Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, scholar and theologian, died in Wilmette on Aug. 31, 2006. She is survived by a husband, Rabbi Allan Kensky, and two children, Meira and Eitan Kensky. Dr. Frymer-Kensky was a pioneer in combining rigorous study of the ancient Near East with rigorous feminism. She received her bachelor's degree in ancient world studies from City College of New York and a bachelor's in Hebrew Literature in Bible and Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1965, a master's in West Semitics from Yale in 1967, and a doctorate in Assyriology and Sumerology from Yale in 1977.
Dr. Frymer-Kensky had been the director of Biblical Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and was a professor of Hebrew Bible and the History of Judaism at the University of Chicago.
Dr. Frymer-Kensky was a unique and brilliant thinker who constantly pushed herself and her students to think outside of commonly accepted boundaries. She possessed an incredibly deep knowledge of the ancient Near East—so much so, that, in listening to her lectures one often felt that she lived as much in that world as in this one. What made her powerful, though, was not only the amount of her knowledge. Dr. Frymer-Kensky exemplified the scholar who believes that the ancient should also serve the present. She wrote about the past and, in doing so, tried to transform the present. In her first book, In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (1992), she utilized her knowledge of Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew to write about the ancient world of the goddesses and the ensuing transformation into biblical monotheism. In Motherprayer: The Pregnant Woman's Spiritual Companion (1995), Dr. Frymer-Kensky set out to create a spiritual guide for pregnancy and childbirth. She translated and transformed Sumerian, Akkadian, Hebrew, Yiddish, Old French and French, Latin, and Aramaic texts as she simultaneously wrote her own words, bringing to women a text both ancient and new. An editor of Christianity in Jewish Terms (2000), Dr. Frymer-Kensky was also profoundly committed to Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Where Dr. Frymer-Kensky most shone was as a close, innovative, and feminist reader who used words eloquently and at times, even bluntly. In Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of their Stories (2002), the titles of the sub-sections of her book do not mince words: "Victors," "Victims," "Virgins," and "Voice." In one wonderful passage about Rebecca she describes the realia of ancient Near Eastern wells: they were inclined slopes that people had to go up and down. When Rebecca watered the ten camels of Abraham's servant, she had to go down and up many times!1 With this seemingly small detail, Dr. Frymer-Kensky informs us of Rebecca's great strength and generosity. Dr. Frymer-Kensky also wrote about Jewish law, halakha, and our responsibility to change it so that women will be viewed as full human beings. Here, too, as she chastised us, she used her knowledge of Akkadian to convince us of the imperative of change. The Akkadian word "alaktu" which has a parallel in the biblical Hebrew "derekh" (way), means "the way" of the god, not only in the heavenly realm but also in ethics and justice, in dealing with humans.2 The way of God was, for Dr. Frymer-Kensky, the way of justice.
As a scholar, Dr. Frymer-Kensky challenged her students to study deeply and obtain mastery of their subjects; any less was insufficient. In her writing, she modeled both rigor and relevance. Her feminism was deeply grounded in the ancient world and, as a Jew, she used that extensive knowledge to argue for monotheism and dialogue between Christians and Jews, to give voice to ancient women, and to advocate for a mending of halakha. She wrote in order to bring us the ancient and to create a more just present.
May her words and her message be for a blessing.
1. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, 1st ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 2002) 9.