attacked for making blatant errors in his landmark Talmud translation, which he entitled The Talmud of the Land of Israel: A Preliminary Translation and Explanation. The most vicious critique was by one of Neusner's former teachers, Saul Lieberman, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, whose posthumous 1984 review cited the errors and concluded that the work belongs in "the wastebasket."

Neusner quickly acknowledged the mistakes and included corrections in the preface to the next volume, noting that he had said from the outset that this was a preliminary translation, which others could improve later. Meantime, he and his colleagues had opened up to English-speaking researchers a vast source of information about a major civilization. And no one challenged Neusner's interpretations and conclusions.

BUT IN DECEMBER 1984 the subject developed into "the Neusner Affair." Neusner was the guest of honor at an annual meeting of three religious-studies associations in Chicago. He had been invited to discuss two of his books; two other scholars shared the podium as "appreciators." What happened was reported in Biblical Archaeology Review:

Before the session began, professor Morton Smith of Columbia, where Neusner got his Ph.D., sat down in the front row. He placed a shopping bag containing three cardboard boxes in the aisle beside him. When the moderator invited questions, after Neusner and the "appreciators" had spoken, Smith strode to the podium.

"Since I have often and deservedly recommended Professor Neusner's earlier historical works," Smith said, "so that his reputation reflects to some extent my sponsorship, I now find it my duty to warn you that his translation of the Palestinian Talmud contains many serious mistakes. It cannot be safely used, and had better not be used at all. . . . Please warn your colleagues, your students and your librarians. . . ."

Smith then returned to the floor, reached into the boxes and began passing out copies of the damning Lieberman review to the 400 to 500 stunned scholars. The moderator asked Smith to wait until the meeting had adjourned, but Smith kept right on. Then the nonplussed moderator asked Neusner whether he cared to comment.

"Things don't always turn out the way one expects," Neusner replied. "Professor Smith was my teacher and I honor him. He has helped me in difficult times. I honor and respect his criticism, and I am always happy to hear it." Then he sat down.

Clearly, translation errors alone cannot account for the vehemence of Neusner's former teachers. Goldscheider thinks they felt threatened: "(Lieberman) had spent his entire life carefully editing and trying to figure out what word X and word Y meant. And here this young upstart has the nerve, the chutzpa, to go ahead and translate the whole thing in a couple of years."

The situation was also a clash between Neusner's damn-the-torpedoes impatience to embrace the entire Judaic-studies field and the meticulous, reverential approach of the traditional seminarians. To them, Neusner was about as welcome as a bulldozer operator at an archaeological dig.

But perhaps the greatest threat Neusner presents is that the academic revolution he began 20 years ago is succeeding. Among the flurry of letters to Biblical Archaeology Review after its report on the Neusner Affair was this statement, from professor Michael Berenbaum of Georgetown University:

"Neusner has moved the center of Jewish scholarship from the seminary into the university. His students occupy chairs in more than a score of universities, and for the past two decades the best and the brightest have journeyed from (the Jewish Theological Seminary) to Providence, R.I."

SCHOLARLY DEBATE aside, even Neusner's supporters acknowledge his abrasive style contributes to the controversy. As A. T. Kraabel, one of the two "appreciators" at the Chicago meeting, put it then, "There is probably no one in this room who does not wish Neusner would slow down a bit and live longer with the composition of each paragraph. . . . Neusner can be very difficult to work with. His kind of academic debate often resembles an exchange of intercontinental ballistic missiles."

Indeed. Here's a sampling of Neusnerisms:

* The journal Conservative Judaism (which called one of Neusner's books "a brilliant failure") is "a filthy rag."

* The Journal of Judaism is "a scholarly embarrassment, a self-celebration of third-rate minds."

* Israeli scholars, critical of Neusner, have formed "a cabal of petty, incompetent theologian thugs."

* Women's-studies programs at colleges are a "discourse in radical politics and gender resentment."

* "Brown students respect nothing, are lazy and frivolous."

* "Brown's administration labors mightily to reduce a small but in some ways distinguished national research university to a mediocre regional liberal-arts college of no standards and no distinction."

Not only does Neusner say outrageous things - or reasonable things outrageously - he is famous for publishing them as widely as possible. If all else fails, he will Xerox his statements, often enclosing copies of private correspondence, without permission, and mail them out. "Jack Neusner has never had an unpublished thought," said one wag.

NEUSNER'S outspokenness explains the irritation he arouses, but not the deep bitterness. From a safe distance, there's a temptation to see him as just a curmudgeon, a thinking man's Andy Rooney. But his critics say that's far too simple, and too benign.

Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, sees him as a Jekyll and Hyde:

"Both in person and in writing, Jack Neusner can be the most charming, urbane and delightful of companions. To those who are the objects of his invective, on the other hand, he can sometimes seem vicious and hate-filled. Unfortunately, he can switch quickly and often."

For political science professor Beiser, even that description is too simple. His denunciation of Neusner in the Nov. 12, 1985, Brown Daily Herald was the first public airing of a complaint his critics had been voicing privately for years: Neusner often carries out personal vendettas in the guise of rational criticism.

BEISER'S letter was prompted by a letter of Neusner's in the Herald of the day before, in which he asked whether the Brown administration had "outlived its usefulness."

"Neusner's letter," Beiser wrote, "appears to deal with ideas on their merits. In fact it is a blatant fraud. . . . The real issue . . . was that they had overruled Neusner in a personnel decision."

The incident Beiser referred to illustrates the complexity, the private and invisible web of emotion, that always seems to entangle the public postures of Neusner and those around him.

Briefly, Neusner and the other senior members of the Program in Judaic Studies unanimously opposed the reappointment of a junior colleague. The rejected candidate appealed, alleging that the problem stemmed from Neusner, who had abused him intolerably. After hearing individual testimony, the faculty-administration committee that was hearing the case took the unprecedented step of reinstating the man, overruling the Program's senior faculty.

Neusner, who saw the episode as a personal attack, was outraged. He resigned as co-director of the Program. "(Swearer and Glicksman) accepted my resignation the same day. They didn't even pick up the phone and talk to me," Neusner says. "This was a very pathetic story, a very bitter experience. . . . My sister had died that weekend, so it was a time of considerable stress for me. But I didn't tell anyone except Ernie (Frerichs)."

In his bitterness, Neusner circulated a long memo in which he said the committee was "like a Nazi or Soviet court." He also criticized Brown's administration for various shortcomings. Within days a shorter version of the memo appeared in the Nov. 11, 1985, Brown Daily Herald, in which only the general criticism of the administration remained: "Swearer has not understood the faculty and has as a matter of policy neglected it. . . ."

Not only had Neusner masked his motives, he had done an about-face. Seven months earlier, he had written a letter to the Providence Journal in which he said, "Howard Swearer has secured for himself a position among America's great university presidents." After the incident he referred in print to Swearer's tenure as "a ten-year disaster." That's the sort of unacknowledged revisionism that has led some critics to question Neusner's reliability as a historian.

WITHIN WEEKS of Neusner's resignation as Judaic Studies co-director, another faculty-administration committee turned down the Program's request for departmental status, despite a visiting committee's recommendation. Glicksman, Brown's provost, said there was concern that the Program was too much dominated by one man, Neusner, who might leave at any time. "It came down to whether we had a department of ongoing strengths," Glicksman told the Herald.

"Glicksman is mad at me," Neusner said. "They are mad at me, so they took it out on my colleagues."

Several days later, Neusner wrote a letter to the Providence Journal attacking Glicksman on different grounds: his role in a controversial faculty staffing plan. ("This provost wants to tell the entire faculty what to teach. . . .")

NEUSNER denies that his public critiques conceal private vindictiveness:

"How do you prove what your motives are when people question them? I mean, it's very easy to say, but it's extremely difficult to prove - almost as hard as it is to disprove. I have heard it said long before I knew (Bray and Beiser, two of his critics). . . . It is malicious and false, and it is very facile, because it is unanswerable."

As to the other charges - that he has a reputation for abusing students and junior colleagues, that he has been denied appointments elsewhere because of his personality, that he has been shunned by many of his peers, denounced by former teachers, rejected by professional journals and ignored by officials of his own university - most of them are sadly true, Neusner says. But the fault lies with his enemies, not him.

In his letter to the Herald, Beiser said Neusner "has so muddied the waters that nothing that he has to say about Brown ought to be dealt with on its merits."

That may be too sweeping. His positions often have merit, regardless of motive. Brown's open curriculum is an educational question mark. At least some other Brown faculty members are critical of Swearer's leadership. More Jews do choose America, rather than Israel.

Nor is it likely the waters will ever be anything but muddy in a community as small as Brown's. For example, though the Beisers and the Neusners had been close friends for most of their nearly two decades together at Brown, there had been some personal incidents, Beiser acknowledged. But he said they played no role in his famous letter. Still, as Neusner says, how do you prove it?

In any case, the relationship is now severed. After Beiser's letter appeared, Neusner called Beiser's wife to tell her she and their children, as well as her husband, would no longer be welcome at the Neusners'. And Beiser says Neusner declared that the Frerichses, who were friendly with both families, would have to choose between them - "but so far they seem not to have had to."

JACK NEUSNER has been severing a lot of ties lately. He tells stories of rejection after rejection. Always there are reasons that reflect on those doing the rejecting. Almost always it comes down to insecurity or envy. (Conspicuously absent from the list is any suggestion of anti-Semitism.) He says he is the victim of "demonization."

Harvard Divinity School turned him down in 1984: "They heard I was a nasty person and wasn't nice to students, and a terrible colleague, and whatever else comes out of the process of demonization. . . . I can't say I know the basis on which they formed their judgment. I can say there aren't many people there who are publishing scholars and all that, and I don't think they were too eager to get me."

Some journals, Neusner says, treat his work professionally, others politically. "I can't submit a book to Harvard University Press, because they consult their faculty, and their faculty will find reasons why they shouldn't publish a book of mine. The Jewish Publication Society - I wanted to do a book for them. . . . I couldn't even get them to answer the phone when I called."

Sometimes he seems to court rejection, as when he was invited to address the Israel Historical Society at its 50th birthday celebration:

"I agreed, and sent them the address in advance. I had read all the articles in my field published in their journal over the last 50 years, and the point of my address was to explain to them, with great patience, why all their articles were worthless. And they rescinded the invitation!"

IN 1981, Neusner ended his mock commencement address with a toast: "To life!" But now he seems to be withdrawing from life - at least from the academic life that has been so important to him.

"He is pretty well isolated," Brown President Swearer says. "At least in the last few years, he has not been a participant in the life of the university. He rarely if ever comes to faculty meetings."

Just now he is on sabbatical; he'll teach again in January. But he has been disheartened by criticism from students: "When the students say, 'You're a nasty, mean person because you never say my work is any good,' how do you teach them?" In class, he reportedly forbids students to speak unless called upon, or even to take notes (he distributes copies of his notes); and he acknowledges he has called students "schmucks," or worse. Some students prosper in that regimen, remain in touch after graduation, and speak of him with great respect and affection. Others have fled in tears.

"There are some students I am a marvelous teacher for," Neusner says. "There are some students I am a terrible teacher for. And I don't pretend otherwise.

"If you give nice lectures and tell them jokes, they will adore you," he goes on. "If you engage with them, you take all kinds of risks - with them and with yourself."

THESE DAYS, Neusner is writing mostly, seven days a week. On a typical day, he says, he gets up around 5 or 5:30 a.m. and is in the office by 7. He'll leave around 5:30 or 6:30 p.m. Two daily rituals intervene: a swim, and lunch with his colleagues.

"I can think abstractly and sustainedly for somewhere between three and five hours," Neusner says. "And then, an enormous amount of daydreaming - if you want to know what I do more than anything else, I daydream. And that, of course, is the best time."

Neusner may go back to work after supper; otherwise he'll watch television. "I like the detective shows more than anything else," he says - shows like The Rockford Files, Barney Miller, The Streets of San Francisco. "I'll be cast into outer darkness by arbiters of taste, but I love Golden Girls - I think they're the three best actresses I've ever seen. It's like watching magic being made."

On television, problems are resolved in 60 minutes or less. Nothing in Neusner's life is that tidy. "But look, you have to make of your opportunities what they are," he says. "And I do. My colleagues - these are extraordinary people. I've had lots and lots of very good students over the years. I like the people you meet around Brown, you know - the people at the library, the mail room, the stores. Ninety-nine percent of them are lovely. It's just when people start competing with you that you can't make it anymore."

Neusner tells a story that he says reveals more about him as a public person than anything else: He signed up for a quit-smoking class 10 years ago; one of his classmates was a truck driver. "We were good friends, we talked, we were both having trouble with cigarettes. After about three weeks, he turned to me and he said, 'Who are you driving for?' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I assume you're like me, you drive a truck.' I said, 'I'm not a truck driver, but I'm very complimented that you think I am.' "

Relationships within the ivied walls are more difficult, he says, mainly because of envy. "You feel better about yourself when you demonize somebody that you're envious of," he asserts. "This is not something you can do anything about. You live out your years."

NEUSNER SAYS he will live out his years at Brown, despite everything. In his note to Beiser after Beiser's public suggestion that he leave, he said, "I have no plans of leaving, not now, not tomorrow, not ever. Drop dead."

He figures he has another 10 years, at least. It should be an interesting decade. As Neusner himself puts it, "I elicit strong feelings, whether I want to or not. The opposite of love is indifference. And I have not been indifferent to people."

Doug Riggs is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer.

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