Her formidable scholarship on topics such as stoning and decapitation as forms of ancient Jewish criminal justice are the result, in part, of Dr. Beth Berkowitz's sheer enjoyment of Talmud study. Reviewing her book Execution and Invention: Death Penalty Discourse in Early Rabbinic and Christian Cultures, Daniel Boyarin of the University of California, Berkeley, has called it "a splendid project" that "threatens to illumine the history of Judaism in unprecedented ways."
Dr. Berkowitz has taught at Columbia and Yale universities. She has a bachelor of arts, master of philosophy, and doctoral degree in Religious Studies from Columbia University, and a master's degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School. Specializing in rabbinic literature, Judaism and Christianity in late antiquity, and theories and methods in the study of religion, Dr. Berkowitz serves on the board of the journal Prooftexts and the steering committee for the History of Judaism section of the American Academy of Religion.
Dr. Berkowitz, please tell us about what you're working on now.
My current project traces the interpretive history of Leviticus 18:3. In that biblical verse, God instructs Israel not to imitate the practices of neighboring peoples. The central theme then is Jewish difference, or how Jews see themselves as different or separate from other people. The book will be called Defining Jewish Difference: From Antiquity to the Present.
What is it about the study of law that draws you? What makes it interesting to you as a scholar?
I think law is interesting because it tries to be compulsory. It makes explicit claims for authority that other kinds of texts don't. I'm curious about why people tell other people what to do and what justification they marshal for doing so.
Certainly your first book was all about the ultimate authority . . .
Execution and Invention is about capital punishment in rabbinic law. The focus is the step-by-step procedure of execution found in the Mishnah. I read the rabbinic procedure as a kind of ceremony or ritual and try to determine why the Rabbis structured it in the particular way that they did.
The context for my reading is what I consider to be a long stream of apologetic scholarship about rabbinic capital punishment that focused on certain texts at the expense of others. The standard line is that the Rabbis were against capital punishment-they would have gotten rid of it completely but they couldn't because it's in the Bible. I try to explain why this approach became so dominant.
Why do you think that is?
A lot of it has to do with the passion narrative in the Gospels. According to that very powerful narrative, the court that convicted Jesus is corrupt and sinister. Eventually this representation led to accusations that "the Jews" killed Jesus and that their criminal justice procedures were to blame.
So when Jewish scholars approached rabbinic capital punishment, their first instinct was to defend it. They argued, contrary to a certain Christian perception, that rabbinic criminal law is in fact supremely humane and surprisingly enlightened for its time. I'm not exactly saying the opposite-that it's not humane-but I was trying to take a more balanced, less defensive approach. I took it seriously as capital punishment. It's there. There is a procedure for execution. What are the concerns of that procedure? There are many features of rabbinic execution that have no roots in the Bible. Where did the Rabbis get these ideas from?
The famous example is stoning. The Bible clearly has in mind a mob of people who each pick up a stone, throw it at the sinner, and collectively kill him. For the Rabbis, "stoning" is when one of the witnesses to the crime pushes the offender from a two-story platform. How is that stoning? It's very strange.
What do they do if the person doesn't die?
That's what's interesting. If the person doesn't die, the Mishnah outlines a series of steps to follow. The other witness takes a large stone and drops it on the offender. While now we're somewhat closer to the Bible's version, since there is at least a stone involved, the rabbinic vision is still very innovative. The Mishnah says if that doesn't work, then "all of Israel" should take stones and throw them. So the Rabbis seem aware that this is what stoning is supposed to be. But in their version of stoning, that's actually the last resort. Why?
Is it to make it more difficult?
It's often said, based on Talmudic interpretation, that the Rabbis remade stoning to make it more humane-faster and less painful for the convicted offender. One argument I make is that the rabbinic procedure tries to consolidate rabbinic authority, and that is part of the reason that the procedure puts most of the action into the hands of court-approved witnesses rather than into the hands of the entire community. At the same time, the Rabbis build into their procedure many opportunities for members of the community, and even the offender himself, to bring last-minute exonerating evidence.
There are definite parallels to our criminal justice system, where there are many chances for appeals. Foucault's insight in his seminal Discipline and Punish is that some of the restraints we place on punishment actually strengthen the institution of punishment rather than undermine it because they make it appear more legitimate and less bloodthirsty. If you don't have all these restraints, people won't buy it. But if you do, then when a person is finally executed, people feel that everything was done to save that person. There's a procedure, it is fair, and it was followed. The rabbinic procedure works like that. The restraints strengthen the legitimacy of the final act.
Recently you offered a Talmud text course in The Rabbinical School that dealt with other thorny ethical issues.
I'm interested in animal studies or animal ethics, in how the boundary between human beings and other animals is constructed. I am starting to explore these concerns as they emerge in rabbinics. How does rabbinic law legislate with respect to animals? More fundamentally, how does rabbinic law think about animals? What role do (non-human) animals play in rabbinic discourse?
I think animal studies is a field on the rise. It involves political, cultural, and moral questions. People have strong opinions about animals, mostly having to do with eating them. I care about this too-I'm a vegetarian-but I'm especially interested in the conceptual framework for this whole conversation. What notion of animals and their difference from humans lies behind our relationship to them? The animal/human boundary is constantly being challenged, especially by environmental and animal activists today who want human beings to see themselves as part of the natural world rather than as an entirely unique species.
It's a fascinating aspect of rabbinic scholarship. What do you like most about your field?
Studying rabbinic literature creates community around texts that have a good deal to say to us. I don't look at these texts as existing strictly in the domain of the yeshiva. I think they should just be part of conversation, discussed and transmitted by many different people.
And for me, I just enjoy it. It's not that ideological. I just find it interesting. There are some people who like to go bird watching. I go Talmud studying.