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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Moshe Greenberg, 1928–2010

 The scholarly world mourns the loss of Prof. Moshe Greenberg, who died at his home in Jerusalem on May 15, 2010, after a long illness.

Moshe was born in Philadelphia on July 10, 1928. Raised in a Hebrew-speaking, Zionist home, he studied Bible and Hebrew literature from his youth. He received his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1949. The same year, he married his high-school sweetheart, Evelyn Gelber. Evy was his companion, sounding board, advisor, comforter, and constant source of encouragement. She devoted her life to Moshe and the accomplishment of his scholarly mission, sparing him many time-consuming responsibili­ties so that his work could continue unabated.

Moshe received his Ph.D. in 1954, also from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied Hebrew Bible and Assyriology with E. A. Speiser. Simultaneously, he studied Bible and post­biblical Judaica at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York with H. L. Ginsberg, Saul Lieberman, Abraham J. Heschel, and Shalom Spiegel and was ordained there as a rabbi the same year. He taught Bible and Judaica at Penn from 1954 to 1970. He was known as an extraordinarily gifted teacher and, in 1968, won the Danforth Foundation’s Harbison Award for Gifted Teaching, an award based on the teacher’s concern for the student as an individual and his grasp of the art of teaching. It was presented to him at the White House. In 1970, he settled in Israel and became a professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he taught from 1970 to 1996.

The first Jewish Biblical scholar appointed to a position in a secular university in postwar America, Moshe had an important influence on the development of biblical scholarship. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Jewish Research. He was honored with Guggenheim and other fellowships and received the Biblical Archeology Society’s publication award for his commentary on Ezekiel. In 1994, the State of Israel awarded him Pras Yisrael (the Israel Prize) in Bible, the most distinguished academic award in Israel.

Strongly influenced by the comparative biblical-Assyriological approach of Speiser and by the studies of the Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann in biblical thought and religion, Moshe’s scholarship was characterized by the critical integration of ancient Near Eastern and Jewish sources and by a combination of rigorous philology, concern with ideas and values, and literary-critical insight.

Moshe’s earliest books were The Hab/piru (American Oriental Society, 1955, originally his doctoral dissertation), his abridged English translation of volumes 1–7 of Kaufmann’s Toldot ha’Emuna ha-Yisre’lit (published as The Religion of Israel [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960]) and his textbook Introduction to [Biblical] Hebrew (Prentice-Hall, 1965). In 1966, he was appointed, along with Jonas Greenfield and Nahum Sarna, to the Jewish Publication Society’s committee for translating the Ketuvim, which appeared in 1982, completing the Society’s Bible translation now published under the title Tanakh.

Moshe devoted most of his attention to the phenomenology of biblical law and religion, the theory and practice of interpreting biblical texts, and the role of the Bible in Jewish thought. Many of his most notable essays were gathered together in his Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought (Jewish Publication Society, 1995).

In his seminal, pioneering studies of the postulates and social policies underlying biblical law, Moshe argued that “the law [is] the expression of underlying postulates or values of culture” and that differences between biblical and ancient Near Eastern laws were not reflections of different stages of social development but of different underlying legal and religious principles (Studies, 25–41). Analyzing economic, social, political, and religious laws in the Torah, he showed that their thrust was to disperse power and prestige throughout society and prevent their monopolization by narrow elite groups (Studies, 51–61).

In the area of prayer, Moshe traced the development of biblical petition and praise away from their roots in the conception that the deity needs to be informed of the worshiper’s plight and propitiated by flattery into “a vehicle of humility, an expression of un-selfsufficiency, which in biblical thought, is the proper stance of humans before God” (Studies, 75–108). In Biblical Prose Prayer (University of California Press, 1983), he showed that the prose prayers embedded in biblical narratives (as distinct from the poetic prayers in the book of Psalms) reflect the piety of commoners. He reasoned that the frequency of spontaneous prayer must have sustained a constant sense of God’s presence and strengthened the egalitarian tendency of Israelite religion, which eventually led to the establishment of the synagogue. The fact that prayer was conceived as analogous to a social transaction between persons fostered an emphasis on sincerity and may lie at the root of the classical-prophetic view of worship as a gesture whose acceptance depends on adherence to the values of God. In his “Reflections on Job’s Theology” (Studies, 327–33), Moshe observed that Job’s experience of God’s inex­plicable enmity could not wipe out his knowledge of God’s benignity gained from his earlier experience, hence Job became confused instead of simply rejecting God. Accordingly, the fact that the Bible retains Job as well as the Torah, Prophets, and Proverbs reflects the capacity of the religious sensibility to affirm both experiences: “No single key unlocks the mystery of destiny.”

In his commentaries on Exodus (Behrman House, 1969) and Ezekiel (Anchor Bible, 1983, 1997), Moshe developed his “holistic” method of exegesis. While building on the source-critical achievements of earli­er scholarship, the holistic method redirects attention from the text’s “hypothetically reconstructed elements” to the bibli­cal books as integral wholes, as the products of thoughtful and artistic design conveying messages of their own. This approach recalls scholarly attention to the “received text [which] is the only historically attested datum; it alone has had demonstrable effects; it alone is the undoubted product of Israelite creativity.” In this connection, he argued that, since midrashic and later precritical Jewish exegesis operated on the assumption of unitary authorship, they have many insights to offer the holistic commentator.

Moshe’s studies of Jewish thought include important studies of the intellectual achievements of medieval Jewish exegesis (“Hermeneutical Freedom and Constraint in Jewish Bible Exegesis” (in Mishneh Todah [ed. Nili Fox, David Glatt-Gilead, and Michael Williams; Eisenbrauns, 2009]), investigations of rabbinic reflections on defying illegal orders (Studies, 395–403), and attitudes toward adherents of other religions (Studies, 369–93; “A Problematic Heritage”). In the latter 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. In “Jewish Conceptions of the Human Factor in Biblical Prophecy” (Studies, 405–19), Moshe showed that, from the Talmud to the Renaissance, classical Jewish exe­getes and thinkers who never doubted the divine inspiration and authorship of the Torah and other prophetic writings neverthe­less acknowledged the literary evidence of human shaping of the text. A more recent article, “A Faith-ful Jewish critical interpretation of the Bible” (in Judaism and Modernity: The Religious Philosophy of David Hartman [ed. J. W. Malino; Ashgate, 2004]), is his personal statement of how a critical reading of the Bible can be harmonized with a traditional Jewish reading.

Moshe maintained a lifelong interest in education. Understanding Exodus was written in response to a request to write a book introducing teachers to the book of Exodus in the light of modern scholarship and traditional Jewish exegesis. In Israel, he played an active role in bringing the results of modern scholarship into the teaching of the Bible in public schools, where the Bible was a staple of the curriculum. He was the co-founder (with Shmuel Ahituv) of Mikra Le-Yisrael, a visionary series of scholarly commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, written in Hebrew and addressed to the educated public at large. The series is published by Am-Oved in cooperation with the Hebrew University’s Magnes Press; sixteen volumes have appeared to date.

Moshe himself was a lifelong student. As long as I knew him, he and Evelyn hosted study groups in their home for friends and colleagues, including current and former students. Their Shabbat study groups were devoted to commentaries on the Bible, while groups that met on other days of the week were devoted to great books, such as The Divine Comedy,and other subjects.

I had the privilege of being Moshe’s student at Penn in the 1960s, along with many others who had come to study with him along with E. A. Speiser and S. N. Kramer. All of us experienced firsthand his superb pedagogy, profundity, reflective, analytical mind, his devotion to his students, and his character as a human being. I think I can speak for all of his students in saying that being his student was a privilege and a life-shaping experience, and for many of us it was the beginning of a friendship that we have cherished ever since.

One appropriate way to characterize Moshe’s achievements would be to point out how well what he wrote about Kaufmann applies to him: he “elevated the discussion of biblical thought above ecclesiastical dogma and partisanship into the realm of the eternally significant ideas.”Further, “he embodies a passionate commitment to grand ideas, combining the philosopher’s power of analysis and generalization with the attention to detail of the philological exegete. His life-work is a demonstration that the study of ancient texts does not necessitate losing contact with the vital currents of the spirit and the intellect.” To this we may add the following statement from the citation accompanying his Israel Prize: Moshe’s “superb studies show that personal engagement, when controlled by a rigorous ability to criticize one’s own theories, not only does not compromise scholarly research but, on the contrary, fructifies it.”

Moshe is survived by Evy, their sons Joel, Raphael, and Eitan and their wives and children, and his brother Daniel Greenberg. His memory and his life-work will endure as an inspiration and blessing to all who knew him personally and to those who knew him through his scholarship.

Jeffrey H. Tigay
Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
University of Pennsylvania

The above draws heavily on Mordechai Cogan, Barry L. Eichler, and Jeffrey H. Tigay, “Moshe Greenberg: An Appreciation,” in Tehillah le-Moshe: Biblical and Judaic Studies in Honor of Moshe Greenberg (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1997), ix–xxi.


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