This week, when Jews around the world mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, some may also think back on two rabbi-scholars who died this spring, both known for helping us understand the ritual practices of the First Temple, as well as Ezekiel’s prophecies about its destruction.
Rabbi Jacob Milgrom devoted the bulk of his career to studying the sections of the Torah that describe ancient Israelite practices during the First Temple period; he died in Jerusalem in early June. Rabbi Moshe Greenberg’s work on the book of Ezekiel helped contextualize the prophet’s words in the history of the ancient Near East and explain their meaning using the lens of modern biblical scholarship. He died in late May, also in Jerusalem.
That Milgrom and Greenberg died in the same city within weeks of each other inspired a few joint remembrances, but it wasn’t just timing that marked the combined eulogies. Longtime friends, Milgrom and Greenberg were among the first Jewish biblical scholars to teach at non-Jewish academic institutions — Milgrom at UC Berkeley and Greenberg at University of Pennsylvania.
Recently, a few local admirers spoke of the two’s influence.
Milgrom “knew more about the biblical sacrifices, I think, than any person living, frankly,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff of American Jewish University, who first met Milgrom while chaperoning a youth trip to Israel in 1969 and admitted that Milgrom’s subject didn’t seem attractive at first.
“He was talking to the USYers about these sacrifices, which I frankly wasn’t very interested in,” Dorff said. An investigation into ritual slaughter felt passé: “That was then and this is now; we haven’t really had animal sacrifices for 2,000 years,” Dorff said. “But also, I’m a vegetarian, so the whole thing was not very appealing to me.”
But as Milgrom went through the purification “offerings and guilt offerings and thanksgiving offerings and all of that,” Dorff came around. “He made it very clear what these sacrifices meant to the people who were bringing them,” Dorff said. Milgrom explained the kind of impact animal sacrifice would have had on Israelites living in the First Temple period. “It really brought them into contact with life and death,” Dorff said, “and, by extension, their own life and death, and how serious life really is.”
Before Milgrom took the job at UC Berkeley, he was the rabbi of Temple Beth-El of Richmond, Va. Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom believes that experience might have inspired Milgrom to specialize in what many pulpit rabbis find to be the Torah’s least accessible book.
“It’s interesting that he picked as his specialty the book of Leviticus, which is the most challenging to most rabbis because it deals with sacrificial aspects, priestly matters, and a lot of people just shied away from it,” Schulweis said. “But he took it on, and he was very helpful to rabbis who have to speak about the five books of Moses.”
Greenberg, who wrote about vast swaths of Scripture, including commentaries on Exodus and Job, as well as Ezekiel, was remembered by many for what Elaine Goodfriend called his “masterful use of the English language.” Goodfriend, who earned her doctorate at UC Berkeley under Milgrom’s supervision and has lectured at American Jewish University and California State University, Northridge, for over a decade, said Greenberg was “a model for academic writing, or any kind of writing,” and she looked to him for inspiration. “Before I would sit down and write myself, I would read something by Greenberg, to imprint on my mind what good writing is.”
Dorff took a class at the Jewish Theological Seminary with Greenberg in the 1960s and remembered his having been “demanding,” particularly on the matter of language. “[Greenberg] had a very strong sense of English as English and Hebrew as Hebrew,” Dorff said. “The kinds of sentences that rabbinical students could very easily slip into, which would be sort of half-English, half-Hebrew, he would not tolerate.”
Milgrom and Greenberg were widely remembered as warm, generous and welcoming people. Goodfriend, expressing a widely shared sentiment, said, “I think both of them are very well known for being mensches.”
To read a joint remembrance of Milgrom and Greenberg, click here.
Longtime friends, Milgrom and Greenberg were among the first Jewish biblical scholars to teach at non-Jewish academic institutions — Milgrom at UC Berkeley and Greenberg at University of Pennsylvania.
Rabbi Jacob Milgrom wrote extensively about temple practices in his commentaries on Leviticus and Numbers.
Rabbi Moshe Greenberg wrote widely on scripture, including a translation and commentary of the sections of Ezekiel that prophesy the destruction of the First Temple.