Although he was a world-renowned Bible scholar, it is doubtful that all those who came in contact with Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, after he and his wife Jo settled in Jerusalem in 1994, were aware of just how great a man he was.
Milgrom, a Conservative rabbi and a highly respected academic, died last month at Hadassah-University Medical Center at age 87. He had suffered a brain hemorrhage following a fall.
He had been a congregational rabbi; an academic whose work took him to places such as Russia, South Africa and Japan; a teacher who became friend to countless numbers of students whom he welcomed into his home; a human rights activist who was horrified at the way Israel’s Beduin communities are treated; and a passionate lover of the Jewish people.
The Milgroms married in June 1948 after meeting at an adult Jewish camp the previous year. “He was a bachelor rabbi who came to look over the products of Jewish education,” Jo Milgrom recalled recently, her sense of humor still intact despite her grief.
Two years after their marriage, the Milgroms came on their initial trip
to Israel, taking the first El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv. The
flight itself had been a round trip originating from Tel Aviv. They took
the second leg of the journey, coming back again and again, until they
eventually made it a permanent arrangement.
Jacob Milgrom was a congregational rabbi for 20 years before becoming
fully immersed in academic study. At the time that he met Jo, he was an
assistant rabbi at the Anshei Emet congregation in Chicago. Later, he
served as a congregational rabbi in Orange, New Jersey, and Richmond,
The Milgrom home was always open to students and other people,
especially on Shabbat. During his period as congregational rabbi in
Orange, Milgrom established a leadership training program and maintained
a very personal relationship with the students, influencing many of
them to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
The Brooklyn-born Milgrom retired from the University of California at
Berkeley in 1992 as professor emeritus in biblical and Near Eastern
studies. The Milgroms spent nearly three decades at Berkeley, where both
were faculty members.
She was an adjunct professor of Judaism and, at around age 60, added an
extra feather to her cap and became a Judaica artist. She now teaches
art and Judaism at the Schechter Institute.
Though best known for his research and commentaries on Leviticus, Jacob
Milgrom also researched the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient Jewish
Two Catholic professors of scripture, writing in The Sacred Page, an
Internet blog, wrote glowingly of the departed scholar. “There can be no
doubt that he left an indelible mark on biblical scholarship.
He was certainly one of the most important Old Testament scholars in the
world. Indeed, no one can study the purity laws of the Old Testament or
the book of Leviticus without carefully reading and interacting with
his work,” wrote Prof. Michael Barber.
And in Israel, Baruch Schwartz, a senior lecturer in biblical history at
the Hebrew University and long-time student and friend of Milgrom’s,
eulogized him at his funeral, observing that for some people the
multitude of laws set down in Leviticus were one big yawn, whereas for
Milgrom they had been a source of discovery and excitement in the
intricacies of their detail. “You found a system, you found perfection,
you found an emotional world, you found an ideal Torah, you found a
living God,” he said of Milgrom’s life-long fascination with Leviticus.
Milgrom was a Levite and began his career by focusing on the precepts
and commandments pertaining to Levites. Ironically, he died in the week
prior to the Shabbat that those precepts and commandments were part of
the weekly Torah reading.
Rabbi Jacob Milgrom is survived by his wife, Jo; their children Shira,
Jeremy, Eitan and Asher; 14 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren