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Professor's Death Means Loss of a Biblical Giant

June 3, 2010 By:
Jeffrey H. Tigay
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Moshe Greenberg

 The world of Jewish scholarship is mourning the loss of professor Moshe Greenberg, who died in Jerusalem on May 15 after a long illness. Greenberg was one of the most influential scholars of the 20th century, but his impact extended far beyond the academy due to his lifelong commitment to sharing the results of scholarship with the Jewish public. His influence was felt through his service on the Jewish Publication Society's Bible translation committee, articles in newspapers and magazines, and his impact on rabbis, teachers and other students during decades of teaching in the United States and Israel.

For those of us who had the privilege of being his graduate students, he was an inspiring role model.

Greenberg was born in Philadelphia in 1928 and raised in a Hebrew-speaking, Zionist home. His father, Rabbi Simon Greenberg, was the rabbi of Har Zion Temple from 1925 to 1946 -- one of the most important leaders of the Conservative movement.

Greenberg earned his B.A. and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, and was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He taught Bible and Judaica at Penn from 1954 until 1970, when he and his family settled in Israel. He was a professor of Bible at the Hebrew University until retiring in 1996. In 1994, the State of Israel awarded him the Israel Prize, its highest award for personal achievement and public service.

The first Jewish biblical scholar appointed to a position in a secular university in postwar America, Greenberg had an important influence on the development of biblical scholarship. Previously, the teaching of what Christians call the "Old Testament" was largely in the hands of Protestant scholars, who taught it as something separate from the Jewish tradition.

But Greenberg brought to the field a mastery of both ancient Near Eastern and Jewish sources, and he developed what he called a "holistic" method of interpretation, which pays careful attention to how all the elements of a text fit together. Accepting the modern scholarly division of the Torah into four earlier works written by separate authors, he argued that scholarship has not completed its task until it goes on to ask why these original works were put together as they are in the final version of the Torah, and what its message is as a whole.

For this task, he found Jewish midrashic sources and medieval Hebrew commentaries, with their sense of the unity of the Bible, invaluable. Later, in Greenberg's path-breaking commentary on the book of Ezekiel, the same method led him to understand that book's origin differently. Modern scholars held that the original prophecies of Ezekiel -- a prophet who lived in the Babylonian exile, and foretold both the destruction of Jerusalem and the later return of the Jews from exile -- had undergone extensive updating by later disciples of the prophet, so that the present book is a patchwork of original prophecies and additions from later generations.

In Greenberg's view, careful attention to Ezekiel's style and logic show "a consistent trend of thought expressed in a distinctive style," and that there are very few passages that were not composed by Ezekiel himself.

Greenberg also wrote for a broader audience, particularly on theology. He argued that a critical reading of the Bible can be harmonized with Jewish tradition and religious veneration -- that faith and criticism can coexist without being sealed off separately in the mind.

His ideal was the "sober believer," whose faith does not prevent an open-eyed, critical examination of life and tradition. He argued that a Scripture-based religion can and must avoid fundamentalism by being selective and critical in its reliance on tradition and by reprioritizing values.

Greenberg maintained a lifelong interest in Jewish education. He wrote numerous articles for educators, and served as an adviser to Israel's Ministry of Education on how to bring the results of modern scholarship into the required teaching of the Bible in public schools. In 1996, he received the Hebrew University's Rothberg Prize for Jewish Education.

Although the Greenbergs settled in Jerusalem 40 years ago, they retained strong ties with Philadelphia. Moshe returned several times to lecture in local synagogues and at Penn. He spent a semester in 1994 as a fellow at Penn's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and received an honorary degree from Penn in 1996.

He served for 15 years as a member of the Jewish Publication Society's Bible translation committee. In 1995, the society published his valuable collection of essays, Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought.

Those of us who were his students at Penn remember him as a superb teacher. In 1968, he received the Danforth Foundation's Award for Gifted Teaching, presented at the White House. We students experienced firsthand his profundity, his reflective, analytical mind, his devotion to students and his character as a human being.

Greenberg was a magnetic teacher, but he never used soaring rhetoric. What he brought to the classroom was meticulous preparation; an analysis of every issue, small or large; and an unfailing ability to convey the intellectual importance of everything we studied. We saw him as a role model, and for many of us, it was the beginning of a friendship that we cherished ever since.

Moshe is survived by his wife of 61 years, Evelyn (nee Gelber); sons Joel Greenberg, Raphael Greenberg and Eitan Greenberg; nine grandchildren; and a brother, Daniel Greenberg.

Jeffrey H. Tigay is the Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.

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