Posted in Obituaries

Baruch A. Levine, 1930-2021

Baruch A. Levine, 1930-2021 Posted on February 16, 2022

By Lawrence H. Schiffman, New York University

Baruch A. Levine, a long-time NYU faculty member and a Fellow of the American Academy of Jewish Research, passed away on December 21, 2021 in Hamden, Connecticut. He was one of America’s foremost scholars of the Hebrew Bible. He served as editor of the Israel Exploration Journal from 1994-2000 and as an editor of the prestigious series Handbuch der Orientalistik (Brill). He contributed to many important research tools, among them, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible, Encyclopaedia of Religion, and the Anchor Bible Dictionary. His scholarly works concentrate principally on the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern texts, especially Ugaritic ritual texts and Aramaic inscriptions, often reaching into the cuneiform literature of Mesopotamia. All of these projects and many other interests spawned his numerous articles that have appeared in a two-volume collection, In Pursuit of Meaning: Collected Studies of Baruch Levine (Eisenbrauns, 2011).

In biblical studies, his work represented the comparativist school, applying ancient Near Eastern evidence to biblical interpretation. In taking this approach, his thorough knowledge of Semitic languages prominently came into play. As a phenomenologist, he sought to comprehend the inner meanings as well as the outward manifestations of religious rites and celebrations. His first monograph, In the Presence of the Lord (1974), dealt with the Israelite sacrificial system. He followed it with the Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary, Leviticus (1989) and he authored the commentary on Numbers for the Anchor Bible (2 vols.; 1993 and 2000). He was a principal editor of The Documents from the Bar- Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Nabataean Papyri (2002).

Professor Levine was the elder of the two sons of Benjamin B. and Helen K. Levine. He was born on July 10, 1930, in Cleveland, Ohio. In Cleveland Heights, Levine attended the public schools and graduated from Heights High School in 1948. In 1951 he earned a B.A. in Comparative Literature with an emphasis on French literature from Adelbert College of Western Reserve University. It was here that he acquired the sensitivity to literary issues that would play so great a role in his analysis of biblical texts. Baruch Levine was raised in a family for which Jewish education, including all phases of Judaic culture and Modern Hebrew language and literature, was extremely important and in which traditional Jewish study of the Bible and Talmud was considered a mainstay of Jewish life. Concurrent with his general education, Levine attended various Hebrew schools and, from eleven through eighteen years of age, he received private instruction in classical and modern Hebrew literature. Levine also attended Hebrew- speaking camps and the Telshe Yeshivah. Here, the main course of study was the Babylonian Talmud and its commentaries. This left a rich and variegated imprint on him, both in terms of his dedication to full-time Judaic learning and in his legendary facility in traditional Jewish texts.

Levine signed up as a pre-theological student at the Jewish Theological Seminary at age nineteen, with the stipulation that he serve as a chaplain after graduation. His years at the Seminary were replete with intense immersion in Judaic and Hebraic studies under a who’s who of Judaic studies. Upon ordination in June 1955, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve as a First Lieutenant and was assigned to Fort Benjamin Harrison, just outside Indianapolis, until May, 1957. As a chaplain he devoted much of his time to teaching, which added immeasurably to his teaching experience.

After completing his service in the military, Levine soon realized that his true calling was to a life of scholarship, and so he enrolled as a doctoral student at Brandeis University in the Department of Mediterranean Studies under Cyrus H. Gordon. Gordon would bequeath to Levine the skills and languages needed to bring to bear the vast array of ancient Near Eastern sources on the study of biblical and rabbinic literature. He completed his M.A. in 1959 and his doctorate in 1962.

Levine soon began teaching at Brandeis, where between 1962 and 1969 he reached the rank of Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. He began to specialize in the study of the biblical sacrificial cult and the relevant ancient Near Eastern evidence. In these years, he laid the groundwork for what would eventually be a lifetime project. He also began his pattern of spending long periods of time in Israel, helping to build the Israeli academic and intellectual climate, while at the same time imbibing the wisdom of the land and its scholars. In 1968, he served as Visiting Lecturer at Brown University.

Levine was appointed Professor of Hebrew and Near Eastern Languages in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures (NELL) at New York University in 1969, beginning a new chapter in his personal and academic life. In the environment of NELL and the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, Levine strove to make sure that Israel and Judaic Studies were given their proper representation, and that they were fully integrated into the general field of Near Eastern studies. Levine’s commitment to participation in Israeli academic life deepened greatly during these years, leading him to spend more and more time in Israel, where he was also a frequent visitor to archaeological sites. He took special pride in his Hebrew publications. Further, Levine championed the notion that in order for Judaic studies to be integrated intellectually with other related disciplines, the same academic standards applying in other disciplines had to be applied here. His tireless support of these notions was an important part of the process that led up to the reorganization of Judaic studies into the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies in 1986.

It was during his early years at NYU that Levine participated in the founding of the Association for Jewish Studies. He championed the same principles regarding the academic character of university Judaic studies, as well as the belief that the study of the Hebrew Bible had to be seen as part of the growing American academic study of Judaism. He served as president of the Association from 1971 to 1972. As its second president, his role in defining the young organization was significant. Simultaneously, he was active in the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Oriental Society. In 1979 he was honored with election as a fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research. Levine also participated actively in the Columbia University Seminar for the Study of the Hebrew Bible and in the Biblical Colloquium. Throughout his scholarly career he cultivated close intellectual relations with Christian biblical scholars, helping to develop a common language of discourse across confessional lines.

With the establishment of the new Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU, Levine flourished anew, deriving great satisfaction in the rounding out and expansion of the offerings in biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies. Levine worked with colleagues to create a premier center for Judaic studies in the American university. In 1987, his contributions to the field as a whole, and to New York University in particular, were recognized when he was appointed Skirball Professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. Among Levine’s most important contributions to the new structure was precisely the friendliness, devotion to students and colleagues, and the entire notion of the scholarly quest that made his work so significant. His contribution to the training of the next generation of scholars, during his Brandeis years and at NYU, gave him great satisfaction.

During his years at NYU he received numerous academic invitations, testifying to the respect in which his work is held. He was Visiting Lecturer at Sarah Lawrence College in 1969–70 and at Drew University in 1977, and Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1983 and at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in 1984–85 and 1988–90. Levine held research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He was a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Hebrew University in 1979–80. In 1987, he received a Doctor of Hebrew Letters, Honoris Causa, from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and was later honored with the Distinguished Scholar Award by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, recognizing his lifetime of biblical and Judaic scholarship.

In the mid-twentieth century, Jewish biblical scholars were only in the process of being accepted into the American academic guild. Levine was one of those who succeeded in helping to bridge this gap by virtue of his scholarship and personality. He served effectively as an ambassador to Israeli scholarship by bringing Israeli scholars to speak to American academic audiences and himself spending enormous amounts of time in Israel. Both in the formative years of the Association for Jewish Studies and in the university, he stood stridently and effectively for the development of an American community of Judaic studies scholars that would function according to the normal canons of academic scholarship.

Levine retired in 2003 and was designated as Professor Emeritus in recognition of his many years of service and leadership at NYU. He and his beloved late wife, Corinne, who passed away in 2016, made their home in Hamden, Connecticut. He is mourned by the many students, colleagues, and community members who learned from him over the years.