Rolf Rendtorff (1925-2014)

Rolf Rendtorff was professor of Old Testament at the University of Heidelberg when I met him. I first heard of him in 1981, after I moved from Kiel to Heidelberg. At the time, someone told me that Rendtorff had told the students in his seminar that there were still a few open spaces in a Jerusalem-based study-abroad program for theologians, and I applied. At the time I was studying modern Hebrew with Ruth Blum, together with my friend Andreas Brosch. (Ruth was an extraordinary teacher.) I met Prof. Rendtorff along with Peter von der Osten-Sacken, Martin Stöhr and others associated with Studium in Israel in January ’82, at the Evangelische Akademie in Arnoldshain, where students were finally selected for the program and where I passed the Hebrew test with flying colors. From that time on, Rendtorff was a staunch supporter. After I returned from Hebrew University, Rendtorff, his former student Konrad Rupprecht, and I read through Yadin’s edition of the Temple Scroll, then available only in Hebrew. On the strength of this collaboration and the paper I wrote for that seminar, Rendtorff invited me to become his last assistant in Old Testament studies in Heidelberg. (This was in 1987, after I had spent another year in Jerusalem.) I sheepishly declined and asked him for a letter of recommendation instead. His spontaneous response was: “Wenn ich Ihr Alter hätte und meine Erfahrung, würde ich auch in die USA gehen.” It was his friendship with Michael Fishbane that eventually got me to Brandeis. — A few years later, when I was done with my PhD and looking for a job, Rendtorff wrote a letter in support of an application to a position in Jewish studies at the University of Bristol in England. That letter was mentioned when I received the job offer. And it was that job offer that my chair at Boston University, Ray Hart, used to bargain with John Silber for a counter-offer. The rest is history.

Rendtorff felt like an outcast in the German university landscape, at least in Old Testament scholarship. He took pride in the fact that he was perhaps the only German commentator of his generation who seriously consulted rabbinic literature in writing about Leviticus. He could come across as arrogant but I  was particularly impressed when I saw him serve as the secretary at one of the meetings of the steering committee of Studium in Israel that met in Frankfurt. He was boyish then and in high spirits, jotting down ideas and suggestions raised at the meeting by others, and serving enthusiastically.