Professor profile: 'Repairing the world' through acceptance

By Andrew O'Neill
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, October 12, 2005

When he started college, he said he was intent on becoming a minister.

But somewhere between Bible study and Brandeis University, he altered his career plans.

"One of my professors said to me, 'I know you want to be a minister, but the church would be better off if you did something else,'" said Ed Wright, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism in the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies at the UA.

Wright said the professor simply thought he had different skills and talents to share with others.

He said it was also this professor who encouraged him to learn more about the Jewish faith.

"You can't really understand anything about Christianity without studying Judaism," Wright said.

Wright, who is a Christian, has taught at the UA since 1990, where his courses have included the Hebrew Bible, Ancient Israel, Early Jewish History and the Book of Psalms.

After college, he said he pursued a master's degree in Hebrew Scripture that included the study of biblical languages such as Aramaic and Ugaritic, which built on the linguistic foundations he had already established in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

Wright pursued further graduate studies at Brandeis in Massachusetts, earning masters and doctoral degrees in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.

"Now I know more about Judaism than I do about Christianity," he said.

While at Brandeis, Wright said he had the opportunity to spend two years studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an experience that he said helped shape his views about different religious traditions.

"I've lived amongst Israelis and Palestinians," he said. "I lived in a country where I was a religious minority."

Biographical sketch

  • Full Name: J. Edward Wright
  • Occupation: Professor of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism in the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies; former director of the center, 2000-2005.
  • Born: Jan. 29, 1956, in Astoria, Ore.; grew up in Portland, Ore.
  • Education: Bachelor of theology, Multnomah Bible College, 1980; master's, Western Seminary, 1982; master's, 1987, Ph.D., 1992, Brandeis University.

Wright said his experiences in Israel make him more sensitive to people who find themselves in similar situations in the U.S.

In the classroom, Wright said his goal is to teach students to appreciate other people and their beliefs, and why they hold those particular beliefs.

Wright said simply preaching tolerance is not enough.

"I'm not interested in tolerance for the sake of tolerance, but moving on from tolerance to esteem, and really appreciating other people," he said.

Wright said he believes there are too many religious extremists from all religions in the world right now.

"Religious fundamentalism is the scourge of our time," he said.

Such views are alluring because they attempt to provide easy answers to questions that are difficult or unknowable, Wright said.

"It can't work in the long run," he said.

Wright's colleagues praise him for his leadership skills and the unique background he brings to his field.

"In my opinion, Ed walks on water," said Beth Alpert Nakhai, assistant professor and assistant director of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies and a longtime friend of Wright's.

She said Wright was an amazing department head, and that he helped bring the center to prominence in the Tucson community.

Robert A. Burns, professor and chair of the religious studies program, agrees.

"I thought he was a marvelous chair of Judaic studies," he said.

Burns, also a longtime friend, said Wright was a frequent guest lecturer in some of his classes, and that he was popular among the students.

"His joint knowledge (of Judaism and Christianity), gives him a deeper understanding of how much Christianity has learned and used from Judaism," said Burns.

Ultimately, Wright said he hopes he has been able to encourage students to understand and admire different religious traditions.

"The goal of human life is tikkun olam, which means 'repairing the world,' and trying to make the world a better place," he said.

With Yom Kippur beginning at sundown today, Wright said he, too, embraces the High Holy Days as a period of reflection on what he has done in the past year and what he would like to do in the year ahead.

"It's a beginning and a new opportunity," Wright said.