Two giants of twentieth century Jewish studies have passed away in the last week, both Rabbinical graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary where I trained.
Professor Yosef Yerushalmi z’tl was held the Chair in Jewish History at Columbia University and made major contributions in a variety of historical periods including the history of the Jews of Spain and Portugal. He will, however, be most remembered for his shortest work, Zachor. This 100 page masterpiece attempts to examine the relative power of historical fact and communal memory. It’s an extraordinary work to find issuing from the pen of fully fledged academic historian for Yerushalmi is deeply sceptical about the ultimate value of historical fact when compared to memory. It is memory, he says, which serves as the bulwark not only of Jewish identity but of communal endeavour in general. It’s a perspective that would have been close to the heart of our founder Rabbi who also knew that the power that drives our commitment to Jewish life lies beyond the raw historical data and lives, instead, almost mythically, in the subsumed communal memories of the Jewish people.
Professor Yochanan Muffs z’tl was Emeritus Professor of Bible and Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary. When I arrived as a student at JTS tales were told of how, filled with passion for his text Yochanan (he was always called Yochanan) would begin writing something across a classroom boards and be swept along until his Hebrew would stretch across half the wall. I never got to meet that Yochanan. Instead I met a physical shadow, struck down by Parkinsons, but so alive in his mind. For a semester a fellow student and I would sit in his office with an unpublished masterpiece and we would try together to engage in study. Yochanan would often manage five or six coherent sentences over the hour, but those sentences have haunted me and transformed my reading of Bible more than any other Bible teacher I have encountered. I understand that Yochanan and Rabbi Jacobs were friends (if anyone has stories, please let me know). I recommend Yochanan’s a newly published work of popular scholarship On The Personhood of God warmly. In it he makes the case for accepting the anthropomorphic nature of the Jewish (or at least the Biblical) God. We shouldn’t be ashamed of God’s outstretched arm and flared nostril, instead we should read and celebrate the Bible on its own terms, full of passion, pathos and vitality.
So this Chanukah, when I light my Chanukah candles, aside from remembering heroes of past millennia I’ll be committing myself to keep the memories and the messages of these most recently deceased mighty heroes alive.