When Lawrence H. Schiffman was 15 years old he traveled to Israel, where he developed a love for its archaeological and historical sites. That inspiration would eventually lead to a distinguished career as a scholar of Second Temple literature, concentrating on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The road wasn’t completely linear. Schiffman recalls that “enter[ing] Brandeis University as an undergraduate in 1966, I didn't really know that there existed such a thing as university Judaic studies.” But through a seminar led by Professor Nahum Sarna, best known for his commentaries on Genesis and Exodus in the Jewish Publication Society series, Schiffman says, “I was hooked.” He would go on to serve both as the editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls and, later, of the journal Dead Sea Discoveries.
For Schiffman, currently the Yeshiva University vice-provost for undergraduate education, integrating critical study of texts into a religiously observant life was not a problem. “Because I studied with traditionally observant scholars, for the most part, who knew rabbinic literature well, the combination of academic life with strict adherence to the traditional values, beliefs, and practices of our people was simply natural.” The differences between the traditional approach and the modern scholarly one enhanced Schiffman’s understanding and his personal Torah study. Because of that, he says, “I had no hesitation about working with these materials that in some periods of our history were seen as extremely problematical.”
Now his decades of knowledge--combined with those of his co-editors Louis H. Feldman and James L. Kugel—are on display in Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture (Jewish Publication Society/Univ. of Nebraska Press, Dec.), an imposing three-volume set coming in at more than 3,300 pages (see “The Quest for Paul,” PW, Oct. 7, 2013). The volume, supported by two research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, includes Schiffman’s own new translation of the Temple Scroll, “which presents a plan for a new Temple and its sacrifices,” Schiffman says.
Choosing the more than 70 contributors ended up being less difficult than anticipated, says Schiffman: “Amazingly, we were always able to find good scholars in whom we had confidence.” The editors divided texts according to their major interests, with a few exceptions where particular texts required the attention of “one or a number of us because of our relationships to individual authors.”
While in the Mishnah Sanhedrin rabbis prohibited the reading of noncanonical texts, for Schiffman, making these texts and commentaries available and bringing together material pertaining to biblical interpretation in ancient times amounts to “recovering the history of the Jewish people.” While some texts could not be included, he believes that “deciding to limit our work and getting these texts out in this form will kindle wider interest in them and allow for continued publishing of commentaries aimed at the wider public.” He hopes these volumes will help Jews and Christians, scholars and interested lay people “continue to reclaim these important texts for understanding our collective religious and cultural heritage.”