Harry M. Orlinsky, 84, leading biblical scholar

March 22, 1992|By Albert Sehlstedt Jr. | Albert Sehlstedt Jr.,Contributing Writer

Dr. Harry M. Orlinsky, one of the world's foremost biblical scholars and a key player in verifying the authenticity of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, died yesterday at North Oaks Retirement Community in Owings Mills after a long illness.

He was 84.

Services will be held at noon tomorrow at the Baltimore Hebrew University, 5800 Park Heights Ave.

Recognized internationally for his meticulous research in biblical studies, Dr. Orlinsky was the only Jewish scholar invited to participate in the 1950s literary achievement that produced the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

He also was a translator of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which was introduced in 1991 for use in America's major Protestant churches.

In addition, he was the chief editor of the new Jewish version of the Bible published by the Jewish Publication Society.

The final installment of this work came out in 1982.

His verification of the authenticity of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, among the world's oldest surviving biblical writings, occurred in 1954.

He was asked by the Israeli Consulate in New York to examine a collection of ancient documents purported to be newly found scrolls put up for sale by a Syrian Orthodox prelate.

The first of these scrolls had been found in 1947, in a cave on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.

At the direction of the consulate, Dr. Orlinsky went to a basement vault of the Chemical Bank branch at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where he met the Syrian prelate and examined the documents.

Dr. Orlinsky verified the authenticity of the scrolls, which were later bought for $250,000 and sent to Israel.

Verifying the authenticity of the ancient texts required not only an understanding of the history and language that influenced their composition, "but particularly a detailed knowledge of the structure -- even the lettering -- of every word," said Leivy Smolar, president of the Baltimore Hebrew University, where Dr. Orlinsky was a member of the faculty from 1936 to 1944.

Dr. Orlinsky was the son of immigrant parents. They had fled Poland and the pogroms of czarist Russia, and settled in the northern Ontario town of Owen Sound.

He attended the University of Toronto, which had, among many other things, an excellent collection of pool tables in a building named the Hart House.

Fascinated by this indoor sport, young Orlinsky adjusted his class schedule so that he would have first choice of the best of the nine tables when the pool room opened at 10 minutes till 9 in the morning. This maneuver was accomplished by scheduling an 8 a.m. class rather than one at 9, so he would have a running start to the best table.

The 8 o'clock class was in Hebrew composition. The subject aroused his interest, and thus began a remarkable career in biblical scholarship.

He went on to specialize in Semitic languages at the University of Toronto, then won a scholarship to Dropsie College, a secular Jewish institution in Philadelphia that later awarded him a

doctorate in Hebrew.

"He is one of the great scholars in the field of Bible and the interpretation of the Bible throughout history," Dr. Smolar said.

"Dr. Orlinsky has been one of the dearest friends that this institution has ever had," Dr. Smolar added, noting that he was a student of the scholar.

He was a "great, wonderful, glorious, inspiring teacher," Dr. Smolar said.

During his eight years at the Baltimore institution, Dr. Orlinsky was professor of history and the Bible. He left the university in 1944 to become professor of Bible at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

In 1979, the Baltimore Hebrew University awarded him its Distinguished Scholar citation and established in his honor the Harry M. Orlinsky Institute of Biblical and Archeological Research.

Dr. Orlinsky also was the first person who was not a British subject to be invited to serve as Grinfield Lecturer on the Septuagint, the oldest Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, at Oxford University in England.

He was a member of the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars. During his time in Baltimore, he became a close collaborator with the university's famed Semitics scholar, William Foxwell Albright, who died in 1971.

In an interview with The Sun in 1976, Dr. Orlinsky recalled that he had "worked very closely with Albright," adding that "I couldn't have done my work without the services of Hopkins and the stimulating scholarship and personality of Albright."

Although Dr. Orlinsky's work required exacting scholarship and prolonged attention to detail, he was known as a man with a rich sense of humor, a love for baseball and a singular ability to relax to the point of simply loafing.

"The thing I love most is window- shopping with my wife down Broadway and Fifth Avenue," he said. "Window-shopping is a polite, academic term for loafing. I love loafing. It's one of the greatest avocations in the world.

"And I tell my students they should never meet every challenge head-on. They must learn sometimes to turn around and run like hell."

Dr. Orlinsky is survived by his wife of 58 years, Donya Orlinsky of Owings Mills; two sons, Walter Orlinsky of Baltimore and S. Zeke Orlinsky of Columbia; a brother, David Orlinsky, and a sister, Ruby Halpern, both of Toronto, Canada; and three grandchildren.

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