December Symposium 2017 Abstracts

Julia Watts Belser, The Intimacies of Eating: Gender, Sex, and Human-Animal Encounter in Rabbinic Stories of Sodom and Noah

In late antique Jewish literature, the biblical stories of Noah and Sodom are striking sites for grappling with social violence, as the rabbis recount how bestial sex, brutality, and greed plunge the world into ecological catastrophe. In this talk, I probe the way rabbinic narratives center the human and animal body, focusing particularly on stories of animal eating. Rather than imagining animals solely as "the eaten," I show how these texts portray animals as "eaters"— from a complex of traditions about animal eating on Noah's ark to a startling scene at the end of the Babylonian Talmud's Sodom tale, in which a woman who resists the city's wicked decrees is punished by being eaten alive by bees. Where the Sodom tale uses animal hunger to prop up an unjust regime and enact public violence on a woman's flesh, the Noah stories show animals disciplining their hungers, fashioning consumption into an expression of ethical agency and a mark of moral sensitivity. While the rabbis frame the flood as the consequence of bestial sex between humans and other animals, the ark stories reveal an alternate form of interspecies intimacy—imagining eating and feeding as a form of sanctified connection that underscores the close ties between human and animal flesh.

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Julie Chajes, Blavatsky, Evolution, and the 'Great Chain of Being'

The influential occultist and "great-grandmother of the New Age Movement," Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891) selectively appropriated from the writings of numerous contemporary scientists in confirmation of her occult doctrines. Her writings serve as an excellent window into the debates of the times. Rejecting a Darwinism she perceived as "materialistic" and "chance-driven," Blavatsky proposed a vitalistic and progressive cosmos comprised of a scala naturae of fixed types within which every living entity would reincarnate through mineral, vegetable, animal, human, and angelic forms, until reabsorbed into the divine source from which it came. In articulating this vision, Blavatsky relied on teleological theories of orthogenesis that were offered as alternatives to Darwinism at a time when biologists generally accepted the idea of evolution but doubted natural selection was its central mechanism. Not only do Blavatsky's writings provide a snapshot of a particular moment in the history of biology, they reveal how now-discredited evolutionary theories found their way into the progressivist reincarnationary cosmologies that are so prevalent in New Age thought today.

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Yulia Egorova, History, Memory and Genetic Jewish Selfhood

The past two decades have witnessed an intensification of genetic research which attempts to engage with different aspects of Jewish history and modalities of self-identification. DNA analysis has been employed to cast light on the formation history of Jewish communities around the world, and recently, even on individual claims to Jewish descent. The aim of this paper is to consider the naturalizing tendencies of what became to be known as "Jewish genetics" in a new analytical light by putting academic scholarship that has explored the sociocultural significance of DNA research conducted among Jewish communities in dialogue with postcolonial theory.

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Daniel Langton, Darwin's Jews and Man's Place in Creation

Above and beyond any difficulties with the cruelty and chance that are often understood to characterize Darwinism, the key problem for many theists is the implication of the theory for the traditional conception that humankind is the centerpiece of God's creation. Certainly, religious Jews who were drawn to transmutational theory of any sort struggled to reconcile the idea of man as an evolved animal with their understanding of Judaism, and this sometimes led to unfamiliar or unconventional articulations of the Jewish faith. This paper will consider some of the responses offered by Jewish evolutionists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the question "Where is man to be located in the great chain of being?" including evolutionary perspectives on consciousness, morality, and death.

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Lennart Lehmhaus, "Nobody knows better than Jew" Talmudic Bodies of Knowledge and Medical Epistemes in Late Antiquity

The study of medical or scientific knowledge in ancient rabbinic sources has long been either marginalized, or dismissed by positivistic or judgmental approaches to the history of medicine and science. Earlier studies were often apologetic in nature, either comparing Jewish science with Greek ideals or with modern metrics. Thus, earlier studies typically compare rabbinic texts with idealized Greco-Roman standards (as the cradle of Western science) in order to retrieve parallels and influences, without paying attention to the plurality of cultural transfers and endemic developments in Antiquity. In dialogue with recent developments in the field of (ancient) science studies, this paper will look at Talmudic medical texts from a range of angles. First, it seems necessary to historicize rabbinic representations of bodies and illness in a way that overcomes the sharp distinctions between scientific/rational and other modes (theoretical, textual-exegetical, practical) or settings (educational, theological, ritual, magic) of knowledge-making. Second, the halakhic and discursive embeddedness of medical knowledge and the interplay between form and content may yield important information regarding particular ideas or epistemologies that can be described as distinctively Jewish or rabbinic. Finally, it might be possible to describe how ancient encounters and entanglements between different sets of ideas and practices shaped both the rabbis' attitudes toward various modes of knowing as well as their changing approaches to their bodies of knowledge.

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David Shyovitz, Soul Food and Salvation in Medieval Ashkenaz

One of the unique features of the Jewish artwork of medieval Ashkenaz is its persistent zoomorphism—illuminated manuscripts produced by and for Jews in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Germany feature images of men and women with the heads of oxen, sheep, birds, and so on. While art historians have offered various halakhic, polemical, and iconographical explanations for this aesthetic idiosyncrasy, my paper will seek to situate Ashkenazic zoomorphism in a specifically theological context. Mystics, exegetes, and visionaries in medieval Ashkenaz were intensely preoccupied by the boundaries separating humans from animals, and were especially fascinated by hybrid creatures who straddled the lines between man and beast. In their ruminations on these creatures and their theological significance, Ashkenazic thinkers subtly but persistently effaced the conceptual boundaries between humans and animals, in the process overturning an anthropocentric hierarchy that prior and contemporaneous Jewish thinkers regarded as self-evident. In this presentation, I will analyze the earliest surviving Ashkenazic zoomorphic image (a rendering of the rabbinic "heavenly banquet" motif depicted in the early-thirteenth century Ambrosian Bible), and argue that it lays bare theological anxieties over the ethics of carnivorousness, the eligibility of animals for eschatological salvation, and the limits and limitations of human identity.

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