Stephen Garfinkel, Associate Provost and Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible and Its Interpretation

Dr. Garfinkel, what is your academic background? Why did you choose to teach at The Jewish Theological Seminary?

Teaching at JTS enables me to explore material with students who want to understand different aspects of the Bible, often by interpreting nuances of the Hebrew text, in an atmosphere that appreciates rigorous, analytical study as a central Jewish value and component of Jewish life. Some of my recent classes, for example, include Moses Traditions; Introduction to the Hebrew Bible; Qohelet (Ecclesiastes): The Biblical Skeptic; The Book of Amos; and The "So-Called" Minor Prophets.

For over 20 years, I served as dean of The Graduate School. One semester of that time, I was also visiting assistant professor of Religious Studies at Yale University (1996), and, for many years previous to my joining the JTS faculty, I was educational consultant to the Department of Youth Activities of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. I have been teaching at JTS since 1979, where I also earned an MHL degree and rabbinic ordination. My BA is from the University of Pennsylvania, and my MA and MPhil degrees in Northwest Semitic Languages were earned at Columbia University, where I also received a PhD in Ancient Semitic Languages and Cultures. I was awarded a DHL, honoris causa, by JTS.

Describe the most unique things about yourself, your work, and your philosophy. Why did you choose your particular area of expertise in Jewish studies and why do you enjoy what you do? What has been your best teaching moment at JTS?

I wanted to focus on Bible study and interpretation because studying the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) enables me—or actually compels me—to apply current methods of academic interpretation while, at the same time, using classical rabbinic or midrashic texts for additional insights into the material. Even though my approach to material in the Tanakh is largely ahistorical, the interest I have in the possible underlying historical reality of the material is for its role in helping us understand what the texts might have meant. That can also serve as an "anchor" for interpreting the material and seeing how the biblical authors may have reshaped their "source" materials. The gap between the "original" and the retelling is the space in which biblical theologies unfold. 

Is there some particular question or issue you'd like to resolve or gain insight into? What is your current research focused on?

My longstanding, major research project deals with perceptions of Moses as a divine figure-portrayals of Moses as a god, with hints of that viewpoint being found in the biblical text itself and also in postbiblical materials. Publication of that research will also shed light on how the canonization of the Bible incorporated dissenting views, and disparate parts of the community. That can serve as a fine model for us today as we continue to create all sorts of communities in person and online.

I am also fascinated by trying to discern what, if anything, makes Conservative Jewish biblical interpretation different from other approaches to biblical study, and now have an entry about that topic in the recently published Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation.

What is the most important thing that studying the various aspects of Judaism, Jewish history, and the Jewish people has taught you? Knowing what you know about Jewish studies, what tips do you have for students just entering your field of study?

My studies have convinced me that faith can be strengthened—not diminished—by knowledge, and that we are obliged to apply our most critical thinking and methods to areas that were previously seen as inviolable or sacrosanct.

Students entering any aspect of Jewish studies, or—for that matter—any field within the liberal arts, should devote themselves to the field at the most advanced levels only if they are passionate about the material, not because they anticipate a guaranteed academic position. Beyond that, however, we also need students in all the humanities to become active, thinking, and leading figures of our public citizenry, and we must see their academic study as providing rich training toward that goal.

Over the years, there have been many great teaching moments (at least for me, if not for the students!). However, my most recent pleasant teaching experience occurred when I was returning to JTS from out of town, but was delayed on a train that had broken down. I emailed the class from the train to say that I was running very late and asked them to continue studying the material they had been assigned for that day. I was thrilled to hear about the class questions and discussion that came up even in my absence from class. That was all topped off by a picture the students sent me (while I was still on the train) of the class in session. It's great to have such dedicated, creative, and enthusiastic students.

What teacher, scholar, or person in your life has influenced you the most? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? Share about your family if you wish.

Rabbi Bernard Spielman, the rabbi of my home congregation when I was growing up in central New Jersey, was a formative influence in developing my interest in Jewish life and Jewish knowledge. Fortunately, my parents actively supported his encouragement. (So, for example, when I explained, as a preteen, that I wanted to observe kashrut, my parents agreed to make our home kosher, as long as I proved my seriousness by keeping kosher outside the house for a year.)

Studying with Professor Yochanan Muffs (z"l) during my first years in The Rabbinical School of JTS sparked my interest in advanced biblical studies. His work was a wonderful model of using philology and careful attention to linguistic detail in the service of getting at the great themes and concepts sometimes hidden within the biblical texts. I still enjoy the thought-provoking discussions that come up in my classes, even when I can seldom predict their outcomes. 

My days are often filled with meetings as I work with faculty colleagues on JTS's academic programs, curricula, and courses. I enjoy these stimulating conversations, because they result in improved programs for training students in all of our schools. However, when I am away from the balancing, juggling, and negotiating that my administrative role demands, I thoroughly enjoy traveling with my wife, Robin. We are both extremely proud of our children, Talia (completing her second master's degree while working full-time) and Arielle and her husband Jonathan (both civil engineers in the Midwest), but there is nothing that gets me smiling and beaming more than our two riotously funny grandchildren.  

What's ahead for you, Dr. Garfinkel?

I am excited about teaching a course this spring semester at Princeton Theological Seminary as part of our faculty-exchange program. No less, I look forward to teaching groups around the country, whether through JTS's Context program or in other forums, helping people at all educational levels and ages consider themes such as prophecy, ways to read the Bible (and ways not to), issues in the book of Ecclesiastes, or what it means to talk about the "truth" of the Bible.