Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) was born in Chicago and raised in New York. She received her PhD from Yale in 1977 in Assyriology and Sumerology. Her academic interests spanned a wide range, from personal reflections on the spiritual aspects of birth, to the history of goddesses in Mesopotamia, to feminist readings of the Hebrew Bible. She was also deeply involved in interfaith work and dialogue. Her work was widely acclaimed by both academics and laypeople and was recognized with prestigious awards. She taught at several institutions, ultimately landing at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She died in 2006 after a lengthy battle with breast cancer.
In his remarks at his late wife’s funeral, Dr. Allan Kensky recalled of Tikva Frymer-Kensky that one of her college professors, in his recommendation letter for her graduate school applications, had remarked: “She thinks like a man.” While the professor likely thought he was bestowing upon her the highest of praise, Frymer-Kensky’s personal life and scholarly career went far beyond thinking “like a man.” Indeed, both were both deeply influenced by her identity as a Jewish woman.
Early Life and Education
Born in Chicago on Oct. 21, 1943, Frymer-Kensky was raised in New York and graduated from Forest Hills High School in Queens. She took undergraduate courses at both the Jewish Theological Seminary and the City College of New York, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1965. Her graduate studies took place at Yale University, which awarded her an MA in West Semitics in 1967 and a PhD in Assyriology and Sumerology in 1977. Her dissertation, which remains unpublished, was titled “The Judicial Ordeal in the Ancient Near East.” Even these early accomplishments themselves were remarkable in a time when very few women received doctoral degrees, let alone in typically male-dominated fields such as Assyriology and Sumerology.
Academic Career and Publications
Frymer-Kensky’s prolific academic career contributed greatly to our understanding of women in the Bible and the ancient Near East. She began teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit, which allowed her husband, Allan, whom she had married in 1975, to continue serving as rabbi of a conservative synagogue in Ann Arbor. By her own admission she stayed at Wayne State longer than she should have, even after her position ceased to exist and she could only teach part-time. She was forced to become, by her own admission, a “classic Mrs. Adjunct, a married woman who is unable to move where the jobs are and therefore teaches all over the place” (Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism, xix). According to her friend and colleague Diane M. Sharon, Frymer-Kensky often commented that for women scholars, career paths were by definition non-traditional, since there was no traditional career path already set for them. Despite occupying a less-than-satisfying position, Frymer-Kensky published a number of articles during this time and began work on what would become her first book, In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Transformation of Pagan Myth (1993). This project drew on her knowledge of Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew to explore the impact of the transformation from polytheism to monotheism on the worship of goddesses in the ancient Near East.
In 1988, Frymer-Kensky’s career returned to a somewhat more traditional track when she became the director of Bible Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. She taught there until 1995, when she was appointed Professor in Hebrew Bible and the History of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She remained in that position until her death on August 31, 2006.
During these years, her scholarly work flourished. The success of In the Wake of the Goddesses propelled her into the field of feminist biblical studies, in which she became a leading voice. Her second book, however, took a much more personal approach to the topics of women and religion. Motherprayer: The Pregnant Woman’s Spiritual Companion (1995), was inspired by Frymer-Kensky’s experience giving birth to her daughter, Meira, in 1978: faced with an unexpected Caesarean section scheduled for the following morning, Frymer-Kensky stayed up all night reading Akkadian and Sumerian birth incantations to prepare her emotionally and spiritually for the momentous change that was about to occur. (The birth of her son, Eitan, followed in 1983.) Motherprayer attempted to fill the gap in religious and spiritual sources—in all religions—addressing the sacred experience of birth. It includes prayers about pregnancy and childbirth from various religious traditions, both ancient and modern, as well as her own original compositions. This work proved popular not only in the scholarly community but with lay audiences as well.
Frymer-Kensky published her arguably most successful book, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of their Stories, in 2002. In this work, she combined historical criticism, literary criticism, and feminist methodology to explore women in the Bible she categorizes as “Victors,” “Victims,” “Virgins,” and “Voice.” This text exemplified what then-Jewish Publication Society Editor-in-Chief and CEO Ellen Frankel called Frymer-Kensky’s “signature method”: a careful reading of the biblical text on its own terms, and an incorporation of Babylonian, Sumerian, and Greco-Roman literature to illuminate the biblical text. Reading the Women of the Bible was awarded the Koret Jewish Book Award (2002) and the National Jewish Book Award (2003).
In addition to her work illuminating women’s roles in the Bible and the ancient Near East, Frymer-Kensky was deeply committed to interfaith dialogue and was actively involved in the interfaith community. She brought to her interfaith work the same care and thoughtfulness that she brought to her own academic scholarship. She was an editor of the collection of essays Christianity in Jewish Terms (2000), which sought to assess recent changes in Christian belief and “examine their implications for Jewish life in the Western world” (ix). Her interfaith work also took her outside the classroom. She was active in the Scholars Group of the Institute for Jewish and Christian Studies in Baltimore (since 2013, the Institute for Islamic, Jewish, and Christian Studies) and helped craft their Dabru Emet (“Speak the Truth”) statement, also published in 2000. This statement affirmed the legitimacy of Christianity and the existence of common ground between Jews and Christians.
Despite a lengthy battle with breast cancer, Frymer-Kensky continued working nearly until her death on August 31, 2006, at age 62. As a true testament to her tenacity, that same year the Jewish Publication Society published several of her essays as Studies in Bible: Feminist Criticism in its “Scholars of Distinction” series. She was the first woman and youngest person to have her work anthologized in this series. Her influence continues even after her death; Frymer-Kensky (alongside her co-author, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi) was posthumously awarded the National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies for her work on The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth (2011). The academic, Jewish, and interfaith communities continue to benefit from Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s passion and intellect.
Selected works by Tikva Frymer-Kensky
With Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, ed. Ruth: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. JPS Bible commentary. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2011.
Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2006.
Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. New York: Shocken Books, 2002.
With Novak, David, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, and Michael A. Singer, eds. Christianity in Jewish Terms. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.
With Matthews, Victor H., and Levinson, Bernard M., eds. Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 262. Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
Motherprayer: The Pregnant Woman's Spiritual Companion. New York: G.P. Putnum’s Sons, 1995.
In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth. New York: Macmillan, Free Press, 1992.
“The Judicial Ordeal in the Ancient Near East.” PhD diss., Yale University, 1977.
Kanarek, Jane. “Tikva Frymer-Kensky, 1943–2006.” Jewish Women’s Archive. Accessed July 2, 2019. https://jwa.org/weremember/frymer-kensky-tikva.
Hallo, William W. “Tikva Simone Frymer-Kensky, 1943-2005 [sic].” AAJR. September 20, 2006. Accessed July 2, 2019. http://aajr.org/obituaries/tikva-simone-frymer-kensky-1943-2005/.
Holloway, Steven W., Scurlock, Jo Ann, Beal, Richard Henry, eds. In the Wake of Tikva Frymer-Kensky. 1st Gorgian Press ed. Gorgias Précis Portfolios, 4. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009.
Jewish Virtual Library. “Tikva Frymer-Kensky.” Accessed July 2, 2019. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/tikva-frymer-kensky.
Sharon, Diane M. “In Memoriam: Tikva Simone Frymer-Kensky, 1943-2006.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, no. 13 (2007): 252-261.
Tigay, Jeffrey H. "Tikva Simone Frymer-Kensky (1943—2006) / פרופ' תקוה סימון פרימר-קנסקי (1943—2006." Shnaton: An Annual for Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies שנתון לחקר המקרא והמזרח הקדום (2007): 5-8.