Sunday, March 30, 2008

Hannah Safrai, 1946-2008

The paper edition of the Hebrew version of Haaretz this morning carried an obituary for Prof. Hannah Safrai. I can't find any web versions to link to, not even in Hebrew.

Safrai was a member of the illustrious Safrai family of scholars. Her late father prof. Shmuel Safrai was an important historian of the 2nd Temple period, as is her brother Zeev Safrai, a professor at Bar Ilan. The three of them worked together on a series which is only now coming out, called the Mishna of Eretz Israel. More on that, perhaps, some other time.

Hannah was a professor of Jewish thought. I remember the glint in her eye as she told us, many years ago, of the time she spent studying at the Divinity school of Harvard, reading Christian theology, I suppose; she must have been a riot. We were participating in her seminar on the Jewish sources of the teachings of Jesus. The seminar consisted of a careful reading of some of the more famous teachings of Jesus, such as the Sermon on the Mount. We would try to figure out what his original words must have been in Aramaic and Hebrew, and then we'd scan the vast Talmudic literature for similar turns of speech so as to hear him in his context. The idea was to understand his teachings as he intended and his audience understood. I expect she was following the model of her teacher, Professor David Flusser, the ground breaker among learned orthodox Jews who chose to be professors of early Christianity.

It was a fascinating seminar also for its participants. I don't think there were more than 10-12 of us, at least three of whom were young German theology students (whose Hebrew must have been quite good). Sitting next to them was Ari Kovner, son of Abba Kovner, perhaps Israel's most famous Holocaust survivor but also a commander of a partisan unit in Lithuania. So you had the son of the partisan sharing a bench with the children of Germans (who may not have known who Ari was, but everyone else in the room did), discussing what Jesus really thought he was saying in Hebrew based upon Aramaic texts, and all this in Jerusalem. Delicious.

My debt to her was quite specific, and dated back to two classes she gave near the beginning of my first year at the university. The first was a week after she had assigned us a very complicated article by some important historian, and a group of my fellow students were kvetching loudly that they didn't know remotely enough about the topic to be able to make head or tail of what he was saying. Safrai was unimpressed, and told us that if we didn't know enough, there was only one solution: to learn a lot. She wasn't going to spoon feed us just because we were new to the field. You have to start somewhere, and work (hard) from there - so this was the somewhere.

A week or two later she had given us some short writing assignment, and she "wasted" almost the entire session offending us. "Not a single one of you knows how to write", she thundered. "I'm not talking about poetic prose or literature of beauty", she continued, "I'm talking about stringing two sentences together, or crafting a coherent paragraph!" We were thunderstruck, and deeply offended. What was she talking about? We had all graduated from high school and matriculated, we'd gone through the army and had been big-shots there; what was this depiction of us as inarticulate nitwits? We responded with outrage, but she didn't give an inch, and to make matters worse she even read some of our choice formulations out loud (anonymously, I suppose).

It was a formative moment for me. I remember asking myself if perhaps she knew what she was talking about. What if she was right? What if writing really did require more than simply stringing words together? Might it just be possible that this was something I should consciously be trying to learn? It was one of the most important educative experiences of my life.

I never thanked her for it, and now it's too late, so this is my tribute to her. May she rest in peace.


Joe said...

this is an intense documentary on the mysteries of Jesus’ Bloodline. Those of you who are into ‘The Da Vinci code’ or ‘holy blood holy grail’ will be amazed by this real-life adventure with actual holy relics found.. I was amazed.

Lydia McGrew said...

Professors like that are a blessing.

I imagine all of you were wonderful writers compared to what most profs. have to deal with now in the universities in the U.S.

I can't speak to the writing of present-day Israeli high school graduates.

I wonder, does the bilingual aspect of Israeli society cause trouble for writing fluency? I'm thinking of the continual interaction of English and Modern Hebrew. Having been raised monolingual and having worked hard to learn to write at all decently in my _one_ mother tongue, I cannot imagine having two or more languages competing for my attention as a child and learning to write well in either of them. I think it would constitute an obstacle at least. But perhaps that is just not the way it works.

Yaacov said...

There are people for whom more than one language is problematic. I know some intelligent people who simply can't deal well with more than one language. For most people, however, knowing more than one language not only doesn't harm their control of the first, it strengthens it.

Elias Cannetti once wrote about his grandfather who claimed to know 32 languages, and his mother (the daughter of the grandfather) told him that if someone knows 32 languages in reality they know none. This may well be true. But thee was an entire generation of Eastern European Jews, the last of whom are now passing on, who grew up with 3-4 mother tongues, and an additional 4-5 languages they picked up along the way. Yiddish and Polish and Russian, say, and then also German and English and of course Hebrew, and perhaps another few. I knew many such people, and they moved seamlessly from language to language, always being articulate, never showing any signs of wear or tear for their efforts.