Renaissance man Amos Funkenstein dies at age 58

Called a genius and Renaissance man by his academic colleagues, Amos Funkenstein was known for reciting long passages verbatim in Latin, German and Greek decades after reading them.

Winner of the coveted Israel Prize for History, the U.C. Berkeley history professor could lecture effortlessly on nearly any element of Jewish or non-Jewish civilization from the biblical period through the 20th century.

Raised an Orthodox Jew in pre-state Israel, he was considered the quintessential apikoros — a heretic who knew the tradition inside and out, yet rejected any belief in its divine origin.

Funkenstein died Saturday, Nov. 11 in Berkeley after a yearlong battle with cancer. He was 58.

"He was truly a Renaissance man in terms of intellectual interest," said Professor David Biale, director of the Berkeley-based Graduate Theological Union's Center for Jewish Studies. "He was probably the only genius I've ever met."

Considered rare even among world-class academics for his intellectual abilities, Funkenstein was primarily a historian of Judaism, medieval intellectualism and science.

He authored seven books and more than 50 articles, writing in German, Hebrew, English and French. His books included "Perceptions of Jewish History," "Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century," and "Sociology of Ignorance," which he wrote with childhood friend Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. At the time of his death, he was working on a multivolume study of the social and cultural context of knowledge in Western history since antiquity.

"He had razor-sharp analytic abilities," said Robert Alter, a U.C. Berkeley professor of Hebrew and comparative literature who officiated at Funkenstein's funeral service on Tuesday. "He was very, very focused on thinking. That was his way of life."

Educated in a religious school in Jerusalem, Funkenstein served in the Israeli army and then studied for two years at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before transferring to the Free University of Berlin in the late 1950s. He earned his doctorate in history and philosophy at the university and began his teaching career there.

In 1967, he was hired to teach at UCLA. In the early 1970s, Biale became one of Funkenstein's graduate students and teaching assistants. From the start, Biale knew Funkenstein was different.

"He was beyond anyone else I ever encountered as a teacher," he said.

Funkenstein could offer detailed critiques of books he had read 20 years earlier, Biale recalled, and he would doodle mathematical proofs for fun.

"He had a photographic memory," Biale said. But even this ability was just intellectual pyrotechnics. "What counted with him was originality."

Unlike many of his peers in academia, Funkenstein rejected much of the formality associated with the job. He wanted students to call him by his first name and became friends with many of them.

In the late 1970s while still at UCLA, Funkenstein began teaching part of the year at Tel Aviv University, where he held an endowed chair in history and the philosophy of science. He stayed in Southern California until 1986 when Stanford University hired him as the first Daniel E. Koshland professor of Jewish culture and history as part of its fledgling Jewish studies program.

Funkenstein returned to UCLA three years later, but then left again when U.C. Berkeley hired him in 1991 as its Koret professor of Jewish history.

Among his lasting marks in the Bay Area: his role in creating the new joint doctoral program in Jewish studies between U.C. Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union.

In addition to winning earlier this year an Israel Prize, the highest honor bestowed by the Jewish state, Funkenstein had been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship at Ecole des Hautes Ecoles in Paris a decade ago.

In the early 1980s, Funkenstein also became an activist in the Israeli peace movement and worked to convince the government to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 1991, he told the Jewish Bulletin that "the occupation of the West Bank has now reached the point where it's illegitimate," and he compared the lack of rights for Palestinians to the status of Jews living in Germany in the mid-1930s.

Last fall, Funkenstein was diagnosed with lung cancer, which spread to other organs. Soon after, Alter recalled, "he made this principal decision: As long as he could, he would go on doing what he loved."

Funkenstein continued working on his book and teaching classes at U.C. Berkeley until about a month ago when he came down with pneumonia and suffered a heart attack.

But even a few days before his death, he was still making plans for the future.

"He never lost faith in life," said Tony Long, a U.C. Berkeley classics professor.

Funkenstein was buried Tuesday in the Tel Shalom section of the Rolling Hills Memorial Park in Richmond.

He is survived by his wife, Esti Funkenstein of Berkeley, and two children from his first marriage, Jakob Funkenstein of Toulouse, France, and Daniela Funkenstein of Los Angeles.