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Professor Jacob Neusner

The Religious
Meaning of History

(Recorded May 2001)
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Professor Jacob Neusner is the senior fellow of the Institute of Advanced Theology and a full-time professor at Bard College. He has published more than 800 books and innumerable articles. His publications range from the scholarly and academic to the popular and journalistic. Professor Neusner has been awarded nine honorary degrees and fourteen academic medals.


For our first Scholars of the 21st Century Series, Professor Jacob Neusner prepared an essay on the meaning and uses of history in rabbinic Judaism. But the essay is not just a survey of the way the sages of old related to our collective past. Neusner challenges us, as Reform Jews, to think about how we relate to our history, how we study history, and how the past influences the way we speak about the present and future. In academia today, debates rage over the historicity of the Tanakh. Similarly, scholars seek to uncover the historical underpinnings of the Talmud and the Midrash:
  • Are the episodes described in the books of Kings or Joshua or Genesis, things that actually happened?
  • Is a given dictum ascribed to Rabbi Ploni something Rabbi Ploni actually said?
  • What social circumstances prompted a given halakhic decision?
  • What events influenced a given theological development?

Not only must we, as moderns, deal with the question of how miracles and the giving of Torah might be understood, but more importantly, we must struggle with what the ancients thought they were doing when they wrote about the past. But this is the academic side of the inquiry. Neusner wants us to move beyond these standard, academic questions. He challenges us to scrutinize how the past has been used to forge a religious conceptualization of history in general, and how this conceptualization might inform religious life today. History becomes both paradigmatic and generative---paradigmatic of religious ideals (such as revelation and redemption), and generative of ideas for our religious imaginations.

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What is available in the archive?

After you register, you will be able to download Professor Neusner's essay. In addition, you will also be able to download two response papers. We also have clips of an interview with Jacob Neusner. Once you register, you will receive a username and password to access the papers and additional video interview clips.

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Scholar's Bio

Jacob Neusner is the senior fellow of the Institute of Advanced Theology and a full-time professor at Bard College. He has published more than 800 books and unnumbered articles, both scholarly and academic, popular and journalistic, and has been awarded nine honorary degrees and fourteen academic medals.

He received his B.A. from Harvard College; graduate studies, Lincoln College, Oxford University, and Hebrew University, Jerusalem; Master of Hebrew Letters, Jewish Theological Seminary of America; Ph.D., Columbia University. Associate professor of religion, Dartmouth College; University Professor and Ungerleider Distinguished Scholar of Judaic Studies, Brown University; distinguished professor of religious studies, University of South Florida; Martin Buber Professor of Judaic Studies, University of Frankfurt. Other faculty appointments at University of Frankfurt, Cambridge University, University of Canterbury (Christchurch, New Zealand) and Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

He was President of the American Academy of Religion and a member of the founding committee of the Association for Jewish Studies. He founded the European Association of Jewish Studies and also served, by appointment of President Carter, as Member of the National Council on the Humanities and, by appointment of President Reagan, as Member of the National Council on the Arts. He is editor of Academic Studies in the History of Judaism, Academic Studies on Religion and the Social Order, and International Studies in Formative Christianity and Judaism, and is editor of the Encyclopedia of Judaism (Brill, 1999. I-III), The Annual of Rabbinic Judaism, and the Brill Reference Library of Judaism both published by E. J. Brill. He is editor of Studies in Ancient Judaism and was editor of Judaism of the Dictionary of Religion and the Encyclopedia of Religion (Britannica/Merriam Webster.)

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