Yahrzeit 16th Sivan – טז סיון
Nahum M. Sarna
A Biography by Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler
Nahum M. Sarna (1923 – 2005) was born in London to an active Jewish and Zionist home—his late father was a well-known Jewish book-dealer in London. He was especially interested in sciences and engineering, but felt that the atmosphere in these professions was too anti-Semitic in England. He therefore studied Jewish Studies, receiving his academic training and rabbinic ordination at Jews College, London, and his B.A. and M.A. from the University College London (1946–1949).
Sarna had hoped to continue studying rabbinics with Arthur Marmorstein (1882-1946), but when Marmorstein died, Sarna went to study in Israel. He stayed there for two years, unable to find a suitable program due to the displacement of the Hebrew University after the 1948 War of Independence. He then settled in the United States in 1951, and received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and Semitic languages from Dropsie College, Philadelphia, where Cyrus H. Gordon was his primary teacher. He spent much of his academic career in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University.
Sarna’s range was extraordinary—as a student of Cyrus Gordon, he was acquainted with the major Semitic languages of the ancient world, as a student of Isidore Epstein and Arthur Marmorstein, he had mastered rabbinic and classical medieval Jewish texts, and as a product of the British university system, he had a strong classical training and was attuned to the literary merit of texts. He trained leading scholars in the research of the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially in how rabbinic material might elucidate them.
He was extremely close to the Israeli Bible establishment, and was deeply influenced by Kaufmann’s magisterial History of Israelite Religion. But he was more interested in interpreting texts and less interested in history of religion than Kaufmann. Although he knew the historical-critical method, in his work, Sarna rarely cited the documentary hypothesis, and often highlighted the moral values of the biblical text and the meaning of the final form of the text.
He developed the idea of inner-biblical interpretation, namely the manner in which late biblical texts are rabbinic-like in how they interpret earlier biblical texts; this method was further developed by his students, especially Michael Fishbane. Sarna, with his deep understanding of rabbinic texts, also wrote several articles that explored medieval Jewish biblical interpretation and its value for modern biblical scholars, and he offered special insight into the process of canonization, how the Bible became the Bible, which is discussed in several enigmatic rabbinic texts.
Sarna was involved in many of the most prestigious biblical projects in the second half of the twentieth century. Along with his close friend Moshe Greenberg and Jonah Greenfield, he served as a translator for the Kethuvim new Jewish Publication Society translation of the Bible and the general editor of its Bible Commentary Project, and wrote over 100 scholarly articles, some of which were collected in Studies in Biblical Interpretation.
Sarna worked hard to make the Bible and biblical scholarship available to the broad Jewish community. For example, his Understanding Genesis (1966) has served as a general introduction to the Bible; it remains in print decades later, and continues to introduce many students to the methods of university biblical scholarship. This was followed by Exploring Exodus (1986) and his Commentary on Genesis (1989) and Commentary on Exodus (1991), and Songs of the Heart: An Introduction to the Book of Psalms (1993), a study of selected psalms from his favorite biblical book.
Sarna’s sixty-year career spans the growth of Jewish Biblical Studies at secular universities in America, and he played a major role in this development. When he began teaching, it was difficult for Jewish biblical scholars to find employment in this area; by the time he retired from Brandeis, American Jewish Bible scholarship was well-established, with many institutions seeking young scholars trained in both critical and Jewish-classical methods of biblical explication. Sarna played a major role in training this generation of American Jewish Bible scholars.
Sarna was a masterful teacher—engaging, witty, demanding, and meticulously prepared for every class. Taking a “Sarna course” on a biblical text was seen as a privilege. He loved puns, noting, for example, that Psalm 30:6 suggests that two of David’s wives were named Becky and Rinah (בָּעֶרֶב יָלִין בֶּכִי וְלַבֹּקֶר רִנָּה). When I once asked him what he was most proud, he answered: “that I never came to class unprepared.”
At least once a week in class, he would read from one of his index cards: “On such and such a date, when I taught this passage, Mr. or Ms. So and So (a former student) suggested that this verse or word should be interpreted in the following way.” This is remarkable—he did this way before it was fashionable to think faculty can learn from students. He never followed fashions or fads, but was punctilious about giving other people credit; when pressed, he said that he meant to illustrate the rabbinic dictum (based on Esth 2:12): “anyone who cites a tradition in the name of its originator, brings redemption to the world” (כל האומר דבר בשם אומרו מביא גאולה לעולם). He thus brought much redemption to the world.
Sarna was not an ivory tower scholar. He loved interacting with students and scholars, and members of the community; he was an active teacher of adults. All the members of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah in Newton MA, where he davened for many years, looked forward to his divrei torah. He also loved children, and teaching children—I remember once when he and and his wife Helen were at our Shabbat table, and my very young daughter Talya had a typical child’s alphabetic placemat that had a picture of a dog for the letter “D.” He told her that “D” is not really for Dog, saying: “Talya, ‘D’ is for Deuteronomy.” She dutifully looked at the “D” and repeated “Deuteronomy.” Having succeeded there, he went on to teach her that “P” was not for pig, but for Paralipomena (“things omitted”), the Greek name of Chronicles or Divrei Ha-Yamim.
Sarna’s legacy is not expressed through a “Sarna school of biblical interpretation,” for he encouraged his students to disagree with his views, as long as they did not become what he called “psychoceramics”—crack-pots. His legacy is expressed through a deep and abiding sense of the Bible’s beauty and value, which he conveyed to his many students. He lived his life as a scholar and an observant Jew following the words of the first Psalm—“the teaching of the LORD was his delight, and he studied that teaching day and night” (כִּי אִם בְּתוֹרַת יְהוָה חֶפְצוֹ וּבְתוֹרָתוֹ יֶהְגֶּה יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה)—and taught so many others to enjoy this pleasure.
A Eulogy by Prof. Lawrence H. Schiffman
It was my privilege to study with Prof. Nahum Sarna, ז”ל , from the day I entered Brandeis as a freshman almost forty years ago through the completion of my doctoral studies. It was in his Orientation Week Seminar that I made the instinctive decision to enter the field of academic Judaic studies. For five years, I took every course that he taught. He guided me through the complexities of course selection and the various academic procedures, serving as the primary advisor of my dissertation.
But when I think back to what he taught and what we learned, it was not only the Bible that he was teaching us, but there was another dimension. Our sages teach: אם אין תורה אין דרך ארץ; אם אין דרך ארץ אין תורה: “If there is no Torah, there is no proper comportment, if there is no proper comportment, there is no Torah” (m. Avot 3:17). In his case, דרך ארץ included the life of the scholar, the scholar’s relation to his students, to colleagues, and to the wider community—all of which were subsumed by the Rambam under the understated title הלכות תלמוד תורה (“the laws of Torah study”).
For Dr. Sarna, as we all called him, these “laws of study” resulted from the integration of the very same traditions that had influenced the Rambam—the teachings of the Talmudic בית מדרש and the wider intellectual traditions, which by Prof. Sarna’s time, were those of the modern university. For Nahum Sarna, in this, as in so many other aspects of his life, these two trends constituted a seamless whole.
I had the opportunity to see this even more closely because of my close friendship with his son, David, which gained me access to both another source of information about my professor, and more importantly, to the Sarna home, where I met his beloved wife, Helen, and younger son, Jonathan.
In retrospect, it is clear to me that Dr. Sarna knew that he was teaching us not how to be students, but how to be professors and scholars. In this, he was motivated by the beautiful words of the Rambam that applied fully to the way he treated us and the way we responded. Paraphrasing (פרקי אבות ( ד: ד the Rambam writes in הלכות תלמוד תורה ה:יב (“Laws of Torah Study 5:12):
כשם שהתלמידים חייבין בכבוד הרב כך הרב צריך לכבד את תלמידיו ולקרבן. כך אמרו חכמים יהי כבוד תלמידך חביב עליך כשלך, וצריך אדם להזהר בתלמידיו ולאוהבם, שהם הבנים המהנים לעולם הזה ולעולם הבא.
Just as the students are obligated regarding the honor of the teacher, so the teacher must honor his students and draw them near. Thus the sages said, “Let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own, and a person must be careful regarding his students and to love them, for they are the children who give satisfaction in this world and in the world to come.
For him, knowledge could only be passed on and acquired in an atmosphere of respect and love, and this is how he wanted us to relate to our colleagues and students.
But this approach brings with it a quandary: How can one, at the same time, maintain the distance necessary to provide sufficient authority to the teacher to guide and critique in an atmosphere of personal closeness and friendship? How can the Rambam simultaneously expect the teacher-student relationship to be built on both love and respect?
For us, this question did not even have to be asked because of the personal example of our teacher. He could demand of us total respect and uncompromising classroom preparation, not to mention exams for which we never stopped writing, and then offer a ride when he knew a student lacked transportation and was going his way. He could scribble criticisms all over my dissertation drafts but include a note of personal regards to my family. He knew how to provide the encouragement that students needed when facing the difficult challenges of doctoral research. Here again, he was teaching us how to live as scholars and teachers.
This extended also to the day-to-day classroom activities. He was known never to enter a classroom without being fully prepared. This meticulous preparation and masterful classroom presentation was accompanied by humor, often puns—which he referred to in scholarly terminology as paronomasia—which were written into his notes. Even so, and it took me a long time to understand this, his teaching was always accompanied by a kind of trepidation occasioned by his understanding of his role of teacher as a transmitter of tradition, and yet, at the same time, as a challenger of that tradition. For it was his deep belief that only by critically questioning the received traditions could one come to a true understanding of their importance. Indeed, he taught us that the modern critical approach to the Jewish tradition was the key to its eternal significance.
For us, his role as a transmitter of tradition included also his serving as a bridge to the great scholarly tradition of Europe. While despite his British accent he really had assimilated to being American, his scholarly roots in the intellectual Orthodoxy of Jews’ College tied him to the greats of German Jewish scholarship which itself sought to integrate traditional Jewish scholarship with critical literary and historical methodology.
The Sixth Chapter of אבות, actually the baraita of קנין תורה, seems to have had Nahum Sarna in mind when it wrote (6:1):
רבי מאיר אומר: כל העוסק בתורה לשמה זוכה לדברים הרבה. ולא עוד אלא שכל העולם כלו כדי הוא לו. נקרא ריע, אהוב, אוהב את המקום, אוהב את הבריות, משמח את המקום, משמח את הבריות, ומלבשתו ענוה ויראה, ומכשרתו להיות צדיק, וחסיד, וישר ונאמן. ומרחקתו מן החטא, ומקרבתו לידי זכות, ונהנין ממנה עצה, ותושיה בינה וגבורה.
Rabbi Meir says: Whoever busies himself with Torah for its own sake merits many things. Not only this, but the entire world could have been created just for him. He is called: friend, beloved, lover of the All-Present, lover of his fellow creatures, rejoicer of the All-Present, rejoicer of his fellow creatures. And (the Torah) clothes him in humility and reverence, and prepares him to be righteous, pious, upright and reliable. And it separates him form transgression, and brings him closer to (gaining) merit, and others benefit from his counsel, wisdom, discernment and might.
In his later years, Prof. Sarna devoted much of his time to the firm establishment of Judaic Studies in Florida and to the dissemination of his wisdom to audiences all over the United States. In this respect, he was carrying out another important function as a scholar, that of bringing the fruits of academic research to a much wider audience. Indeed, his own books, and especially his commentaries, were aimed at a similar goal. I would often go to speak in a community and find that he had been there recently or was soon to arrive.
Anyone who ever heard him knew of his masterful ability to communicate to audiences who didn’t know Akkadian and Ugaritic, let alone the Bible and its Jewish commentators who were so dear to him. Perhaps this aspect of his work and the respect that he garnered both in the Jewish community here and in Israel, to which he was so devoted, and in the wider academic world, are beautifully expressed in a passage from the Aramaic Levi Document discovered both in the Cairo Genizah and the Dead Sea Scrolls:
A man who studies wisdom,
All [h]is days are l[ong]
And hi[s reputa]tion grows great.
To every la[nd] and country to which he will go,
He has a brother and a friend therein,
He is [not a]s a stranger in it,
And he is not li[ke] a stranger therein…
Since all of them wi] ll accord him honor because of it
[S]ince all wish to learn from his wisdom.
[His] friends are many
And his well-wishers are numerous.
And they seat him on the seat [of] honor
In order to hear his wise words.
Wisdom is a great wealth of honor for those familiar with it
And a fine treasure to all who acquire it.
תהא נפשו צרורה בצרור החיים.
May he be bound up in the bonds of eternal life!
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
June 7, 2017
January 13, 2020
Professor Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-author of The Bible and the Believer. Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
Prof. Lawrence H. Schiffman is a professor at New York University. He is an expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Judaism in late antiquity, and the history of Jewish law. Among his books are The Courtyards of the House of the Lord: Studies on the Temple Scroll (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2008), and Understanding Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 2003).
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series