Judaism Intellectually Alive: Scholarship and Rabbinate Intertwined
Although my family was hardly observant, I was sent to a Jewish day school for the upper grades of elementary school. I was bored by school and jaded by Judaism, and I insisted on leaving the day school to go to a public school so that I could skip a grade.
Quite by chance, I went to the Prozdor, the Hebrew high school sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary, and during the very first class, Rabbi Burt Visotzky (now a professor of midrash at JTS) explained how Moses did not write the book of Deuteronomy but someone centuries later did, with a distinct theological and social justice program that fit a later period. Now, that was exciting and interesting! Judaism became intellectually alive for me in ways it had not been before.
That set the stage for changes in my personal observance. The summer after my Bat Mitzvah, my mother decided to rent an apartment in Jerusalem for a month so that the two of us could vacation there together. The rhythm of Shabbat made an impression on me, and I started to become observant.
I was also very interested in science, and I studied at the Bronx High School of Science (in New York City). When I graduated from there at age seventeen, my life plan was that I would become a physicist and then, decades later when I reached the age I am now, when my brain would have difficulty coming up with new mathematical ideas, JTS would finally get around to ordaining women as rabbis, and I would switch professions.
I made the mistake of thinking that the (behind the times) Conservative synagogue I grew up in was the microcosm of the Jewish world, and much to my surprise, when I went to college at Yale University, I found a lively egalitarian minyan there. I started to read Torah there from my second or third week in college. Even more to my surprise, JTS decided that fall to start to accept women in the rabbinical school. Time for a new plan.
My plan then was to go to rabbinical school at JTS and then do a Ph.D. in Bible. One requirement of the rabbinical school was to do an internship, and I decided to do a summer in hospital chaplaincy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in a program that was just opening up to rabbinical students. I wanted to explore whether Judaism would have any value to people in a terrible situation of illness. Doing that program changed my life because I began to see how Judaism could provide guidance and support in the worst of life settings.
After I was ordained, I became a congregational rabbi in the Greater Boston area, a job that I enjoyed very much. I felt, though, that my education was incomplete, and my love of the Bible set me on the path to a Ph.D.
My scholarship and rabbinate are very much intertwined. I aspire to understand textual, historical, literary, and religious truths. The audacity and innovative spirit of the biblical authors inspire me as a scholar who does academic research and works as a university professor and as a rabbi who writes teshuvot (responsa).
I especially admire the unflinching search for justice and equity as well as the profound theological thinking of the Pentateuchal sources P, H, and D. My esteem for them emboldens me in pushing the boundaries, whether in my scholarly research or constructive halakhah.
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May 10, 2021
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Prof. Rabbi Pamela Barmash is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew at Washington University in St. Louis. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, a B.A. from Yale University, and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of The Laws of Hammurabi: At the Confluence of Royal and Scribal Traditions (Oxford 2020) and Homicide in the Biblical World (Cambridge 2005). She is the co-editor of the Exodus: Echoes and Reverberations in the Jewish Experience, and the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Biblical Law. She is the editor of the scholarly journal Hebrew Studies, and she serves as co-chair of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly and as a dayyan on the Joint Beit Din of the Conservative/Masorti movement.
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