Interview

The Odyssey of a Russian-Jewish Bible Scholar: Dr. Serge Frolov

Raised in the Soviet Union, with little or no Jewish identity, Serge Frolov came across the Bible as a young man, beginning his journey towards becoming a committed Jew and a Bible professor. In true Russian style, Dr. Frolov shares his views on how and when the Torah was written, Torah min ha-Shamayim, and his Soviet-colored experiences of Israel and Judaism.

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May 3, 2015

A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, Serge Frolov has also lived in Jerusalem, Israel; Claremont, California; and Dallas, Texas. He holds PhDs in Modern History and Religious Studies; he worked at the National Library of Russia, the Shorter Jewish Encyclopedia in Russian, and the Open University of Israel. Currently he is Professor of Religious Studies and Nate and Ann Levine Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at Southern Methodist University. Dr. Frolov is primarily a Hebrew Bible scholar, although his research interests also include religion and culture of the ancient Near East and Jewish history and thought. He has published two books and about 250 articles.

The Odyssey of a Russian-Jewish Bible Scholar: Dr. Serge Frolov

As someone who grew up as a Jew in Russia, can you tell us about your background?

My parents were brought up in the Soviet Union and my family was not at all religious. Nevertheless, we were conscious of our Jewish identity and read Shalom Aleichem. I received my first Bible at the age of 15. Even getting a Bible was complicated. In Russia at the time, you couldn’t just buy a Bible in a bookstore, but the Russian Orthodox church was allowed to sell them.

The Bible they sold was the authorized translation into Russian from the mid-19th century; interestingly, the main translator was as converted Jew. Of course, this Bible included both Old and New Testaments. Intellectually, I knew that the New Testament was something else, and represented another religion, but I didn’t really feel or understand the difference. Moreover, I didn’t really relate to the Bible—even the Old Testament—as “our heritage” but as a “global heritage,” something I greatly appreciated since my parents encouraged the love of cultural artifacts.

Reading the Bible was a kind of escape from Russia, a window into a world that was completely different from my experience in every way. The ideas it expressed about the human condition and about God were never taught anywhere in Russia. It was exotic. I didn’t know anybody else reading the Bible, so my doing so was a strictly personal indulgence.

How did reading the Bible affect you?

Five or six years after first reading the Bible, perhaps in some rebellious reaction to my parents’ atheism, I declared that I believed in God. This had no practical meaning. I did go to a synagogue sometimes—there was one functioning synagogue in Leningrad, a city with maybe 250,000 Jews—but not for any particular holidays. In fact, it wasn’t even really an expression of my attachment to Judaism or Jewish worship per se. I was interested in religion, but not any particular one. I went to the church as well from time to time, although at no point I considered myself Christian, and I might have gone to a mosque as well if the only one in Leningrad were not perennially closed for repairs. In my time, it was not considered dangerous to attend any place of worship, although the authorities frowned in particular on synagogue attendance.

I always associated with Jews, however, because non-Jews wouldn’t let us forget about our Jewishness. It was easier to stick with my own kind. Although my name sounds Russian (Frolov = from the town of Frolovo, a shtetl in Belarus), somehow people always figured out that I wasn’t “really” Russian.

Did any of the Bible stories stand out to you?

I really loved Genesis, Judges, and Samuel—these are the human stories. I wasn’t all that fascinated by Exodus; maybe there was too much God and not enough human. Song of Songs also made a strong impression on me. I was only a teenager at the time, so with erotic literature being unavailable, it was really striking. These biblical books, on which I do much of my research, still interest me the most.

Coming from no religious context, how did you make sense of commandments and other distinctly religious material?

It did not feel relevant to me. It just felt like the thoughts or expression of some other group. My Jewish identity was lacking.

Interestingly, years later, when we moved to Israel, my grandmother confessed that she had avoided working on Yom Kippur but she didn’t want to burden her family with that knowledge or practice.

In fact, I did not even know I was Jewish until my pre-teen years. When I was ten, I found my father’s passport and saw “ethnicity: Jewish” – it was a shock. I had a sense there was something wrong with being Jewish, that Jews were not good people.

What made you decide to leave Russia?

I was trained as a historian and part of my training was in Russian history. What I learned was that when there is turmoil in Russia, Jews are the first to suffer. In the 90s, it looked like things were getting unpleasant so I said we need to leave ASAP. Thus I made aliyah at 30 and I dragged my whole family with me. Going to Israel was not a conscious choice, but Israel was an immediate possibility; going to the US required a waiting period. Fortunately, nothing happened to Russian Jews, though I believe that this is because we moved out.

What were your impressions of Israel?

Israel was very different than I had expected. In Russia, Jews are thought of as weak, nerdy bespectacled people. Yet in Israel, we saw these tall muscular men.

In many more substantial ways, the Jewish/Israeli culture was very foreign to me. For my grandmother it was different. She immediately entered the Israeli environment, since there were still shtetl-like elements familiar to her from her youth. I had never experienced any such thing so I had no obvious access point.

We went to Jerusalem at first and it was very striking to see so many people observing holidays. I immediately recognized everything from my reading of Bible. We moved three weeks before Yom Kippur, and I knew the passage it came from in the Bible. Then there was Passover, etc. At first we did not join–we did it very gradually. We are still selectively observant. It was remarkable to try it in practice.

In Israel, my wife and I started becoming a little more observant—not eating pork and shellfish, lighting candles. Never gave up trips to the beach though. It was a completely new experience and I wanted to try it. I like new experiences. (When I had dental surgery I was offered laughing gas and turned it down—I regret that, as it would have been new.)

In the USSR, there is no idea that you can limit yourself to something spiritual for no practical value. Everything there was for utilitarian ends. And here you have commandments that — barring Maimonides’ view — have no practical value but are for being part of something spiritual.

As I said above, I had already believed in God since my twenties, but this belief was becoming more specific over time, more of a Jewish God. Although I learned a lot of rabbinics, my observance is still based on the Bible. I don’t care much about meat and dairy.  

What did you do in Israel? What made you go from history to Bible?

They hired me to work for the Jewish Encyclopedia in Russian. What really became the turning point for me was the Shalom Hartman Institute. There was a Russian scholar, Baruch (Boris) Berman, who set up a program for newly arrived intellectuals, especially those with Ph.D.s in humanities. I joined and this led to the change in my biography.

My experience at Hartman was an eye opener in many respects. They were teaching us every type of Jewish studies. In the Bible classes, I discovered that I had my own opinions and that I could put pen to paper and get them published. I had a real academic interest in interpreting the Bible. So I decided to change careers to find something better. My previous specialty would do little in Israel and my Ph.D. from Russia wouldn’t count for much.

But how to make this a profession? Israelis told me that they were already saturated with Bible interpreters. I couldn’t be hired with my degree in modern history and Israeli institutions said it would take years to do a Ph.D.s in Bible. So I went to Claremont and studied with Marvin Sweeney.

What approaches do you favor in academic Bible study?

I believe many different approaches are valid. I started with source and redaction criticism but became more interested in form and literary criticism. My recent book—Judges (The Forms of the Old Testament Literature; Eerdmans, 2013)—is the first full form-critical commentary on Judges in 100 years.

Most importantly, I believe we need to start with the Bible on its own terms. My specialty is the Primary History (Genesis-Kings), which I believe should be read as one continuous text. When you come to something that doesn’t fit (like two creation stories), you can start doing historical critical methodology (my method of choice in such situations is redaction criticism, not source criticism). That is how I do my Judges commentary.

Any text is an enigma, and the Bible is a double enigma, making interpretation or commentary difficult. For example, when is something a metaphor? When David’s descendant is said to be the Son of God in 2 Samuel 7, should that be understood metaphorically (as Jews do) or literally (as Christians do)? I don’t believe there is an objective meaning to the text, there may be many (infinite) meanings. Nevertheless, that does not mean that everything can be the meaning of the text. (In technical terms, a text is polyvalent but not omnivalent.) The rabbis’ approach is a good example; they radically reinterpret the text, but try to ground their readings in this text or in its context.

Do you think the Primary History (Genesis-Kings) was designed from the beginning by one author? How much of the work would you attribute to this one author?

Yes, the basic axis of that work (80-90%) was put together at one time. I don’t believe in the Documentary Hypothesis. In my view, there were no independent sources. There was an original core and then redactional additions.

The core text was probably composed in exile before the return. You need to have skill, leisure, and incentive. Look at the situation in exile. Before the destruction of the temple, there was the 597 exile. At that point, King Jehoiachin and other important people were sent to exile, certainly with a circle (not a school) of scribes. How many could there have been in Jerusalem? There were 30,000 people in Jerusalem before the exile, so maybe 10 scribes.

We know that in Babylon they were held against their will but not treated badly; there are documents describing the payment of food and oil to Judahite exiles. Thus, there are scribes with nothing to do and a burning desire to explain what happened and keep the community of exiles together. The Babylonians probably did not mind, especially since the Primary History is mostly negative about Egypt, which was then Babylon’s enemy. The scribes’ country is destroyed and what do they have left but religious behavior and shared identity. Ten lost northern tribes are a lesson to them. They seem to think about the north constantly (think Joseph, Joshua, and the northern stories in Kings). 

Are you suggesting that up to this point, the Israelites and Judahites had no common texts or any texts at all to work with?

Quite possibly, “no.” They may have had court archives beginning with the 10th century. Texts that relate to earlier times have no names of Pharaoh for example; starting with the 10th century there are names. They probably had some oral traditions. They know people’s customs. Some of the exiles were probably priests and knew Temple procedures.

Other than the oral traditions—which are probably not all that historically accurate—none of the information they had from archives or priests would relate to the ancient, pre-monarchic period. Nevertheless, it is not hard to understand why these exiled scribes focus so much on ancient times. By writing their history, they are trying to form identity. To do that you need antiquity; anything not ancient is suspect.

But nothing pre-monarchic should be taken as accurate history. Moses is likely a literary character. The exodus—even without the miracles—is impossible to place historically. That is confirmed by sources outside the Bible. The Merneptah stele mentions Israel as already living in Canaan, and any exodus before Merneptah would be from Egypt to Egypt, since Egypt ruled the Levant up until the Sea People’s invasion.  

Your view of the Bible is unique. Many might feel that if scholars can differ so widely then scholarship is arbitrary.

I am not sure there is any answer to this. I struggled with this for some time. Some biblical scholars have brought this up. Mostly, I have come up against the problem that it is easy to come up with a new interpretation, but it is difficult to convince people who are working with a different model. But that is not really a problem for me. I am not trying to convince people; I am mostly just curious and trying to satisfy myself. If an answer is intellectually satisfying to me that may be enough; I am not built to be a leader (though I do have a dream of some day writing a popular book that lays out my theory).

Even if I were interested in converting people to my theory, I am not really someone who has the skills to do it. I do scholarship for my personal gratification. I love it and am quite thankful that I get paid to do it. I even believe that I am doing God’s work, in the sense that I believe God wants us to do what we are most suited to do. I am most suited to do biblical scholarship, so I am doing well. 

Does your Soviet background still influence your approach to Bible or Judaism?

In some biblical stories (like the story of Saul and the Philistines), the protagonist is trying to avoid being caught in a surveillance net. Perhaps my Soviet background makes it easier for me to notice this. It is hard to say since I don’t know of any other Russian Jewish Bible scholars working in the West (though there may be some) so I have no basis for comparison.

With regard to my Judaism, generally my Soviet experience is a big obstacle in my becoming religious. I am wary of becoming a part of a group. The Soviet government imposed a lot of group identity and much of Jewish practice pushes for Jewish group identity. I prefer to be attached to God personally. I am affiliated with a Conservative shul, but I don’t go often. (I’ve put on tefillin but cannot make myself do it on a regular basis.)

What do you think of the concept of Torah min ha-Shamayim?

I have no problem seeing the Torah as having a divine origin. In fact, this idea is important for the way I see the world and the way I practice. In this sense, the Torah is more important to me than other books. But even if the Torah comes from God, it is written for humans; it follow the rules of human language and takes into account human psychology, the material conditions in which humans live, their cultural baggage, and so on. It is this human aspect that is studied by biblical scholarship; and for me as a scholar the Torah is but a part of a larger narrative that extends all the way from Genesis through the end of Kings.

Some of my Russian friends were worried that by starting Project TABS, I would be harming Judaism by integrating academic thinking into Bible study. Many are not religious but still very conservative in their thinking.

Their black and white picture of the world comes from Soviet propaganda. One common response to this is just to switch the black and white, to go from atheist to fundamentalist—that is a change but still allows for no grey. For grey, you need a generational change. What you describe is my parents’ attitude as well. I tell them that Genesis has the world created in six days in order to show why it is important to observe Shabbat and they want to know how it really happened. Either it is six days or 4.5 billion years but you can’t have both.

This attitude is prevalent among Israelis as well. Many are not religious, but to them religious only means Orthodox. It is a less sophisticated, either-or kind of thinking. There are many who would have trouble wrapping their minds around your project, but the issue is not the project, but their minds.

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