Former Barnard professor Alan Segal, who retired in December after 30 years of teaching in Barnard's religion department, died of complications from leukemia on Sunday. He was 65.
Segal was primarily a Jewish studies professor and scholar, teaching courses at Barnard such as Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Judaism in the Time of Jesus. He was also known for his work on different views of the afterlife and the relationship between Judaism and early Christianity.
Religion professor Celia M. Deutsch, who had taught with Segal since 1985, said Segal was devoted both to his students and to his studies.
"He was an avid reader. I used to make jokes about how much he read," Deutsch said. "He had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the field."
Tzvee Zahavy, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary who knew Segal for about 30 years, noted that Segal's book on the biblical apostle, "Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee," was highly acclaimed. Zahavy said that some Christian scholars called it "the best book on Paul ever written."
Segal was also a prominent figure in a 2007 controversy over the work of Barnard professor Nadia Abu El Haj. During her tenure review process, Abu El Haj came under fire for a book in which she argued that no Jewish state existed in ancient Israel.
Segal made a presentation to students where he discussed evidence that he said proved Abu El Haj emphatically wrong and argued in a Spectator column that she should not be granted tenure. Ultimately, her tenure was approved.
"He was proud and vocal in his defense of all things associated with Jews and Judaism and the state of Israel," Zahavy said.
Zahavy also described Segal as the most consistent person he had ever met.
"He was consistent and methodical, careful in his scholarship, and every page that he wrote, every chapter that he published, was a work of great thought and insight, sometimes profound insight," he said.
Zahavy said that Segal was just as dependable with his friendships.
"He cultivated them and considered them as carefully as he did anything else in his intellectual or scholarly life, and if you were a friend or a colleague of his, you could count on his care with which he would deal with you … and the respect that he would give you," Zahavy said. "He was a person who didn't seek respect, but he gave respect to all of his friends, his students, his colleagues."
Alan Cooper, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, said he and Segal had been friends since they met in the early 1970s.
"Alan and I were friends and colleagues for almost 40 years, from the time we sat together in the seminar of the late Prof. Judah Goldin at Yale (Fall 1971). Alan was brilliant, cultured, witty, warm and generous, a man of principle and a true and loyal friend," he wrote in an email.
Deutsch echoed those sentiments, saying that Segal's death has left a vacuum in the department.
"He was really revered as a colleague by many, many people, and really loved as a colleague for his cordiality, and his warmth, and his great, great learning," Deutsch said.
Zahavy said that even though Segal had been ill for a while, "it really did not slow him down," adding that he had just completed a book which will probably be published soon, possibly by Columbia University Press.