Stephen Geller

Irma Cameron Milstein Chair of Bible

My name is Stephen Geller. Before my current stint at The Jewish Theological Seminary, I taught at York University in Toronto, then JTS for eight years, and then at Dropsie College and Brandeis University; I returned to JTS in 1991. I earned my PhD at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, where I studied under Frank Cross, G. Ernest Wright, Thomas Lambdin, William Moran, and Thorkild Jacobson. Before that, I studied with Isaac Mendelson, and, as a JTS rabbinical student, with H. L. Ginsberg, Robert Gordis, Nahum Sarna, and Yohanan Muffs as my Bible teachers.

In 40 years of academic association with JTS, off and on, I have taught the full gamut of biblical studies, from history, religion, and comparative ancient Near Eastern studies; to Semitics and specific languages such as Akkadian and Ugaritic; and much more. I view myself as a generalist, able and willing to teach almost any aspect of Biblical Studies, but I have especially focused on, and enjoy, literary and poetic analysis of texts. This term, I am teaching two new courses: Introduction to Biblical Law and the Theology of the Book of Psalms. Next term, spring 2012, I am also teaching two new courses, the Elijah and Elisha Stories and Shabbat and Festivals in the Hebrew Bible, as well as a course on Israelite Art, Archaeology, and Iconography that I have taught twice before. I generally try to teach a new course every year, although this year I may have been a bit too enthusiastic.

After being a student at JTS, I joined the faculty in 1972, attracted by the prospect of being able to teach the Hebrew Bible in the original language and on the highest level. In this respect my expectations have been fulfilled. There are very few places with a body of students and faculty able to maintain such a standard of textual study.

Work and Philosophy

The basic texts of Judaism may be the Talmud and related rabbinic literature, but their roots are in the Hebrew Bible, which is foundational not just for the liturgy and synagogue reading, but for the religious values and world view that it inspired. A large part of Jewish intellectual effort in the past 2,000 years lies in the reception of the Bible—the process of commenting on it, studying it, and trying to relate it to other aspects of the Jewish religious and cultural tradition. Rashi's dual commentaries, on the Bible and the Talmud, show the interconnection of the two sacred texts. Moreover, this typically Jewish process of commenting on the text began before rabbinic Judaism, in the period of the Second Temple, and even before that, in the Bible itself, in intra-biblical interpretation. In fact, the typical Jewish stance may be described as reading a text, seeing the problems of interpretation—which are inherent in all texts—and being deeply stirred to comment on them. I think this is what is meant by the injunction in Deuteronomy, chapter 6, to "speak about" God's words (vedibbarta bam), in a paragraph that forms the first part of the Shema'.

I view myself as essentially a text person, interested in in-depth reading of biblical texts and applying to them not only the insights of traditional exegesis, but also the techniques of modern literary approaches, especially that of the "New Criticism" and later methods, such as structuralism and even deconstructionism. I feel that these modern literary approaches form a continuum with the traditional methods of midrash, and that they help not only in shedding new light on the meaning of the texts but also in making them meaningful to modern people. My special interest has been in biblical poetry, on which I wrote my dissertation, and to which my first publications were devoted.

More recently, I have become interested in biblical religion, especially the coherence of its theological ideas. I think that one of the major contributions modern biblical scholarship can make is to show that the Bible is not a monolithic document espousing a single viewpoint, but rather a set of ongoing traditions: covenantal, priestly, prophetic, and intellectual. They complement but also stand in tension with each other. Understanding the vitality of biblical thought in its ancient Near Eastern context—its insights, but also its doubts and struggles for faith—can make the Bible seem almost a contemporary work. A biblical book very popular today, but one that played almost no role in traditional Judaism, is Job, the struggle of a pious non-Israelite to understand God's ways and the problem of suffering. Scholarship can open up much more of the Hebrew Bible to modern understanding. I am constantly finding new aspects and deeper levels in texts that I have studied for years.

My most satisfying moments in teaching at JTS are when students come up with an insight into a text that I never even thought of; it's something that happens regularly, and it makes teaching a delight.

Research and Psalms

For a dozen years I have been devoting summers to a commentary on the book of Psalms, to be published in the Hermeneia Series by Fortress Press. In many ways, Psalms is one of most difficult, but also one of the most rewarding, books of the Bible. It has always played a special role in liturgy and in individual personal piety. The book has tremendous linguistic and historical problems that have taxed scholarship; but the most difficult issue is trying to discover what kind of religious experience is reflected in the psalms. Are they standardized cultic expressions, or outpourings of individual religious feeling—or both simultaneously? Answering this question involves bringing to bear on the issue all the methods of linguistic scholarship, literary analysis, comparative ancient Near Eastern studies, and much more. But the most essential tool is penetration into the mind-set of the ancient worshippers, understanding their fears and hopes in their own cultural and religious context.

In general, sympathetic imagination is the most important necessity in making ancient cultures real and understandable to us. I hope to produce as part of my commentary an integrated theology of the Psalter and the type or types of religion it reflects. Among my recent articles are several that attempt to reach this goal for the major religious theologies of the Torah, the covenantal and the priestly. I tried to show the underlying, often unstated principles that unite their religious positions and serve to join them, or, conversely, that prevent them from being totally coherent and act as the source of inner conflict. This is a continuation of the approach laid out in my book Sacred Enigmas: Literary Religion in the Hebrew Bible (Routledge 1996), which dealt with several major biblical religious traditions. My current work on Psalms will complement and complete that project.

Studying Judaism, Jewish History, and the Jewish People

I feel like Chou En-lai, who, when asked (by Henry Kissinger, I think) to assess the significance of the French Revolution, said it was too soon to tell. Similarly, I feel that my 50 years of studying Judaism and Jewish history and culture are not enough to assess the essential lessons they have held for me. But I think that a provisional lesson is that the survival and, more importantly, the continued vitality of the Jewish people depends on understanding and valuing its multiplicity and richness.

The presence of Jews in so many cultures has meant that to understand the Jewish experience one must understand a great number of differing experiences. Jews have suffered persecution, endured periods of stagnation and decline, and enjoyed golden ages of cultural and religious flowering. An underlying message is that strength lies in variety, in contact with differing strains of the Jewish experience, in competition and even conflict with them. The greatest danger is a desire for monolithic unchanging simplicity, something that can be attained only by rocklike fossils, which is what Toynbee called Judaism. At the very least, Jewish history shows that, in the most vital periods, Jews have had strong communities both in Eretz Yisra'el and in the Diaspora.

My suggestion to entering students is to work really hard to give themselves the linguistic and other scholarly tools that will allow their historical imaginations to run free though the Jewish experience.

Also in Progress

"Priesthood and Ritual in the Bible" for the Wiley Blackwell Companion to Biblical Israel



Stephen Geller