Biblical Scholar Nahum Sarna, ‘Understanding Genesis’ Author


By Jonathan D. Sarna

Published July 01, 2005, issue of July 01, 2005.
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When I picture my father, my abba, renowned biblical scholar and translator Nahum Sarna, I inevitably picture him studying. His favorite room, by far, was his book-lined study: There he sat, morning, noon and long past nightfall, reading, writing and teaching.

My father, who died June 23 at the age of 82, defined Torah very broadly: Absolutely nothing Jewish was alien to him, and he read widely in the literature of antiquity, and in many other subjects, too. He had an immense scholarly curiosity, and he felt that the more he knew, the better he could understand God’s work.

In this, he emulated the medieval Bible commentators, about whom he wrote a very important scholarly article; they were, he showed, immersed in both Jewish and general culture.

My father descended from bibliophiles. His father (my paternal grandfather), Jacob Sarna, hailed from the community of Konin in Poland, which is remembered for its splendid Jewish public library, and was himself a significant booklover. After moving to London, where my father was born, my grandfather headed the Jewish section of Foyles bookstore in London and later became an independent Jewish bookseller.

The Sarna home in London was not a wealthy home — Grandpa lost most of his money in the Depression — but it was a learned and intensely Zionist home, a home in which everyone loved and spoke Hebrew, a home in which the news of the day was read and dissected, a home in which Jewish learning and literature were prized above all else.

My father did not shine academically immediately. Later in life, he loved to tell the story of the elementary school teacher who despaired of his antics and advised his mother (my grandmother) to take him out of school and apprentice him to a baker! Fortunately, my grandmother ignored the schoolteacher’s advice and instead enrolled my father in the new Jewish secondary school in London, where his keen mind displayed itself. Eventually he would graduate at the top of his class at Jews’ College in London, where he received rabbinic ordination. He also won First Class Honors from London University.

His studies coincided with the Second World War. Although exempt from the draft because he was a rabbinical student, he trained as a firefighter and spent long lonely nights on guard duty atop high buildings, where he had a frighteningly up-close view of the nightly bombings of London. For many years he did not talk about this traumatic time, but after September 11, 2001, some of those tormenting memories rushed back to him.

After the war, in 1947, he married my mother, whom he had known since the two were teenagers. She always boasted that my father never even dated anyone but her, and their marriage proved to be a remarkably productive and long-lasting partnership. For years my mother typed and edited my father’s work, and she made it possible for him to dedicate himself to scholarship. Their devotion lasted literally until my father’s dying day: 58 years of marriage.

In 1949, my father took his wife and their newborn son, David, to Israel, where he expected to live out his life-long Zionist dreams and to pursue a Ph.D. at the Hebrew University. Those were hard years in the nascent Jewish state, and the professors at the Hebrew University, who had lost their campus in the War of Independence, were taking no graduate students. So after a few years, my father moved on to the United States to pursue a doctorate at Dropsie College in Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter he landed at Gratz College, where he went on to inspire the community’s best and brightest young Jews and to become the school’s most beloved instructor.

In 1957, armed with a learned if somewhat esoteric doctorate on the language of the book of Job, my father moved to the Jewish Theological Seminary. There he encountered some of the world’s foremost Jewish scholars — it was, in its day, perhaps the greatest collection of Jewish scholars ever assembled in one institution in the United States — and he earned their respect and their friendship. For a time, he served as librarian of the Seminary, a position of great distinction that took advantage of his remarkable bibliographic mastery. He also wrote his landmark book, “Understanding Genesis,” a volume that remains in print almost 40 years later, and that has taught countless students how to read the book of Genesis with fresh eyes. In the oft-quoted introduction to “Understanding Genesis,” my father spelled out his approach to the study of Bible, an approach that combined complete mastery of the biblical text and of rabbinic tradition with comprehensive knowledge of ancient near Near Eastern languages and of the relevant historical context. The more one knew of the ancient world, my father always believed, the more one came to understand and respect the Bible and its teachings.

In 1965, he moved to Brandeis, his academic home for more than two decades, and the place where he secured his reputation. He came to Brandeis just as Jewish studies was emerging as a legitimate subject in the American university, and he trained some of the field’s finest young scholars.

The Brandeis years saw my father involved in the magnificent scholarly works for which he always will be remembered: the Jewish Publication Society translation of the Bible, the books “Exploring Exodus” and “On the Book of Psalms,” the JPS Torah Commentary and many of the articles he collected a few years ago in his book, “Studies in Biblical Interpretation.

His plan in retirement was to write a book on King Cyrus and the Jewish return from Babylon. He had assembled many new ideas and sources on the subject, and was in the process of writing them up when he fell ill.

Let me conclude by citing my father’s own description of what true happiness means in the opening passage of the Book of Psalms, one of my father’s favorite biblical verses. “For the psalmist,” my father once wrote, “the happy state… proceeds necessarily from actions that are wholly controllable by the individual. Happiness results from the deliberate assumption of a commitment to a certain way of life, a course that is governed by God’s Teaching.” Moreover, he concluded, the happy man is “resilient, stable, and steadfast because he is deeply rooted in the spiritual and ethical soil of the Torah.”

Not only did my father write those words, but he also lived by them. And by his example, he taught us to live by them, too.

Jonathan D. Sarna is the author of “American Judaism: A History” and he is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Brau professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

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