A dialogue in faith

As a scholar of ancient Near Eastern culture and author of a book on homicide in the Biblical world, Pamela Barmash, Ph.D., professor of Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew in Arts & Sciences, has visited Jerusalem many times.

However, as director of the Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies (JINES) program in Arts & Sciences, one of her more rewarding visits came just months ago as she led 11 students there as part of a senior capstone course on Jerusalem in three traditions: Jewish, Islamic and Christian.

(From left) Pamela Barmash, Ph.D., with Emily Regan, a junior majoring in history in Arts & Sciences, and Nicole Bakshi, a freshman majoring in business administration. “She is that rare example of a biblical scholar who is equally at home in Near Eastern archaeology, ancient history, Jewish studies and rabbinics,” says Hillel J. Keival, Ph.D.

“The municipal officials and community leaders whom our students met were just astounded to meet a group in which Jewish, Christian and Muslim students are all working together and studying together,” she says. “That’s something unprecedented”

Barmash’s seminar with the student trip to Israel and other broadly conceived capstone courses are the highpoint of the innovative, dual-track JINES curriculum. While students specialize in either Jewish or Islamic studies, they are required to take introductory and advanced courses in the other field. This integrated approach to studying worlds that are often at odds promotes in-depth analysis and mutual understanding.

The plan seems to be working. Rich Hillesheim, a Muslim student from Chicago who made the Jerusalem trip with Barmash in 2004-05, describes it as a wonderful experience, in part because the students became so tightknit and so willing to look out for one another.

“A couple of us aroused suspicion after Israeli security checked our passports and noticed that we were Muslims. But several Jewish students and Professor Barmash came to our aid and talked them into letting us pass,” recalls Hillesheim, a 2005 JINES graduate.

“Later, when our group was walking through a Palestinian neighborhood, some residents began to taunt Jewish students in our group, shouting, ‘Welcome to our nation.’ Those of us who spoke Arabic told them these are our friends and we are all here together.”

In 2002, Barmash and a group of students launched the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Group. Members now facilitate similar dialogue groups for Jewish and Muslim students in community high schools.

Helping people bridge gaps between religions and cultures has been a part of Barmash’s life since she became interested in religious studies as a child in New York. As a teenager, she got her hands on a critical study of the Bible and saw it for the first time as more than a monolith, more than one voice “singing a single solitary note” from cover to cover, she says.

Pamela Barmash (right) recently led 11 students to Jerusalem as part of a senior capstone course.

“To come across the critical study of the Bible in which you hear an entire symphony of voices — sometimes harmonious, sometimes cacophonous — made what otherwise would be an ancient and outmoded text from a not always easily understood culture come alive,” she recalls. “To see a revered sacred text in the multi-dimensional background from which it sprang was intellectually extraordinarily exciting.”

Barmash earned a bachelor of arts in 1987 from Yale University, with a double-major in religious studies and Near Eastern languages and civilizations and specialization in Akkadian, the language of ancient Iraq. Following graduation, she spent a pivotal year in Jerusalem as a visiting graduate student at Hebrew University.

“It was kind of like being a kid in the candy store,” she says, “because there was such a variety and availability of courses, as well as opportunities for meeting so many people from so many different walks of life.”

She’d always been interested in rabbinic studies but thought it would be decades before Jewish leadership allowed women to become rabbis. However, attitudes softened, and she was admitted to the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1987. After studying in New York and Jerusalem, she graduated with rabbinical ordination and a master of arts in 1990.

“I was the 17th woman ordained in the Conservative movement, so it was something that was quite an unusual career path,” Barmash says.

While serving for eight years as the rabbi of Temple Shaare Tefilah in Norwood, Mass., she began taking courses at Harvard University, earning a doctorate in Near Eastern languages and civilizations in 1999 before returning to academic life as assistant professor at WUSTL.

She sees lots of overlap in her dual role as rabbi and professor.

“The two are a seamless whole,” she explains. “It’s not enough to do scholarship for the sake of writing a book that sits on a shelf. The way I do teaching is to enable students and empower students. So going into the rabbinate was very much part and parcel of the whole thing. In many ways, what I do as a rabbi is to act as sort of a public or community intellectual, as a public teacher.”

Books by Barmash:

Published: “Homicide in the Biblical World” (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

“The book is really about the relationship of the culture of ancient Israel to its surrounding cultures,” she explains. “In fact, in every chapter of the Bible is reflected the profound influence of Mesopotamia — that is to say, ancient Iraq, which was the political, economic, cultural, intellectual superpower of the ancient world. At the same time, the social structure and religious ideas of ancient Israel shaped the adjudication of homicide in the Bible.”

Book in progress: “The Origins of Legal Interpretation”

Edited book in progress: “Exodus: Echoes and Reverberations in Jewish Tradition”

Barmash teaches in the summers at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. She is a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement and of the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. She recently was named to the academic advisory board for the Rothberg School for overseas students at Hebrew University. She became associate professor and director of JINES in 2005, the same year she published her first book, “Homicide in the Biblical World.”

Her research examines the origins of legal interpretation and the puzzle of why it took so long after the invention of writing — about 2,000 years — for people to begin writing explicit legal commentaries.

In May, she’ll host a WUSTL conference on why the Exodus experience has such a profound influence on Jewish culture and then spend a week lecturing on the problem of evil in Jewish tradition at Bright Divinity School.

Her scholarship has attracted the interest of legal historians and law professors, and she’s been invited to give a paper at the fall conference of the American Society for Legal History.

Barmash credits faculty here with working hard to make the integrated JINES program successful and suggests the approach is paying off for students. JINES graduates are pursuing careers in journalism, in humanitarian organizations and in government work, and they’re getting into the best graduate programs.

“The program provides a unique perspective that lets people go beyond the headlines,” Barmash says. “It lets students get beyond the superficial to understand the complexities and nuances of what actually occurs on the ground.”

Recently, JINES launched a joint graduate degree program with the George Warren Brown School of Work focusing on Jewish communal service, and it’s working with Arts & Sciences to recruit other faculty with common interests. It has longstanding foreign study programs with Hebrew University and American University in Cairo and recently added options through the University of Haifa.

Barmash wants to develop a special program that inspires freshmen to study Islamic and Jewish civilizations in comparative and constructive ways, to start language study, if they have not already, and to take on advanced work or another language, if they arrive with a strong background. Language study now makes up about one-third of the course load for JINES students, with the rest coming from culture, history, literature, religion, even music.

“We’re interested in language in and of itself, but I think we’re most interested in learning language as a tool to help us grapple with the major issues that face Islamic civilization and Jewish civilization,” she says.

Barmash’s credentials include some level of fluency in nearly a dozen languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Akkadian, Arabic, ancient Greek, Ugaritic, French and German.

She has worked with Northwest Semitic inscriptions, including those of Phoenician, Punic, Moabite, Edomite and Ammonite origin.

Hillel J. Kieval, Ph.D., the Goldstein Professor of Jewish History and Thought and chair of the Department of History in Arts & Sciences, describes Barmash as a Washington University treasure.

“She is that rare example of a biblical scholar who is equally at home in Near Eastern archaeology, ancient history, Jewish studies and rabbinics,” Kieval says. “As faculty adviser to the Jewish-Islamic dialogue group; director of our unique program in Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies; and organizer of the 15-day study visit to Jerusalem, Professor Barmash is a model of passionate teaching combined with dispassionate ecumenism.”