I am happy to announce the 2017-18 schedule for the Judaic Studies Book Discussion Group. The purpose of the group is create an opportunity for informal discussion around a book that has been important in the field. All are welcome to attend. Reminders will be sent before each meeting and one copy of each book will be available for loan in the Judaic Studies office.
The schedule is below. Each meeting will last take place at noon and last about an hour. Lunch will be provided.
Wednesday, September 13, 2017: David Grossman, A Horse Walks Into a Bar
In a little dive in a small Israeli city, Dov Greenstein, a comedian a bit past his prime, is doing a night of stand-up. In the audience is a district court justice, Avishai Lazar, whom Dov knew as a boy, along with a few others who remember Dov as an awkward, scrawny kid who walked on his hands to confound the neighborhood bullies. Gradually, as it teeters between hilarity and hysteria, Dov’s patter becomes a kind of memoir, taking us back into the terrors of his childhood: we meet his beautiful flower of a mother, a Holocaust survivor in need of constant monitoring, and his punishing father, a striver who had little understanding of his creative son. Finally, recalling his week at a military camp for youth—where Lazar witnessed what would become the central event of Dov’s childhood—Dov describes the indescribable while Lazar wrestles with his own part in the comedian’s story of loss and survival. Continuing his investigations into how people confront life’s capricious battering, and how art may blossom from it, Grossman delivers a stunning performance in this memorable one-night engagement (jokes in questionable taste included).
Wednesday, November 8, 2017: Aaron Hughes, Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast
Jacob Neusner (born 1932) is one of the most important figures in the shaping of modern American Judaism. He was pivotal in transforming the study of Judaism from an insular project only conducted by—and of interest to—religious adherents to one which now flourishes in the secular setting of the university. He is also one of the most colorful, creative, and difficult figures in the American academy. But even those who disagree with Neusner’s academic approach to ancient rabbinic texts have to engage with his pioneering methods.
In this comprehensive biography, Aaron Hughes shows Neusner to be much more than a scholar of rabbinics. He is a social commentator, a post-Holocaust theologian, and was an outspoken political figure during the height of the cultural wars of the 1980s. Neusner’s life reflects the story of what happened as Jews migrated to the suburbs in the late 1940s, daring to imagine new lives for themselves as they successfully integrated into the fabric of American society. It is also the story of how American Jews tried to make sense of the world in the aftermath of the extermination of European Jewry and the subsequent creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and how they sought to define what it meant to be an American Jew.
Unlike other great American Jewish thinkers, Neusner was born in the U.S., and his Judaism was informed by an American ethos. His Judaism is open, informed by and informing the world. It is an American Judaism, one that has enabled American Jews—the freest in history—to be fully American and fully Jewish.
Wednesday, February 7, 2018: Benjamin Sommer, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition
At once a study of biblical theology and modern Jewish thought, this volume describes a “participatory theory of revelation” as it addresses the ways biblical authors and contemporary theologians alike understand the process of revelation and hence the authority of the law. Benjamin Sommer maintains that the Pentateuch’s authors intend not only to convey God’s will but to express Israel’s interpretation of and response to that divine will. Thus Sommer’s close readings of biblical texts bolster liberal theologies of modern Judaism, especially those of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Franz Rosenzweig. This bold view of revelation puts a premium on human agency and attests to the grandeur of a God who accomplishes a providential task through the free will of the human subjects under divine authority. Yet, even though the Pentateuch’s authors hold diverse views of revelation, all of them regard the binding authority of the law as sacrosanct. Sommer’s book demonstrates why a law-observant religious Jew can be open to discoveries about the Bible that seem nontraditional or even antireligious.
Wednesday, April 18, 2018: Cynthia Baker, Jew
Jew. The word possesses an uncanny power to provoke and unsettle. For millennia, Jew has signified the consummate Other, a persistent fly in the ointment of Western civilization’s grand narratives and cultural projects. Only very recently, however, has Jew been reclaimed as a term of self-identification and pride.
With these insights as a point of departure, this book offers a wide-ranging exploration of the key word Jew—a term that lies not only at the heart of Jewish experience, but indeed at the core of Western civilization. Examining scholarly debates about the origins and early meanings of Jew, Cynthia M. Baker interrogates categories like “ethnicity,” “race,” and “religion” that inevitably feature in attempts to define the word. Tracing the term’s evolution, she also illuminates its many contradictions, revealing how Jew has served as a marker of materialism and intellectualism, socialism and capitalism, worldly cosmopolitanism and clannish parochialism, chosen status, and accursed stigma.
Baker proceeds to explore the complex challenges that attend the modern appropriation of Jew as a term of self-identification, with forays into Yiddish language and culture, as well as meditations on Jew-as-identity by contemporary public intellectuals. Finally, by tracing the phrase new Jews through a range of contexts—including the early Zionist movement, current debates about Muslim immigration to Europe, and recent sociological studies in the United States—the book provides a glimpse of what the word Jew is coming to mean in an era of Internet cultures, genetic sequencing, precarious nationalisms, and proliferating identities.
Michael L. Satlow
Professor of Religious Studies and Judaic Studies
Providence, RI 02912