Dr. Robert Harris

Associate Professor of Bible

My name is Dr. Robert Harris, associate professor of Bible and chair of Hebrew Bible and Its Interpretation, at The Jewish Theological Seminary. I earned my undergraduate degrees at JTS and Columbia University as part of JTS's Joint Program, and my MA, rabbinical ordination, and PhD at JTS as well. Schechter Institute in Jerusalem was where I began my teaching career, and I have since served as visiting professor at the Russian State University for Humanities, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Gregorian University in Rome.

At JTS, I typically teach courses in biblical literature and medieval biblical exegesis. This fall, I am teaching the courses History of Biblical Reception, Medieval Exegesis, and The Book of Amos. During the spring semester, I will teach Song of Songs in Medieval Exegesis. I also teach courses for Context, the flagship adult education program of The Institute for Jewish Learning of JTS, and this year will be introducing Context students to medieval biblical commentaries ("Unfolding the Text") at Manhattan's Congregation Ansche Chesed. I also enjoy lecturing around the country. JTS, in a deep and fundamental way, is my home: I arrived here in the fall of 1974 to begin my undergraduate studies and, apart from the years I lived in Israel, whether for studies or "life" (I made aliyah in 1985), I have been at JTS ever since.

Peshat versus Derash

I have always been intrigued by the distinction between peshat (context) and derash (exposition or interpretation). When we are "scriptural truth seekers" (my terminology: the root of derash meaning "to seek" or "to demand from scripture"), we apply different rules than when we "just read" (peshat or, in Latin, ad litteram [to the letter]). In addition, the Protestant theologian Krister Stendahl once said that an individual needs to make a distinction between the questions "What does the Bible mean?" and "What did the Bible mean?" I of course agree that there is a big difference between what a text meant in its own historical/literary/social/legal context (peshat) and what it might mean today as jurists/ministers/rabbis interpret it for contemporary meaning (derash). This distinction was first made in Jewish communities during the Middle Ages by rabbis who developed peshat "context" for what was then an entirely new way of reading (certain Christian churchmen also used the term ad litteram to do much the same thing, and Muslim scholars regularly made a distinction between zahir [the surface of "literary" meaning of a word or phrase] and batin [the esoteric or underlying/figurative sense of sacred literature]). My research deals with the ways in which this change in reading developed, particularly in 12th-century northern France.

I have continued to investigate this subject in an academic mode, and have also explored it in a variety of congregational and educational settings that address what Bar-Ilan University Professor Uriel Simon called "the religious significance of the peshat." I do not pretend that the Bible can be studied in precisely the same kind of way that we explore other ancient Near Eastern literature, whether the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Code of Hammurapi. In considering what the Bible may have meant in its own cultural/literary/historical/religious context, I am also touched by the ways in which its "original" meanings may yet speak to us in ways that add to the myriad rabbinic insights that have been taught in the past 2,000 years.

Happily, I have had and continue to have many wonderful moments of teaching at JTS since I joined the faculty in 1991. If I were to select only one of them, it would undoubtedly be an honors seminar I taught at the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies: Medieval Jews and Christians Read Scripture. The course explored the commonalities as well as the differences between Jews and Christians in medieval biblical study. In particular, the students and I focused on the relationships and mutual influences that rabbis and churchmen had on one another, and the polemics through which they typically interacted. What made this course special for me was that not only did my students read the rabbinic texts in the original Hebrew or Aramaic, but several of them read the Christian texts in Latin. During the semester, students read a variety of medieval biblical commentaries and contemporary secondary literature, wrote several short papers and exercises, and worked on seminar projects that they presented in class. Moreover, my calendar was happily filled with appointments initiated by students who wished to discuss aspects of the texts and recommended course readings with which we didn't have time to engage during regular course sessions. It was truly a magical semester. This level of participation and enthusiasm is repeated again and again at JTS-a gift for any professor.

Research and Recent Publications

I am working on a history of peshat biblical exegesis in the Middle Ages, and plan to publish it both in scholarly and popular versions. The latter is tentatively called Unfolding the Text: Reading the Rabbis Read Scripture, and includes the chapter "I Peshat the Torah," a title I have used for years for popular lectures I have delivered at synagogues all over the United States.

Some of my recent articles include "Concepts of Scripture in the School of Rashi" (Jewish Concepts of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction, ed. Benjamin D. Sommer [New York and London: New York University Press, 2012], 102-122); "The Book of Leviticus Interpreted as Jewish Community" (Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 6 [2011]: 1-15;); "Jewish Biblical Exegesis in the Middle Ages: From Its Beginnings Through the Twelfth Century" (The New Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 2, eds. Richard Marsden and Ann Matter (Cambridge University Press, 2012); "The Reception of Ezekiel Among Twelfth-Century Northern French Rabbinic Exegetes" (After Ezekiel: Essays on the Reception of a Difficult Prophet, eds. Andrew Mein and Paul M. Joyce, 71-88 [New York, London: T&T Clark International, 2011]; and "Twelfth-Century Biblical Exegetes and the Invention of Literature" (The Multiple Meaning of Scripture: The Role of Exegesis in Early-Christian and Medieval Culture, Commentaria Volume 2, ed. Ineke van Spijker, 311-29 [Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009]). I have also published a book on the understanding of biblical poetry by medieval rabbis titled Discerning Parallelism: A Study in Northern French Medieval Jewish Biblical Exegesis (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2004).

Lessons from and about Jewish Studies

The two most important lessons I have learned while studying Judaism have been from Rashi, probably the greatest exegete of the Bible the world has ever known. Rashi glossed almost the entirety of the Bible and the Babylonian Talmud. Of course, there are sacred texts on which he did not comment; these, one assumes, he thought were sufficiently clear and did not require his insights. On occasion, however, Rashi admitted that he could not understand what a text might mean. Instead of ignoring it, he called his own inability into full public view by writing, "lo yadati perusho" (I do not know its explanation.). This expression of humility remains a lesson to us all.

Another lesson that Rashi continues to teach today is something he expressed when he was already an old man. Challenged by his quick-witted grandson, Rashbam, who argued that Rashi's approach to scripture-however revolutionary it was when he developed it-was no longer "ahead of the curve," Rashi did not stubbornly dig in his heels. Instead, he admitted that Rashbam was right; expressed the wish that he would have had more time to completely redo his own commentaries in light of the "newly developed contextual interpretations" (peshat); and, when he had the opportunity to revisit texts that he had once interpreted in another way, proudly announced that he was teaching pesukei d'Shmuel (Samuel's verses), giving credit to his young grandson. This ability of Rashi to continue to learn, challenge his prior assumptions and approaches, and not grow stale as his teaching career progressed, is something that I always try to keep front and center.

Personal Background

I grew up in a classic Reform household in the Midwest, and only became an observant, Conservative Jewish person as a teenager. I have been blessed with such wonderful teachers during my lifetime that it is impossible to only mention one. Rabbi Joel Roth has been my teacher, mentor, and "father" for so many years that it is difficult to remember a time when he has not been central to my existence. His dedication to a life of mitzvot and Talmud Torah has been an inspiration to me since I first arrived at JTS as a young man; it particularly guided me when I was a rabbinical student. My doctoral advisor, a former JTS professor who is now at Bar-Ilan University, was Dr. Edward L. Greenstein. Ed truly brought me into the world of biblical scholarship and the academic profession, and was the very model of an advisor during my years in graduate school. Both of these men were and continue to be selfless givers, completely dedicated to the professional and inner lives of their students, while continually renewing themselves through their own studies and interests. But please know that to only mention these two men might seem a slight to my other teachers, both here at JTS and at Hebrew University. Given the opportunity, I could easily write paragraphs about my teachers' lives and influence upon me.

In terms of other interests and activities, I have always been a performer, and continue to seek new ways in which to express myself in music and theater. I work regularly with my rock band, SR2, and we have often performed Tzedakah Rocks concerts for JTS that have raised money for a variety of worthwhile causes. In addition to these, about once a month we play at bars and restaurants across the Tri-State Area, and often perform at synagogue dance parties. A performance of "Good Golly, Miss Molly," one of the songs from that evening, can be found on YouTube. Our band has issued two CDs of original songs that I wrote-2004's Tales From the Upper West Side and our 2007 follow-up, Keep Your Day Job! Additionally, I have continued to direct and perform annually in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, something I began doing in college at the Barnard Gilbert and Sullivan Society. For the past 12 years, I have organized this via a group I call TIC Savoyards at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York, the synagogue at which I am a member.

I have also been privileged, for over 10 years, to serve as rabbi on the High Holidays at Temple Beth Sholom of Cambridge, Massachusetts (the "Tremont Street Shul"), and have been invited to give sermons and/or lectures there throughout the year. It is a wonderful and friendly congregation, housing both a traditional and an egalitarian minyan under one roof, and doing all sorts of wonderful outreach, interfaith, and gemilut hasadim programs.

For more than 30 years I have been married to Nellie, whom I met in 1980 while we were both students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Nellie is also a graduate of JTS (GS '83), and after serving for many years as principal of the middle and high schools at Solomon Schechter in Hartsdale, New York, she is now concentrating her efforts in teacher education and staff enrichment at the schools. We are the proud parents of Naamah, an actor in New York City, and Merav, a doctoral student in psychology at St. John's University in Queens. Both of our daughters were married this summer (!), and we "officially" welcomed a new son-in-law into the family (Naamah wed Koby Imir in Israel in August).

Upcoming Events

Because of this summer's family celebrations, I chose not to attend any academic conferences for several months. I will be at November's Society for Biblical Literature Conference in Chicago, Illinois, where I will lecture on interfaith relations ("Improving the Quality of Our Disagreements: The Potential of 'Scriptural Reasoning' for Helping to Repair the World"). I hope in May 2013 to be at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to speak about medieval rabbinic hermeneutics. In summer 2013, I plan to attend the World Congress of Jewish Studies, and will give a lecture titled "The LORD is a Man of War: The Motif of 'The Divine Warrior' in Medieval Biblical Exegesis."


Dr. Robert Harris