Nahum Sarna, 82; Jewish Biblical Scholar Drew on Science, History, Customs
By Mary Rourke
Times Staff Writer
June 30, 2005
Nahum Sarna, a scholar, author and educator whose book "Understanding Genesis" (1966) established him as a biblical authority who was also able to make academic research accessible to nonexperts, has died. He was 82.
Sarna, a professor emeritus at Brandeis University, died June 23 at his home in Boca Raton, Fla., after a long illness, according to David Nathan, a Brandeis spokesman.
The scholar wrote close to a dozen books on aspects of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament). His "Exploring Exodus" (1986) and "Songs of the Heart: An Introduction to the Book of Psalms" (1993) are among his best-known works. He also wrote "The Book of Job: A New Translation With Introductions" (1980).
Sarna translated and edited several works that involved a number of contributing authors. He was one of three editors to oversee an updated translation of the Bible for the Jewish Publication Society (1985). Also for that organization he was a general editor of a commentary on the Torah — the Bible's first five books — published in 1973.
"Nahum Sarna was one of the first Jewish scholars to bridge traditional Jewish approaches to Bible interpretation with modern Bible scholarship," Ellen Frankel, editor in chief of the society, said this week. She first read "Understanding Genesis" as a seventh-grader. "He was part of a small group of scholars that a 13-year-old could understand," she said.
His approach to the study of Scripture combined aspects of history and science. He drew upon archeological discoveries, cultural history and social customs in analyzing the Bible narratives. He also presented a spiritual and moral context for the book's ancient teachings.
Sarna was among the first Jewish biblical scholars to move outside rabbinical schools and teach in nonsectarian universities, Frankel said. As a member of the Brandeis faculty for 20 years and later at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, he was known for his witty lectures sprinkled with puns and other plays on words. "Psycho-ceramic" was his term for "crackpot." His light touch made his weighty scholarship more approachable.
"Nahum Sarna had a deep knowledge in many fields of Judaica," Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz said this week. "He knew Talmud, literature, history, and he brought them all to bear. In advanced seminars or large introductory classes, or as a public speaker, his audiences saw before them a highly sophisticated teacher who was not at all condescending."
Born in England, Sarna earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of London. He studied to be a rabbi at Jews College in London and was ordained.
He moved to Philadelphia to earn a PhD in biblical studies and Semitic languages at Dropsie College.
After several earlier teaching appointments, he joined Brandeis' Near East and Judaic studies department in 1965. After retiring from the Boston-area university in 1985, he taught at Florida Atlantic.
Sarna is survived by his wife of 58 years, Helen; sons Jonathan and David; and five grandchildren.