Monday, November 21, 2005


Some 8000 people (this is hearsay) are in Philadelphia now for the annual joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society for Biblical Literature. It's always strange to go to a conference in the city you are (temporarily) living in. [An aside: my four year old daughter has told us that the proper term for what we are doing in Philadelphia right now is "half-living".] Unlike going to a conference in another city, one's normal life is right there.

Case in point: I spent Saturday (day 1 of the conference) at home with the family and went Saturday afternoon and evening to the grand opening of a new bookstore, owned by a friend of mine from grade school and high school who also ended up in Philadelphia. On your next visit to Northwest Philadelphia, please visit the Big Blue Marble Bookstore on Carpenter Lane in West Mount Airy.

Sunday, I went to Center City and went to a couple of sessions, had lunch with a new colleague in Pittsburgh who arrived in Pittsburgh as we were leaving this summer, had coffee with an old friend, went to the Pitt-PTS-Duquesne reception.

Of couse, I didn't pay enough attention to the SBL side of the update booklet and missed out on the special session devoted to Ron Tappy's discovery of what may be the oldest Hebrew alphabet. You may have seen this in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Chicago Tribune, or the New York Times. was there however so you can read his report.

The first session I went to was:

(1) A20-13 Study of Judaism Section
Sunday - 9:00 am-11:30 am
Shaul Magid, Indiana University-Bloomington, Presiding
Theme: Gender, Feminism, and Orthodox Judaism
Gail Labovitz, University of Judaism
"Assent to Ascent: Rabbinic Negotiations of Exile, Marriage, and Gender Relations"
Rochelle L. Millen, Wittenberg University
"Theological Approaches in Orthodox Feminism"
Jerome Gellman, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
"Cumulative Revelation and Orthodox Feminist Theology"
Nora L. Rubel, Connecticut College
"'Muggers in Black Coats': Gender and Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Jewish American Imagination"

All four papers were excellent although discussion was dominated by Gellman's presentation in which he argued that while (a) the concept of cumulative revelation can be accommodated within contemporary Orthodox Judaism, (b) the sort of new revelation that a "moderate radical feminism" envisions would cause changes that could not be accommodated and that thus (c) the most Orthodox Jewish feminists can do is "bargain with patriarchy." Much discussion and contention over whether the changes he outlined could not in fact be accommodated and over the question of what he meant by "Orthodox." (Strangely many seemed to interpret him as arguing for a normative definition of Orthodox rather than a sociological one and also for arguing somehow against the changes that feminism advocates. These both seem to be misinterpretations of his position.) Only a little discussion about point (a) which I consider to be as interesting and much more problematic. He argued that Hasidism believed in cumulative revelation and was nonetheless accommodated in Orthodox Judaism. The problem is that all of his examples of Hasidic notions of cumulative revelation were 18th or early 19th century and one can argue that Hasidism is only included in Orthodox Judaism when it tones this stuff down. (One audience member and the chair of the panel made this point, more or less.) But nobody pointed out that there was no "Orthodox" Judaism in the 18th century for Hasidism to be part of or not part of.

The second panel I went to was:

Study of Judaism Section
Sunday - 4:00 pm-6:30 pm
Steven D. Kepnes, Colgate University, Presiding
Theme: Place as Elsewhere: Home and Homelessness in Jewish Text and Commentary

Adam Zachary Newton, University of Texas, Austin
Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Hebrew University
Jacob Meskin, Hebrew College

Martin Kavka, Florida State University

Newton and Ezrahi dropped out and Shaul Magid substituted. Meskin spoke on Levinas' attitudes toward Zionism and state sovereignty; Magid spoke on the Slonimer Rebbe's views of exile and diaspora. Kavka's response sparked off an excellent discussion although one that subsequently got a bit subtracked in my humble opinion on the question of whether a Zionism without messianism was or was not a viable option in the early 21st century. Some were arguing about whether it was or was not viable in a theological sense; others were arguing about whether it was or was not viable in a sociological sense.

There is usually very little at the AAR in my area (medieval and early modern Jewish intellectual and cultural history) which might explain why I don't often go to AAR. (This was my first visit since the 1999 meeting in Boston). But when I do go, I like to go to these sessions that are mainly contemporary Jewish thought and indulge in a little bit of constructive thinking. I also like to step back a bit and watch the theologians and philosophers at work. But it is a bit strange to find a wholly different model of "religious studies"--theological, "insider," constructive--at the AAR than the one I am used to in the department in which I do my work--historical, "outsider," and descriptive.

Today I went to the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and actually did some work in the morning and then heard a fascinating presentation by Piet van Boxel in our weekly seminar series (moved to Monday from Wednesday because of Thanksgiving). Piet dealt with a project, run at the highest levels of the Church, in the late 1570s and early 1580s, to systematically survey Jewish biblical exegesis as represented in the commentaries published in various Biblia Rabbinica editions for objectionable passages, to translate them to Latin (sometimes via Italian), and then to comment on what was objectionable. This was not done for the simple purpose of expurgation, apparently, but for more complex reasons: to prepare material for missionary efforts, especially conversionary sermons; to set out official Church positions on Jewish exegesis; and to prepare a kind of encyclopedia of Jewish beliefs for reference purposes.

Then I headed back over to the Philadelphia Convention Center and had coffee with another Pittsburgh colleague. Then home to make dinner.

Tomorrow: a little more conference and then back to work.


esque said...

Thanks for saying such nice things about the response. :-)

Are we really all theological constructive insiders in the AAR Study of Judaism? I hope not; this seems to be part of why you're not the only person who prefers the AJS to the AAR. In any case, I think that to the extent that it is true, it's true largely, but not entirely, of the older generation of people who were in the audience for this panel. The younger generation -- including the speakers -- imho prefers to hold back from constructive theology, in the name of a more humble testing and critique of possibilities for Jewish self-identification. At the end of the day, that probably amounts to the same thing in content, but in practice, the awareness of the pitfalls of earlier attempts at theological articulation leads to a more open give-and-take. At least, I hope so.

Adam said...

Esque asks (how do you like the alliteration?):
"Are we really all theological constructive insiders in the AAR Study of Judaism?"

Not everyone, of course, but I think you would agree that this is the tendency at AAR (more than at AJS).

I was using "constructive" as a kind of short-hand contrast to "descriptive." In doing so, I think I did conflate the two different trends--perhaps generational--that you point to. But while I am personally more comfortable with the "textual reasoning" style than with the "constructive theology" style, they both seem to fall on the same side of the line of contrast that I was drawing.

Another way to put it would be a contrast between philosophers ("constructive insiders") on one side and historians and social scientists on the other ("descriptive outsiders"). (I'm not sure where to put the lit people--they confuse me.)

esque said...

I think the philosophers/historians divide is pretty much right. On the one hand, this dismays me; the Study of Judaism, even at the AAR, shouldn't be equivalent to the Study of Jewish philosophy. On the other, I don't know what to do about it.

[Note to prospective googlers: the below contains rampant generalizations that I am totally willing to withdraw on a moment's notice.]

Part of the problem is disciplinary: what is the subdiscipline of most of the Jewish studies people who teach in religious studies departments? The people working in antiquity, who are mainly historians or theorists of culture, hang out at SBL. The people who are modernists are mostly philosophers or theologians, although there are some who work in religion-and-culture issues, or in Amer rel history. Then there are medieval intellectual historians such as yourself, who intersect with medieval Islamic intellectual history and/or modern Jewish intellectual history.

So the philosopher/historian split is really, it seems to me, a symptom of a modern/premodern split. Hopefully as the AAR develops standalone meetings, we'll get more people working in antiquity presenting under our banner. The medievalists are a thorny issue; because so many of them also work in modernity (think of the Kabbalah people who treat Scholem as part of the mod-Jew-thought canon), they often talk about modern things when they talk at the AAR.

This brings me to my last point: attendance. The AAR evaluates its sections in part on the numbers of attendees. Panels on purely medieval issues are poorly attended. Non-philosophical panels are poorly attended (for example, the panel last year with Sarna, Heinze, Umansky and others on Amer Judaism -- it really surprised me that so few of the N Amer Rel Hist people came). So when we go outside our core audience, people don't show. Maybe I should just embrace the fact on the ground, which is that at the AAR, the Study of Judaism is equivalent to the study of Jewish philosophy. But that seems like giving up.

Adam said...

esque, let's get in touch off the internet and chat about this more.