Post-Doctoral Fellowships 2010–2011

During this year of research we propose to examine phenomena of conversion from antiquity to the present in order to understand how social groups identify themselves-testing long-standing historiographical assumptions about communal and conceptual boundary-crossings. Conversion forces both the convert and the religion to define their outermost boundaries and formalize criteria for membership and exclusion. The act of conversion is at the same time a ritualized, often public, transformation not only one of interior religious and psychological consciousness, but of cultural and social affiliation. For the history of Judaism, conversion is doubly freighted—it can mark a break with one's birth community, but it has often also marked the impossibility of such a break. Examples of this ambivalence are legion. What then does it mean to be fully Christian, fully Muslim, or fully Jewish? Are these categories essential and stable, or are they themselves transformed or redefined by conversion? How do Muslim or Christian understandings of conversion compare to or illuminate the Jewish experience? We hope to bring several arenas of inquiry and debate into a single conversation so that methodological, social scientific, and historical studies may be mutually instructive, enriching our broader understanding, not only of Jews in their world but of the religious experience itself.

During the course of the year, fellows addressed such questions as:

  • How do formal vs. informal models of affiliation to Judaism help to explicate conversion phenomena?
  • How have Jews sought converts to their faith both from among non-Jews and Jews?
  • What roles have autobiographies played as conversion narratives to and from Judaism since medieval times?
  • How has conversion changed the content of Judaic scholarship, for example in the work of Christian Hebraists who were born Jewish?
  • How have the experiences of conversos differed from those of other converts with respect to historical circumstances, population size, duration, and repercussions?
  • Can a nation, culture, or art form become "Jewish"?
  • How does ethnicity complicate a Jewish conceptualization of conversion?
  • In the modern world, does the move of secular Jews to religious life, or the experience of leaving the culture of orthodoxy for the secular world, constitute conversion?

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