Posted in Obituaries

Tikva Simone Frymer-Kensky, 1943-2005

Tikva Simone Frymer-Kensky, 1943-2005 Posted on September 20, 2006

By William W. Hallo, Yale University


Tikva Frymer was a student at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America when the late Moshe Held, one of the luminaries among her teachers, urged her to transfer to Yale to study Assyriology and Sumerology. She arrived in New Haven in 1965 and quickly became part of a kind of “golden age” in the annals of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, with large classes that included many future Assyriologists. Knowing her interest in law, as her dissertation supervisor I suggested the judicial ordeal in the Bible and the ancient Near East. Tikva treated this topic exhaustively in two lengthy volumes; my only regret is that she never published them. Even so, the study led a kind of underground existence in its University Microfilm version (1977), and has been frequently cited ever since. In fact, it was the appearance of numerous shorter studies on the same subject by other scholars that made Tikva feel that she had to continually update her manuscript if she was to publish it at all.

Before and after getting her degree at Yale, Tikvah taught at a women’s college in the Washington area and at American University. Here Tikva taught general courses in the humanities and in religion. Her first chance to teach in her own fields of specialization came with her appointment to Wayne State College (now University) in Detroit. For Tikva, the proximity to Ann Arbor was all-important – professionally because of the resources of the University of Michigan, and personally because she had in the meantime (1975) married Rabbi Allan Kensky who led a Conservative synagogue in Ann Arbor.

When it became clear that she would not be nominated for tenure at Wayne State, Tikva moved to Ann Arbor and served in a succession of adjunct positions there. This period saw the first flowering of her publication activities. Several seminal articles reflected her interest in law and ethics, dealing with perennial cruces such as the moral dimensions of the Deluge, or the Red Heifer of Numbers 19. She also launched major book projects, of which the most important was certainly In The Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Transformation of Pagan Myth(1993), a book which established her reputation as a major figure in the comparative study of biblical religion. It is cited whenever the consequences of Israelite monotheism are at issue, and presents a breakthrough assessment of these consequences, particularly in gender terms. As she was the first to see and document, the elimination of female deities forced the Israelite conception of the unitary deity to assume both male and traditional female functions such as protection of pregnant mothers or newborn babies. Her intimate acquaintance with both sides of the Biblical/Babylonian equation stood her in good stead in her comparative approach.

The extraordinary success of her first book led Tikva inexorably into the field of gender studies, at a time when that field was high on the agenda of Biblical studies.. Her next book-length work was a highly original and personal anthology of women’s prayers entitled Motherprayer:The Pregnant Woman’s Spiritual Companion (1995). The volume was intentionally non-denominational or inter-denominational, and included not only selections from various religious traditions, but also significant numbers of her own poetic creations on Jewish themes. It was followed by a sensitive translation from Hebrew of From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven by Ari Elon (1996) and an edition of essays on Biblical women, Reading the Women of the Bible: A new Interpretation of Their Stories (2002), which won both the Koret Jewish Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award. She also served as co-editor of two books, Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (1998) and Christianity in Jewish Terms (2000).

Tikva’s personal odyssey included a stay in Philadelphia which assured her daughter Meira and son Eitan of adequate Jewish and general schooling and afforded her husband Allan the chance to accept a call from his (and her) alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he served as dean for a number of years. Tikva herself took a position at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College on the northernmost edge of Philadelphia, a commute almost as long as her husband’s to New York. In addition to teaching, she served there as director of biblical studies.

Tikva’s appointment to the Divinity School of the University of Chicago in 1995 recognized her ecumenical interests as well as her place in women’s studies. And it finally represented a position worthy of her talents. Initially she commuted from Philadelphia, but when Allan was invited to lead the conservative synagogue in Wilmette (and both children had finished high school), the couple had no hesitation in moving back to the Middle West. Unfortunately the illness that eventually felled her had already attacked, but nothing daunted her. She plunged fully into academic life. She became a member of the Biblical Colloqium, and was elected a fellow of this Academy. In addition she was always active in the American Oriental Society and attended many of its meetings, as well as those of the Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale. This year, many of her essays were collected and reprinted as Studies in Bible: Feminist Criticism (2006) in the Jewish Publication Society’s “Scholars of Distinction” series, making her the first woman scholar to be so honored.

She died on August 31st, 2006 at the age of 62. She will be sorely missed by her family, by her colleagues, by her students, and not least by her teachers.