Everyone warned me not to take classes with Jacob Neusner when he came to Bard. But my advisor said I shouldn’t run from a challenge.
Neusner wouldn’t let anyone take notes in class. The first time I answered a question, he gestured at me and said “Look, class! A perfectly preserved, 19th-century opinion!” He demolished me every time I raised my hand that week. And the week after.
Week three, when he realized I wasn’t going to back down, everything changed. We’d still tussle in class, but we both enjoyed it. He’d say, “I know Lisa knows the answer to this, so I’ll let her explain it,” or, “I’m sure Lisa disagrees with me on this, but…” and despite his status as professor and renowned expert, he never made me feel small or out of my weight class in our debates. When we saw each other in the hallway, he’d ask how my novel was going. He invited me to dinner. He and his wife were my own first adult dinner guests. And every semester I took a class with him, he wrote my parents a note telling them what a joy it was to have me in class.
I learned so much from him. I learned to think about my religion through a totally different framework, seeing it from the outside instead of as a practitioner. And when he team-taught with Christianity scholar Bruce Chilton, it was like watching Hendrix jam with The Doors.
He was an amazing scholar, but his lectures were the least of what I learned from him.
May his memory be a blessing.