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An Appreciation Nahum Sarna Set the Course for Meaningful Biblical Scholarship

June 30, 2005
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The death on June 23 of Professor Nahum Sarna at the age of 82 was a sad moment for Jewish scholarship. Through his publications, his teaching and the disciples he inspired and trained, Sarna was one of the most influential Judaic scholars of the second half of the 20th century and one whose contribution to the appreciation of the Bible among English-speaking Jews was unsurpassed.

His scholarship was notable for the lucidity of his thought, the breadth of his learning, his exegetical acumen and his unsurpassed sensitivity to the ethical and spiritual dimensions of the Bible and its commentaries.

Nahum Sarna was a distinguished member of a small group of American and Israeli scholars who guided Jewish biblical scholarship to maturity in the second half of the 20th century. As he noted in the preface to his book, “Studies in Biblical Interpretation” (Jewish Publication Society), two of the major stimuli for the growth of modern Jewish biblical scholarship have been “research into the languages, literatures, history, religions, cultures and archaeology of the ancient Near East” and creative research into the rich Jewish exegetical tradition. Sarna and his contemporaries united these two resources in a harmonious blend that is common, even if not universal, today.

Yet, this was not always the case.

When the Jüdische Wissenschaft (Jewish Scholarship) movement inaugurated the academic study of Judaism in the 19th century, it avoided biblical studies altogether. When Jewish academic scholars did take up the study of the Bible, starting at the end of that century, they were largely stimulated by archaeology and Semitic studies. Most of them made little use of post-biblical Jewish resources, such as Talmud and the medieval Jewish commentators, in their exposition of the Bible.

It was Sarna and his contemporaries, thoroughly trained in post-biblical Judaica as well as ancient Near Eastern languages and literatures, who showed how illuminating this combination of fields can be.

It is not only that post-biblical learning provides one more resource for understanding the Bible’s original meaning, though that is a very important aspect of their methodology. It is a broader vision of what Jewish biblical scholarship should embrace: not only the Bible’s original meaning, but the meaning found in it by later thinkers who used commentary on scripture as the means of expressing the moral, religious, philosophical and scientific truths discovered in every generation.

The study of the Bible as “a spiritual exercise” and “a moral training” was a pervasive theme in Sarna’s writings. Repeatedly he showed how God’s morality is inherent in the monotheistic idea and how, as he wrote, the corollary, that “there is an intimate, in fact, inextricable connection between the socio-moral condition of a people and its ultimate fate,” underlies the biblical interpretation of history.

Sarna’s scholarship was characterized by a strong literary orientation, ferreting out the unifying compositional strategies, recurring motifs and structure of the biblical text as he explicated it. These aims helped explain his reservations about the usefulness of source criticism, the scholarly method that seeks to identify earlier literary sources used in the composition of biblical books.

He certainly recognized the validity of the method in principle. Nor did Sarna see this as a problem for religious faith. God can work through four documents as effectively as through one, unfolding His revelation in successive stages as well as in a single moment of time. But parting company with much contemporary scholarship, Sarna became increasingly convinced — apparently as he began writing his commentaries — that source criticism is overly hypothetical and of limited value, and that what the final text says is more interesting than its history.

Hence, his commentaries are not based on “dissecting a literary corpse,” but are concerned with, as he wrote, the Bible as “a living literature and a dynamic force in history.”

Sarna’s approach to scholarship was his distillation of educational experiences that began as far back as he could remember. He was born in London on March 27, 1923, to Jacob and Millie Sarna. His father, a learned Jewish book dealer who knew the German classics as well as Jewish literature, filled his home with books. Sarna was taught Bible stories from a young age. His father was also a Zionist leader and as a youngster Sarna met the Jewish leaders and scholars, such as Chaim Weizmann, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Moses Gaster and Benjamin Maisler (Mazar) who visited his home.

While in elementary school Sarna also attended an intensive Talmud Torah (after-hours Hebrew school) for some 13 hours a week. He later attended London’s all-day Jewish Secondary School which taught both Jewish and secular studies, and he spent an additional two hours a day studying Talmud at a yeshiva. At age sixteen he matriculated at the University of London, where he studied rabbinics, Semitics and Bible in Jews’ College (London’s Rabbinical Seminary, then a part of the University), general studies at University College, and medieval Hebrew and Arabic in the School of Oriental and African Studies.

In 1947, he married Helen Horowitz, whom he met when the two were teenagers in a religious Zionist youth movement. He was her first Hebrew teacher, and she went on to become a learned Hebraist and Judaica librarian and to maintain an active involvement in all of Sarna’s work. The Sarnas’ sons David and Jonathan were born, respectively, in 1949 and 1955.

During his student years Sarna’s main field was rabbinic literature, and he had a particular interest in the Geonic literature of the post-Talmudic period. But after receiving his bachelor’s degree. and being appointed as an instructor (later lecturer) of Hebrew and Bible in University College, he began to realize that one could not do justice to the Bible without a first-hand knowledge of the literatures and cultures of biblical Israel’s ancient Near Eastern neighbors.

Hoping to study these subjects, he went to Israel in 1949, but conditions at the Hebrew University immediately after the War of Independence made this impossible. In 1951, he came to the United States to continue his studies at Philadelphia’s Dropsie College, where he received his doctorate in 1955.

While studying at Dropsie, Sarna taught at Philadelphia’s Gratz College and also became the first of several distinguished scholars-in-residence at Har Zion Temple. In 1957 his broad knowledge of Jewish literature led to his simultaneous appointments as a member of the Bible department and as librarian at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. In 1965 he accepted an appointment at Brandeis University, where he served as the Dora Golding Professor of Bible until his retirement in 1985.

Many of the students he taught at each of these institutions went on to become rabbis, educators, and professors of Judaic studies at various universities in the United States and Israel.

After his retirement Sarna served for several years as the academic consultant of the Jewish Publication Society. Following a move to Boca Raton, Fla., both Sarnas were called out of retirement to help develop Florida Atlantic University’s Judaic Studies program.

Ever the pedagogue, one of the most important aspects of Sarna’s scholarly career has been his devotion to scholarly projects that serve Jewish communal needs. All of his books have been written with lay as well as scholarly readers in mind. “Understanding Genesis” (1966), originally published by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Melton Research Center for Jewish Education, was written to inform Bible teachers about modern scholarship on Genesis.

Its appeal turned out to be much broader, leading to its republication by Schocken and setting the pattern for “Exploring Exodus” (1986) and the more recent “Songs of the Heart: An Introduction to the Book of Psalms.”

When “Understanding Genesis” was published I felt that if there was one book about the Bible that I could put in the hands of every college student, that would be it. Each subsequent book of his left me with the same feeling!

From 1966 to 1981 Sarna served, along with Moshe Greenberg, and Jonas C. Greenfield, on the committee that translated the Writings (Ketuvim) for the Jewish Publication Society’s “Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures” (1982). In 1973, Sarna and Chaim Potok initiated the five-volume “JPS Torah Commentary” (1989-96) for which Sarna served as the scholarly editor and author of the commentaries on Genesis and Exodus.

In an interesting twist of history, an abridged version of the “JPS Torah Commentary” was published in 2001 as part of the Conservative movement’s one-volume Torah commentary “Etz Hayim” to replace the venerable “Pentateuch and Haftorahs” edited by Joseph H. Hertz. Sarna was brought up on Hertz’s commentary, and Hertz was the chief rabbi of the British Empire and president of Jews College when Sarna was a student there 60 years earlier.

Throughout his life, Sarna was honored in many ways for his contributions to scholarship, winning numerous scholarly awards and honorary doctorates. No scholar has done as much to educate English-speaking Jewry about the Bible, and he did so in the conviction that intelligent readers prefer serious scholarship lucidly presented over popularizing simplifications. The response to his books has proven him correct.

Jeffrey H. Tigay is Ellis Professor of Hebrew & Semitic Languages & Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. This piece was adapted from the Foreword he wrote to Nahum Sarna’s book, “Studies in Biblical Interpretation,” which was published by the Jewish Publication Society in 2000.

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