The First Jewish Members of SBL

In his history of the SBL, Ernest W. Saunders notes that its first Jewish members were Marcus Jastrow, Gustav Gottheil and the latter’s son, Richard J. H. Gottheil, who joined in 1886, a few years after the society was founded (Searching the Scriptures: A History of the Society of Biblical Literature, 1880-1980 [Society of Biblical Literature Centennial Publications 8; Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982], 6-7). Apart from Jastrow’s great Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, I realised that I knew very little about these scholars, so I decided to look into them a bit.

Penn has a great online exhibit on The Meaning of Words: Marcus Jastrow and the Making of Rabbinic Dictionaries. Jastrow was born in 1829 in eastern Prussia (formerly part of the Kingdom of Poland). After traditional rabbinic studies, he studied in Berlin and took a PhD from Halle in 1855, eventually coming, after some political difficulties, in 1866, to Philadelphia to become rabbi at the Congregation Rodeph Shalom. In addition to his painstaking work with the dictionary, he was also involved in important ways with the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906) and the English translation of the Bible under the Jewish Publication Society. Quoting from the Penn site:

Jastrow introduced a new type of religious leadership and learning to America, one heavily influenced by the academic model of the German university, the spirit and methods of historical-critical inquiry, and the religious reform of Jewish theology and ritual observance. As David Werner Amram, a scholar of early Hebrew printing and friend, put it in a memorial address “[Jastrow’s] thought was a blend of Talmudism, classicism, and modernism.”  Jastrow’s arrival meant that familiarity with the best of European scholarship would now enter the mainstream of American Jewish cultural life. Indeed, Jastrow’s three major scholarly contributions – his English-Aramaic rabbinic dictionary, his role in the creation of the first English-language Jewish Encyclopedia, his contribution to the first Jewish critical translation into English of the Hebrew Bible – as well as the scholarship of his son Morris, all bear witness to this revolutionary cultural and intellectual transfer.

Gustav Gottheil was born in Prussia, but served the Manchester Congregation of British Jews in the UK for 13 years. He then went to the Temple Emanu-El in New York to succeed Samuel Adler. An active leader, he was also a founder and president of the Jewish Publication Society and involved in the American Zionist movement. The NY Times obituary for him (20 April 1903) prints one Dr. Silverman’s eulogy: “Dr. Gottheil believed in a progressive judaism. He believed and taught a Judaism that vibrated with the life of the present day,t hat was abreast of the modern science and philosophy. He loved the present with a ll its great problems; he kept his finger on the pulse beat of the world in order to know exactly the early symptoms of the religious and social life, that he might be ready to suit his word and work to the real and urgent needs of the time.”

Richard Gottheil was born in Manchester, England, in 1862, but moved to New York with his family as a child when Gustav Gottheil took up his position in New York City. After undergraduate work at Columbia, he studied in Berlin, Tübingen, and Leipzig, obtaining his PhD from the last of these in 1886. He worked especially in Semitics, focusing especially on Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic texts, including some from the Cairo Genizah. In 1903, he served as the president of SBL – as far as I can tell, from this list, its first Jewish president. He was, moreover, an ardent Zionist and was the first president of the Zionist Organization in America. Joshua Bloch memorialised the younger Gottheil in this way:

‘He was the first to organize a curriculum of Semitic courses at Columbia, and taught in almost all the branches falling within the scope of the department, including many courses in Old Testament studies. In those days a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek was an essential requirement in the preparation for the Christian ministry. But for an accurate knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures more than that was necessary. The fruits of archae- ology and criticism demanded their rightful place in circles where biblical studies were pursued. Few among the intelligent, church- going people of that day knew anything of the new and completely transvaluated estimate of the surviving literature of the ancient Hebrews which modern critical scholarship had arrived at. When Gottheil began his work at Columbia, it was his ambition that this altered appreciation of Hebrew literature should be widely understood and accepted by intelligent people without any disturbance of faith and without any of the painful and trying and destructive criticism which confronted the last decades of the nineteenth century. No easy task, indeed, and a rather delicate one at that; for, those were the days when Robertson Smith in Scotland, and Charles A. Briggs and Henry P. Smith in America were tried for “heretical” opinions on matters biblical’.

For further reading:

David Werner Amram, Memorial Address on the Tenth Anniversary of the Reverend Doctor Marcus Jastrow (Philadelphia, 1913); further here.

Richard Gottheil wrote a biography of his father, The Life of Gustav Gottheil: Memoir of a Priest in Israel (Bayard Press, 1936).

Joshua Bloch, “Richard James Horatio Gottheil, 1862-1936,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 56.4 (1936): 472-89, with extensive bibliography of his works.

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