By Jeffrey H. Tigay, University of Pennsylvania
The death on June 23 of our colleague 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.
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.
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.”
Nahum Sarna 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. After a brief stay in Israel, he came to the United States in 1951 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.
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.
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.