Midrash: The Imaginative Interpretation of Biblical Texts (L23 179/L75 179)

This Freshman Seminar introduces the Midrash, the highly fascinating literature of rabbinic  interpretation of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. How did the classical rabbis read the Bible? What is the relationship between the plain meaning of the biblical text and the polyphone interpretations of Midrash? How can numerous, at times even contradictory, interpretations of the same verse coexist? What is the function of imaginative narratives, parables, and folklore in Midrash? Initially the Midrashic logic may seem elusive from the viewpoint of a modern Western reader; in time, its creative thinking proves to be smart, playful, at times even slippery, and yet substantial.

Addressing the literary, historical, and cultural context in which rabbinic Midrash developed, we will get to know a variety of Midrashic collections and styles covering late antiquity to the Middle Ages. All primary sources will be read in translation.  Throughout the semester we will devote time to discussing practical questions such as how to use the Library’s catalogue and (electronic) reference sources, as well as techniques for structuring and writing students’ essays.

History, Text, and Identity: An Introduction to Jewish Civilization (L23 208F/L75 208F/L97 208)

Understanding Jewish civilization in a broad sense to include aspects of history, religion, and literature, this course offers a selective survey of Jewish communities and their cultural productions from antiquity to the present. We will start with the ancient Israelites and the Hebrew Bible, and then move on to the major groups of Second Temple Judaism; the classical rabbis and their literature; and the Jewish communities of the medieval worlds of Islam and Christendom. The last third of the semester will be dedicated to the Jewish experience in modern Europe, the US, and Israel. We will get to know some of the major literary works that Jews produced and studied and learn to understand them as both expressions of Jewish identity and responses to specific historical circumstances. The course, furthermore, aims to challenge widespread stereotypes of Jewish history, such as its “lachrymose conception” (Salo W. Baron) as a mere series of suffering and persecution. By contrast, we will investigate when and how Jews were actors in their own right and actively engaged with other cultures, religions, and social groups. Prior study or knowledge of Judaism is not a prerequisite for taking this course.

From the Temple to the Talmud: The Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism (L23 3082/L75 3082)

This course offers a survey of the historical, literary, social, and conceptual development of rabbinic Judaism from its emergence in late antiquity to the early Middle Ages. The goal of the course is to study rabbinic Judaism as a dynamic phenomenon—as a constantly developing religious system. Among the topics to be explored are: How did Judaism evolve from a sacrificial cult to a text-based religion? How did the “rabbis” emerge as a movement after the destruction of the Second Temple and how could they replace the old priestly elite? How did rabbinic Judaism develop in its two centers of origin, Palestine (the Land of Israel) and Babylonia (Iraq), to become the dominant form of Judaism under the rule of Islam? How did Jewish ritual and liturgy develop under rabbinic influence? How were the classical rabbis organized and was there any diversity within the group? What rights and roles did they assign to women? How did they perceive non-rabbinic Jews, Christians and non-Jews?

As rabbinic literature will be used as the main source to answer these questions, the course will provide an introduction to the Mishnah, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, and the Midrash-collections—a literature that defines the character of Judaism down to our own times. All texts will be read in translation.

History of the Jews in Islamic Lands (L22 336C/L23 336C/L75 336C/L22 5336/L75 536)

This course is a survey of selected Jewish communities in the Muslim world, their social, cultural, and intellectual history from the rise of Islam (seventh century CE) to the height of European imperialism (nineteenth century). At the same time, it will contextualize these communities within Islamic history and culture at large. Inter alia, it seeks to answer questions such as: What enabled Jews to participate with Muslims in what has been described as a symbiotic relationship; and what were the causes of conflict and strife?

Topics include: the Prophet Muḥammad and the Jews of Arabia; the legal status of religious minorities under Islam; the spread of rabbinic Judaism under the Abbasid caliphs; international trade and Jewish scholarship in medieval Egypt; the flourishing of Hebrew poetry in Muslim Spain (al-Andalus); Sephardi migrations to and Ladino culture in the Ottoman Empire; and the rise of Western imperialism and its impact on the Jewish communities of North Africa and the Middle East.

On this background, we will look closely at some of the major Jewish philosophical and poetical works originating in Muslim-dominated societies. Another important source to be studied will be letters and documents from medieval Cairo (Cairo Geniza) that shed light on the history of women, Jewish slave ownership, the life of the poor, and various aspects of daily life in Egypt and the Mediterranean world at large.

The Sephardic Experience: 1492 to the Present (L22 3856/L23 3660; L75 366/L75 556)

In the public perception, modern Jews divide into two groups: Ashkenazi and Sephardi, or European and Middle Eastern Jews. However, this is an oversimplification that does not do justice to the complex history of Jewish identities, which are often multilayered. Strictly speaking, Sephardi Jews trace their ancestral lines or cultural heritage to the medieval Iberian Peninsula, present-day Spain and Portugal. According to some scholars, Sephardi Judaism did not exist before the general expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492 and is the result of their subsequent migrations within the Mediterranean and transatlantic worlds. 

We will start with a brief introduction into the history of Iberian Jews prior to 1492, asking to what extent this experience created a distinct subethnic group: the Sephardim. We will then follow their migratory path to North Africa, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, the Netherlands, and the Americas. The questions we will explore include: in what sense did Sephardim form a transnational community? How did they transmit and transform aspects of Spanish culture and create a vibrant Ladino literature? How did Sephardi Jews become intermediaries between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire? What was their role in Europe’s transatlantic expansion and the slave trade? How did Ottoman and North African Jews respond to European cultural trends in the nineteenth century and create their own forms of modernity? How did the Holocaust impact Sephardic Jewry?

Travelers, Tricksters, and Storytellers: Jewish Travel Narratives and Autobiographies (L22 3599/L23 359/L75 359/L75 559)

Jewish literature includes highly fascinating travel accounts and autobiographies that are still awaiting their discovery by a broader readership. In this course, we will explore a broad range of texts originating from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century. Their authors were of either Ashkenazi or Sephardic background and hailed from countries as diverse as Spain, Italy, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire; among them were pilgrims, rabbis, merchants, and one savvy business-woman. We will read their works as responses to historical circumstances and as expressions of Jewish identity, in its changing relationship to the Christian or Muslim environment in which the writers lived or traveled.

Specifically, we will ask questions such as: How do travel accounts and autobiographies enable their authors and readers to reflect on issues of identity and difference? How do the writers produce representations of an “other,” against which and through which they define a particular sense of self? To what extent are these texts reliable accounts of their authors’ personal experiences, and where do they serve their own self-fashioning? How do the writers portray Christians, Muslims, and Jews from other cultural backgrounds than their own? How do they construe the role of women in a world dominated by men? How do they reflect on history, geography, and other fields of knowledge that were not covered by the traditional Jewish curriculum; and how do they respond to the challenges and opportunities of early modernity?

This course is open to students of varying interests, including Jewish, Islamic, or Religious Studies; medieval and early modern history; European or Middle Eastern literatures. All texts will be read in English translation.

Topics in Rabbinic Texts: Mishnah and Gemara (in the original language; L23 4401/L74 440)

In this course we will be reading selected chapters from both the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud in the original language. We will focus on a number of engaging topics representing the range of rabbinic discussion, including legal, narrative, and ethical issues. At the same time, we will get to know the characteristics of Mishnaic Hebrew and Talmudic Aramaic and study some of the hermeneutic tools necessary for the understanding of rabbinic texts.

Structurally, the course divides into two main parts. After a brief reflection on the history and development of the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud, part one  will consist of an introduction to Babylonian Aramaic. During the second, major part of the semester we this time will read and analyze a number of larger literary units (sugyot) from the tractates Berakhot, Qiddushin, Baba Qamma, and Baba Metzia, discussing topics such as the relationship between biblical and rabbinic law; commandments, gender roles, and their limitations; and the unique culture of the Babylonian Rabbis.

The Mystical Tradition in Judaism (L23 444/L75 444)

Commonly, Jewish mysticism is equated with Kabbalah. But historically, this is just one of its various strands. What exactly is Jewish “mysticism”? Is Jewish mysticism just one form of a phenomenon common to a variety of religious traditions? Or is it a unique interpretation of biblical, rabbinic and other Jewish traditions?

Taking the above questions as a starting point, this course aims at a systematic and historically contextualized analysis of a broad range of Jewish sources from the Hebrew Bible to modern times that are commonly classified as “mystical.” Topics will include: the Talmud and early esoteric teachings; the magical power of the Hebrew alphabet; visions of heavenly ascent and mystical rites of initiation; the emergence of classical Kabbalah in medieval France and Spain, and the composition of its central text, the Zohar; the Kabbalah of Safed (Tzefat) in Ottoman Palestine; Sabbatai Tzvi’s messianic movement between Judaism and Islam; and the Ḥasidic communities of Eastern Europe. At the same time, we will explore such themes as: the place of Jewish law (halakhah) within mystical thought and practice; the role of gender, sexuality, and the body in Jewish mysticism; the place of women within Jewish mystical movements; esoteric traditions of an elite vs. mysticism as a communal endeavor; and the tension between innovation and (the claim to) tradition in the history of Jewish mysticism.

Conflict or Convivencia? Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Medieval Spain (L75 4060/L22 4040/L23 4060))

This seminar explores various facets of the coexistence (convivencia) of Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Spain. Its horizon stretches from the Muslim conquest of Iberia (al-Andalus) up to the turn of the sixteenth century when Spanish Jews and Muslims were equally faced with the choice between exile and conversion to Christianity. 

Until about 1100, Muslims dominated most of the Iberian Peninsula; from then onward, Christians ruled much and eventually all of what would become modern Spain and Portugal. Through a process known as Reconquista (reconquest), Catholic kingdoms acquired large Muslim enclaves. As borders moved, Jewish communities found themselves under varying Muslim or Christian dominion. Interactions between the three religious communities occurred throughout, some characterized by shared creativity and mutual respect, others by rivalry and strife. The course focuses on these cultural encounters, placing them in various historical contexts. It will explore the ambiguities of religious conversion, and the interplay of persecution and toleration. Last not least, the course will address the question of how the memory of medieval Spain’s diversity reverberates—and is utilized—in modern popular and academic discourse.

All sources will be read in English translation; however, students are encouraged to make use of their linguistic and cultural expertise acquired in previous classes.

This course serves as the capstone seminar for Jewish, Islamic & Near Eastern Studies majors, Arabic majors, and Hebrew majors. Graduate students, minors, and other interested undergrads are likewise welcome.