- Presidential Address by Athalya Brenner-Idan
President of the Society of Biblical Literature 2015
Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature
21 November 2015
Introduction given by Beverly Roberts Gaventa Vice President, Society of Biblical Literature doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.15699/jbl.1351.2016.1351
My very great privilege this evening is to introduce our president, Professor Athalya Brenner-Idan.
A native of Haifa with an undergraduate degree from Haifa University and a master’s degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Athalya Brenner-Idan completed her doctoral work at Manchester University in England. Under the direction of the late Professor James Barr, she wrote a dissertation, which later became her first monograph, on terms for color in the Hebrew Bible.1 Moving away from a standard comparative approach, Brenner-Idan drew on developments in anthro-pological linguistics to structure her approach to the topic. That book was greeted with just the sort of appreciative comment that signals the arrival of a diligent, well-trained, traditional scholar. Writing in the Journal of Biblical Literature, for example, Baruch Halpern began his review by observing the “exceptional difficulties” surrounding a study of terms for color; he concluded the review by characterizing Brenner-Idan’s work a “major advance in Hebrew lexicography” that would “want no substantial revisions in this generation.”2 Not surprisingly, Colour Terms opened the door for our president’s first teaching position, at Haifa University.
At around the same time, as she has described it in a personal reflection, [End Page 3] “political feminism came to Israel.”3 Stimulated by the concerns being raised—both in academic circles and beyond—Professor Brenner-Idan undertook her second book, The Israelite Woman: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative.4 Her expectation was that this book, combined with her earlier publications, would secure her promotion to the status of senior lecturer, the equivalent of a tenured associate professor in the American system. The Israelite Woman achieved a great deal in the scholarly world, yet its reception closer to home was anything but welcoming. She was denied promotion on the grounds that “feminist research was not truly academic, not meaningful, a passing fad and waste of time and energy and money.”5 When she appealed the decision, a senior administrator dismissively suggested—with a cordial air—that she should consider finding a teaching position in a high school.6
Professor Brenner-Idan has written with her characteristic candor about the pain and anger generated by this event. Yet it is clear that The Israelite Woman, and this Israeli woman in particular, was scarcely derailed by rejection. In the Netherlands, she has held posts at Radboud University and the University of Amsterdam, where she is Professor Emerita. She has also taught at Tel Aviv University, Brite Divinity School, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She continues to be Extraordinary Professor in the theology faculty at Stellenbosch University as well as a research associate at the Biblia Arabica project of Tel Aviv University.
Following the publication of The Israelite Woman, Brenner-Idan entered into an unusual scholarly collaboration with Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes, with whom she wrote On Gendering Texts.7 I call it unusual in that it began with a disagreement about method; yet, rather than simply issuing acerbic reviews of one another’s work, the two found a way to write in dialogue within a single volume. The result is a rich study exploring the possibility of hearing female “voices” within and behind biblical texts. A subsequent volume, The Intercourse of Knowledge, was published by Brenner-Idan alone, following the untimely death of her friend and collaborator.8
Surely the boldest venture undertaken by our president—at least so far—is her book, I Am—: Biblical Women Tell Their Own Stories. Here she presents an imaginary conference in which all of the participants are women; specifically, they are [End Page 4] biblical characters whose deaths are not mentioned in the texts. Each woman presents the conference with her own “autobiography,” beginning with the biblical text but ranging to the character’s ongoing life in interpretation. Barriers between fiction and nonfiction tumble down as...