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Jacob Neusner, Benedict XVI’s ‘favourite rabbi’, dies aged 84

The Jewish scholar whose work was admired by Pope Benedict has died at his home in New York

Rabbi Jacob Neusner, the Jewish scholar who influenced the writings of Pope Benedict, has died.

Neusner died at his home in Rhinebeck, New York, on Saturday, according to Bard College, where he had taught since 1994. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He was 84.

Pope Benedict quotes Neusner in the first volume of his Jesus of Nazarethtrilogy. On the release of Neusner’s 1993 essay A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, the then Cardinal Ratzinger called it “by far the most important book for the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last decade."

The two corresponded for many years, before finally meeting when Benedict came to the US in 2008. “It was a moving moment," Neusner recalled. “The Holy Father greeted me, saying, ‘After 15 years of letters at last we meet’." They tried speaking in English, then switched to Italian.

Neusner said at the time: “There is prejudice against the Catholic Church, on the part of the Evangelical Churches which use scurrilous language that goes back to the Protestant Reformation to attack Catholic Christianity. There is also prejudice expressed by some Catholics against the Catholic Church and the Holy Father for not allowing those Catholics to dictate the shape of the faith."

Benedict XVI was especially interested in Neusner’s reflections on what Jesus added to the law. Neusner said that Jesus added “himself".

Aaron Hughes, a University of Rochester professor and author of Jacob Neusner, An American Jewish Iconoclast, said of Neusner: “He pretty much single-handedly created the field of Jewish studies in this country."

Neusner became an academic in the 1960s, at a time when religious studies at universities were largely focused on Christian theology, according to A Legacy of Learning: Essays in Honor of Jacob Neusner.

At the time, Judaism was taught mostly in yeshivas, or Jewish seminaries, or as part of ethnic studies programs at American colleges. Neusner pushed for a critical examination of Judaism as an important part of studying the humanities, drawing on scholarly techniques from history, anthropology, literary studies and other disciplines. His translations of rabbinic texts drew made them broadly accessible, and his scholarship paved a path for non-Jews to also study the faith.

“He brought rabbinic Judaism into conversation with other religions and really made Judaism a mainstream subject in the study of religion in the American university," said William Scott Green, of the University of Miami, who was a student and collaborator of Neusner’s.

Known for his prolific output, Neusner was the author or editor of hundreds of books and articles about the Holocaust and American Judaism. He was a pioneer in studying Judaism in relation to Christianity. His work was quoted so extensively by retired Pope Benedict XVI that TIME magazine dubbed Neusner “the Pope’s favourite rabbi."

Born in West Hartford, Connecticut, Neusner grew up in the liberal Reform Jewish tradition but with little knowledge of Judaism or Hebrew. He began studying Judaism as an undergraduate at Harvard University, and went on to earn degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the Conservative Jewish movement, and from Columbia University.

Unlike many US Jews of his generation, who were more recent immigrants, his family was assimilated into the country and he had no direct connection to Europe. This shaped his worldview and scholarship. “He felt there needed to be an American Judaism for the freest Jews in history," Hughes said.

Neusner eventually said he was returning to the liberal Reform movement. Yet, he became a cultural conservative, who was appointed to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, around the time of some of the fiercest culture wars over art. He sided with North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms in his opposition to government-funded exhibits of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, among other conservative stands on art and morality.

Neusner was also famously cantankerous, often issuing biting public criticism of others’ work, alienating colleagues and dressing down students. Green said Neusner could also be a generous supporter of other scholars’ work. He served as a president of the American Academy of Religion, and received 10 honorary degrees, many fellowships and academic prizes, and was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.

A funeral is scheduled for Monday at Bard.


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