Professor of Bible in the Department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages at The Jewish Theological Seminary, Benjamin D. Sommer joined the faculty in July 2008, coming to JTS after a lengthy stint as director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies at Northwestern University in Chicago. Dr. Sommer is not only an internationally renowned Bible scholar, teacher, and author, but a man who is passionate about being a Jew; understanding the Hebrew Bible and what it tells us about God, the Jewish people, and their relationship; debating his thoughts and his research with others; and paving the way for future rabbis, cantors, Jewish academics, and educators.
Dr. Sommer is the editor of the five-volume JPS Psalms Commentary and author of its first volume, which will be published in three years. He is also the writer of the commentary on Isaiah and one of the introductory essays of the Jewish Study Bible, a basic Bible for all English-speaking Jews. Dr. Sommer's first book, A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40–66 (Stanford University Press), received the Salo W. Baron Prize from the American Academy of Jewish Research. His newest book, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, was published in June 2009 by Cambridge University Press.
Dr. Sommer, after fourteen successful years at Northwestern, what inspired you to make the move to JTS?
While I liked teaching at Northwestern, I found I really loved teaching rabbis, Jewish educators, and Jewish laypeople—that's how I spent my evenings and summers in Chicago and Jerusalem—and that gave me the sense that my real passion is for teaching Jews in a Jewish context. I also want to continue to do the sort of research and have the freedom of open inquiry that comes with being an academic. JTS allows and encourages me to do both; it regards these two parts of my identity as belonging together. So coming here has allowed me to be not only a scholar of ancient Near Eastern culture, but to be a scholar of Torah. Moshe Greenberg—one of the great biblical scholars of the twentieth century, who was ordained at JTS—said, "A Jewish biblical scholar should be in service to the Jewish community." That model describes the kind of scholar I want to be.
What has it been like for you since you began teaching at JTS?
The teaching is very enjoyable, and there's a variety in the students. I'm teaching maybe four or five different populations, all of them deeply committed to Jewish learning, but committed in different ways and coming from different places. And because they're going to diverse places, they have distinct needs. They each want to get something different out of the class, and that makes for a very thought-provoking environment. In many ways, the scholarship being done at JTS is lively and bold in a way that's even truer today than it was fifty years ago. That's very impressive. There are really outstanding people here and there's richness to the work they are doing.
You were also involved in a faculty project . . .
Yes, it was an initiative sponsored by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. JTS had convened a group of faculty—led by Rabbi Mychal Springer—to think more clearly and self-reflectively on what it means to train rabbis for the twenty-first century. The project was designed to inform what's happening in the actual classroom: What's the nature of the four-way interaction among student, instructor, text, and the congregants or students whom the rabbis will one day serve? Who are our rabbinical students nowadays? They're different than they were fifty years ago. This was the sort of project that made me leave another great academic institution to come here. It was a lot of fun and very rewarding.
So when you teach Bible, you teach it from a theological and literary perspective?
The two are completely intertwined. Studying the literature is the way to get to the theology, the religion. Studying the religion is a way to understand the literature.
How has that enriched your own life? Do you have a better understanding of or an improved personal relationship with your understanding of God?
Yes. I think that noticing some surprising aspects of the concept of God in the Bible broadens and enriches my understanding of who God is. Part of the reason the Bible can be very useful for contemporary Jews is that, over the centuries, after the Bible was written, the concept of God and Judaism became more philosophical. Returning to the Bible, studying the Bible in its own cultural context, allows us to go back to the very personal and in some ways mysterious concept of God that our people began with. For a religious person, attending to that side of God is very enriching.
How does teaching at JTS compare to teaching adult education courses in synagogues and other institutions?
There's a similarity, a deeper and more personal commitment to learning Bible and making it part of one's own life that you don't necessarily have with undergraduates at a secular university. That existential commitment is something that JTS and adult education settings have in common. That's part of why I came here. Obviously, the JTS classes are at a much more advanced level.
What is the best thing a student can do in one of your classes?
The best thing that happens—and it does happen—is I'm teaching some texts that I've taught fifteen times before, that I've read forty times, and a student says something I've never seen before that I recognize immediately as being true. Sometimes I can support the student's contention much better than the student can, but I had never thought of it until the student said it. A really good comment like that might happen once a year and a really good comment like that once a year is a great reason to be a professor. Even once every two years. That's the best thing that can happen.
Another great thing that happens is that a student asks a question that forces me to articulate something I have thought for a long time, but until this student asked I had never quite stated it clearly, even to myself. A good question is something that allows me to sharpen my own ideas. Questions like this come along fairly often, and they are worth a lot to me as a researcher and scholar.
Can you talk a bit about your new book?
In The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, I explore a lost ancient Near Eastern perception of divinity, according to which an essential difference between gods and humans was that gods had more than one body and fluid, unbounded selves. It's a perception that has important repercussions not only for biblical scholarship and comparative religion, but for Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Dr. Sommer's new book, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, has been acknowledged with admiration and respect and comments from leading scholars in biblical studies, both Jewish (Peter Machinist of Harvard) and Christian (John Barton of the University of Oxford and Gary Anderson of Notre Dame); the world's leading scholar of Kabbalah (Moshe Idel of Hebrew University); and a leading voice in Jewish-Christian relations (the Reverend John T. Pawlikowski of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago).