Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rabbi Jacob Neusner (May/June 1996)

From 1991 to 2005, I had the pleasure of interviewing a fascinating array of writers, theologians, politicians, artists, and musicians for the Wittenburg Door, the original--only?--magazine of religious satire. From the preparation required to conduct them to the editing required to make them both clear and funny (the Door's two requirements, although not necessarily in that order), these interviews changed my life (mostly for the better). Although I conducted most of the interviews by phone, I was on several occasions able to hop a plane and question my subjects in person thanks to the generosity of Bob Darden and the late Mike Yaconelli, the editors who underwrote my adventures. It was a generosity made all the more special by the fact that the Door was usually deep in the red. For such acts of genuinely Christian charity (or fiscal insanity, I'm not sure which), I remain intensely grateful. Several of my interviews--R.C. Sproul, Chris Yambar--are still online in their entirety. What's posted below is one of the ones that's been MIA for awhile.


Jews and Christians, Christians and Jews--they can't live with each other, and they can't live without each other. Or at least that's how it's seemed for, oh, the last 2000 years or so.

Actually, the two can live with each other. Just ask the Rabbi Jacob Neusner, currently a Distinguished Research Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa and one of the world's foremost authorities on Judaism, not to mention one of the best friends Christianity has at the moment.

If you're thinking that no good friend of Christianity can also be a foremost authority on Judaism, then explain how anyone but such an authority could write and publish more than five hundred books on the subject in his four decades as a professor of religious studies. And that's no typo: Neusner really has turned out over five hundred books, or about one hundred more than all the people on our masthead combined have ever read.

And we're not talking fluff, as a glance at the following titles will show: A History of the Jews in Babylonia; Form Analysis and Exegesis: A Fresh Approach to the Interpretation of the Mishnah; Judaism and Scripture: The Evidence of Leviticus Rabbah; Where the Talmud Comes From: A Talmudic Phenomenology--Identifying the Free-standing Building Blocks of Talmudic Discourse; Fiddler on the Roof, and Yentl. (O.K., we're not sure about those last two, but considering his influence in the Jewish community both here and abroad, it's a good bet he had something to do with them.)

But the two that really caught our eye were Conservative, American, and Jewish (I Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way) (Huntington House, 1993) and A Rabbi Talks with Jesus: An Intermillennial, Interfaith Exchange (Image 1993), the latter of which took him all of a week to write. What also caught our eye were the jacket blurbs--apparently everyone from Jonathan Sachs, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, to Fr. Andrew Greeley and the Vatican's own Cardinal Ratzinger thinks the world of Neusner. Indeed, Neusner greeted almost every name that came up during his ninety-minute conversation with the Door's Arsenio Orteza by saying, "He's a good friend of mine" or "He's an awfully dear fellow." He even politely put up with Orteza's constant attempts to get him to respond to the ol' Josh McDowell-by-way-of-C.S. Lewis riddle, "Was Jesus a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord?"

We don't know about you, but from where we stand Christianity can use all the friends it can get. We also think you'll agree with us that Neusner is the sort of friend that only a church more hell bent on self-destruction than ours would dare do without.

DOOR: We found so much to digest in A Rabbi Talks with Jesus that it probably took us four times as long to read it as it took you to write it.
NEUSNER: There's a moment in the book, which, when I wrote it, I had tears in my eyes. And the first one hundred times I reread it, I was still very moved by it.

DOOR: Which part was that?
NEUSNER: When I go back to the village and Jesus is there with his disciples. We've agreed to part in a friendly way. I go into the synagogue, and I recite my prayers, and he's meeting with his disciples, and he recites his prayers--and they're the same prayers. I was very moved when I wrote that.

DOOR: Elsewhere in that book, you write, in reference to Christ's teaching, "It is one thing to say on one's own how a basic teaching of the Torah shapes the every day. It is quite another to say that the Torah says one thing, 'but I say,' then to announce in one's own name what God set forth at Sinai."

DOOR: You also once told Christianity Today that at some point you would've liked to ask Jesus, "Who do you think you are--God?"
NEUSNER: (Laughs) Yeah, that would do it. That does seem to get to the heart of matters.

DOOR: What is the Judaic understanding of "Messiah"?
NEUSNER: What you need to do is put together the Messiah prophecies of Isaiah and the Mishna and the Talmud's teachings about the end of days into a coherent picture. In Maimonides' Principles of Faith, one of the principles is "I believe, in perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may tarry, yet will I trust in him." Simply expressed, that's the Judaic belief.

DOOR: So Messiah is still being looked for?
NEUSNER: Absolutely. Everyday. The Hasidim, for example, some of them will send one saying, "The wedding will be held in Jerusalem, the Holy City, on such-and-such a day and in such-and-such a place, but if the Messiah doesn't come and bring us all back there, it'll be in Brooklyn on such-and-such a day and place."

DOOR: Wasn't there a rabbi in New York a few years back who was thought by his followers to be the Messiah?
NEUSNER: Yeah, the Lubavitch rabbi.

DOOR: What was that all about?
NEUSNER: I wrote a column in the London Jewish Chronicle in which I said that he was the most successful false messiah in the history of Judaism, because--you'll forgive me--Jesus made it, but not among the Jews.

DOOR: We forgive you.
NEUSNER: Thanks. But here, in the heart of authentic Torah faith, is a rabbi declaring himself a messiah and getting people to believe in him as an act of authenticity to the Torah. I wrote, "No prior messiah who announced himself to the Jews ever succeeded in making such a claim stick. And for his followers he did."

DOOR: But he died.
NEUSNER: And you know that when he died, for a little while, some of his followers were expecting him to rise from the dead.

DOOR: Sounds familiar.
NEUSNER: So finally the Orthodox rabbis who were not his followers said, "Come on! There is no basis in any Torah text for such an expectation." They said, "You have your religions confused. That's not Judaism, it's Christianity."

DOOR: In what sense did this rabbi fail the Messiah test?
NEUSNER: Well, he died.

DOOR: That's a no-no?
NEUSNER: That'll do it.

DOOR: But if he had come back to life --
NEUSNER: Well, that certainly would've done him some good.

DOOR: -----
NEUSNER: It would've made it much more plausible. But, you see, the Messiah is supposed to do certain things about certain things.

DOOR: What didn't he do that he should've done?
NEUSNER: Read Isaiah.

DOOR: Um, we think we have.
NEUSNER: Understood. But read it as if it's not talking about Jesus. Read it as a Jew would read it, as God's prophecy not yet fulfilled. Then you'll see what the Messiah is supposed to do. And the Lubavitcher rabbi didn't do those things. What happened was, you had a remarkably successful sectarian movement within Judaism that just took the logical next step for itself.

DOOR: You're saying they went power-mad?
NEUSNER: They have many good qualities.

DOOR : You're saying they went power-mad and they have many good qualities?
NEUSNER: I'll tell you something: first of all, it's an authentically religious Judaism. There's nothing ethnic about them. Second, they value every Jew as a medium of sanctification. They don't care if you're rich or poor, stupid or smart. You're important to them because you are Holy Israel, and that's a fantastic thing. Third, because of that same conviction, they go into prisons and reach out to the Jewish prisoners. The only religious people who do this, in your world and mine, are the fundamentalists. They go into the prisons and say, "I care about your soul."

DOOR: You're saying they went power-mad and they reach out to Jewish prisoners?
NEUSNER: The Lubavitch do this all the time. They reach out to Jews, however few and however isolated. They're like diamond prospectors, and the diamonds they're looking for are Jews. So they will organize their communities in places where no other Jewish movement has bothered to go. I think that's a remarkable record.

DOOR: You're saying they--
NEUSNER: They've done an awful lot of good and still do. This is this rabbi. So if he wasn't the Messiah, he still did an awful lot of good things.

DOOR: Do you think he was consciously misleading his followers?
NEUSNER: No. There were some people around him who took the position that he was the Messiah. There were people around him who did not. And there was a conflict. I'll tell you what he did wrong, in my view: It's not that he said he was; it's that when people said he was, he didn't stop them. It's a sin of omission.

DOOR: Isn't that the same as claiming it?
NEUSNER: In my opinion it is. But he was pretty old, and he may not have been as alert.

DOOR: Now, this rabbi--
NEUSNER: Menachem Schneerson.

DOOR: Gesundheit.
NEUSNER: -----

DOOR: -----
NEUSNER: That is, by the way, the name that the Messiah is supposed to have. The Talmud says, "The name of the Messiah will be Menachem." It means "the Comforter."

DOOR: Isn't the only way to excuse this Lubavitch rabbi to say that he was either deliberately misleading people or that he really thought he was the Messiah when he wasn't?
NEUSNER: You're asking me the C.S. Lewis question.

DOOR: We're asking you the C.S. Lewis question.
NEUSNER: If he had not been ninety years old when these statements began to surface, I would be less reluctant to express an opinion. But you don't know what a guy that age is hearing or how he's understanding it, so I really don't know the answer. Had he himself said, "I am the Messiah that you've waited for since 586 B.C.," then the answer would've been "Go rebuild the Temple." That's not an unfair expectation in the context of the history of Judaism. But he never did. As I say, what he didn't say was more important.

DOOR: Speaking of power-mad nice guys, what do you make of the Christian Coalition and Pat Robertson?
NEUSNER: Well, since I defended Pat Robertson on a nationally televised Firing Line debate on PBS, I think I'm pretty sincere in saying I think he does an awful lot of good in the world. I also think that the Christian Coalition stands for a lot of good things in the world.

DOOR: Pat Robertson has also done some pretty kooky things.
NEUSNER: Look, I also met Ralph Reed. We did a program together. These are people who have an authentic religious faith, who treat my faith with great respect, and who go out into the world and do a great many things that they believe are in God's service, and who also do real good in the world. I mean, I do not see Pat Robertson as a man who wants to impose his religion on the country. I believe--I know--he's a man who has religious ideals that he's trying to realize in the world. Well, that's what religious people are called upon to do! If he could persuade people that he's right and if they could translate their ideals in appropriate ways into public policy, I think this would be a better country.

DOOR: One of your opponents on the Firing Line debate you've referred to was Barry Lynne, the head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
NEUSNER: Yeah, he's an awfully dear person.

DOOR: It seems that the logical conclusion of Lynne's position was recently summed up in another such debate, in which the lawyer Alan Dershowitz said he didn't think parents should be allowed to teach their religion to their children.
NEUSNER: No, Dershowitz couldn't have made such a statement.

DOOR: Because he's an awfully dear person, too?

NEUSNER: No, because I don't think he thinks that. Ira Glaser, from the ACLU, would not take that view. He made a statement a couple of weeks ago that if there was a child who was told that he couldn't say a blessing before food in public school because of the separation of church and state, that he personally would take the case. What you say Dershowitz said is an appalling statement.

DOOR: But isn't it the logical conclusion of the separation-of-Church-and-State? If the government knows what's best for everyone, and religion is not allowed to enter into a determination of what's best, then religious parents are a threat to the government's doing what's best for everyone.
NEUSNER: I don't know what the logical conclusion of that position is because I find that position on its own illogical. But I think that, on the whole, we've beaten that position--which is a very extreme position--down, both in the courts and public opinion. As long as there's fairness to everyone--and there certainly is in this country, and certainly Christians are the ones who have gone out of their way to make sure that everyone has the same rights--there's no reason in the world to say, "You cannot celebrate your religion in the public square." I think that the position of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has been repudiated.

DOOR: Does nothing in the political agenda of Christian fundamentalists concern you?
NEUSNER: By the way, I don't like the term "fundamentalists."

DOOR: What term do you prefer?
NEUSNER: "Bible-believing Christians."

DOOR: Does nothing in the political agenda of Bible-believing Christians concern you?
NEUSNER: What concerns me is that no religion should impose itself on the children of other people in the public schools. That's a very separate issue. There I think that the conservative Christians have to think through their position on prayer in schools a little bit more carefully.

DOOR: Explain.
NEUSNER: First of all, non-sectarian prayer isn't prayer. I mean, a Christian praying not in the name of Jesus Christ--as I understand Christianity--has simply repudiated his religion in its most basic form. Our liturgical tradition is very different. We're doing something different when we pray.

DOOR: In what sense?
NEUSNER: We have the "we" who speaks to God, and it's the "we" of a holy community, namely Israel--Israel the holy people, not to be confused with the state of Israel. When we pray publically, our prayer is communal. You can't remove the insignia of authentic prayer in favor of non-sectarian prayer and still have prayer going on that Judaic, Christian, or Moslem believers can take seriously. What you're doing is going through the motions of a lowest-common-denominator religion that I don't think advances the cause of authentic religiosity as all of us want to advance that cause.

DOOR: How about making it an issue of personal prayer in public?
NEUSNER: If you want to make it personal prayer, then it can't be public any more. In other words, if you say, "Well, we understand there's no 'we.' just an 'I'"--O.K. But this is no longer what they're doing. By the way, I know that the impatience and the frustration that they feel toward the radical secularization of everything public spills over into wanting a non-sectarian rule allowing religion. And I think that can be right for some things.

DOOR: Like what?
NEUSNER: There should be Christmas on public property, as there should be Hanuka and other things, as well. And when it's Christmas, it should be a Christ and not a Santa Claus. But prayer is not the same thing as a display of religious art.

DOOR: By the way, we interviewed Dennis Prager a few years ago. Do you know him?
NEUSNER: Oh, sure. He's a good friend.

DOOR: And a few years before that we interviewed Fr. Andrew Greeley, who contributed a blurb to A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. How do you know him?
NEUSNER: Around 1988 he celebrated his sixtieth birthday, and he invited me to Chicago for the celebration. We had corresponded over the years because I think he's a very smart man and I've read a lot of his articles, so I went. One of his publishers was there, and I said, "Gee, Andy and I should write a book together. I'll give you three ideas." They chose the common-scripture idea, The Bible and Us: A Priest and a Rabbi Read the Scriptures Together, and that's the book we did. It worked quite nicely. At any rate, we've become very close friends.

DOOR: Have you read his books?
NEUSNER: I've read every book he's written since 1988 and, I think, all of his novels that were done prior to that time.

DOOR: Even his dirty ones?
NEUSNER: The first novel of Andy's that I read had a moment when there was an authentic supernatural intervention that he was trying to express and did express. And I waited for the naturalistic explanation to follow, because in many novels writers will refer to religious experience and then explain it away. But Andy didn't explain it away. It was something that he took seriously. And I said, "A-ha! Here is an authentically religious person who's not ashamed to believe that God is in the world." I wrote him and said, "I trust you. I would not have trusted you if you had explained it away in naturalistic terms."

DOOR: At one point when we interviewed Dennis Prager, the topic of taking the Lord's name in vain came up. He said that Christians err in seeing that as applying to little more than shouting "God damn!" when they hit their thumbs with a hammer.
NEUSNER: Well, you can easily trivialize religious forms, as you know, and that might be a trivialization of something that has much more to it. But I wouldn't disagree entirely with those Christians. For example, there are Orthodox Jews who will not write out the name of God, either in Hebrew or English. So in English they'll write "G-d," and that would come under the same rubric. You need to take seriously the language that you use. That's an important lesson, and it's very rarely taught any more. Your language matters. Therefore, think about what you're saying.

DOOR: What should the person who wants to begin taking his language seriously do?
NEUSNER: In terms of child raising--at which I'm adept because I raised four--you have to listen very carefully to what your children say and to the language they use, then respond by saying to them, "In my presence this is not language I want you to use, and I'll tell you why." Otherwise they'll never think of it. This will come as a great surprise to them.

DOOR: Is this an example of what you call in Conservative, American, and Jewish a "lost continent of knowledge"?
NEUSNER: No, this is simply a lost continent of sensibility and character. I mean, children will use language that they really don't realize is improper or inappropriate. What parents tell them may surprise them, but they do listen.


This interview is also available in The Door Magazine Interviews--Take Two (Bob Darden, ed.).

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