Posted in Obituaries

Yochanan Muffs, 1932-2009

Yochanan Muffs, 1932-2009 Posted on December 6, 2009

By Baruch A. Levine, New York University


On December 6, 2009, Professor Yochanan Muffs, נרו יאיר , passed away at his home in New York, approaching the age of 78. Yochanan served on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary for his entire academic career. He represented what has been called the “second wave” of Judaic scholars in North America, composed of those whose training was accomplished here and who were further nurtured by interaction with the academic community and the Hebraic culture of modern Israel. Yochanan received his undergraduate degree from Queens College, and studied for the rabbinate at JTS. He earned his doctorate under Ephraim A. Speiser at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Jewish Research and a member of other scholarly societies.

To fully appreciate Yochanan’s scholarly contribution, we must acknowledge what is so painful – that for almost half of his life he was severely incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease. As a consequence, his published works were accomplished fairly early in his life, when I remember him as one who was excited about scholarship, always whirling a new idea around in his mind, or becoming ecstatic over a new insight. As we mourn his passing, we also lament the loss of his potential contributions to scholarship, for he was endowed with genius. Yochanan continued to teach as long as he was physically able to do so, an act of heroism on his part. He was driven by a powerful urge to impart knowledge. No remembrance of Yochanan would be complete without reference to his devoted wife, Yocheved,  שתחיה, who undertook to have his individual studies collected and edited, and translated into Hebrew (and from Hebrew!) for publication here and in Israel.

Yochanan’s scholarship followed two paths, both of which realized his mastery of languages (and of “language” as a phenomenon), his great sensitivity to the structure and idiom of written texts, and his wide, comparative reach. At JTS, he was especially close to H.L.Ginsberg and to Saul Lieberman, from whom he learned the art of reading a text, and to Abraham Joshua Heschel, who directed his attention to the modern crisis of faith. Yochanan’s mentor at the University of Pennsylvania, Ephraim A. Speiser, a master in the interpretation of ancient Near Eastern law, honed Yochanan’s already keen skills.

Yochanan’s major work in the field of ancient Near Eastern law is Studies in the Aramaic Legal Papyri from Elephantine (1969). It was my privilege to arrange for a reprint of this classic by Brill in 2003 and to contribute a prolegomenon, updating Yochanan’s earlier findings. In the intervening years, the discovery of Hebrew and Aramaic legal documents from the Judean desert had revived interest in Yochanan’s analysis of the Elephantine papyri. Yochanan made connections that clarified the relatedness of ancient Near Eastern law to the development of rabbinic law, based as it was on biblical law, by unlocking the formulation of the Aramaic legal documents stored away by an unusual Jewish community, living in the Egyptian interior during the Persian period. In this effort he was guided by the earlier study of the great J. N. Epstein, who, in 1908/09, had published his “Notizen zu den jüdisch-aramäischen Papyri von Assuan,” and who, like Yochanan some sixty years later, understood what many others had failed to realize, namely, that cultural materials deriving from the periphery can be as instructive as those coming from the center.

The second path of Yochanan’s scholarship takes shape in his two collections, Love and Joy: Law, Language, and Religion in Ancient Israel (1992) and The Personhood  of God: Biblical Theology, Human Faith, and the Divine Image(2005). Both collections have been translated into Hebrew. Beginning with several follow-up studies of law, Yochanan set out to chart a radical methodology for the study of biblical theology, one free of the imposition of theoretical models so characteristic of most systematic theological inquiry, as we know it. Instead of regarding biblical anthropomorphisms as a philosophical difficulty, for which there is, of course, a strong tradition in Judaism, Yochanan saw them for what they arguably are: fervent attempts to capture the nearness of God, attempts that are amplified in the less bridled rabbinic tradition. In a masterful article, which first appeared in beautiful Hebrew, Yochanan exposed the double role of the Israelite prophet, who not only rebuked a sinful Israel in the role of God’s messenger, but confronted God on Israel’s behalf and interceded for his flock. One has the sure sense that Yochanan had attained a comprehensive and uniquely original insight into the meaning of the human-divine encounter.

It is already evident that Yochanan’s brilliant achievements on both of his paths, and his passionate efforts as a teacher and colleague, have inspired students of Torah in its widest dimensions.

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