The world of Jewish Studies and the Talmud Blog mourn the passing of Prof. Jonah Frankel, teacher, pioneer, scholar and Israel prize laureate. Frankel was born in Munich in 1928 and arrived in Palestine when the Nazis came to power. His doctoral dissertation, the first and actually only scholarly treatment of Rashi’s commentary on the Babylonian Talmud to date, remains the standard work of reference on this ubiquitous commentary. It was quoted extensively, thirty years later, by Prof. Israel Ta-Shma in his Sifrut ha-parshanit la-talmud. Frankel also collaborated with his father-in-law, Daniel Goldschmidt, on his editions of Jewish liturgical texts, and was working on an edition of the Ashkenazi Siddur for weekdays. He kept working on the latter project until very close to his death (I regret that I turned down the opportunity to work as his mouse-manipulator when he could not longer get it to do what he wanted); I understand the project is in good hands.
His greatest and lasting contribution to scholarship, however, was his introduction of methods taken from the study of literature to reading rabbinic stories. In many articles and then later, in books, Frankel applied the methods of New Criticism to stories that were supposed to be “history” or at best “folklore”. He insisted that they were nothing but “high literature” and that they deserved the best tools the discipline could give them. As such, he is the intellectual grandfather of almost every innovation in rabbinics since. Although New Criticism fell out of fashion and other methods took over, Frankel got his wish: rabbinic literature is recognized as “literature,” studied in university departments of Hebrew literature, and by literary scholars who do not specialize in Jewish Studies. ‘The Oven of Akhnai’, Rabbi Johanan and Resh Laqish, and Honi the Roofer (not circle-drawer) are household names not merely in academic circles, but also in almost every synagogue, study circle, adult education curriculum and beit midrash. Frankel’s work endures, and so his lips truly are speaking in the grave at this very moment. We hope to be able to host a “yeshivah on his grave,” here at the Talmud blog, in the future.
(The funeral was today, on Har Hamenuhot, in Jerusalem, at 4:30 PM).