Tikva Frymer-Kensky, professor of Hebrew Bible and the History of Judaism at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, died August 31 after a long battle with cancer.
Frymer-Kensky received her M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University, and specialized in Assyriology, Sumerology and women and religion. Her most recent book, Reading the Women of the Bible received a Koret Jewish Book Award in 2002 and a National Jewish Book Award in 2003. The Chicago Jewish News voted her one of the Jewish Chicagoans of the Year in 2005. She was also honored by the Jewish Publication Series in 2006 by being the first women to be included in their Scholar of Distinction series.
At the time of her death she was working on a commentary on Ruth and a book on Biblical theology. She is survived by her husband, Rabbi Allan Kensky, and children Meira and Eitan.
Obituary from the University of Chicago
Articles in BAS Publications
“Unwrapping the Torah,” Bible Review, 18:05, Oct 2002
“Creation Myths Breed Violence,” Bible Review, 14:03, Jun 1998
“Forgotten Heroines of the Exodus,” Bible Review, 13:06, Dec 1997
“The Trial Before God of an Accused Adulteress,” Bible Review, 2:03, Summer 1986
“Inanna—The Quintessential Femme Fatale,” BAR 10:05, Sep/Oct 1984
“God Before the Hebrews,” BAR 8:05, Sep/Oct 1982
“What the Babylonian Flood Stories Can and Cannot Teach Us About the Genesis Flood,” BAR 4:04, Nov/Dec 1978
“Goddesses: Biblical Echoes,” Feminist Approaches to the Bible, 1995
Tikva Simone Frymer-Kensky
According to the Talmud, “when a scholar dies, all are next-of-kin,” that is, the loss and mourning affect the entire community. Such is the case with Tikva. In addition to Meira and Eitan, all who learned from Tikva as a teacher, a lecturer, an author, and a colleague are bereaved. In Tikva’s case the circle is very wide indeed: from the members of this congregation and her students and colleagues at the University of Chicago and the other institutions where she taught, and extending to fellow scholars in Bible, Judaica and the ancient Near East in this country, Israel and elsewhere, to the rabbinical community and other clergy, to Christian colleagues in her interfaith activities, and the many readers of her books and articles which were read far and wide by scholars and laity alike. All are bereaved, all are family.
I am acutely aware that it is not possible to do justice to Tikva. Eulogies are always prepared on short notice and her accomplishments were so numerous that I can barely scratch the surface. But let me share with you some thoughts of a colleague and friend.
I first met Tikva around 1960 when we were both students in the undergraduate school of the Jewish Theological Seminary, although at the time she was still in high school and commuting to the seminary after-hours. Over the years we were classmates both at the Seminary and later in graduate school at Yale, and subsequently we were colleagues and family friends. Both of us were members of an interdenominational group of about 30 Biblical scholars who meet one weekend a year to present and critique each other’s scholarly papers. Tikva was the den-mother for all the Jewish members: she always brought Shabbat candles, wine, and challah, and she would invite us to join her at sunset for candle-lighting, kiddush [the blessing over wine] and ha-motzi [the blessing over bread]. The years when she and Alan lived in Philadelphia were an especially blessed time in our friendship since we lived close enough to attend the same synagogue, Meira and Eitan and our children attended the same schools, and Tikva and I had time to share ideas about projects we were working on. An added treat was having many opportunities to hear Alan present divrei Torah [lectures on Bible and Talmud], instructing and inspiring the congregation.
From the time I met Tikva it was apparent that she was a brilliant and enthusiastic student. Her brilliance was almost intimidating because she was such a quick study, so perceptive and already so knowledgeable. One mutual friend wrote to me last week that he remembers meeting her when they were both writing dissertations, and he recalled: “She was so far ahead of most of us in all ways.” Tikva and I first met in the classes of Yochanan Muffs, then one of the future greats of the Seminary faculty, whose brilliance and passion for the Bible were mirrored in Tikva’s, and whose devotion to the study of ancient languages provided a life-long model of grounding one’s scholarly enthusiasm in solid linguistic and textual data. His impact on her was so great that she later dedicated one of her books to him. Already fluent in Hebrew, Tikva went on to master Aramaic, Akkadian and Sumerian and several other ancient languages, studying at Yale and, for a year, at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. In the course of her studies she was exposed to a veritable who’s who of Biblical, Near Eastern and Jewish scholarship, and I want to mention their names because they meant so much to her: in addition to Muffs there were H.L. Ginsberg, Shalom Paul, Moshe Held, Abraham Halkin, Avraham Holtz and Joel Kramer at the Seminary, Franz Rosenthal, Marvin Pope, Jacob Finkelstein and William Hallo at Yale, and in her postdoctoral days the Hebrew University’s Moshe Greenberg and Harvard’s Thorkild Jacobsen. Under their tutelage Tikva delved deeply into the civilizations of ancient Israel and Mesopotamia as well as a broad range of Judaica, eventually focusing on the areas of law, religion, and literature. She wrote her dissertation on trial-by-ordeal in the ancient Near East, and began to publish a steady stream of articles and books about ancient Mesopotamia and the Bible, and about Jewish theology. One of my favorites is her masterful study of the Babylonian and Biblical accounts of the flood, which I have assigned to my students for years.
Over the years Tikva’s scholarship was recognized with prestigious awards. She won several post-doctoral research fellowships and in recent years she won both a Koret Jewish Book Award and a National Jewish Book Award for her book Reading the Women of the Bible. Just this year a collection of her articles, Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism, was published by the Jewish Publication Society in its Scholar of Distinction series, with the generous sponsorship of members of this congregation. Another scholar wrote to me that just a week before Tikva died he had worked through this volume trying to formulate “what a Frymer-Kensky ‘theology of [the Bible]‘” might look like…and [he] was going to send her a draft to learn if what [he] said rung true to her.”
Tikva’s best-known works were her two “feminist” books, In the Wake of the Goddesses and Reading the Women of the Bible. The subtitle of In the Wake of the Goddesses is Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth. Because of Tikva’s erudition and meticulous scholarship, the book was unsurpassed for reliability, and one reviewer called it “probably the best factually based survey of [ancient Mesopotamian] religion available today.” In it, Tikva explores “what happens in the Bible…to the functions and roles once played by goddesses” in Mesopotamian religion, and she argues that “the absence of goddesses causes major changes in the way the Bible…looks at humanity, culture, society, and nature.” God himself absorbs most of the functions of the goddesses, including control of fertility, and as a result the divine is sexually neutralized: God is non-sexual; he is masculine only in grammar and metaphor, but not in actual gender. And corresponding to the absence of gender differentiation in the divine is the Biblical concept of humanity that transcends gender. One of Tikva’s major insights is that the Bible does not see men and women as being different in essence. They are socially unequal, and women are subordinate, “but they are not inferior in any intellectual or spiritual way.” Misogyny and notions such as feminine wiles and the battle between the sexes are absent. To the extent that such ideas are found in Judaism, Tikva attributes them to Greek ideas that entered Judaism in the Hellenistic period. She sees the Bible’s positive evaluation of women as one of the beneficial effects of Biblical monotheism, and considers the challenge of returning to this gender-neutral vision as part of the unfinished business of monotheism. But she also notes negative effects of the Bible’s removal of gender from the divine, particularly the fact that the Bible, and Judaism and Christianity in general, have so little to say about such important things as human sexuality and reproduction. In fact, her desire to fill this gap is one reason why she wrote her book Motherprayer, a remarkable anthology of little-known prayers, meditations, and reflections on every aspect of female reproductive life, drawn from ancient Near East, Jewish and Christian sources.
Tikva’s book, Reading the Women of the Bible, consists of a close reading of more than two dozen Biblical narratives about women. The book is studded with countless fine insights reflecting Tikva’s multidisciplinary linguistic, historical, literary-critical and psychological acumen. But its most notable feature lies in its methodology and attitude. Modern literary scholarship, both feminist and other types, has sometimes been characterized as operating with a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” a view that writers serve ulterior motives and political agendas. Some feminist scholarship is written with a good deal of anger. This was not Tikva’s approach, though she did not entirely deny its value. In fact, she insisted that “If we tell the Biblical stories about women without taking note of the [inequitable] social system that gives them symbolic value, and [without] naming its inequities, then we unwittingly help to perpetuate the skewed system that the Bible assumes.” But Tikva was a lover of the Bible as well as a feminist, and she added to the hermeneutic of suspicion her own “‘hermeneutics of grace,’ a method of interpretation that recognizes the basic decency and well-meaning character of the Biblical authors” (p. 353). A reviewer noted Tikva’s “irenic,” anger-free tone and observed that “whether…celebrating the women of the Bible…or mourning [their victimization],” Tikva’s “book…enables readers to navigate through the most violent…texts of terror in the Bible free from the stranglehold of rage.”
This irenic approach was consistent with Tikva’s character. She had a notably positive and constructive attitude toward life and people, and I rarely heard her express anger even over things that displeased her. That outlook was surely helpful to her in the past several years. Despite serious illnesses she kept up a pace that would have been impressive even for someone in good health. She continued to teach and to attend scholarly conferences and completed various publications, including her last two books, Reading the Women and Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism. As late as late month we had a long conversation about one of her ideas about Genesis.
To lose a scholar of such brilliance, erudition, range, and imagination is a loss for all the fields of scholarship in which Tikva was engaged. But as I mentioned at the outset, the loss goes far beyond the world of scholarship: all are bereaved. Tikva was deeply committed to writing for readers beyond her academic peers. As she explained:
When I study the Bible…I am aware…of the impact that my study can have on people, of the possible transformations that it can occasionally cause in Judaism and…[in] the spiritual lives of people who might never even hear my name. (Studies, pp. xx-xxi).
Part of our bereavement lies in the fact that Tikva left a large, unfinished agenda of publications. There was so much more that she would have taught us. But for those who knew and cherished her, the loss is deeper and more personal, a gap in our lives. It’s been said that you can’t make old friends. I knew Tikva for over 45 years, and I had hoped to know her much longer. May her memory be blessed.
Jeffrey H. Tigay is the A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.