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Jewish Studies (Cluster)

The Jewish Studies Graduate Cluster provides students with rigorous training in Jewish history, culture, and thought.  It is comprised of faculty and students from across the humanities and social sciences, and provides opportunities for inter-disciplinary engagement, collaboration, and community building.  Courses taught under the rubric of the Jewish Studies Graduate Cluster aim to deepen students’ textual, linguistic, and analytical skills, while also forging connections with broader questions and issues beyond the strict (and sometimes artificial) boundaries of “Jewish Studies.” 

The Cluster equips students with the skills necessary to teach courses in a range of sub-fields in Jewish Studies, including Hebrew Bible, Rabbinics, Medieval, Early Modern, and Modern Jewish History, Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, and Jewish Philosophy. Cluster faculty also offer an array of specialized courses in various disciplines and fields.

The Cluster creates a productive intellectual environment that accommodates graduate students from any discipline across the Humanities and Social Sciences seeking to enhance their own scholarship by engaging a corresponding subfield in Jewish Studies. The cluster faculty includes, but is not limited to:

Programs and events

Cluster fellows participate in the Jewish Studies Graduate Colloquium, which meets over lunch approximately three times per quarter, and brings together faculty and graduate students to share work and listen to invited talks in Jewish Studies. The Colloquium facilitates a vivid exchange of ideas and critical reflections between the group members and visitors, and provides an opportunity for networking and community building within and beyond the field of Jewish Studies.

Who should apply?

Doctoral candidates from any field are eligible to apply to join this intellectual “home” outside their department. Past participants have come from the following programs:

  • Anthropology
  • German
  • History
  • Music
  • Political Science
  • Religious Studies
  • Slavic Languages and Literatures
  • Theatre and Drama

How to apply

Interested candidates are encouraged to contact David Shyovitz, Cluster Director, to discuss academic and research interests and to navigate the application process.

Who to contact

Please contact the program director, listed below, with questions about this program.

The following requirements are in addition to, or further elaborate upon, those requirements outlined in The Graduate School Policy Guide.

Students admitted through the cluster take three courses during their first two years of study. Cluster fellows also attend and, when appropriate, present their work at the Jewish Studies Graduate Colloquium series.

The following courses have been recently offered under the rubric of the Jewish Studies Graduate Cluster. (Note, this is a representative sampling, but additional courses are offered regularly.)

Texts and Interpretations (2-quarter sequence)

Mira Balberg and Barry Wimpfheimer

At the core of this two-quarter long course stands a view of Jewish culture as interpretive in essence, that is, as based on ongoing engagement with texts – canonical and non-canonical, written and oral – and on profound commitment to their recreation and reappropriation though interpretation. The course sets out to achieve three central goals: first, to allow the students to acquire literacy in a wide variety of formative Jewish works and genres; second, to help students develop a sophisticated analytical apparatus for approaching interpretation as a cultural phenomenon; third, to inculcate a self-awareness regarding one’s own interpretation. Throughout the course the students will be introduced to various interpretive practices such as pseudo-epigraphic rewritings, translation, Midrash, philosophical exegesis, scholastic commentaries, symbolic and allegorical interpretation, and many others, and will become aware of the critical question and problems posed by these different practices. We will grapple with questions such as: What motivates different kinds of interpretation? How do different interpretive drives inform a single work of interpretation? What sorts of relations are constructed between an interpreting text and an interpreted text? What is the nature of the reading process of an interpretive work? What social, anthropological, and philosophical models are available to us when trying to discuss interpretation as a cultural phenomenon? How does our own interpretation intersect with interpretations we encounter in canonical texts?

The course will focus on primary readings, which will be supplemented by scholarly works that help reflect on the primary readings in question. Theoretical readings that help structure conversations about hermeneutics and textual interpretation will also play a prominent role in the course. The first quarter will be dedicated to the shaping of the Hebrew Bible as a canon and to the emergence of biblical interpretation in the Second Temple period; the second part of the class will be dedicated to rabbinic and medieval literature. It is conceivable to think of a third part, which will deal with early modern and modern interpretive works.

Part A: Early Biblical interpretation (Mira Balberg)

The first part of the class will focus on the formation of the Hebrew Bible as canonical literature, and will cover the following range of topics and texts: Biblical reflections on canonicity (2Kings 23, Nehemiah 8-12); Inner-biblical interpretation (Psalms, Chronicles); translation as interpretation (Septuagint, Onkelos); Pseduo-epigrapha and rewriting practices (Temple Scroll, 1Enoch, Jubilees, Testaments of the tribes); the emergence of midrashic interpretation in Qumran (Pesharim literature, The Damascus Document); Jewish Hellenistic literature (Philo and Josephus); and biblical interpretation in the New Testament.

Among the works that will be used in this part of the course are: Moshe Halbertal, People of the Book; James Kugel, How to Read the Bible; Hindi Najman, Seconding Sinai; Sarah Japhet, From the Rivers of Babylon to the Highlands of Judah; James Van Der Kam, The Book of Jubilees; John Collins, Jewish Cult and Hellenistic Culture; Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament; Peter Borgen, Philo of Alexandria, An Exegete for his Time; and more.

Part B: Rabbinic and Medieval Texts and Interpretation (Barry Wimpfheimer)

The second part of the class will comprehensively overview the different genres of traditional literature produced between the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE and the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. This overview will pay particular attention to genre as a crucial component in interpretation and to the ways in which the different genres of traditional writing intersect with one another. The first half of the course will focus on Rabbinic genres (Midrash, Mishnah, Talmud). The second half of the course will focus on traditional medieval genres (Responsa, Philosophy, Kabbalah). This course will expose neophytes to these literatures with a large dose of secondary literature about the nature of this material and a smaller representative sample of illustrative primary texts.

Some of the works to be used are: Moshe Halbertal, People of the Book; David Weiss Halivni, Midrash, Mishnah and Gemara; Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, Zakhor; Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash; Daniel Matt, Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment; David Stern, Parables in Midrash; Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel; Barry Wimpfheimer, Narrating the Law; Beth Berkowitz, Execution and Invention; Martin Jaffe, Torah in the Mouth; Steven Fraade, From Tradition to Commentary; Galit Hasan Rokem, Web of Life.

Documents and Narratives (2-quarter sequence)

David Shyovitz and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

This two-quarter course introduces students to the varieties of sources scholars utilize in tracing the history of Jews from the medieval through the modern periods--including chronicles, legal texts, literary works, mystical and liturgical writings, epistles, autobiographies, and scientific and philosophical treatises, as well as material, visual, and artistic "texts." The course trains students to identify, explore, question, compare, and integrate primary sources of different genre within a broader picture of Jewish political, social, economic, religious, and cultural endeavors.  We will consider such methodological issues as: What can be considered a historical document? How can one reconstruct a source’s genesis, authorship, hidden agenda, audience, significance, and ramifications? In addition, we will explore and analyze some of the major scholarly debates of contemporary Jewish historical writing, including the relationships between Jews and imperial cultures; the rise of print and its role in intellectual exchange; clerical, political, and popular anti-Judaism; the origins of Jewish mysticism and rationalism; Jews’ economic and political roles in Christian and Islamic territories; and the relationship of Jewish history and Jewish memory.

Topics in Judaism: The Sacrificial Imagination

Mira Balberg
RELIGION 474 (provisional)

The purpose of this class is to introduce students to the centrality of blood sacrifice in the Jewish tradition, not simply as a ritual practice but, especially, as a key interpretive, theological, polemical, philosophical and soteriological theme. By tracing the ways in which the language and imagery of blood sacrifices unfolds and develops in Jewish cultures throughout history, the course sets to accomplish two critical goals. First, to add a dimension of depth to the students’ analysis of historical and textual junctions in the Jewish world; and second, to use the theme of blood sacrifice as a test-case and as a prism through which to explore the variegated, multilayered, and dynamic nature of religious discourse.

The course will revolve around primary readings, and include, in historical order, the different components of the Hebrew Bible (=Pentateuch, Prophets, Psalms); Second Temple, Hellenistic, and early Christian literature; classical rabbinic sources; medieval poetic, mystical, and philosophical writings; and modern thought and literature. The primary texts will be accompanied by influential conceptual and theoretical works on the concept of sacrifice (e.g., Freud’s Totem and Taboo, Rene Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, Hubert and Mauss’ Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function, Bataille’s A Theory of Religion) and by scholarly works pertinent to the understanding of Sacrifice in the Jewish Tradition (e.g., William Gilder’s Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible, Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial, Daniel Ullicci’s The Christian Rejection of Sacrifice, Moshe Halbertal’s On Sacrifice, and More).

Topics in Judaism: Religion and Narrative

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer
RELIGION 474 (provisional)

Narratives are centrally important to religions. From foundational myths that create the space within which religion happens to discrete episodes that ground specific rituals, narratives are the very stuff of religion. The purpose of this course is to consider narratives as a special site for the production of religious meaning; the course will draw heavily from both religion theory and literary theory. Issues we will cover include: whether textual meaning is located in the author, text or reader; how the religious context of a narrative affects its possible interpretations; how myths and rituals comprise different modes of narrative; the relationship between narrative time and religious time; the challenge to authority inherent to much religious narrative; the variety of ways through which religious figures mobilize narrative to further their authority.

This course will utilize Jewish narratives from the Bible, Rabbinic Literature and the Jewish folk tradition as primary texts. Students will be expected to build on materials covered in the course by applying narrative theory to the study of religious narratives either Jewish or otherwise.

Some of the works to be used are: Paul Ricouer, Figuring the Sacred; Roland Barthes, Mythologies; Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality;” Robert Segal, ed., The Myth and Ritual Theory; Jerome Bruner, The Making of Stories; Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics; Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures; Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class?

Jews and Christians: Interplay and Interpretations

David Shyovitz
HIST 492-0
Topics in History

This course will survey the history of Jewish-Christian relations from late antiquity through the early modern period.  Students will explore the diverse array of political, social, theological, and cultural encounters between Jewish and Christians, and trace the varying methodologies scholars have utilized to examine the dynamics of these encounters. The readings for this course include but are not limited to Daniel Boyarin’s Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (2006), Paula Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews (2008), Israel Yuval, Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (2007), Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, The Censor, the Editor, and the Text: The Catholic Church and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon in the Sixteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), Dean Phillip Bell and Stephen G. Burnett, eds., Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth Century Germany (2006) and others.

Jews in Early Modern Towns (Istanbul, Safed, Prague, Krakow, Venice, Valencia, Amsterdam)

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern
HIST 492-0
Topics in History

Based on heretofore unexplored sources recently translated into English, this course introduces  students to an array of methodological issues related to the study of early modern urban experiences, the role Jews play in shaping public space, the Jewish “niche” in urban space, and the interaction between Jewish minority culture and non-Jewish majority cultures. The course explores a variety of documental evidence ranging from socio-demographic and travelogue to religious, legal, artistic, and literary and analyses a pool of patterns and ideas Jews shared with non-Jews in early modern urban environment. The readings for this course include David Ruderman’s Cultural Intermediaries (2004), Daniel Swetschinski, Reluctant Cosmopolitans (2000), Yaron Ben-Naeh, Jews in the Realm of the Sultans (2008), Robert Davis and Benjamin Ravid, eds., The Jews in Early Modern Venice (2001), Mark Meyerson, A Jewish Renaissance in Fifteenth-Century Spain (2004) and others.

Jews in Russia and Soviet Union: Documents, Methods, and Problems (research seminar)

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern
HIST 492-0
Topics in History

This course explores a variety of approaches to, and heated historiographic debates about, the key issues in modern East European Jewish history focusing on topics such as the Jewish reform under Nicholas I, Jewish integration into Russian culture in the Late Imperial Russia, Jews in socialist movement, mass violence and the Holocaust, the USSR imperialism and segregationist national minority policies, migrations, and Jewish cultural and religious resistance. By demonstrating how primary sources and methodological questions shape a historiographic narrative, the cource identifies new questions which remain scholarly desiderata. The readings will include Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale (2003); Mikhail Krutikov, From Kabbalah to Class Struggle (2010); Kenneth Moss, Jewish Renaissance in Russian Revolution (2008); Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, The Anti-Imperial Choice (2009) and Lenin’s Jewish Question (2010); Jonathan Dekel-Chen, Farming the Red Land (2007); Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands (2010); and Ray Brandon and Wendy Lowy, eds., The Shoah in the Ukraine (2008).

Studies in Modern Philosophy

Ken Seeskin
Philosophy 422

An in depth reading of Books I and II of Spinoza's Ethics, focusing on his views of God, nature, and the possibility of human knowledge.