Thoughts on the publication of Alan F. Segal, "Sinning in the Hebrew Bible"

In an act of intentional irony we read in synagogue this morning during the reading of the Torah part of Alan Segal's book "Sinning in the Hebrew Bible: How The Worst Stories Speak for Its Truth".

We find Alan's book to be filled with erudition and common sense. That is why we admired Segal's past works and why we valued him as a friend. Segal believed in things that were mainly scholarly and he articulated them with clarity and enthusiasm.

The publisher's blurb for this book summarizes the many essences of the study:
Stories of rape, murder, adultery, and conquest raise crucial issues in the Hebrew Bible, and their interpretation helps societies form their religious and moral beliefs. From the sacrifice of Isaac to the adultery of David, narratives of sin engender vivid analysis and debate, powering the myths that form the basis of the religious covenant, or the relationship between a people and their God.

Rereading these stories in their different forms and varying contexts, Alan F. Segal demonstrates the significance of sinning throughout history and today. Drawing on literary and historical theory, as well as research in the social sciences, he explores the motivation for creating sin stories, their prevalence in the Hebrew Bible, and their possible meaning to Israelite readers and listeners. After introducing the basics of his approach and outlining several hermeneutical concepts, Segal conducts seven linked studies of specific narratives, using character and text to clarify problematic terms such as "myth," "typology," and "orality." Following the reappearance and reinterpretation of these narratives in later compositions, he proves their lasting power in the mythology of Israel and the encapsulation of universal, perennially relevant themes. Segal ultimately positions the Hebrew Bible as a foundational moral text and a history book, offering uncommon insights into the dating of biblical events and the intentions of biblical authors.
We has no idea that we would find it emotional to read a book by a dear friend who passed away in 2011. But we did feel the void of his loss even more while listening to the voice of his search for meaning and history in the texts of the Bible.

Alan was a religious man and a serious academic. Both of those traits of character and personality come through with ringing clarity in the pages of the superlative book.

We wrote this  appreciation of our friend Alan for the Jewish Standard in February 2011:

Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and GnosticismWhen my dear friend Alan F. Segal died at age 65 on Sunday, February 13, this earthly world lost a diligent, productive scholar of religions and a sparkling lecturer and teacher. And more than that, a great force of positive energy departed from our midst.

I knew Alan for over thirty years. During that time he served as a professor of religion at Barnard College in New York City and lived in nearby Ho-Ho-Kus. We met at first in professional circumstances as young professors of religion at conferences at Brown University and at the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion. Both of us were enthusiastically discovering new facts and making original insights in areas of ancient religions. I concentrated more on explicating problems within the Talmud and Jewish liturgy.

Alan’s interests and energies ranged more broadly. He wrote at first about various topics such as mysticism and sectarianism in ancient Judaism that were published in his books "Two Powers in Heaven" and "The Other Judaisms of Late Antiquity." He branched out in a major work, "Rebecca's Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World," to explain how Judaism and Christianity took shape as sibling religions in late antiquity. And next he tackled the images of the apostle Paul, the founder of Christianity in "Paul the Convert: The Apostasy and Apostolate of Saul of Tarsus." Some scholars have called that publication the most important recent book on the subject of Paul.

Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western ReligionSubsequently, Alan spent a decade investigating death and the afterlife in the world’s religions and published the results in "Life After Death: The Afterlife in Western Religions." His final book, which turns to subjects of ancient Israel, is complete and at the press awaiting publication. It surely will be influential in its own right. All of his books are widely cited in the scholarly literature.

Years ago, we discovered that we also shared a passion for new technologies. We continually probed how the newest software and hardware inventions could help us investigate some of the oldest and most puzzling problems of how humankind had searched in the past for God. At our professional conferences we talked together in equal measures about the theories and texts of scholars and about the releases and versions of advanced word processors and computers.

As a human being, Alan’s consistency was sublime. His written work in the history of religions was impeccable in its thought and accuracy. He maintained his cherished relationships with students, colleagues and friends with equal care and attention. And he continued always to be surprised and delighted by the advent of new technology.

Over the past year I spent time on many Mondays with Alan. When he was well enough, he would drive down to Teaneck to join me for a falafel lunch. And if he was not able to make it to town, I would bring him up a hot falafel or a fresh bagel to Ho-Ho-Kus. We would sit and eat and talk. Alan was concerned with his people, with Israel both in the community of nations and in the community of his campus. He was concerned about his friends. And when he could, he did wonderful and substantial things to help them.

Let me share one anecdote about Alan’s enthusiasm. One day just a few months ago I came to visit him to share a falafel lunch and I found that he needed my help. At my recommendation, Alan had ordered a new little Apple TV box and wanted to hook it up to his quite complicated home A/V system. We looked together analytically at this object as if it was a newly discovered archaeological find. And soon we realized that Alan was missing a component, an HDMI cable. I assured him we could get one at Staples at a later time. No, let’s go get one now, he replied. And though he was by that time weakened by his illness, he headed for the door. I had to hurry to catch up with him. I drove Alan a little way down Route 17 to buy the cable and returned back home with him. He would not let me leave until I had reached way back behind his TV, plugged in the new device and until we made sure that indeed it did work as promised.

In all ways, both profound and simple, I never met a person whose demeanor was more proper, whose mind was clearer and whose capacity to be a friend was more constructive. I feel privileged to have been one of Alan’s many friends. And although I am deeply sad that he and his wonderful energy are now gone from our presence, I am grateful that Alan F. Segal has left us all with his rich legacy of learning and with his exemplary affirmative lessons for our lives.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy is the author of many books and articles on the history of Judaism including, How the Halakhah Unfolds: Hullin, Part One and Part Two (2010), co-authored. He lives in Teaneck and teaches Jewish liturgy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City.

Published in the Jewish Standard (Teaneck, NJ) February 25, 2011.

1 comment:

Rabbi Ziona Zelazo said...

Thank you so much for bringing Prof. Alan Segal's legacy to focus. He has been a great teacher and friend to me and I miss him!