My teacher, colleague and friend, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, died on Thursday, August 31, 2006/7 Elul 5766, at age 62, after battling misdiagnosed breast cancer for four years. At the time, she was Professor of Hebrew Bible and the History of Judaism in the University of Chicago's Divinity School.
Tikva was a tireless Bible scholar whose meticulous work was exemplary for combining the disciplines of historical critical methods, literary analysis and feminist approaches to reading the biblical text in its ancient Near Eastern cultural context. Her passion was exploring the history and present reality of women and religion.
The bare bones of her academic achievements are impressive. Tikva trained at Yale, earning a doctorate in Assyriology and Sumerology in 1977, ten years after she received an M.A. in West Semitics from the same institution. She was the author of five books and an unpublished dissertation, co-editor of two other books (see the bibliography at the end of this essay), contributor of 37 book chapters and 32 articles as well as another two dozen or so encyclopedia, dictionary and commentary entries. At her death, she had a commentary on the book of Ruth almost finished, as well as the beginnings of a theological analysis of Genesis 1–11, both of which will see the light of day in some form.
Tikva did all this at a time when women were not routinely considered for serious academic appointments. She often commented that for women scholars a non-traditional career path was essential, since there was no traditional academic career path for them. At the same time, Tikva was the wife for 32 years of a rabbi and scholar in his own right, Dr. Allan Kensky, and the mother of two children who are now in Ph.D. programs themselves.
At her funeral, Allan, now spiritual leader of Beth Hillel Congregation in Wilmette, IL, said of her early years in the academy: [End Page 252]
Tikva was a pioneer, a woman academic in a field that, when she began, was not that friendly to women, especially to those who sought to raise a family. When she applied to graduate school, one of her professors in college thought he was giving her the best possible recommendation when he wrote, "She thinks like a man." Later, she returned to teaching full time just two weeks after [daughter] Meira was born, as she was told it would not be considered professional to take a maternity leave. Eventually her position at Wayne State was closed, and Tikva sensed that as a woman she had been given a raw deal.
In her children's early years, Tikva put her own career on hold to remain in the community where Allan was a congregational rabbi, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the Introduction to her Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism, Tikva wrote about this:
From a career perspective, I should have left my job at Wayne State University as soon as I received my doctorate. But my husband was happy in Ann Arbor and in his congregation, so I stayed in my "starting job," teaching Hebrew and a little Bible long after I should have left. I even stayed on to teach part-time after I was denied tenure because my position was being closed. I was a classic "Mrs. Adjunct," a married woman who is unable to move to where the jobs are and therefore teaches courses all over the place.
Unlike many people who compartmentalize their work and their personal experience, Tikva's scholarship was influenced by her life. Allan recalls:
Waiting overnight for a C-section that was suddenly scheduled in the 40th week of pregnancy, she spent the night reading Babylonian birth incantations, and, as she was wont to say, when she woke up from the anesthesia some nine months later, she came...