Elliott Horowitz, z"l

Elliott Horowitz (1953–2017)

The editors and staff of the Jewish Quarterly Review express our profound sadness at the untimely death of our friend and colleague, Professor Elliott Horowitz. For nearly fifteen years, Elliott lent his unique intellect, editorial skills, and humor to JQR, which he helped shape into one of the leading scholarly forums in the field of Jewish studies. A dedicated Anglophile, Elliott took seriously the English roots of JQR (founded in London in 1889), and delighted in recovering treasures from the journal in its early years. His own essays in our pages, famous for their humor and bibliographic bounty, borrowed from the impressionistic and associative style of Israel Abraham, one of the journal’s founding English editors. Working with Elliott on the journal—or, in fact, editing his own articles—was never a race to the finish, but rather a leisurely country outing, replete with ample stops to reflect on the beauty of the surroundings.

Apart from his work for JQR, Elliott was a uniquely creative cultural historian. He relished and perfected the article form, producing some of the most innovative pieces in early modern Jewish history in the last half-century, including his path-breaking “Coffee, Coffee Houses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry” (1989). Few scholars of the Jewish past can think of coffee, the Safedian practice of midnight study (tikune hatsot), Italian confraternities, or Purim without immediately summoning up the work of Elliott Horowitz. His monograph Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (2006), which was a runner-up for the National Jewish Book Award, brought together his enduring and fearless scholarly curiosity with his ethical concern for the way in which religion has been used and abused. This book, like so much of his work, bore traces of his deep humanity, which we all will sorely miss. He was a polymath, an iconoclast, and indeed a decent and caring person whose wit had few peers.

We at the journal, and indeed the field, will miss a friend and colleague whose time came far too soon.

posted March 21, 2017

The Case for "Assimilation" and Diaspora // JQR blog

Posted December 9, 2016

Jewish Quarterly Review volume 106, number 4 (fall 2016)

Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, reflects on Gerson Cohen’s famous 1966 address “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History” in a forum dedicated to topic in JQR 106.4.

JQR's forum On Gerson Cohen’s “Blessing of Assimilation” A Half Century Later, features essays by  David N. Myers, Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert,  Sarah Bunin Benor,  Arnold Eisen, and David B. Ruderman

Read Eisen’s essay for free here. And check out the full forum and more on Project Muse


Related: David Myers on if Gerson Cohen responded to Mark Lilla 

The PLO and the Pittsburgh Platform // Jonathan Gribetz // JQR blog

posted February 26 2017

What makes someone Jewish and who gets to decide? These questions divide Jews in the Diaspora from those in Israel and divide Jews from one another everywhere. While there is no Jewish consensus on the definition of the Jews or on who has the right to decide, most Jews, I suspect, are united in this conviction: non-Jews (that is, people who make no claim to being Jewish themselves) have no business participating in this debate. All the more so when those non-Jews are regarded as hostile to Jewish interests. So when they confront the Palestine Liberation Organization’s declaration in its founding charter of 1964 that “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong,” Jews tend not only to underscore the self-serving nature of those lines but also to protest reflexively and adamantly: Who are the Palestinians to tell us Jews what Judaism is and what makes us Jews?! (Some also add—apparently without recognizing the irony—that there is no such thing as a “Palestinian” anyway, as they are simply Arabs.)  But what if that Palestinian definition of the Jews and Judaism were actually a (not the but a) Jewish definition? How might the PLO charter be understood differently if we were to see German and American Reform rabbis, rather than Palestinian militants, behind the definition of the Jews and Judaism that the Palestinian charter espoused?

Jonathan Gribetz

Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies and the Program in Judaic Studies, Princeton University

Katz Center Fellow, 2009-2010, Secularism and Its Discontents: Rethinking an Organizing Principle of Modern Jewish Life

Read Jonathan Gribetz's fascinating history of the PLO's explorations and use of Reform Judaism in his essay "The PLO's Rabbi: Palestinian Nationalism and Reform Judaism" in JQR 107.1 (Winter 2017). On newsstands now.  

Effundere in Latrinam // JQR blog

posted March 10, 2017

In Pope Innocent III’s 1205 papal bull Etsi Iudeos, we read that “on the day of the Lord’s resurrection the Christian wet nurses of [Jewish] children receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, for three days [their Jewish patrons] make them express milk into the latrine before they may nurse [the Jewish children].”

Jeremy Cohen’s lively and meticulous rereading of this bull (JQR 107.1, winter 2017) overturns its standard interpretation among Jewish historians, taking aim at the way bad habits and biases get passed among members of academic guilds. He does not exempt even himself in this micro-history of misreading, and his reconstruction offers a cleaner view into the place of the Jews in early 13th-century church doctrine.

We have made the full text of Cohen's Note available for free here.


I, Thou, and the Election // Samuel Brody

posted on November 4, 2016

Is Martin Buber relevant to the 2016 American elections?

Could he be relevant in a way that doesn’t reduce to scolding individuals for their impoverished spiritual stances, to “can’t we all just get along?”

Or could he be relevant in a way that doesn’t simply amount to bemoaning social media, as if epistemic sorting is a novel aberration of recent technology, and in the golden olden days everyone used to sit around the same newspaper and the same 3 broadcast channels and have reasonable arguments about commonly-agreed-upon sets of facts?

One problem with using Buber’s I and Thou to talk about contemporary politics is that it seems to reduce complex processes to the simplest of ethical demands. In this way of thinking, Buber offers us an existential elaboration of Kant’s categorical imperative: act always in such a way that you could be open to the uniqueness of the other, encountering the other with your whole being, and avoid treating the other as an instrument for the accomplishment of your purposes.

Well, that’s very nice! But it doesn’t tell me how to vote. More than that, it doesn’t tell me how to relate to others in an open, generous, whole-being sort of way even when I perceive them as dehumanizing me—treating me and others like me as less than human. Just as we bristle at a municipal law that equally forbids the rich and the poor from sleeping under a bridge, it seems ludicrous to put forward a moral injunction that equally forbids open white supremacists and ordinary liberals from “distrusting” each other. Part of the sense of alarm and emergency surrounding these elections stems from the fact that Trump has brazenly and unashamedly dehumanized so many individuals and groups: calling undocumented Mexican immigrants rapists, mocking the disabled, grouping all African-Americans together as though they only lived in “high-crime areas,” looking the other way or dog-whistling as a significant sector among his supporters openly deploys violent antisemitic rhetoric, calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the country, bragging about sexually assaulting women and otherwise treating them as objects, etc. etc. etc. Attempts to be exhaustive in cataloguing these things must necessarily fail.

And so, the problem we face is not simply that a man many consider unfit to be President may hold the executive office and have access to the nuclear codes, as terrifying as that is. The problem is that we do face a polemical situation characterized by distrust and even hatred of huge portions of the population—and this is a situation that will continue after the election, no matter who wins. One can understand the temptation to turn to Buber’s thoughts on human relation per se as an antidote to all that, but this runs the risk, as Martin Kavka has written, of being little more than a “coping mechanism.” Whiskey could serve just as well.

Fortunately, Buber had a lot more to say about politics than one might guess from I and Thou. Over the course of the four decades he lived following the publication of that work, he wrote essays on the politics of Germany and Palestine, as well as books that were ostensibly about the Bible and ancient Israel but were manifestly also about the contemporary world. In these works, Buber offers a fascinating picture of a thinker animated by apparently absurdly idealistic principles, constantly engaged in the mundane work of attempting to apply those principles to the most recalcitrant realities, as well as in higher-order reflection upon the process of that application itself.

An example can be seen in the essay “Instead of Polemics,” published in the November 1956 issue of Ner, a forum for those who had been members of the bi-nationalist Ichud group prior to the formation of the State of Israel, and who carried that flame (Ner means “candle”) forward into the 50s and 60s. Buber describes the typically estranged camps of politicians and men of action, on the one hand, and principled idealists, on the other, eyeing each other warily across a gulf of misunderstanding. Against these, Buber avers that “all true human responsibility is dual: directed towards heaven and towards the earth.” The issue is how to combine these duties. Here, Buber argues against those who “appear in public as innocent men before sinners.” This is not just a matter of being morally right, but of being politically effective—those who desire both “do not propose purely principled behavior to the people, and they do not demand that the people obey pure principles. They wish to repair what can be repaired under the given circumstances, and no less than that.”

Buber was talking, then, about the Palestinian refugee problem, arguing against a mentality (still present today) that treated this problem as all-or-nothing, a position that always ended up erring on the side of nothing. But this is not so far removed from his advocacy, elsewhere, of “socialism from below,” or his pre-state advocacy of bi-nationalist Zionism. In contrast to the apocalyptic notes he had struck in I and Thou, imagining a moment of divine destruction coming ever closer, in his later work the note he strikes is prophetic. The call is to turn, as much as one can; to do justice, as much as one can; to struggle, as much as one must. These things are within, and not beyond, human power.

So, in the context of the election, I would say this: it seems very well the case that “both sides” are guilty of some level of de-humanization of the other side. But recognizing this does not mean that the only properly deep, spiritual attitude is to pronounce a plague on all our houses. We do not have to appear as innocent people before sinners—Lord knows I’ve listened to my share of conversations in which liberals treated Trump supporters as bizarre anthropological specimens to be dissected, rather in the way that British imperialists treated natives, and I’ve spoken up against this when I saw an opportunity. But fairness does not require treating this as on the same level as Tweets depicting my friends and colleagues being shoved by Trump into gas chambers. Or claiming that he will only respect the results of the election as legitimate if he wins.

Buber lived for five years under the Nazis before escaping to Palestine in 1938, really the last possible moment before Kristallnacht and the war. In 1942, he reflected upon the politics of authoritarianism and fascism in an essay called “People and Leader.” A number of lines in this essay have been haunting me. Writing of Mussolini’s proud proclamation that he had created a new myth of Italy, Buber writes: “But he obviously knows his masses. They are masses who have despaired of a truth worthy of belief, because the previous war and what followed it have not only dashed to pieces the current truths but have also driven out the belief in truth in general, the objective trust.” In the absence of truth, having no path to follow, one—follows the leader.

But surely the leader himself has a path? Well, sometimes. Buber avoids falling into the easy trap of conflating fascist and Bolshevist totalitarianism: “the latter arises from the tradition of a real idea and in vital relationship to it…whereas fascism in contrast, basically acknowledges nothing but ‘the firm will to retain power.’” This type of leader is flagrantly non-ideological, believing only in himself. “The leader alone knows the goal, but there is no goal. The leader embodies the idea, but there is no idea…Nietzsche did not foresee that his idea of the ‘becoming God’ would be taken possession of not by the type he called the ‘higher man,’ but by the lower man who is, to be sure, without restraint, but at times is probably assailed by doubts in his innermost being, and must strive, therefore, to be worshipped in order basically to believe in himself.”

If these themes strike a resonant chord to you, then you know that you cannot turn now, the week before the election, to a disembodied spiritual hope or the simple name of Trust. The rebuilding of human relationships at all levels of society is necessary, but some candidates and institutions place greater blocks in its way than others do. And yes, as Kavka said correctly—that means putting down our books, not only voting but organizing, not only tending our gardens, but getting into the streets.



Samuel Brody

University of Kansas

Albert J. Wood Fellow, 2016-2017


Related post: Martin Kavka's "Brooks, Buber, and the Ballot Box"

If Gerson Cohen Responded to Mark Lilla in the Age of Trumpism // David N. Myers // JQR

posted December 8, 2016

In the shocking new world we inhabit in America after November 8, there would seem to be a new premium placed on assimilation, the term that stands at the heart of our JQR forum (JQR 106.4 [2016] -- Gerson Cohen’s “Blessing of Assimilation” a Half Century Later).  Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump promoted the ideal of a monolithic, essentially white, American patriotism, which set off peals of euphoria on the far-right. Columbia historian Mark Lilla wrote a provocative post-mortem in the November 18 opinion section of the New York Times (click here to read it), excoriating the descent into what he called “identity liberalism.”  Among its ills, Lilla roared, was a “fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press (that) has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups.”

    Lilla ends up calling for a “post-identity liberalism,” which, on the face of it, seems like a good fit with the essay that animates our forum: Gerson Cohen’s 1966 “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History.”  In that address, Cohen issued his own provocative call.  Speaking to a group of graduating Jewish educators, he urged them to recognize that assimilation, perceived by many then as today to be a grave threat, was not only not an impediment to survival, but in fact could be “a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source of renewed vitality.”  As one drills deeper into Cohen’s compactly brilliant essay, one discovers that assimilation of this sort does not really resemble, as it first appeared, Lilla’s blanched  “post-identity liberalism.”  Rather, assimilation, on Cohen’s idiosyncratic reading is a form of cultural exercise cum engagement that can ward off atrophy and revivify, re-interpret, and translate an ever-evolving “tradition.”

    When the editors of JQR planned for a collection of essays to rethink Cohen’s “Blessing” fifty years later, we had a decent sense that it remained relevant today.  But we did not imagine that it could lend much-needed nuance to a contentious debate over identity in the age of Trumpism that has already suffered from over-simplification.  Cohen’s concluding image, drawn from Nachman Krochmal, of tacking a middle path between freezing cold and consuming fire seems particularly relevant in this strange new world that we inhabit. 


David N. Myers                                                                                                          

Professor & Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History, UCLA

Coeditor, Jewish Quarterly Review                                                                                     

David has been a fellow or affiliate of the Katz Center during the years 1994-1995, 2014-2015, 2016-2017, and held the Ellie and Herbert D. Katz Distinguished Fellowship in 2009-2010

On Brooks, Buber, and the Ballot Box // Martin Kavka

posted on November 4, 2016

It’s not every day that Jewish philosophy appears on the New York Times op-ed page. I suppose that I and the other members of this small and close-knit guild should be happy to have seen David Brooks start November with a column entitled “Read Buber, Not The Polls!

To some extent, I am. It’s heartening to see Buber’s widely read 1923 book I and Thou appear with relevance at this moment. In the constant horserace before the election, and in an environment when the last slice of the electorate is being fought over with more and more apocalyptic rhetoric, we think of sides in a battle.  But Brooks uses Buber to remind us that in our political life, we should see persons as persons, not as instantiations of types. US political discourse possibly corrodes itself when we reduce presidential candidates to their policy positions.  No matter one’s choice in the voting booth, it’s not necessarily healthy to vote for a person who (in our minds) is not much more than someone who offers up Supreme Court nominations to the Senate. The political realm has become cold, and Brooks is wrapping himself up in Buber, and his account of the I-Thou relationship (in which I do not objectify another person), for warmth.

Still, I have my doubts that my colleagues and I will recognize Buber in Brooks’s account of I and Thou.  Brooks offers a Buber who is a bit more passive and fatalistic than anything in I and Thou suggests, describing that we sit around and wait for these moments of deeper encounter.  “You can’t intentionally command I-Thou relationships into being,” Brooks writes. That’s true to the extent that any meaningful relationship, for Buber, involves both “will and grace.” (This is the line that famously gave birth to a sitcom.) Nevertheless, Brooks emphasizes grace at the expense of will, imagining that we can only provide “fertile soil” for such relationships, and “be open to them.” That ignores a whole slew of pages in _I and Thou_ about how we speak to other people. To speak to someone in a way that js free from any teleology, letting go of any purpose that I might have for that conversation or that relationship, has transformative power for Buber. Brooks entirely misses this.

There is an odd difference between Buber and Brooks.  Brooks gives us a portrait of a Buberian self who waits around for transformation to happen, and leaves us with a last paragraph meant to get us excited about how we ourselves might stop waiting around and “rebuild Thous at every level” of our society.  Brooks never explains whence such energy should arise.  Buber, on the other hand, gives us a portrait of a self who is more active in her relations with others, and yet he is enough of a realist to know that this rebuilding process is doomed to failure.  We live in a political system, and that means that we have to act for certain ends in our lives; such action requires objectifying others, and therefore requires putting an end to the rebuilding process until we start again, and fail again, and start and fail... On such a worldview, why go vote? Why not just stay home, watch the yelling on CNN, bury one’s head in one’s hands, and choose between meth and alcohol as one’s next longtime companion? 

Still, Brooks is not wrong to say that Buber maintains some kind of hope in I and Thou. Buber’s answer near the end of I and Thou is that the failure of efforts to rebuild Thous in a polity is actually, and counterintuitively, a harbinger of divinely ordained success: “doom becomes more oppressive in every new eon … and the theophany comes ever closer.” Here, Buber’s thought slid into a particularly idiotic brand of theology. Thinking that one’s suffering will shortly be redeemed and eliminated may be a way to cope with pain, whether the pain of a Trump or a Clinton presidency, or any other kind of pain. However, this kind of coping mechanism inexorably leads to huge questions that I and Thou did not, and could not, answer. Why is suffering necessary for theophany, anyway? Why this much suffering after November 9 (and before), and not one iota less? Why affirm existence in a world that entails so much suffering, anyway? And as soon as a reader of I and Thou is done scribbling these questions in the margin, she realizes that the book has come to an end and Buber has done nothing to answer such questions. Trying and failing to justify one’s hope (Buber’s sin against thinking) is a lesser sin than not trying at all (Brooks’s sin), but it is a sin nonetheless.

The works that Buber wrote after 1923 have possibly better answers to these questions, answers that don’t flirt with nihilism—or with that point where nihilism and fideism meet—quite so openly as I and Thou does. Sam Brody, a professor at the University of Kansas who is a fellow this year at the Katz Center, will shortly publish a book that focuses on Buber’s later political thought, showing (in his words) “what might result from de-centering I and Thou as the keystone of Buber’s work.”  If I understand Brody right, the result is a far more activist and revolutionary Buber than scholars had anticipated.  If David Brooks were to read this Buber, he might become unrecognizable to his readers at the Times.  If Jews were to read it, they might acknowledge the limit of the ballot box, leave their pews and AIPAC or J Street meetings, organize, and go out into the streets.

Martin Kavka

Professor of Religion at Florida State University

Ruth Meltzer Fellow, 2015-2016

*Related post: Sam Brody's "I, Thou, and the Election"

Eve and an Easy Bake Oven: On "Jewish Paideia in the Age of Enlightenment" //Natalie B. Dohrmann // JQR

posted September 23, 2016

Jewish Quarterly Review volume 106, number 3 (summer 2016)

Americans of a certain age may remember Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots—introduced in 1964, the game set stiff plastic pugilists face to face in a small boxing ring. They were controlled by buttons that unleashed rudimentary uppercuts and jabs; if a plastic fist managed to connect, the head of the opposing robot would pop up. Round won. 

It was a toy that no parent really wanted their kids to have. But then again, nearly all toy marketing before then was aimed at adults; toys themselves likewise replicated adulthood in whimsical or didactic miniature, from dolls and easy bake ovens, which made girls into wee wives and mothers, to superhero costumes meant to direct the young man’s leisure imagination. Yet while the wisdom in the biz said it could not sell, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em was a wild success, managing to detach millions of dollars from post-war wallets.  How?

This game's maker changed the industry—as it was reported to me—by leapfrogging the parent and speaking directly to the child. The earliest ads were stripped of any hint of a domestic sphere, no mother smiled benignly on, and no world-saving heroism or virtue justified the blows the boys rained on each other’s robot. It was kid catnip.

In 1964, the American toy industry discovered children.

It is from this child-centered vantage that we follow our authors in this forum backward. Dorothea Salzer, Iris Idelson-Shein, and, Andreas Brämer remind us that, like children’s toys (or, more pertinently in this case, the advertising of children’s toys), children’s literature and education policy have a traditionally had little to do with actual children. They have been parts of a system driven by a range of interests beginning from a high minded concern for education that, when scratched, reveals a range of less-visible interests and framing paradigms, stretching from—as we see in the essays in this forum—apologetics to polemics, reformist to reactionary ideals, political to religious agendas, economic to philosophical priorities. The children at the crosshairs of education reform, children’s literature, and paideia in general, were not in fact children at all. They were ciphers—rudimentary clay humans: little Jews and proto-citizens, baby workers and wives—being asked to serve distinctively adult agendas for social reform or preservation.

As such, education is a useful tincture with which to reveal the dominant stressors and concerns of society at a given moment. Given that education is how societies make the citizens they most need or desire, we can also see in it in nuce the ideals and aspirations of the culture that produces educational theories, materials, and policies. The Haskalah proves an especially rich terroire for changing and dynamic education theory, law, and literature; the special section of this issue walks through 6 enlightening case studies.  It is introduced by coeditor David Myers, whose essay is available here.

Natalie B. Dohrmann




Natalie B. Dohrmann

Associate Director, Katz Center & Coeditor, Jewish Quarterly Review

Objectivity: A Critical Scholarly Value under Fire // Steven Weitzman

posted August 10, 2016

Several recent New York Times articles and op-eds raise disturbing questions about the future of a value at the heart of the Katz Center—objectivity.

One article, “Researchers or Corporate Allies? Think Tanks Blur the Line” is an exposé of prominent think tanks like the Brookings Institute, which rely on donations from corporations to sustain a good percentage of their annual budget. Think tanks cast themselves as “universities without students.” Their value to society depends on the independent research they produce. Think tank executives deny any suggestion that they are the tools of the corporate donors who support them, but the article lays out evidence that the intellectual independence of some think tanks has been compromised by the role they have developed as unofficial lobby organizations. As one executive director notes, “people think of think tanks as do-gooders, uncompromised and not bought like others. . .” but, because of corporate donations, “the danger is we in the think tank world are being corrupted in the same way as the political world. And all of us should be worried about it.”

Another article, “The Challenge Trump Poses to Objectivity,” addresses the objectivity of contemporary journalism. If journalists believe a leader to be a threat to the nation’s well-being, can they go about their job as they have in the past? Can they be objective in their analysis? Should they be objective? Many believe that to stick to how journalists have covered elections in the past would be immoral during this unprecedented and unsettling election season, but if journalists shift from reporting the facts to being critics, is there a risk that their credibility will be compromised in a way that is ultimately harmful to society?

Yet another piece raises a different problem: sometimes the pursuit of truth can be compromised by unwillingness to compromise. In “Can We Still Trust Wikileaks?” Alex Gibney argues that Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of Wikileaks, has been afflicted by “noble cause corruption,” a belief in a noble end that has led him astray. Assange’s goal is to hold governments and political organizations accountable by casting light on their inner-workings, as he recently did with the Democratic National Committee. He is so committed to transparency that he refuses to alter his sources in any way, even if he risks of publishing information that will be harmful to innocent people. But the writer of the essay questions Assange’s objectivity, criticizing him for using transparency to pursue his own personal aims. Is there a possibility that the journalistic search for truth is being compromised not only by financial pressures but also by good intentions?

Although the Katz Center is neither a think tank nor a journalistic organization, it cannot ignore the imperiled state of objectivity because it, too, is an institution dedicated to the search for the truth. It pursues this quest at a time when many individual scholars question the possibility of intellectual objectivity or political neutrality. For a fascinating and disturbing account of how the ideal of scholarly objectivity has changed and been challenged over the decades, see Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream.) It might seem naïve to profess a commitment to objectivity, but as an institution, the Katz Center might well have an obligation to defend it.

Consider all the forces arrayed against independent and objective scholarship. In 2009, an initiative called the Scholar Rescue Fund reported receiving applications for help from persecuted academics in 101 countries—and this was before recent crises jeopardized scholarship in places like Turkey which has closed universities, fired thousands of deans, and curtailed the travel of scholars in response to an attempted coup. Even in a country like the U.S. where academics do not face persecution, there are corrosive pressures on scholarly objectivity as researchers find themselves relying more and more on private sources of research funding. In a world that poses so many risks to independent scholarship, it is crucial to have institutions committed to creating an environment where scholars can pursue their work as independently as possible, without outside interference or influence.

The recent Times pieces illustrate how difficult it is to sustain objectivity in the contemporary world. Often dependent on external funding to accomplish their important work, institutions sometimes purchase organizational independence at the expense of intellectual independence. Truth-seekers can be led astray by ambition but also by noble intentions—by a need to address real-world problems or to speak truth to power. How vulnerable is a research institute like the Katz Center to the kinds of pressures and temptations that are changing the nature of other kinds of institutions?

The Center benefits from having faculty advisory boards and a board of overseers who understand and support its mission, and from being part of a university with rules and institutional practices that help to protect our mission. We also never forget that we are accountable to fellow scholars who expect the Center to maintain its commitment to intellectual excellence. But we cannot be complacent. As many practitioners of Jewish studies know well, it is difficult for scholars in this field to completely detach themselves from politics and economics. Indeed, many scholars feel it is wrong to stay neutral or to pretend to be objective in the face of the challenges posed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the financial pressures that beset the modern university. The forces that are reshaping think tanks and journalism are at work in academia as well, and we should not underestimate their power or their subtlety.

My point is that the question of scholarly objectivity has be to thought of in institutional and social terms and not just as a question of epistemology or method. It would be hard to find a scholar in the humanities today who believes in the possibility of completely neutral, unbiased, and detached scholarship, and I am not an exception. But even so, there is something hard-won and very important that will be lost if the field of Jewish Studies collectively abandons objectivity as an operational principle—just as there will be great cost to society if it gives up on the goal of objective journalism or fact-driven accounting. Objectivity is not just an intellectual ideal; it is an ethical and political ideal as well, and in an age when scholars face all kinds of threats to their credibility, their integrity, their independence, and their well-being, it is one that, in my view, a research institute like the Katz Center has a solemn responsibility to honor and sustain.Steven Weitzman



Steven Weitzman

Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center
Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures

Object of Desire // Natalie B. Dohrmann

posted September 30, 2015

Reflections on the SIMS-Katz Center Partnership

In the fall of 2014 the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (SIMS) at Penn’s Van Pelt Library acquired a fifteenth-century Sicilian medical miscellany (now UPenn MS Codex 1649) that stitched together a variety of texts, including three medical treatises written predominantly in Judaeo-Arabic with marginalia in Latin, Hebrew, and even Samaritan.

This on its own was enough.  Libraries collect important manuscripts, and make them available to research. But more could be done.

Tzvi Langermann, a past Katz Center fellow and Professor of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University, came immediately to mind. Who else on this earth controlled the requisite quiver of skills necessary to read this material? An eminent scholar of premodern science, medicine, and mathematics whose mastery of rabbinic thought, plus experience with manuscripts, made him ideal (nay miraculous). The Katz Center and SIMS together found the means to bring Langermann to Penn, and thus the manuscript catalyzed an institutional collaboration before its pages were even opened by the scholar.

Langermann agreed to take a break from his current research to spend two weeks with the document. At the end of his time, he shared some of the fruits of his study through a graduate seminar and a public lecture. He also taped a video Master Class in which his findings will be shared globally.

Since he was not trolling the UPenn MS Codex 1649 with any particular question in mind, he was as open to the object in all its facets—and aware of the ways the object outran even his analytical abilities.  The evening after his public lecture (September 3, 2015), not 24 hours before taping his master class, Langermann posted his PowerPoint slides from the lecture in an open forum on  The response was overwhelming. By the time the forum closed three weeks later, 141 people had participated, and nearly 1000 had viewed the PowerPoint (994 at the time of writing this; 9/24/15).

The forum participants were not focused on Langermann’s theses per se—on whether he was right or wrong—but on how best, together, they could make sense of the ancient text. Crowd-sourcing brought people with expertise in a vast array of subjects to bear on the document.  Indeed, within hours of its posting, one scholar questioned Langermann’s interpretation of a dating chronogram, causing Langermann to adjust—and improve—his work between sundown and sunrise. 

 * * *

Standard scholarly research agendas are, as often as not, anchored in an idea or set of ideas meant to reshape how we view the past. Evidence is adduced and ordered to make a new story, or construct a model through which to better comprehend human data.  Research is valued for its “contribution,” whose most perdurable metric is originality. Ideas that are both new and good are valuable commodities, tradable for promotions, invitations, students. A scholar’s relationship to her work is thus by necessity proprietary.

Object-driven research—research that takes as its beginning and end a particular artifact—invites a different dynamic. Since what is paramount is not a hypothesis to be asserted, tested, and defended, the artifact itself determines the agenda. The scholar’s ego can thus be transferred to the object and subordinate itself to the demands of an item which itself asks the questions needing answering. Seen this way, object-driven research is naturally and uncomplicatedly collaborative.

Outside of museums and libraries, object-driven research occupies a particular small quadrant of the scholarly landscape. And indeed the limitations imposed by an object are obvious. No one thing can tell us everything; an object’s meaning is constrained by space and time and function.  Still, an artifact’s mysteries are manifold. Since the object is by definition unique—original—scholarly desire can focus on it and not on the originality of insight. The very metaphorics suggested by the object-driven researcher are telling: the doctor trying to cure a mysterious malady; the general contractor; the sheriff gathering a posse; the impresario. How different these are from the monkish Casaubon, the solitary genius, the amasser of note cards, the analyst, the philosopher. 

Collaborating experts are not only welcomed, but sought. If a paleographer is needed, then by all means get one—does DNA testing need to be done on the parchment? Who is the world expert on bindings? or watermarks? Who knows how to dissolve 300–year-old glue? Is there someone who can advise on Greek cardiology, Latin consonantal shifts, regional Portuguese dialects, botany? How about trade routes and weather patterns? Aragonese politics? The radical specificity of the artifact means that each expert in turn needs the others to do her job right. The object engenders love from all—it becomes their shared obsession.

* * *

Below I have chosen a few exchanges sparked by Langermann’s initial observations and findings. The full text of the forum, including, among other things, a lively discussion of the color of arterial and venous blood, and debates over the color “yellow” can be found here.

The lecture that accompanied the slides can be viewed here.
For more on the manuscript in general click here.

Nadia Vidro
Dear Professor Langermann, thank you for inviting me. I noticed that the date in the colophon does not work: 13 Kislev in 5216 was a Sunday, not Tuesday. Is the year of copying supported by some other evidence? It is hard to see on the slide, but could it be that not all letters in the date phrase are marked as numbers? There are two lines over the heh, and perhaps, it represents 5000. The initial vav and aleph are also not marked in the same way as the rest of the letters. If the one dot that can I see on the slide refers to aleph, the year would be 5205, and in it 13 Kislev was, indeed, a Tuesday.

Tzvi Langermann
Thank you, I admit that with all the other things I had to check, I simply copied the information that was on a previous cataloguing—a serious mistake in this business. The difference is not great, the manuscript is still mid-16th century, which is how it looks to be… but you are right in catching this, now I will have to go back and check again.

Justine Isserles
Dear Professor Langermann Thank you for inviting me to comment on your paper which I am sorry I missed! I do have the following comments: 1. I am not surprised by a Romance spelling of Hippocrates, especially ending with a ש. In fact it is a 'sin' and often interchangeable with a ס. I described a ms from the University Library in Geneva ( 14th c., paper, Sephardic script) which contains the Problemata Physica by Aristotle and there is a later hand at one point describing the contents as פרובלימיש דאריסטוטילש . Then at the end we find a colophon with the word spelled with a samekh. Linguistically speaking I have seen several variations in spelling of one word in several different contexts and the use of “sin” or “samekh” for the “s” sound is common. 2. I do not think that the writing of this text is the same as you find in the binding. It can only come from the same book if there is another textual unit with the same hand which you cna find on the binding cover. 3. I am fascinated by the glossary at the end, and am trying to decipher more words ( I am not as keen on Spehardic script as with Ashkenazic/ Italian or Provençal). I will let you know if and what I discover.... Thank you for sharing your research with me! Best wishes, Justine

Tzvi Langermann
thanks... I have never seen this spelling of hippocrates in an arabic text; people wrote names as they heard them, hence I tend to think that is the name was written with a shin, it was pronounced sh and not s; but I am more at home in medical theory than in this sort of thing

Frank Savelsberg
Dear Tzvi, I think the first two terms are Latin fossilized genitives (form recipes): cin(n)amomi, *piperi longi. The third term seems to be the Catalan sindria (from Arabic sandya; DCVB s.v.) for 'watermelon' glossed by the Latin (genitive) meloni sarraceni or the like (for this term see our edition of Shem Tov ben Isaacs first list in book 29 of the Sefer ha-Shimmush: Bos et al. 2011, p. 171). The forth term corresponds to the Latin calque lingua avis (Bos et al 2011, p. 287). Best wishes, Frank

Tzvi Langermann
thank you...I just wanted to tell me audience about the way blank pages were used, and how interesting these names (written out in Hebrew letters, as they were heard) are to Romance philologists—of which I am not one

Igor Souza
For what it's worth, "piperis lorgi" is mentioned in the Pharmacopoea sive dispensatorium coloniensis, of Petrus Holtzemius (1627), p. 53. This might help further identification. "Cinamomo" in Portuguese can refer either to the spice or to the cinammon tree. The word may or may not have entered Portuguese from the Hebrew; there are different opinions. The earliest mention of it in Portuguese that I have run across dates to the 14th c. See A.A. Tavares, "Palavras Hebraicas e Hebraísmos na Língua Portuguese," Didaskalia 6 (1976), 105, 107 n16. There's an extended discussion on cinamomo by Garcia da Orta, "Colóquios dos Simples e das Drogas da Índia" (1563), which mentions Avicena and the Qanun in connection with the term.

Caroline Petit
Dear Tzvi, thank you so much for sharing this, and for inviting me to comment although I am not competent at all on Semitic texts and manuscripts! two small points: (1) I have seen other examples of Latin literal translations of names (or, important words in the text) in the margins of Arabic manuscripts, esp. Scorial. arab. 793, which contains Galen's treatise on Simples. From book VI onwards (the "catalogue" part of the treatise), such translations are regularly added in the margins, I guess to assist the reader in finding the relevant entry. (2) I am curious about the first text you mention, because it is similar in composition and purpose to the Greek pseudo-Galenic text Introductio sive medicus (the long chapter 13 especially) that I edited for my PhD.

Tzvi Langermann
Thank you, Caroline, for both comments. Nothing is really available on the Mughni; I haven't looked at Ullmann (the German, not the English), which would probably be the best place to look. I am sorry to say that I have not seen your thesis; it would be nice to see how the texts compare.

* * *

The forum is, as Monica Green of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study wrote, “a model of scholarly exchange”—proving the generative potential of intellectual modesty and honesty, attributable both to Langermann and to the capacious imperatives of object-driven research. It is a mandate for us to nurture and cultivate this sort of learning and production of knowledge. Between the material riches of our remarkable libraries, and the human capital and networks fostered and supported by the Katz Center, there is only good to come.

Natalie B. Dohrmann




Natalie B. Dohrmann

Associate Director, Katz Center & Coeditor, Jewish Quarterly Review

Feminist Hermeneutics and the Babylonian Talmud // Marjorie Lehman and Charlotte Fonrobert

posted September 17, 2015

This past summer a group of scholars from North America and Europe, working in the field of Talmud and Rabbinics, gathered at the Katz Center to explore feminist hermeneutic approaches to studying the Bavli. Each of the scholars is working on a commentary on one of the Bavli’s tractates. The commentary volumes are part of the Feminist Commentary to the Babylonian Talmud series edited by Professor Tal Ilan and published by the German publisher Mohr Siebeck. Navigating the complex field of Jewish Feminist Studies, our goal was to broaden the definition of what it means to employ a feminist analysis of rabbinic texts as well as to explore the ways in which modern scholars can contribute to the age-old project of writing commentaries to rabbinic texts, one of the practices that has defined Jewish literary practice for centuries.

Feminist scholarship of the Babylonian Talmud has come into its own during the past few decades, having developed a variety of strategies of engaging with and countering the androcentrism of rabbinic culture. Such strategies range from excavating and foregrounding of women, women’s practices, and women’s experiences, to studying the variety of gender identities and dynamics, and the ways in which the rabbis of the Talmud themselves use gendered strategies to assert their authority. These approaches fundamentally change the way rabbinic texts are read and re-appropriated. Feminist scholarship in particular has made a crucial contribution towards the wider reception of the Talmud and rabbinic texts in contemporary Jewish culture. The contributors to the Feminist Commentary project came together to explore collectively the potential of organizing such scholarship and scholarly commitments in the form of Talmudic commentary. After an initial workshop in May 2014 devoted to discussing best practices of feminist Talmudic commentary, sponsored and organized by the Stanford Taube Center of Jewish Studies, Professor Steve Weitzman initiated the idea for a cooperation between the Katz Center and the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford, to enable collaborative scholarship on this particular project. Recognizing the potential of our project as well as our ability to make a far stronger contribution to the field of Talmud and Rabbinics by engaging in thoughtful discussions with each other and with scholars working on gender in other fields of Jewish Studies, the two centers initiated the summer collaboratory.

As a result, this past July we worked together intensively on a daily basis in order to discuss our varied feminist strategies of studying the Talmud, and the ways in which our approaches could shape the task of writing commentary. We thought together about the importance of defining particular feminist approaches as well as integrating them one with the other in our volumes. We examined criteria of selection for identifying Talmudic texts to comment upon and we talked extensively about what it means to study a Talmudic tractate as a coherent project with an overarching agenda. Additionally, we invited scholars who work in gender in other fields of Jewish Studies, including Talya Fishman, Laura Levitt, Miriam Peskowitz, and Beth Wenger to challenge us, prompting us to think further about what it means to read the Talmud in an effort to produce a feminist commentary.

Engaging in this collective endeavor to study strategies and best practices of writing talmudic and feminist commentary, we realized that the very act of joining together should function as a feminist paradigm of doing scholarship. The experience of working as a team of scholars, guiding one another, presenting our material and incorporating each others’ suggestions into our written work, sharing and discussing past scholarship in feminist studies, transformed the way we think scholarship can and should be done. Because we were engaged in the process of mutually redefining what it means to engage in feminist analysis in rabbinics, there is no doubt that our experience will enhance our scholarly output and our contribution to the field, but also the way in which we teach our students the study of Talmud.

Our month-long collaboratory concluded with a symposium designed as an interactive forum for the summer fellows to present the fruits of their collective labor. Shaped in a way that allowed for extensive conversation, we created yet another opportunity to discuss the contributions and challenges of using a feminist hermeneutic in writing Talmud commentary. We addressed issues such as: why it is important to write commentaries, why feminist analyses are so significant to our understanding of the Bavli (and rabbinic literature more generally), how we mine the Talmud for texts appropriate for writing a feminist commentary on one tractate, why it is significant to study one tractate in its entirely, and what we are adding to the field of Talmud and Rabbinics.

Participants in the symposium:
Co-convener: Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, Stanford University
Co-convener: Marjorie Lehman, Jewish Theological Seminary

Aryeh Cohen, American Jewish University
Naftali Cohen, Concordia University
Judith Hauptman, Jewish Theological Seminary
Jane Kanarek, Hebrew College
Gail Labovitz, American Jewish University
Sarra Lev, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, University of Virginia
Christiane Steuer, Freie Universitat Berlin
Dvora Weisberg, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (LA)

Tal Ilan of Freie Universitat Berlin, the general editor of the commentary series, attended and discussed the future of the project.

In Memoriam: Shlomo Berger // Emile Schrijver

posted August 30, 2015

We are deeply saddened to learn of the sudden passing earlier this week of Shlomo Berger, professor at University of Amsterdam and longtime friend of the Katz Center. He was a fellow during the year on The Jewish Book: Material Texts and Comparative Contexts (2005-2006) and we had certainly hoped to see him return.

Professors Avriel Bar Levav, Rachel Rojanski, and Andrea Schatz composed a necrology, and we share the following lovely memorial from Shlomo's longtime friend and colleague, Emile Schrijver. (You can also find it posted here, in Dutch and English.)

In Memoriam Prof. Dr Shlomo Z. Berger (1953–2015)

           "A tayerer fraynd," a much-loved friend: those were the words that came to mind when I received the startling news that Shlomo Berger had passed away last Wednesday, 19 August 2015. He would have been 62 on 1 September. He died following an acute bacterial infection which he fought off for a few days, yet ultimately in vain, leaving his friends and colleagues devastated.

            Born in Tel Aviv, Shlomo Berger attended Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There he gained his doctorate in Ancient History in 1987, with a thesis on Revolution and Society in Greek Sicily and Southern Italy, which appeared in print in 1992. It was shortly after this that he was invited by Prof. Dr Rena Fuks-Mansfeld to come to the University of Amsterdam, where he worked on two post-doctoral projects and began teaching in 1995. He taught Jewish History, Modern Hebrew, History of Modern Literature and Yiddish, the language of his mother as he fondly recalled. On 1 January 2005, the status of his Yiddish course was elevated when he was appointed extraordinary professor in Yiddish Language and Culture (with special reference to the Netherlands) under the auspices of Menasseh ben Israel Institute. The formal reason for establishing the chair was that the University of Amsterdam wished to safeguard Yiddish as an academic study; the informal reason was that the proposed candidate, Shlomo Berger, had long been professorable. Funding and continuation of the chair had only recently been organised in yet another testimony to the magnificent scholarship and mammoth reputation of this most modest of men.

            His academic articles, the first of which appeared in 1988, focused originally on the Ancient World, an interest that remained close to his heart; later, following the publication of his Classical Oratory and the Sephardim of Amsterdam: Rabbi Aguilar’s ‘Tratado de la retórica’ in 1996, in which he combined his classical expertise with his Jewish knowledge, he moved definitively into the world of Jewish Studies. He always regarded himself primarily as a historian, less so a Yiddish scholar, although he adored Yiddish (and Hebrew) language and literature and held many an impassioned lecture on the subject. In recent years he gradually drew closer towards the study of the Jewish book, a subject to which he brought many innovative contributions. His latest volume, with the poetic title Producing Redemption in Amsterdam: Early Modern Yiddish Books in Paratextual Perspective, appeared in 2013. It is a curious work which is based on a meticulous scrutiny of forewords, title pages, approbations and epilogues, paratext, in Yiddish books published in Amsterdam. While the study of this kind of text, which French historian Gérard Genette neatly describes as ‘the fringe of the actual text’ has received considerable attention among students of the non-Jewish book, it was Shlomo Berger who first applied this form of research to Jewish books, indeed to date he is the only scholar to have ventured into this particular area. I cherish warm memories of our many discussions; he would often visit Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana as he prepared for the publication and we would peruse this or that Yiddish book together and discuss the greater or lesser significance of some aspect of paratext.

            That pleasure in the study of old sources is something we had shared for many years. Berger published his Travels among Jews and Gentiles: Abraham Levie's Travelogue (Amsterdam 1764) in 2002, an historical analysis of one of my favourite manuscripts in the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana collection: a Yiddish account by Abraham Levi of his journey through Europe, written in 1764. We spent many hours poring over that manuscript. Sadly, he never got to finish his planned book on Readers and Modes of Reading in Yiddish, 1500-1850.

            He was an original thinker who stood firmly for the importance and above all for maintaining the highest standards in scholarship and his chosen terrain. He brooked no compromise in that respect. If a person’s work was below par he saw no reason not to say so in the most explicit terms. To engage in Jewish Studies it is essential to know all the relevant languages, he was convinced of this, and not without reason. Moreover, researchers should dare to venture beyond their own methodology and specialisation. If his candour was resented and resulted in the rupture of a relationship, so be it; he could not do otherwise, and he could never hide his frustration whenever he detected a lack of quality or a lack of genuine effort.

            Menasseh ben Israel Institute’s major international research project into Yiddish in the Netherlands as an Expression of Ashkenazic Culture, which we set up in the late 1990s with Marion Aptroot, Irene Zwiep, Rena Fuks-Mansfeld, Henk Meijering and Falk Wiesemann, would have been totally different without him. I look back with pleasure at the countless hours we spent together at the computer in my Menasseh ben Israel Institute office in Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, juggling texts in our respective English, arguing the benefits of one formulation against another. He had a profound distaste for the red tape that Dutch and German bureaucracy entailed, and was not averse to saying so with undisguised relish, yet he understood that administration was required if he was to achieve his academic goals and so he was prepared to knuckle down time and again to make yet one more effort. Together with Irene Zwiep, he started a periodical, Zutot: Perspectives on Jewish Culture, first published in 2001 by Brill in Leiden, and he was on the editorial board of Studia Rosenthaliana, Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana’s scholarly journal. As an extraordinary professor, he was also editor of a series of Menasseh ben Israel Institute publications issued after each of the annual Amsterdam Yiddish Symposia that he organised, the ninth volume of which recently appeared.

            Shlomo Berger was a cosmopolitan. He was an Israeli Amsterdammer who had worked all over the world, from Jerusalem to Philadelphia, and from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Dublin (where he had just been appointed external examiner for Jewish Studies at Trinity College). Spain was a particular love of his, where he would regularly take a pile of books and recharge his batteries in the sun, and not to mention every researcher’s Valhalla: Oxford. In Oxford he was Visiting Fellow at Brasenose College and had recently led an Oxford Seminar in Advanced Jewish Studies at Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies on ‘Jewish Books in Amsterdam, 1650-1850: Authors, Producers, Readers and the Construction of Jewish Worlds’. Indeed, he was a past master at thinking up these ingenious titles. There, in his beloved Oxford, is where I saw him last, we lunched together in the Common Room at Brasenose College where he basked visibly in the gently elitist atmosphere of the place, and where we enjoyed the excellent food and drink after my own lecture at his seminar. It never occurred to me that this might be the last time we would embrace. Jewish Studies will be the poorer now that this thoroughbred intellectual has left us. And like so many other friends, colleagues and students, I shall cherish the memory of this ardent, curious man, an aesthete in every fibre of his being, my "tayerer fraynd."

A Discourse of Global Significance // Ismar Schorsch

posted March 26, 2015

I regard this year’s Katz Center seminar devoted to the Science of Judaism  (Wissenschaft des Judentums) as preparatory to the commemoration of the upcoming bicentennial of Jewish studies. In 1818 Leopold Zunz launched the turn to Jewish history with a modest essay of bracing scope that spelled out for the first time the all-encompassing nature of postbiblical Jewish literature. Over the next two centuries that epistemological revolution—with its distinct ethos, tools and perspectives—gave rise to ever new sources of knowledge, subfields, and institutional settings, coloring the public discourse of old and new centers of Jewish life. The diverse participants of the seminar reflect that diffusion.

What is most noteworthy for me is the substantial minority of young scholars from Germany whose work merited an invitation. Their presence highlights the current prominence of German scholarship in Jewish studies. Some 1000 books pertaining to Jews and Judaism are now being published every year in Germany. Granted that many are popular and ephemeral, still a goodly number enrich a range of subfields with scholarship of the highest order. There was a time when students of Judaica were required to learn German to read what had been published before 1939. While that is still the case, it is even more important today to master German in order to read what is being written by contemporary German scholars. Indisputably and unexpectedly, over the last few decades Germany has become the third leading center for Jewish studies behind Israel and America. Its scholars have spent lots of time in Israel, acquired a better command of modern Hebrew than many an American colleague and are not stymied by rabbinic and medieval Jewish texts. Back in 1818 Zunz feared there would be few young Jews in 1918 with a sufficient knowledge of Hebrew to handle the sources. My apprehension is that there may be too few Israeli and American students of Judaica with a sufficient command of German to read the best of German Jewish scholarship that goes untranslated.

Wiedergutmachung, the effort to undo the destructiveness of the past, takes many forms in the German Federal Republic. The country has moved well beyond reparations to countless acts of genuine atonement. The decision of a young Christian scholar to undertake the arduous journey to master the requisite knowledge to do Jewish studies, without assurance of an academic job at the end, is often borne of a touch of penance. In retrospect, had academic officialdom before 1933 been more forthcoming to admit Jewish studies into the university curriculum, as repeatedly demanded by Zunz, perhaps the emancipated status of Jews in Germany could not have been so easily reversed and uprooted.

Image result for ismar schorsch



Ismar Schorsch

Chancellor Emeritus, Jewish Theological Seminary of America
Adjunct Fellow, Katz Center 2014-2015

Aviva Ben-Ur’s “Kabbalistic Pharmacopeia” // JQR

posted June 8, 2015

In the current issue of JQR (105.2, a special issue on the transposition of Sepharad and Ashkenaz to the Americas), Aviva Ben-Ur examines a rare manuscript recently acquired by the Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center. A combination of recipes for medical and other practical purposes, along with magical prescriptions belonging to the genre known as sifre segulot, it contains notes in a multitude of languages and reflects, in Ben-Ur’s words, “the major transitions that characterize the Atlantic Jewish era.” It is a remarkable document, and only a scholar with Ben-Ur’s range of linguistic, paleographic, and historical acumen could have plumbed its riches.

To highlight JQR’s emphasis on the scholarly “note”—a short essay gleaning trenchant insights from a small detail or recent find that stands out in a crowded research file—we offer Ben-Ur’s piece as a free download here.




The International "Merkatz" // Natalia Aleksiun

posted May 1, 2015

I arrived in Philadelphia on a chilly Monday morning last January, curious to meet a group of fellows many of whom I had only met on bookshelves and to experience the place I had heard so much about since my graduate years at NYU. Little did I expect a friendly atmosphere that far exceeded polite conversations about one’s future research projects and challenging deadlines. What I encountered was a uniquely mixed group of men and women who insisted on conversations in Hebrew and who took interest in one’s adventures in the world of Jewish Wissenschaft of the past centuries and of our own time. Coming from American universities, Israeli and European academic institutions and countries that had been part of the Soviet bloc, we found several languages in common.

Joining a group of fellows proved to be an intellectual adventure. While the project of modern study of all things Jewish emerged in the German context in the first half of the nineteenth century, I found myself challenged by the dominating voice of the Western European Jewish scholars. As someone who was trained in Eastern Europe and who had come to the USA for the second Ph.D., it was particularly interesting to find myself sitting on the academic fence, comparing approaches and agendas of scholars who had come to the Katz Center from Europe, Israel and American academic institutions. How much did we have in common and were our scholarly sensitivities all that different? Or maybe they stemmed more from gender and generational differences? I have not resolved these dilemmas. But I found myself fortunate to look deep into my own ideological, cultural, and linguistic context when engaging with the subject of Jewish studies. Still, camaraderie and shared predilections brought us together; everyone was ready to laugh together, swap library books and admit to anxieties about time that was passing way too fast.



Natalia Aleksiun

Touro College
Albert J. Wood Fellow, 2014-2015

Reconstructing the Tower of Babel // Dorothea Salzer

posted May 21, 2015

As part of my contribution to the Katz Center’s public programming, I offered a workshop to twelve-year-old Hebrew school students on what we learn from retellings of biblical stories, and then included some of their work in a later presentation to adults at the same synagogue. The experience was moving and enlightening for me.

Two days after my workshop, the fellows at the Katz Center came together for a meeting of our reading group. We were discussing a text by Gershom Scholem called Mitokh hirhurim al hokhmat yisrael—“Wanderings of the Mind about Jewish Studies.” This is a rather radical and polemical essay, written in a wonderfully rich and powerful—even emotional—language with all kinds of allusions to the Bible, rabbinic texts, and mystical concepts. One of Scholem’s arguments is that a historian needs to destroy history in order to reconstruct it anew—meaning for him, of course, to use history in a Zionist context.

In the midst of our discussion, it struck me that this is exactly what the children did in retelling the story of the tower of Babel. They deconstructed the biblical narrative, “destroyed” it, so to speak, and changed it into a meaningful construction for themselves, thereby finding a way to give a personal meaning to this old story and make their own path to tradition. Their retellings, simple though they seemed as first, demanded to be taken seriously.

Each child told the story in a way that was different from the others and from the biblical version. They made cultural adaptations in order to explain biblical lacunae and make sense of various textual details. They tried to explain what it means that the tower reached up into the sky and what happened after the language was scattered; sometimes they redefined the tower itself. According to the biblical text, the tower is simply not finished, but for the children this bare fact was an opportunity for creativity; according to some of them, God destroyed it, while others suggested that it fell on its own, or that it was never destroyed at all. The obscurity of the text prompted the students to ask why reaching for the sky incurred God’s wrath. The children’s inventions were invested with moral, psychological, and historical significance.

They not only enacted Scholem’s process of destruction-for-renewal; they also engaged in cultural translation, adapting the text to their experiences just as did the authors of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century children’s Bibles that I’m examining for my current book project. Like the Hebrew school students, those authors felt it necessary to truncate or reshape the text, and in some cases toss it away altogether and start anew. As some of the children observed, the destruction of the tower was itself a deeply creative act as it restored harmony in some mysterious way, and corresponded to the formation of our own polyglot world.

The first story opens with a familiar phrase: “once upon a time.” Does this mean that the biblical stories for this child have the status of fairy tales? More likely, the author means to acknowledge the chronological distance of the story. I also noticed the unusual sentence, “and they scattered them in the world.” When asked about this, the girl who wrote the story said that she wanted to give space for all kinds of perceptions of God. Because there are references to God as man, woman, and other different notions, she wanted to be inclusive and chose the neutral form of “they.” This struck me as very thoughtful and as having a rather meaningful theological component. The student not only wanted to be tolerant and inclusive, she obviously also was very much aware that personal perceptions of God (and different contexts) are meaningful for building a relationship to the texts by which tradition is brought to us, that everybody has the need to find a way to forge a personal connection with the text.

Her illustration shows a skyline that is very similar to the skyline of an American city, with the tower of Babel only slightly bigger than the other buildings, which for me is a clear cultural adaptation. Also, she is one of the few children who actually implemented the city into the picture. I wonder if the choice of color (silver and gold on a black background) is an instrument of orientalization.

Hebrish: “In the city there was a very tall tower.”


This second story was written collaboratively by three girls and is a beautiful rewriting on many different levels. First of all, the story is situated in the future; in addition, the people do not build a tower, but rather a factory for apple phones. Embedded in this structure is a profound critique of our society that prefers texting to actual personal communication. Interestingly enough, the authors also turn the bad ending of the biblical story into a happy one, since the people are not scattered and the tower (i.e., the factory) remains standing—the people “made good use of the amazing factory that they built.” For me, the most striking feature in this text is how the girls tried to figure out a moral of the biblical story for their own time and context, which is exactly what the authors of my biblical stories did more than 200 years ago.

Hebrish: "But soon it change[d]"




For a third student, the story is about God being afraid of the strength of a unified humankind, an interpretation clearly rooted in the biblical text itself (Gen 11:6: and the Lord said, "If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach"). The scattering of the language for him is a means of weakening the collective. Interesting is the feeling of anxiety ascribed to God; God is a very emotional being in the Hebrew Bible—but most of the time the emotion is anger and to the best of my knowledge, never fear. So in showing an anxious God, the author actually questions God’s omnipotence and at the same time shows a human side in God, something to which we can all relate. Although the author does not spell it out, the insinuation of the power of unification is a striking one here, and so the story can be read as a demand to seek more unification in order to achieve important goals.

Hebrish: "Separated them by language."




Finally, the student(s) who wrote this text tried to find a reason for building the tower, something the authors of my biblical stories also did. For our author, the people of Babel built a tower so they could explore the heavens. God’s reaction is not rationalized as in the previous text, it is just stated that he saw this was not good. Is this a critique of progress?  The author(s) also thought about the question of the consequences of the scattered language and came up with the impossibility of coordination. Again, this can be read as an invitation to think about cooperation. Strikingly, the people themselves destroy the tower, a moment that is also captured in the illustration accompanying the story.

Hebrish: “God made different languages”







Dorothea Salzer
University of Potsdam
Jody Ellant and Howard Reiter Family Fellow, 2014-2015

The Fighting Faith of Solomon Schechter // David Starr

posted May 27, 2015

Leah Goldberg once wrote that “it may be a characteristic of the modern to fluctuate between the naïve and the ironic, craving Eden in a lost world all the while revealing the problems inherent in simple belief.” Such a tangled set of views characterized Solomon Schechter, the ultimate “modern,” whose life the Katz Center and JQR remember in this centennial year of his passing.  Schechter had lost the simple faith of his Romanian father, yet he fervently believed that scholarship could bridge the gap between tradition and modernity by creating the modern, committed Jew. He recognized the difference between religion and culture while serving a population that was more interested in a culture of tradition than in a religion of tradition.  JQR played a role in this intellectual and communal project, mediating Jewish texts, ideas, and history for English-reading Jews as they sought somehow to bring at least fragments of Jewishness with them as they entered modern times and sensibilities. 

At different times, both Moshe Idel and I reflected, at least in miniature, on Schechter’s life and works in the pages of JQR—in both cases the focus was on the transition—of Schechter from England to America—and the reflection engendered by that change.  A decade ago I noted that, in a letter to his Cambridge successor Israel Abrahams, Schechter reinforced the adage that objectivity need not be neutral.  In the sharply worded letter that I quote in “The Importance of Being Frank: Solomon Schechter's Departure from Cambridge” (JQR 94.1) it is clear that Schechter viewed the science of Judaism as intrinsically true but also as a vehicle for Jews to represent themselves and their civilization to Jews and non-Jews alike.  The creation of a spiritual nationalism in the fragmented present required a truthful reconstruction of the people’s past. 

To mark the 100th anniversary of Schechter’s bringing the Jewish Quarterly Review to Philadelphia, in an essay titled “On Solomon Schechter in the Pages of JQR” (JQR 100.4) Moshe Idel plumbed the archive for a telling essay to gloss.  His resultant piece on Schechter’s appraisal of mysticism reveals how the man worked in different aspects of Jewish science, how he managed to combine usually disparate and disconnected endeavors like history, theology, and philology to produce deceptively simple renderings of Judaism and its cultural expressions.  This shows through Schechter’s portrait of Nahmanides, the great Spanish medieval scholar who combined philosophy, mysticism, and profound feeling in a state of “happy inconsistency—an existential predicament with which Schechter likely personally identified. 

Schechter the modern emerges from these two offerings, and from the Katz Center’s recent conference devoted to Schechter’s years in America.  A person of many interests and facets, he accepted his ironic lot, recognizing that the questions worth asking, the facts worth knowing, took us in not one but many directions. In Schechter’s view, one needed to live with the gaps between what one knew and what one believed.  For someone who spent so much of his life fighting for Judaism, fighting with ideas and thinkers he felt threatened Judaism, he remains in some ways quite modest, even humble, about what he claimed to know, or to believe.  




David B. Starr

Founding Executive Director, Tzion
Gann Academy/New Jewish High School
Visiting Research Associate, Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, Brandeis University

Three Generations of Judaic Scholarship // Elliott Horowitz

posted April 15, 2015

When asked to introduce two distinguished scholars, Ismar Schorsch and Mirjam Thulin, at the symposium on Solomon Schechter in March, I thought about how these two speakers represented very different generations of German-born Judaic scholars. Schorsch, who came as a child to the United States and earned all his degrees here, represented the tail end of the nineteenth-century Wissenschaft des Judentums and its flowering on the shores of America—a process that had begun, well before the rise of Hitler, with Solomon Schechter's move from Cambridge to New York in 1902. Thulin, who was raised as a Protestant in late twentieth-century Germany, where she developed an interest not only in Jewish studies but also in the tangled history of the field itself, represented the more recent rebirth in Germany of Judaic research at levels rivaling its pre-Holocaust achievements.

But what did all of this have to do with me, an American-born baby boomer belonging to the generation between those of Schorsch and Thulin? Admittedly, my own parents, like theirs, spoke German. Furthermore, I was honored to be one of Schechter's successors as an editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review. But then I remembered that my first contact with the name of Solomon Schechter had come during my first years of primary school, when for slightly over a year I studied at the first school named for him, the Solomon Schechter School of Queens. At the lunch preceding our conference I asked my fellow boomer Shuly Rubin Schwartz, who had grown up in Long Island, whether she had also been at that school. Shuly, now a dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary, explained that although her father was a Conservative rabbi she had been sent to an Orthodox day school, since the Schechter School in Queens was too far away. In my introductory comments at the conference I related the circumstances that later led my father—who was neither Conservative nor a rabbi—to move me from the Schechter School to an Orthodox school as well, reflecting a desire for a more rigorous approach to Jewish textual literacy, and I asked rhetorically whether Schechter would have approved.

The fragmentation of American Jewry into movements was an issue that preoccupied Schechter, as was the relationship of American Jewry to the core textual and legal tradition of Judaism. Shuly’s own presentation at the symposium later that afternoon discussed an essay on Abraham Lincoln that Schechter originally delivered as a lecture in 1909 marking the centenary of Lincoln’s birth. Noting that the essay may be “the most symbolic” of Schechter's “deep and abiding relationship to America,” she linked it with Schechter’s own struggle over an endangered union—that of American Jewry—which was then precariously split between the Reform movement, centered in Cincinnati, and the nascent Conservative movement, with Orthodoxy still representing only a slim slice of the pie. “When he recounted Lincoln’s ‘pleading with his friends and foes that there is no hope for Americans to live outside of the Constitution if they cannot any longer live in it,’” she suggested, “one cannot help but hear Schechter’s bitterness at the disregard for Jewish law evidenced in his Reform colleagues.”

Another generation of Judaica scholars, let me add in conclusion, fits squarely between Schorsch and Thulin—those, like myself and Shuly Rubin Schwartz, who were born in postwar America and benefited from the boom in Jewish education taking place during those years. We have, in our own ways, engaged the very issues that so concerned Schechter in his adopted country, and some of us have carried those issues to our own adopted countries. We have learned, as did Schechter before us, that scholarship and life are irrevocably intertwined.




Elliott Horowitz

Coeditor, Jewish Quarterly Review

Byways // Andrew Berns

posted February 6, 2015

Ten years ago I was working toward my doctorate at Penn and had the privilege of studying with some of the accomplished and engaging fellows at the Katz Center. It was one of the healthiest and most vital of David Ruderman's brainchildren: the “modular,” according to which graduate students spend a few weeks cycling through mini-courses with the best scholars in the world, all in the hospitable confines of the Center. I distinctly remember one three-week session with Gad Freudenthal, a fellow from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, and a brilliant expositor of Jewish philosophy in the Middle Ages. We were reading Maimonides—an excerpt from his Mishneh Torah that concerned cosmology.  One by one we went around the table and offered our translations of texts, which we had spent hours preparing.  We had looked up the proper JPS language for biblical verses and Marcus Jastrow's renderings of rabbinic terms. We had buffed and polished our versions. Nevertheless Professor Freudenthal nonchalantly corrected us, substituting our flabby English with precise, lean expressions that perfectly captured Maimonides' intentions.  It sounded as though Freudenthal had swallowed and digested the entirety of Jacob Klatzkin's Otzar ha-munahim ha-filosofiyyim (Berlin, 1928–33), the peerless guide to scientific and philosophical Hebrew of the Middle Ages, which Freudenthal deployed effortlessly. At one point a fellow student, who now teaches Jewish history at an elite American university, leaned over to me and whispered "do you understand how remarkable it is that he's correcting our English? We've spoken this tongue since the cradle, and for him it's his third language!" I understood, and together we mourned our linguistic inelegance.

This winter I had the honor to teach in the modular. I could not offer the students Professor Freudenthal's bottomless learning, nor his philological expertise, nor his international renown. What I could do was lead spirited conversations based on a curated selection of texts, and bask in the glow that results when Penn's extraordinary graduate students, who come together from fields as disparate as Germanic Languages, Classics, and Religious Studies, get together and read a text. One fault with contemporary graduate education, professors whinge, is that it's too compartmentalized; no one talks to colleagues and fellow students in other departments. Mutated, in-bred dissertations result. The modular course at the Katz Center offers an alternative to disciplinarity, and maybe an antidote to it. One of the thrills of my year as a fellow at the Katz Center has been to participate in this extraordinary tradition, and to pass on a portion in turn of what my teachers taught me.




Andrew Berns
Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania, 2011
Assistant Professor of History, University of South Carolina
Rose and Henry Zifkin Teaching Fellow, Katz Center 2014-2015

AAA Vote on BDS // Steven Weitzman

posted November 22, 2015

At its annual meeting a few days ago, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) voted on whether to embrace a boycott of Israeli academic institutions “until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law.” Those present voted to approve the proposed resolution by an almost 10 to 1 margin. The resolution must still be voted on by the ten thousand members of the AAA, but this endorsement is significant. AAA is the world’s largest association of anthropologists, and if this measure secures final approval, it would become the largest American academic society to embrace the boycott movement against Israeli academia.

As Vice Chair of the American Association of Universities, Penn President Amy Gutmann has signed a resolution opposing the academic boycott of Israel and has spoken repeatedly in favor of the fundamental importance of academic freedom and against efforts to boycott Israeli universities and scholars. President Gutmann’s position is in accord with that of the American Association of University Professors, which opposes academic boycotts as a threat to academic freedom.

In the wake of the AAA’s vote, I feel it is important to express my own opposition to academic boycotts (and my opposition to discrimination on the basis of national origin which this resolution may encourage), and my commitment to sustaining the Katz Center as a site for the free exchange of ideas, information and discoveries among scholars in North America, Israel and elsewhere. We will continue to support the research of scholars from around the world, including Israeli scholars, and to pursue collaborative relationships with academic institutions from abroad, including Israeli academic institutions. 

I have written about well-meaning efforts by scholars to intervene in conflicts, which raises a number of intellectual and ethical issues. I appeal to AAA members and other scholars to resist the conflation of academic institutions with the policies and actions of governments, to reject the use of scholarship as an instrument of punishment, and to embrace its power to build bridges of understanding across the boundaries imposed by fear, hatred and political conflict.

Steven Weitzman




Steven Weitzman

Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center
Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures

In Search of Rashi's Tobacco Box // Dani Schrire

posted May 28, 2015

Dov Sadan, the first professor of Yiddish at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, once analyzed a joke that ridiculed Leopold Zunz, the founder of the Wissenschaft des Judentums and prime mover of the scholarly study of Judaism. Sadan attributed this joke to the anti-maskilic Rabbi Ornstein, who was quoted saying: “if you wish to know what box of tobacco Rashi used, ask Leopold Zunz; if you wish to know Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, ask me.” This joke is telling as to how early Jewish scholarship was perceived by its opponents: its implicit message is that Rashi’s actual (everyday) life does not merit attention in comparison to his textual output, and its explicit message is that scholars of the Wissenschaft were doing Jewish studies in distorted ways.

The Gruss Colloquium on “Doing Wissenschaft” is the first attempt to examine broadly the practices that have characterized Jewish studies in the last two hundred years: collecting, the construction of arguments, the ways in which scholars made an impression, and the role of correspondence in their work. Such reflection presses us hard to think of what we have been doing well, but it also exposes us as never before. It is my opinion that scientific endeavors should afford risk-taking, since they hold promises to better understanding and eventually, I hope, will lead us to doing even better Jewish studies. Given the breadth of this topic—and since such questions have not yet been addressed directly or systematically in our field, an assembly of scholars who do Jewish studies under very different spatial and temporal circumstances is particularly important in framing diverse current challenges.

We may not have discovered Rashi’s tobacco box in this colloquium; after all, Sadan already pointed out that in Rashi’s time, Europeans did not yet have tobacco. However, we may shed light on what triggered the animosity of Rabbi Ornstein’s followers—the ways in which scholarship was conducted. Wissenschaft has served as a practical example to later scholars, with its method of setting texts like Rashi’s in context, historically or philologically. In scrutinizing the practices of Jewish studies, past and present, we push this tradition further to reflect on immediate contexts that do not always receive enough scholarly attention.




Dani Schrire
Maurice Amado Foundation Fellow, 2014-2015
Lecturer in the Programs for Folklore and Folk Culture / Program in Cultural Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The Red Question Mark // Stefan Schorch

posted May 27, 2015

On the official poster for the day-long workshop on nineteenth-century Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur'an studies, the black printing of the workshop’s title is followed by a fat red question mark.

The red ink was well spent, as it turned out: this question mark hovered throughout the day’s lectures and discussions devoted to (in the words of the subtitle:) “Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur’an in Jewish Research in the 19th Century and Beyond.” It was translated into a provocative aporia by Ismar Schorsch, who closed the day by pointing out that the most sacred of all Jewish texts had been missing from the agenda of the workshop—the Talmud! Thus, a day of interesting and often challenging presentations, analyses, and debates ended in the best of all possible ways: with new and more refined questions for all participants.

The study of the corpora of sacred texts became an important and even central preoccupation of many scholars of both the inner circle and the periphery of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, bringing to an end what had often been regarded as an intellectual monopoly of Christian theologians. Since most Jewish scholars at that time did not restrict their work to one of the sacred texts, but rather dealt with all the three, new approaches and methods applied in one field would often be adopted immediately within the other fields, leading to important new insights, as the oeuvre of the Prussian scholar and rabbi Abraham Geiger demonstrates.

Moreover, most of the nineteenth-century Jews engaged in these studies had a strong background in traditional or maskilic Jewish education and were therefore able to apply competencies and knowledge not available to most Christian scholars. For example, drawing on their intimate knowledge of rabbinic literature, Jewish scholars could often provide astoundingly simple explanations to difficult passages and shed new light on the New Testament (Isaac Mayer Wise from Cincinnati) or the Qur’an (Ignaz Goldziher from Budapest)

Finally, the workshop demonstrated quite plainly that the protagonists of the Wissenschaft des Judentums were not secluded in an ivory tower. Rather, they were generally very well connected with their communities, to whom they made the results of their work available in publications, translations, commentaries, and school books.  As for many scholars today, this was an important part of their work.



Stefan Schorch
Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Germany
Katz Center fellow, 2014-2015