Jewish studies professor enjoys Lay Centre welcome


Professor Jacques van Ruiten and his wife, Tootje van Ruiten

I was born and brought up in a Catholic family of bulb farmers on my father’s side and carpenters on my mother’s side. As a young child, I very much enjoyed the mystical and spiritual dimension of the Catholic Church. I served as an acolyte from my fifth birthday until age 12. During my time in high school, I always kept my interest in mysticism and spirituality and was well acquainted with the Franciscan friars in our neighborhood. I visited many monasteries for shorter or longer visits in the Netherlands, Belgium and France (among others, Benedictine, Cistercian and Soeurs de Bethlehem).

At the age of 16 and 17, I visited Taizé several times for quite long periods, and I was gripped by the really international atmosphere. Young people came from so many different backgrounds. So in a certain way, it was quite natural that I started my study in theology at the Catholic University of Amsterdam, although there were quite a few alternatives, and mathematics was always my strongest subject. At that time in the Netherlands (not long after the Second Vatican Council), it became quite normal for lay people to study theology (90 percent of the students were lay); women were only starting to study theology then.

I enjoyed many subjects in theology, but I really loved learning and reading Hebrew, Jewish studies, and interpreting literary texts, including biblical texts. In addition to theology, I also started Jewish studies at the University of Amsterdam, and later postgraduate Jewish studies at the Leo Baeck College in London.

Besides these theological interests, I enjoy very much the arts. While studying theology, I did preparatory training for the art academy, to which I was admitted as I finished my theology studies. My thesis was on the Book of Isaiah, with special attention for rabbinic and medieval Jewish exegesis (On the Fracture of Second and Third Isaiah: a Reading of Isaiah 55:1-56:8, also against the Background of the Medieval Jewish Exegesis).

Immediately after graduation (while still in the art academy), I was offered a job as a research assistant. During this time I could work on my dissertation and teach classes in Old Testament exegesis. It was in this extremely busy period that I met Tootje, whom I married in 1989. Between the births of our two daughters, I defended my PhD thesis at the Catholic Theological University Amsterdam in 1990 (A Beginning without End: The Reception History of Isaiah 65:17 in Early Jewish Literature and the New Testament). A few months later, in 1991, I was appointed to the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen, first as an assistant professor and later as an associate professor in Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Literature. In 2012, I was appointed as professor of Reception History of the Bible: Ancient Hermeneutics. For short periods, I was a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame (1998) and the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (2007).

In my scholarly work, I concentrate on the reception history of the Hebrew Bible in the early Jewish literature, in particular on the book of Jubilees, on which I wrote two books: Primaeval History Interpreted: The Rewriting of Genesis 1-11 in the Book of Jubilees (2000) and Abraham in the Book of Jubilees: The Rewriting of Genesis 11:26-25:10 in the Book of Jubilees 11:14-23:8 (2012), in addition to many articles.

Together with colleagues, I have edited several volumes, including several in the series Themes in Biblical Narrative, such as Balaam: The Prestige of a Pagan Prophet in Judaism, Early Christianity and Islam (2008); Abraham, the Nations, and the Hagarites: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Perspectives on Kinship with Abraham (2010). Since 1991, I am co-editor of the Journal for the Study of Judaism. In the period 2006-2015, I was also Book Review Editor of this journal.

As a teacher, I give courses in many subjects, including Old Testament Exegesis; the Bible in Its Cultural Context; the Reception History of the Bible; Iconography; Texts of Terror; and History of Judaism: from Antiquity until Modern Times.

I have always done a lot of work in university administration, which I mostly enjoyed very much. In the period 2002-2006, I was vice-dean of the board, responsible for the education portfolio. From 2012 to 2016 I was director of the Graduate School for Theology and Religious Studies of the Faculty Theology and Religious Studies.

Recently, I was appointed to head the department of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Origins, effective Feb. 1, 2017. Moreover, also as of Feb. 1, I will be the new president of the Dutch Society for Old Testament Studies for a period of three years.

Lay Centre: Why did you choose The Lay Centre for your stay in Rome?

Jacques van Ruiten: A few years ago, I enjoyed the idea of having a sabbatical leave in Rome. After an intense administrative period, I was longing for a period where I could focus on undisturbed research. The city attracted me and I knew that the Biblicum was an excellent institute with which to connect. When this dream started to become reality, I reflected on some possibilities for accommodations. Originally, I thought that my whole stay was going to be in the Royal Dutch Institute in Villa Borghese, but due to renovations at the time there was no possibility. In May, I was invited to give a paper at the Biblicum and I started to discuss possibilities for accommodations with many people. At that moment, I realized there was a big difference between being in Rome as a priest and as a layman. Then I remembered a message from a colleague, who had studied for two years at the PISAI and who had heard about The Lay Centre from a friend in the United States. I tried to google The Lay Centre. I found an address and I thought, “This is my last chance.” Without notice, I went to this place, which is actually difficult to find if you don’t know it. I rang the bell, and the doors of the property were opened. Donna opened the front entrance of the house and welcomed me; she invited me to stay for dinner. From the very beginning, I felt extremely welcome and I really enjoyed the whole atmosphere that evening. I was excited by the idea of being together with so many people from so many countries and religious backgrounds. So I asked Donna if it would be possible to stay at The Lay Centre the following year and she immediately agreed. In the summer months, it gradually became clear that my wife Tootje would be able to join me. Donna immediately agreed, and I am very grateful for that.

Lay Centre: Please tell us about your experience of living here.

Jacques van Ruiten: It was a great time to be here. I could focus very well on my work, both here and at the library of the Biblicum. At the same time, we felt included in the community very much. We were very happy to have conversations with all of the people from so many different backgrounds. We felt that everybody was respected with regard to personality, background and behaviour. It was also interesting that sometimes special guests were invited with whom we were able to get acquainted. It was good that we were able to speak Dutch from time to time with Riekie, who was also invaluable for her advice on historical places and unknown museums.


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