Archive for Author Interview

Crucial Moment in the History of Western Civilization

Joshau GarrowayI once again had the pleasure of speaking with an HUC colleague about their latest work. Joshua Garroway, Assistant Professor of Early Christianity and Second Commonwealth and the Rabbi Michael Matuson Professorship for an Emerging Scholar, recently published his book Paul’s Gentile-Jews: neither Jew nor Gentile, but Both (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012)

SFS: Congratulations on your new book! You probably get asked this a lot, but how did a nice Jewish rabbi and scholar like you get interested in Christian texts and the inter-Testamental period of history?

JDG: This question comes up less than it might have a few decades ago, as the number of Jews interested in the origins of Christianity has increased considerably. There are now a couple dozen Jews with expertise in early Christian studies and countless Jewish readers interested in books on the topic. My own personal adventure began as an undergraduate student at Duke University, where I pursued seriously a childhood curiosity about ancient Roman culture. This pursuit led to studies of  Judaism and Christianity in antiquity and eventually to a degree in religious studies. In rabbinical school I came under the tutelage of a number of rabbis who suggested that an academic rabbinate might be the best choice for me, among them Rabbi Michael Cook, professor of ancient Christianity.

When considering the field in which I would pursue a doctorate, I was given good advice by my mentors: choose a field whose questions keep you up at night. The mystery of the historical Jesus, the puzzles in Paul’s epistles, the relationship of ancient Judaism to emerging Christianity–these questions fascinate me. Why? I suppose it’s because it’s such a crucial moment (pun intended) in the history of western civilization; though, admittedly, thrice weekly sessions with a good analyst might unearth different motivations. That will have to wait until my schedule and my wallet permit it, however.

Paul's Gentile JewsSFS: I admit I felt a little trepidation picking up your book; I found the title to be a little off-putting and confusing. What do you mean by “gentile” and “gentile-Jews”?

JDG: Actually, the term “Gentile-Jew” is supposed to be off-putting and confusing. It’s a term I used to describe the Gentiles in Paul’s communities who became baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ and as a result changed their fundamental orientation toward life. They expected Christ to return imminently to judge the world and they believed that their baptism would enable them to stand justified before him in that moment. These were not Jewish folks who believed in Jesus’ resurrection and expected his return, such as the apostles. Nor were they Gentiles who, as part and parcel of the baptism into Christ, became circumcised, accepted the commandments of the Torah, and for all intents and purposes became Jews. These were Gentiles who remained uncircumcised, did not keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, and so on. The argument in my book is that Paul nevertheless believed that such Gentiles were in fact the most authentic sort of Jew, because in the wake of Christ’s death and resurrection the parameters of Jewish identity had been radically redefined. It was now faith and baptism alone that made one a circumcised, Torah observant, and a direct descendant of Abraham. Of course, nearly everyone else looking at such people would have identified them as uncircumcised, non-Torah observant Gentiles. It’s the very state of being simultaneously identified as the most authentic sort of Jew (by Paul) and authentically Gentile (by others) that is captured in the confusing and off-putting expression “Gentile-Jew.” 

SFS: I was fascinated to learn that the “proto-Christians” (my term) were seen as a sect of Judaism like the Pharisees or Sadducees.

JDG: It can make sense to see earliest Christianity as somewhat analogous to other Jewish sects in the first century, but mostly so when it comes to the Christian communities in the Land of Israel comprised of Jews (e.g., the first church communities in Jerusalem). The comparison is less apt when we’re dealing with Gentile initiates. 

SFS: It seems that at times you equate “Jews” with “monotheists”  so therefore is someone gave up their multiple idols because of a belief in Jesus, they must be a form of “Jew.”

JSG: I don’t mean to equate “Jews” with “monotheists,” as being a Jew in antiquity did not necessarily mean one was a monotheist and being a monotheist did not necessarily mean one was a Jew. Plus, our notion of monotheism is not the same as what monotheism meant in antiquity. But it’s true that one of the several characteristics that typified Jews in antiquity was their peculiar dedication to a single, invisible God in a single, idol-less Temple, and their spurning of other gods and idols. And so, yes, to some extent even Gentile believers in Jesus who abandoned idols and pantheons may have understood this transformation as a turn towards a Jewish way of life. 

SFS: You describe Jewishness and gentileness (gentility?) as the end points of a spectrum and give a list of requirements that could be used to define a Jew (e.g. circumcision, observance of dietary laws, observance of Sabbath and holidays, Jewish parents, etc.). This is a list of inclusionary items.  At what point did belief in the divinity of Jesus become an exclusionary item?

JDG: Well, that’s the $64,000 question (not adjusted for inflation). The most accurate, least helpful answer is that it occurred in different ways, in different places, at different times between the first century and the fourth. Tracing the development of this so-called “parting of the ways” (a term that is losing favor) has become a very vibrant area of research in early Jewish and Christian studies. In short, some of the important points in the process frequently addressed by scholars are the law-free Gentile mission of Paul, the destruction of the Temple, the Fiscus Judaicus tax (imposed by Rome after the first Jewish War), the birkat minim, the rise of rabbinic hegemony, and the Christianization of the Roman Empire

SFS: In your discussion of Romans 4:-12, you say that Paul considered Abraham to be the ancestor of all the followers of Jesus regardless of whether they have Jewish or gentile backgrounds. Is this a parallel to the belief that Jesus died for his followers sins; that Abraham was circumcised as a symbol of his followers faith without them having to be circumcised themselves?

JDG: I read Rom. 4:1-12 as the culmination of a lengthy argument in which Paul explains to his Gentile readership how they will be able to stand justified before Jesus upon his imminent return. Many such Gentiles, it seems, believed that “becoming Jewish,” as we might understand it, was the best course of action. They should become circumcised, accept the commandments of the Torah, and so on. After all, what better way to be reconciled to the God of Israel than to embrace the laws given by the God of Israel! According to Paul, however, Gentiles are incorrigibly sinful and their effort to live like Jews will inevitably fail. Indeed, the very reason that Jesus died and rose was precisely so that Gentiles, by becoming baptized into that death and resurrection, would have access to another avenue into the covenant with God. They need to become Jewish, so to speak, but Paul contends that baptism produces a more authentically Jewish identity than one would acquire by becoming circumcised and embracing the Torah. For Paul, baptism into Christ transforms Gentiles ontologically by furnishing them the circumcised penis required for admission into the covenant of Abraham and even line of physical descent from Abraham. They become Abraham’s children and members of Abraham’s covenant. 

Talking the talk of the frum

Sarah Bunim BenorI recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor, HUC Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies about her book.

SFS: Congratulations on the publication of your new book Becoming Frum : How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism

SBB: Thanks!

SFS: I find that I’m struggling to form some of the questions. Do I use your terms of BT (ba’alei teshuvah, i.e. Orthodox Jews who grew up non-Orthodox) and FFB (frum, i.e. Orthodox, from birth)? or try to translate them?

SBB: Might as well use those terms and translate them on first use.

SFS: In your book, you describe how newly Orthodox Jews have to not only adopt the laws and customs of the Frum community, but also their speech patterns. What makes their language different?

SBB: The English speech of Orthodox Jews in America includes hundreds of words from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish, as well as other distinctive features, like chanting intonation patterns, a hesitation click from Israeli Hebrew, and Yiddish structures like “staying by us” and “what do we learn out from this.” Orthodox Jews, especially those toward the “Black Hat” end of the continuum (in contrast to Modern Orthodox), tend to pronounce Hebrew words in the Ashkenazic way, like ha-LUH-cha instead of ha-la-CHA (Jewish law) and SUK-kiss instead of su-COAT (Holiday of Tabernacles). When Jews become Orthodox, they tend to pick up many of these features. Some of these newcomers go overboard in the use of these features, and others are more selective, using only those that feel authentic to them.

SFS: Many of these features sound like things my Yiddish speaking grandparents might have said. How did they become engrained as religious speech?

SBB: Good question. Yiddish is associated with Orthodox Jews for a few reasons. Although Orthodox communities have been in the US for centuries, a significant percentage immigrated to the US in the post-war era. So many of the middle-aged Orthodox Jews today are the children of immigrants rather than the grandchildren of immigrants. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Orthodox Jews maintain a strong ideological connection to Eastern European Jews. Many of the cultural practices I write about in my book – not just language but also food and dress – are influenced by the traditions of the recent Eastern European past.

SFS: When FFBs and BTs interact with the non-Orthodox world, do they use the same “frum-speak”? (what do you call it) or do they revert to more standard English?

SBB: Most FFBs and BTs are aware of most of the distinctive linguistic features of frumspeak (Orthodox Jewish English), and they avoid them when speaking to non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews. But some, especially new BTs who want to highlight their new identity, use them consciously. Some BTs and FFBs use some features unconsciously, such as “staying by them” and some of the distinctive pronunciations.

Becoming Frum book coverSFS: How did you decide to use the word “frum” in your title

SBB: I considered several titles without the use of “frum,” but I decided to use it because I wanted to give the reader a sense of the insider nature of language in Orthodox communities. I ran the title by many colleagues, including some with little knowledge of Jewish studies. Some felt that the use of “frum” was off-putting, but most found it intriguing and advised me to keep it.

SFS: and how much do you pepper your own speech with Hebrew or Yiddish words?

SBB: Frequently. But some of the words I use are different from those I heard in the community of my research. I say “drash” (interpretation, sermon) and “tikkun olam” (repairing the world), whereas those words are not common among Orthodox Jews. I did pick up some new words during my research, like “chas v’shalom” (God forbid), which I still use regularly.

SFS: I assume that there isn’t as extreme speech differences in other Jewish communities, e.g. Reform, Conservative, but do they also have distinctive characteristics?

SBB: Definitely. That will be one of the focuses of my 2nd book. Their distinctive linguistic features are mostly just Hebrew and Yiddish words.

SFS: One piece of your research that I found fascinating was that Jews who self-identify as “Black hat” use Ashkenazi (Central/East European) pronunciation even if their own family background is Sephardic (from Spain/Portugal) while some people who identify as Modern Orthodox use the Sephardic/Israeli pronunciation. Is this a rejection of their family history?

SBB: Note that many Modern Orthodox Jew do use Ashkenazi pronunciation, but that is one way to look at it, and maybe their parents feel that way.

SFS: What was the most surprising linguistic tidbit you encountered during your research?

SBB: Probably the periphrastic verbs. Sentences like this are common: “We do all that shtik to be mesameach the chossen and kallah” (we do those routines to entertain/gladden the groom and bride). It sounds weird in general American English to use “to be” with a transitive verb, and you don’t hear this construction much among non-Orthodox Jews.

SFS: You seemed to incorporate using social media tools as part of your research. What did you use and how did it work?

SBB: I used frumster.com to research some of the categories of the Orthodox continuum: Modern Orthodox Liberal, Modern Orthodox Machmir, Yeshivish Modern, and Yeshivish Black Hat. With permission from the Frumster staff, I culled data from profiles (anonymously) and checked for correlations between these categories and various practices, like men’s tzitzit wearing, women’s hair coverings, and Yiddish knowledge. I also used data from blogs. But most of that research came after my initial ethnographic study, which was in 2001-2. Back then websites were not as common, and facebook and twitter did not exist.

SFS: I know that you also put a lot of thought into the book cover.  How did you decide on this image of Jews eating sushi?

SBB: I wanted an image of BTs doing something not common among black-hat FFBs, like snowboarding or eating some exotic food. Most exotic foods wouldn’t be recognizable in a picture, but sushi is. Ironically, sushi is becoming very common among Orthodox Jews, so the sushi won’t immediately identify these Jews as BTs. But I still think it conveys what I want to convey: that some BTs come up with unique cultural combinations.

SFS: Thank you for taking time to speak with me. I look forward to your next book!

Some Roots of American Jewish Education

Dr. Jonathan Krasner

Dr. Jonathan Krasner

I am excited to share my conversation with Dr. Jonathan Krasner, HUC professor of the American Jewish Experience and author of The Benderly Boys & American Jewish Education.

SFS: Jonathan, congratulations on winning the National Jewish Book Award for American Jewish Studies!

JK: Thanks, Sheryl. It is very exciting!  

SFS: I had not realized until I read your book, how big an impact Samson Benderly has made on my life and that of my children.  In fact, I had never heard of him.  But I suspect his fingerprints are all over the Jewish supplementary schools and camp that I attended as well as here HUC. Tell me about Benderly’s major works.

JK: Samson Benderly was a fascinating guy. Born into a Hasidic family in Safed in the late 19th century, he defied his parents and went to study medicine in Beirut and, later, Baltimore. In order to support himself he taught Hebrew and eventually became the head of a progressive supplementary school in Baltimore. Somewhere along the way he became one of the earliest Jewish educators in North America to teach Hebrew using the immersion method — Ivrit b’Ivrit. One of his earliest students was Henrietta Szold, who would go on to found Hadassah.

Over time, he realized that his sideline was actually his passion and he gave up medicine for education.  News of his progressive methods and impressive results spread and he was called to New York to direct the first bureau of Jewish education. From his perch at the BJE, where he worked from 1910-1941, he worked to professionalize the field, modernize the supplementary schools, train teachers, develop curricula and teaching materials, open the first Jewish culture camps, and convince Federation that Jewish education should be a community responsibility. Most importantly, perhaps, he raised a generation of disciples who spread his ideas to communities across North America. They were known as the “Benderly boys.”

Benderly Boys coverSFS: I was surprised that much of his early work focused on Jewish education for girls.  Why did he think that was important and how did he make his programs so successful?

JK: Benderly’s interest in girls’ education stemmed from his conviction that the “future mothers of Israel” needed to have a strong Jewish foundation if they were to raise knowledgeable children with positive Jewish identities. Like many secular educators of his day, Benderly also believed that women’s dispositions made them better teachers, on average, than men, especially for young children. So he was very interested in preparing his most promising female students to become teachers. There was also some opportunism at play. Benderly wanted to open laboratory schools that would train teachers and pioneer modern methods. But he feared that parents would be hesitant to send their boys to these untested and newfangled institutions. Girls, on the other hand represented a terribly underserved market. With few alternatives, parents were more likely to “take a chance” with their girls. ( There was a further consideration that made girls’ education attractive: In those days, girls did not have bat mitzvahs, so the lab schools were under no pressure to teach to the test, so to speak.)

By the way, the “Benderly boys” included a number of girls! They received the same training as their male colleagues, studying at Columbia University Teachers College and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Teachers Institute while interning at the Bureau of Jewish Education under Benderly’s mentorship. Most of these women followed the gender conventions of the day and eventually gave up their jobs to raise families. But a few stayed in the field. Libbie Berkson ran Camp Modin in Canaan, Maine for many years, and Leah Klepper taught pedagogy at the Teachers Institute.  

SFS: Benderly worked largely with Jewish immigrants, especially in the early 1900’s. Immigrants often put much of their energy into assimilating and melting into the proverbial  American pot. How did he entice them into incorporating Jewish education and religious (not just cultural) identity into their lives?

JK: Your question is very perceptive and points to one of Benderly’s greatest challenges. On the one hand, there were traditionalists who really wanted to give their children the same Jewish education they had back in eastern Europe. On the other hand, there were, for lack of a better term, assimilationists, who were far more concerned about making sure that their children fit in and succeeded in American society more generally. Benderly was promoting a third option, teaching an Americanized Judaism that was perceived to be in harmony with American culture and values and would not conflict with Jewish socio-economic aspirations. It was a struggle at first and there were many parents and community leaders who resisted. But as fears grew about an Jewishly alienated and godless second generation, more people began to embrace Benderly’s approach. As one Orthodox rabbi put it, Benderly’s methods might not be his cup of tea, but he seemed to get kids excited about Judaism, and that was worth the world.  To be honest, however, Benderly’s modernized supplementary school only achieves universal acceptance in the postwar period when it becomes a standard feature of the suburban synagogue center.    

SFS: The institutions that he created were very different from those of the European Jewish communities. What did Benderly feel was important for American Judaism?

JK: Benderly was an immigrant and he had the typical immigrant’s enthusiasm for America as a land of opportunity and a haven from intolerance.  He was not interested in a strategy of resistance. Rather, he was an accommodationist. He thought Judaism could be harmonized with American values. But he also believed that it needed to be modernized in order to appeal to the younger generation. Benderly was also a cultural Zionist and believed that American Jewish culture could and should draw inspiration from the Jewish upbuilding of Palestine (Eretz Yisrael).

SFS: I was surprised to learn that Benderly was opposed to Jewish day schools. Why was that?

JK: Benderly realized that the vast majority of American Jews were wedded to the public schools. Secular education was a vehicle for socio-economic advancement and Americanization. So, his focus on supplementary education was based on practicality. It is important to remember that day school education did not really take off until the postwar era.  At the same time, however, Benderly believed in the democratic mission of the public schools. So, there was also an ideological component to his opposition.

SFS: Jonathan, I have a question about your approach to this material.  You mentioned that much of the previous scholarship on Jewish education was “prescriptive;” that it showed a top-down approach to what Jewish programs intended to do. You, however, wanted to be more “descriptive.” Can you tell me what that means to your research?

JK: Previous historians of Jewish education tended to also be practitioners. They had a vested interest in promoting a particular narrative. some were also sheepish about admitting the extent to which the educators’ aspirations went unrealized. they did not want to admit failure. I am certainly not dispassionate about my subject. But I think I have a level of distance that allows me to be more clear-eyed. I’ve also tried hard to supplement prescriptive materials — curricula, textbooks, articles — with descriptive sources — photos, internal reports, private correspondence. Taken together, I think they paint a more well-rounded picture of Jewish education in the first half of the 20th century. 

The Study of Healing

The library recently received the new book Midrash & Medicine, edited by  Dr. William (Bill) Cutter. I had the opportunity to speak with him and his colleague Michele Prince,Director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health about this collection.

SFS: As a librarian, I’ve seen that a lot of books (and music) have come out recently that deal with healing and spirituality.  What do you think is driving that movement?

BC: The broken environment of our society and the disappointment coming out of the 19th century/Enlightenment paves the way for interest in this movement.  Ethnicity is less important in people’s lives and yet the call to Jewish tradition is still very strong.  Spirituality and healing fill this niche.  The individualism present in today’s culture also sets a role.

MP:  The movement towards healing and spirituality fights against our overly connected, 24/7 culture, which provides few occasions to “turn off.” The explosion of global news of war, natural disaster, climate change, political unrest, and the divisions in our own nation force the search for courage and inspiration – a sense of the mystery of life.

SFS: We often hear the words “healing,” “health,” and “cure.”  The meanings seem to overlap.  How would you define each and how do they relate to each other?

BC: When I speak to audiences I argue that people are searching for quick “cures” when they go to the doctor’s office, but when their suffering has meaning beyond illness then healing is sought. Healing is when we seek for a “total relationship” between our values, our friends, ourselves, and our environments.  Healing is “meaning making.”

MP:  Many of us in the field of Judaism and health, including Bill, agree that we can be healed without being cured. Many live with chronic illness – in medicine, physicians and researchers attempt to shift what were once fatal diseases, such as some cancers, to diseases which allow for ongoing maintenance, such as some cardiac conditions or diabetes. In Jewish life, we pray for the healing of spirit and the healing of body – and search for the whole. Medicine – the provision of healthcare – once included spiritual values: service, altruism, compassionate care  – and we are trying to improve the health of the healthcare system.

SFS: The title of your book is Midrash and Medicine, but the contents hint more of Midrash as Medicine.  What is Midrash and what power does it have when it comes to healing?

BC: Clever question. The Jewish tradition of constant renewable interpretation SHOULD  be a part of medical treatment.  The self moves from cure to healing.

SFS: You also include articles on poetry and music.  What place do they have in healing?

BC: Poetry forces caregivers and patients to look at their situations in new ways …their language is innovative and it leads to innovative ideas.

SFS: I was surprised to see articles on death and loss; especially the very personal story by Eitan Fishbane about the sudden death of his young wife.  Why did you choose to include these in the collection?

BC: Very good question. Eitan’s talent with narration and background in Jewish mysticism were potent partners in helping others with similar losses.  The response in the book underscores this.

MP:  So far, Fishbane’s is the chapter readers comment on most frequently.

SFS: Thanks to Bill and Michele for speaking to me about this, and to Adi Bodenstein for co-ordinating it.