The Republic - Alan F. Segal, leading religious scholar, dies at 65
HACKENSACK, N.J. — Alan F. Segal of Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., a leading religious scholar whose views on the origins of Judaism and Christianity and on the afterlife were much sought after, died Sunday. He was 65.
The cause was complications of leukemia, his family said.
Segal, the Ingeborg Rennert Professor of Jewish Studies at Barnard College, retired in December after 30 years on the faculty.
"Alan was a great scholar with brilliant ideas about ancient religions, particularly Judaism's relationship to Christianity," said Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the writer of a Talmudic blog.
"His works are quoted very widely in the scholarship of ancient religions ... and in every case he was recognized by his peers as being a perceptive and analytical interpreter of the past."
Segal, whose teachings at Barnard included such courses as "Introduction to Judaism," "Judaism in the Time of Jesus" and "Life After Death," wrote frequently for scholarly and general audiences. His 2004 book, "Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion," is considered one of the definitive treatments of that weighty subject — and was weighty in its own right, at 731 pages.
Segal's views on the afterlife were routinely called upon. After a 2008 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey reported that 74 percent of Americans believed there was a heaven, while just 59 percent believed there was a hell, Segal was contacted by the Houston Chronicle.
"Hell is for nonbelievers, and most Americans don't believe there are nonbelievers next door, even if their religion is different," he told the newspaper. "So hell is disappearing, absolutely."
The same year, for an Associated Press Easter season story on the Resurrection, Segal said that most Americans expect the afterlife to be a continuation of life on Earth — "like a really good assisted-living facility."
Zahavy said his friend was involved with things both earthly and divine. Among the former were the trees on Segal's Ho-Ho-Kus property.
"When we moved to our house 30 years ago, he noticed we had five elm trees and he knew they would be susceptible to Dutch elm disease," said Segal's wife, Meryl. "He read an article about Dutch elm disease in Scientific American and contacted the researcher in the article."
Segal allowed the researcher and his students to conduct treatment experiments on the trees — efforts that managed to prolong their life. Two of the elms are still standing.
"My husband was interested in everything — science, business — not just his field of study," Meryl Segal said.
Barnard held a colloquium in Segal's honor on Dec. 12. Religious scholars traveled from around the world to present their papers, but Segal was being treated at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, N.J.Barnard set up teleconference equipment in Segal's hospital room so he could participate.
In addition to his wife, Segal is survived by his sons, Ethan and Jordan, and a brother and a sister.
We've responded to requests for comment on the death of Alan Segal from the local Bergen County paper and the Columbia student paper because it is another way to eulogize a great man. Here is the local story as reprinted in another paper.