Jacob Neusner, who transformed the study of American Judaism, becoming one of the most prolific and influential 20th-century scholars of the religion, died Oct. 8 at his home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He was 84.
Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where he had taught since 1994, announced the death and said the cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease.
“He pretty much single-handedly created the field of Jewish studies in this country,” said Aaron Hughes, a Jewish studies professor at the University of Rochester in New York and author of “Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast,” published this year.
Dr. Neusner became an academic in the 1960s, at a time when religious studies at universities were largely focused on Christian theology, according to the volume “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. Dr. 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 made them broadly accessible, and his scholarship helped 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 Dr. Neusner’s.
Known for his astounding output, Dr. Neusner was the author or editor of hundreds of books and articles, including “Stranger at Home” (1981), about the Holocaust and American Judaism.
He was a leader in studying Judaism in relation to Christianity. His work was quoted so extensively by then-Pope Benedict XVI that Time magazine dubbed Dr. Neusner “the pope’s favorite rabbi.”
Jacob Neusner was born in West Hartford, Conn., on July 28, 1932. His father published the Jewish Ledger, a newspaper where the young Neusner wrote his first article at age 13. He was raised in the liberal Reform Jewish tradition.
He graduated from Harvard University in 1953 and later received a master’s degree in Hebrew letters from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the Conservative Jewish movement, and a doctorate in religion from Columbia University, both in New York.
Dr. Neusner spent many years as a professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I., before leaving in 1989. He spent much of the next decade at the University of South Florida in Tampa before joining Bard.
Unlike many U.S. Jews of his generation, who were more recent immigrants, his family was assimilated into the country and he had no direct connection to Europe, which shaped his worldview and scholarship.
“He felt there needed to be an American Judaism for the freest Jews in history,” Hughes said.
Dr. Neusner eventually said he was returning to the liberal Reform movement. Yet he became a cultural conservative and 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 Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in his opposition to government-funded exhibits of the gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, among other conservative stands on art and morality.
Dr. Neusner was also famously cantankerous, often issuing biting public criticism of others’ work, alienating colleagues and dressing down students. The New York Times reported that he once signed a letter to an adversary, “Drop Dead.”
He served as a president of the American Academy of Religion and was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.
He married Suzanne Richter, an artist, in 1964 and had four children. One, Noam, is a former George W. Bush speechwriter.
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