Frymer-Kensky combined Assyriology, biblical studies
Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Professor of Hebrew Bible and the History of Judaism in the Divinity School, died at home Thursday, Aug. 31, after a four-year battle against breast cancer. She was 62.
Frymer-Kensky, an expert on Assyriology, Sumerology, biblical studies and Jewish studies, was perhaps best known for her work on women and religion. Her most recent works include: Reading the Women of the Bible, which earned a Koret Jewish Book Award in 2002 and a National Jewish Book Award in 2003; In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth; and Motherprayer: The Pregnant Woman’s Spiritual Companion.
Frymer-Kensky earned an B.A. in ancient world studies from City College of New York in 1965, a B.A. in Hebrew literature in Bible-Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1965, an M.A. in West Semitics from Yale University in 1967, and a Ph.D. in Assyriology and Sumerology from Yale University in 1977. However, it was not until years later that the scholar said she found her true mission.
“I realized that my years of academic study of the ancient world could have practical applications and my knowledge of ancient cultures, religions and languages could be of use in my own modern world. This sense of vocation sustained me,” she said in 2002 of her most recent work.
She also was the English translator of From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven by Ari Elon. In progress at the time of her death were a commentary on Ruth and a book on biblical theology.
In 2005, the Chicago Jewish News named Frymer-Kensky one of the Jewish Chicagoans of the Year. In 2006, she earned another distinction when the Jewish Publication Society published a collection of her articles titled “Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism” as part of its Scholar of Distinction series. She is the first woman to have her work included in the series.
“She was unique. I don’t know of another scholar in the world who combined as she did mastery of Assyriology with sustained attention to feminist readings in the service of biblical theology,” said Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School. “Hers was a capacious intellect, and all her work was inflamed by her deep passion for the material both in its original context and in ours. This combination made her a remarkably compelling scholar and teacher, and one whose absence is deeply felt already.”
Around the Divinity School, Frymer-Kensky was known for her warmth and her staunch commitment to interreligious dialogue and understanding as well as for her scholarship. William Schweiker, Professor of Theological Ethics, recalled that Frymer-Kensky was committed to the full range of programs in the Divinity School, at home during Divinity School worship services, and that she loved working with the students in theology and ethics as well as with the school’s Christian ministerial students.
“She was exemplary as a human being and as a scholar in wanting to understand the connections between religious traditions and to render those connections as humanely as possible,” Schweiker said. “She was a religious humanist.”
In the last months of her life, Frymer-Kensky contributed an essay to a book Schweiker edited: Humanity Before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian and Islamic Ethics. Titled “The Image, the Glory and the Holy: Aspects of Being Human in Biblical Thought,” Frymer-Kensky’s essay on shared religious ethics further fostered the kind of humane outlook for which she was known.
“This was not only an intellectual enterprise for her,” Schweiker said. “She was deeply concerned about the ongoing degradation of human life and the upswing of forms of religious fundamentalisms, and she really believed it is the religious scholar’s duty to challenge those forces and problems by drawing on resources from within religious traditions themselves.”
Before coming to the University in 1995, Frymer-Kensky served as director of biblical studies at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Penn., and assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. She also was a visiting professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the University of Michigan, Ben Gurion University and McMaster University.
In addition to serving at the Divinity School, Frymer-Kensky also held appointments in the University’s Law School, the Committee on the Ancient Mediterranean World and the Committee on Jewish Studies. She regularly taught classes on such subjects as ancient Near Eastern history, literature and law; biblical literature and religion; the history of ancient Israel; the Bible and ancient mythology; biblical exegesis; the prophetic tradition; the Talmud; rabbinic liturgy; Jewish feminist theology; and women in the ancient world.
Frymer-Kensky is survived by her husband of 31 years, Allan Kensky, rabbi of the Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah in Wilmette, Ill.; son Eitan Kensky; and daughter Meira Kensky, a doctoral candidate in Biblical Studies at the Divinity School.
A memorial service is planned for 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, in Bond Chapel, 1050 E. 59th St.