Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Notorious Neusner

Check out this article in the New York Times this morning (if you can't access it, there is an abstract here).

There have been other Jewish scholars who were hugely prolific. Personally, I find his books unreadable. There is a huge build-up to a revolutionary conclusion, one which every other contemporary scholar misunderstood - and then, skimming ahead to the climax, there doesn't seem to be one.

For a long time, the strong reactions Prof. Neusner evokes made me uncomfortable. Now I have a better understanding of where it is coming from. He revels in criticizing his peers - often repeatedly (Alberdina Houtman wrote an unassuming thesis on Mishna and Tosefta, and got a book and two articles of rebuttal for her trouble). And his criticism is often caustic. Yet, his own skin seems to be very thin. After reading in his introduction to The Peripatetic Saying about the terrible injustices he suffered at the hands of his critics, I looked up the reviews he was complaining about, and found them quite unremarkable.

I guess it's something like what happened to R Zerahia ha-Levi (Ba'al haMa'or) and R Abraham ben David of Posquieres (Ra'avad). These two 12th century Provencal scholars had a number of disagreements over theoretical issues. Though they lived in the same area, R Zerahiah was originally from Catalonia. This had certain ramifications. Ra'avad was willing to constantly update, revise and correct his position, and saw nothing dishonourable in changing his mind. R Zerahiah would not take a position until he was utterly convinced it was correct. Once declared, he would not budge from it.

The two of them began to correspond regarding their differences of opinion. Too quickly, the tone turned ugly. Things deteriorated, and R Zerahiah eventually cut off ties with Ra'avad. Before that final stage, though, Ra'avad made a revealing comment. "God knows, and Israel too, that if I spoke with rage and anger... it was only because I saw you follow the customs of the Spaniards, who love each other yet when they learn Torah they seem like enemies..." In other words, he was simply following what he understood to be Razah's custom, the conventional form of debate in his place of origin. Apparently, this explanation was not sufficient, and the biting words of the debate struck deep.

This description is based upon Israel Ta-Shema's book, Rabbi Zerahiah haLevi, Author of the Ma'or and his Contemporaries: A History of Rabbinic Literature in Provence, Jerusalem 1992, chapter 6 [Hebrew]. For the difference in cultural background, see also Simcha Emanuel, Lost Halakhic Books of the Tosafists, PhD thesis, Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1993, p. 13.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neusner obviously has some personal problem because of which he can't take criticism but feels he must dish it out in extreme ways. I don't worry so much about Neusner since he is a unique character (thankfully). What I worry about is where other academics draw the line of appropriate criticism. How close do you have to get to Neusner's "Drop dead" comments to be considered over the line? How
nasty does the foot-note have to be, or how biting the classroom
ridicule of students? The most dangerous thing Neusner has offered
academia is his raising of the bar of what counts as morally

6:53 PM  

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