Rabbi, biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom dies at 87

Historian Fred Rosenbaum will remember Jacob Milgrom — a rabbi, biblical scholar and professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at U.C. Berkeley — not poring over biblical tomes, but opening the home he shared with his wife, Jo, and their children to students for Shabbat.    

“Just to be invited to Shabbat dinner at the Milgrom home was a wonderful invitation,” said Rosenbaum, who was a graduate student in Jewish history at U.C. Berkeley when he first met Milgrom in the early 1970s. “People really treasured it, including me. I was personally touched by Jack, both by his intellect and his human sensitivity and caring about others.”  

Milgrom died June 6 at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem of a brain hemorrhage related to a fall. He was 87.  

Best known for his comprehensive commentaries on Torah and his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Conservative rabbi wrote a three-volume series on Leviticus, interpreting Jewish dietary and purification rituals as well as the Bible’s position on homosexuality. He concluded the ban on homosexuality applies only to Jewish men.

“Jacob Milgrom’s painstaking analysis of the priestly laws in the Bible gave these seemingly arcane and antiquated practices ethical urgency and philosophical meaning,” said David Biale, a former professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley who now teaches in the Jewish studies program at U.C. Davis.

“To make us aware that the ancient sacrifices have contemporary significance was among his most important contributions, not only to our understanding of the Bible, but to how we understand Judaism in general.”

Over the course of Milgrom’s career, he published five books, including an interpretation of Numbers, a 600-page commentary that is part of the Jewish Publication Society’s five-volume “JPS Torah Commentary.” He also authored more than 200 articles.

“He was a model for what a scholar could be,” said David Wright, a former student of Milgrom’s at U.C. Berkeley and professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East at Brandeis University. “Critical in judgment, adept in a wide range of tools and approaches, and persevering in the pursuit of answers — and balancing all this with a commitment to family and community.” 

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1923, Milgrom studied at Brooklyn College before earning advanced degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1948, he married Jo Berman, also a biblical scholar.

When Jo and Jacob Milgrom arrived in Berkeley in 1965, the Free Speech Movement was in full swing, but Jewish life on campus was dormant. Milgrom later described mid-1960s Berkeley as a “Jewish cemetery” and Hillel as “its mausoleum.”

The Milgroms set about revitalizing Jewish life in Berkeley, both academically and spiritually. Jacob chaired U.C. Berkeley’s Near Eastern Studies department at a time when “things were primitive,” Rosenbaum said. “He was, in that sense, a pioneer in Jewish studies.”  

Jo, then an adjunct professor of Judaism and art at Berkeley’s GTU, made her mark as a Judaica artist, combining discarded tefillin, prayerbooks and ritual objects with salvaged materials such as metal, fabric and wood scraps.

Together the couple raised four children, hosted Shabbat and holiday dinners, conducted a Conservative Shabbat minyan in their home for almost a decade, and led a Shabbat afternoon study group on biblical commentaries. 

Considered pillars of East Bay Jewish life, the couple moved to Jerusalem in 1994. 

“We were blessed with living in the earthly Garden of Eden for almost 30 years,” Milgrom said in a 1997 interview. “But we wanted something of a spiritual Garden of Eden as well … This was my dream.”

They took up residence in a home they’d purchased in Jerusalem some 15 years before their move. Both spoke Hebrew and had numerous friends in Israel, which helped ease the transition. Their son Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom and his family had already made aliyah.  

Being Conservative Jews in Israel wasn’t easy. The couple were hard-pressed to find the Israeli equivalent

of Berkeley’s Conservative Netivot Shalom, a synagogue they helped get off the ground.

“He often told me how much he missed Netivot Shalom, despite the wide choice of synagogues in Jerusalem,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman, former senior rabbi at the synagogue. He remembered Milgrom sharing his wisdom on Shabbat morning, coherently and often without notes. “He left an amazing legacy of writings and students.” 

Milgrom is survived by his wife, Jo; four children and 14 grandchildren. His funeral was June 7 in Jerusalem.