The Importance of Moshe Greenberg

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On May 15, a giant of Jewish Bible scholarship passed away in Jerusalem at the age of eighty-one. American-born and  -educated,  Moshe Greenberg combined classical erudition in ancient Near Eastern languages and rabbinic and medieval exegesis with the critical perspectives of modern scholarship, analytical deftness, and literary style. He brought all these to bear on the ancient texts to elicit both knowledge and moral and spiritual guidance.

In the mid-1950's, at the beginning of Greenberg's career at the University of Pennsylvania, Bible scholarship was still overwhelmingly shaped by the heritage of Protestantism. He was among those who showed not only how academic study of the Bible could speak in a distinctively Jewish voice but how that voice could contribute to the field as a whole. His move to Israel, where he taught at the Hebrew University from 1970 to his retirement in 1996, demonstrated a commitment to the deep continuities of Jewish history. In personal conversation, he moved easily from points of biblical grammar to the most expansive reaches of comparative religion.

In a classic essay on criminal law in the Bible, Greenberg showed through textual and historical analysis how Hebrew Scripture enunciated principles of human dignity and responsibility without precedent in the ancient world. His commentaries to the books of Exodus and Ezekiel exposed the editorial seams that, rather than undermining the "holistic" power of the texts, are the sites where the Bible's creativity and energy are most strikingly located.  His studies of biblical prayer dwelled on the development from flattery of a distant and forbidding deity to intimate dialogue with a compassionate God. 

In an essay laying out his credo, Greenberg urged being "true to the tasks" of both the scholar who seeks to understand the Bible in its historical context, even when the findings are "uncongenial to my predilections," and the scholar who draws existential meaning from the text as well as a sense of the continuity and creativity of traditional Jewish exegesis. Such scholarship, he continued, must proceed not only from a  respect for the truth but from "a sense of responsibility toward a community whose members, the scholars' brethren, await their disclosure to them of the Scriptural message." 

Greenberg lived by this credo, inspiring generations of students and disciples as his memory will inspire generations to come.


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