Four days after his 84th birthday, Bible scholar Harry M. Orlinsky died on March 21, 1992 after a long illness. In the forefront of Biblical studies for four decades, Orlinsky in 1954 played a critical part in returning four Dead Sea Scrolls to Israel (see accompanying article). Acting at the request of Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, Orlinsky secretly and anonymously authenticated the four intact scrolls that Yadin was seeking to purchase for the State of Israel via intermediaries. Today these scrolls—the complete Book of Isaiah, the Book of Habakkuk, the Dead Sea Sect’s Manual of Discipline and the so-called Apocalypse of Lamech—reside in Jerusalem at the Shrine of the Book.
Orlinsky served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1970. He was the only Jewish member of the committees that prepared the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (1952) and the New Revised Standard Version (1990), which is the official translation in many Protestant churches. In that capacity, he championed the plain sense of the text, and consistently illuminated it by recourse to Jewish interpretative tradition. He advocated the same principles in his role as editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Torah, on which he worked with H. L. Ginsberg of the Jewish Theological Seminary and E. A. Speiser of the University of Pennsylvania, and in his role as co-editor of the Society’s Nevi’im (Prophets) translation.
Orlinsky’s voluminous scholarly contributions range from detailed technical studies on, among others, the texts of the Septuagint and of Job; to the history of American Jewish Bible scholarship and a collaborative translation of Rashi, the great medieval Jewish exegete; and to such syntheses as Understanding the Bible through History and Archaeology (New York: Ktav, 1972).Orlinsky was born in Owen Sound, Ontario, and studied at the University of Toronto. He received his Ph.D. from Dropsie College in Philadelphia and taught at Baltimore Hebrew College from 1936 to 1944. Orlinsky then joined the faculty of the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York (which merged in 1950 with Hebrew Union College) and taught there for almost 50 years.
Harry Orlinsky was a man of enormous vitality. As a dynamic teacher of several generations of students, he had few rivals. Yet he was able to communicate with lay audiences as well. It was a rare lecture that didn’t contain some humor that sent his audience roaring. He was both a great scholar and a warm human being. He will be missed.