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Levinson's road to scholarship paved with joy

by Eugenia Smith

Bernard Levinson

Bernard Levinson
Photo by Diana Watters

Bernard M. Levinson

Education

Ph.D. 1991, Near Eastern and Judaic studies, Brandeis U

Professional history

1997 Berman Family Chair, associate professor of Classical and Near Eastern studies and affiliate in the Law School, U of M

1990-97 assistant and associate professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures, Indiana U

Selected honors & awards

Salo W. Baron Award: Best First Book in Literature and Thought, American Academy for Jewish Research

Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

Work in progress

A book on the origins, meaning, and cultural significance of divine revelation

Simple joys

Completing the TC Marathon (his first) within 3 minutes of his goal

Hosting long, lingering gourmet feasts for friends

Vermeer

One day in 1970, on his way to a life he hadn't yet dreamed of, Canadian college student Bernard Levinson happened upon some canonical texts. He had found his calling.

Looking back from his scholarly promontory in Folwell Hall at a life that began 450 miles north of Toronto in South Porcupine, Ontario, Levinson reflects, “Discovering the classics opened up a world I didn't have, with different values and perspectives. It brought me freedom. It brought me joy.”

With its rich, evocative language and profound historical and cultural significance, the Bible was a natural object of study for a young man whose sleeping-giant intellect was awakened by the power of the written word. Recruited from Indiana University in 1997 to hold the Berman Family Chair in Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, Levinson is today one of the world's foremost authorities on biblical and ancient Near Eastern law.

If Levinson has a mission, it is to stir his students' intellectual curiosity about the history of ideas. Stressing that academic religious studies does not judge or promote any religion, he teaches his students to be receptive to new readings of history and to entertain a “complex notion of truth." The ability and the courage to question, he adds—especially in the face of authoritative texts—is at the core of religious studies and of a liberal education.

Indeed, says Levinson, the history of religion is a history of doubt and vigorous debate. “The questioning voice is a dominant voice in both the Old and the New Testament,” he notes. “Abraham, Moses, even Jesus questioned God. Read generously, the Bible is anti-chauvinistic, thoroughly democratic in spirit. And it's very modern.”

To the provocative suggestion that study of ancient texts is perhaps irrelevant in our world, Levinson counters, “Where did we get our belief in equality? Our belief in free will? A life with choices?" All of these democratic ideas, he says, have biblical foundations. And the critical skills that we bring to a reading of the Bible are precisely those we bring to a reading of another multilayered democratic text, the U.S. Constitution. Like the Bible, Levinson suggests, the Constitution is “rich with cultural import, filled with contradictions and nuance.”

To understand such a text, says Levinson, we must first understand how it came to be written and transmitted from one generation to another. “The authors of the Bible and the Constitution were scholars, the interpreters of their times,” he says. “When we read them, we're interpreting the interpreters.”

Nagging legal questions, such as how and where the line is drawn between “interpreting" existing law and “making new law,” are as ancient as Deuteronomy, says Levinson: “The ancient Israelites debated these issues. And we're still trying to figure out how to ground contemporary culture in and derive law from old texts. When we understand how to adapt historical texts to ever-changing times, we achieve a whole new understanding of history.”

Getting to the source

Because of its centrality to Judeo-Christian civilization, the Bible must be read as the rich, complex cultural document it is, says Levinson: “The Bible is often conscripted to serve a political agenda that denies intellectual content. Religion is too important a cultural force to be left to politicians.

“In academic—secular—religious studies, people confront the primary sources and enter into a two-way dialogue with biblical texts and with each other. They learn to open their minds to alternative readings. If the Bible has shaped our culture, we have to know what text we're talking about.”

In his award-winning 1997 book Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, Levinson painstakingly peels away dense historical layers of translation and revision in part to do just that—establish “what text we're talking about." In lucid, elegant prose, this richly detailed work reflects his view that scholarly writing “should tell a story, engage readers, make a text come alive. The purpose of language is to help us make sense of the world, not to show how much we know.”

It is also, he would add, to bring us joy. The “joy of learning" is an article of faith for Levinson, who says, “The world becomes a bigger place when you see the Sistine Chapel or read Milton or Shakespeare or the Bible. Academic study of the Bible, and of all great works of literature and art, brings whole new worlds into being.”

And, he adds, “In that moment when you see students come alive through intellectual engagement, when you see new worlds open up for them—that's the joy of teaching.”

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