Spring Learning Series

New Spring Series: “The Other” in Jewish Text and Tradition 

Mondays, starting January 4, 2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. ET

We live in a time of such polarization—political, racial, economic, religious—that the gaps between us sometimes feel insurmountable. But this is not a new condition for Jews, either within or outside of the Jewish community. This webinar series will explore those gaps between “us” and “the other”: Israelites and other ancient peoples; men and women in the Bible and Talmud; Jews by birth and Jews by choice; the founders of Hasidim and their opponents; Israelis and Palestinians; and more. 

From the ancient Near East to the American civil rights movement; from medieval philosophers to contemporary Jewish educators: how have Jews related to those we define as “other,” and how have we marginalized sub-groups within the Jewish community? What is our obligation to those we perceive as different? How have Jews challenged communal norms from within? Join JTS scholars in an intellectual journey through Jewish history and text to understand how these gaps have been understood and, at times, bridged.

The series will begin on Monday, January 4, 2021 and continue into May (with the exception of holidays on January 18, February 15, and March 29). 

All sessions will run from 2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. ET. Those who studied with us on Mondays in 2020: please note new time!

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Note: Once you register, you can come to any session in the series.

Sessions and Faculty

January 4

The Challenge of Accepting the ‘Other’: Jewish Attitudes Toward Converts

With Dr. David Kraemer, Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian and Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics

One of the best ways to understand the identity of a community or people is to consider what happens when someone who is originally an “other”—a “foreigner”—approaches to become a member of the community. How does the community respond? Does the community permit the “foreigner” to become one of its own? What residual attitudes are expressed toward one who began as “other” and  part of the community? In the case of Jews and Judaism, all of these questions pertain to the case of the convert. In this session, we will examine how the convert has been viewed and treated in Judaism, from antiquity and through the ages. By doing so, we will gain a more nuanced understanding of who “we” are.

January 11

Lucy S. Dawidowicz: A Forgotten New York Jewish Intellectual

With Dr. Nancy Sinkoff, JTS alumna and Professor of Jewish Studies and History at Rutgers University

Join Dr. Nancy Sinkoff to examine the life of Lucy S. Dawidowicz (1915-1990), a pioneering figure in the field now known as Holocaust Studies, who has largely fallen out of view because of her political migration from youthful Communist to independent neoconservative.

Born into an East European Jewish immigrant family in interwar New York, Dawidowicz’s life paralleled that of the famous male New York intellectuals with a major difference: her immersion in East European Jewish culture, language, and history and education in secular Yiddishist institutions. She made two fateful trips to pre- and post-war Europe in her young adulthood, which indelibly shaped her views on Jewish politics.

By engaging with Dawidowicz’s life, we will see why she challenged the mythic association of Jewishness and political liberalism and became a political “Other” in New York intellectual circles from the late 1960s forward.

January 25

Some Unexpected Stories About Women in the Talmud 

With Dr. Judith Hauptman, E. Billi Ivry Professor Emerita of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture

Although most Talmudic anecdotes feature men, some feature wives, mothers, and daughters of rabbis. These women learned Jewish law, and even, on occasion, helped formulate it. Join Dr. Judith Hauptman to study several of these short episodes and explore their significance, both historically and through the present day.

February 1

Other Gods: What the Bible Thinks about Other Nations’ Deities

With Dr. Benjamin Sommer, Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages 

The Bible frequently instructs the nation Israel not to worship “other gods” (אלהים אחרים). But the Bible never actually states that these other gods do not exist. Praying to other gods would be an act of disloyalty for an Israelite, but not an absurdity—there are apparently other gods who would hear the prayers in question. In fact, the Bible regards it as perfectly appropriate for other nations to worship them, because the “other gods” are simply the gods of other nations. In this session, we will examine the biblical attitude toward these other gods and what their existence implies about other religions. We will see, paradoxically, that the Bible remains monotheistic, even though it acknowledges the existence of many deities.

February 8

Different But Equal? The Paradox of Chosenness

With Dr. Alan Cooper, Elaine Ravich Professor of Jewish Studies 

Jewish conceptions of chosenness or election—rooted especially in the language of Exodus 19:5-6—traditionally were hierarchical, often asserting Jewish superiority over others. Such notions run afoul of modern ideas about social justice, typically anchored in egalitarian values that would have been alien to pre-modern authors. Is it possible to uphold a version of Jewish “difference” that is simultaneously non-hierarchical yet answerable to traditional sources?

February 22

Reading the Resisting Woman as “Other”

With Dr. Shira D. Epstein, Dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education and Assistant Professor of Jewish Education

Who has the right to anger? When is defiance cast as positive in our texts and when is it silenced? We will explore the Vashti narrative through the lens of power dynamics, status shifts, performing of gendered emotions, and as an example of reading the resisting woman as “Other.”

March 1 

Facing the Other: Moral Dilemmas in Israeli Literature

With Dr. Barbara Mann, Chana Kekst Professor of Jewish Literature

Lyric poetry, with its unique voice and vivid imagery, offers a brief but intense opportunity to enter into the intimate space of another. Through texts by canonical Israeli authors (Dan Pagis, Yehuda Amichai, and Dalia Ravikovitch), we will trace a series of poetic encounters between Self and Other: survivor and perpetrator; mother and child; victim and hero; Jew and Palestinian.   

March 8 

The Self, the Other, and God in 20th Century Jewish Philosophy: Cohen, Buber, and Levinas

With Dr. Yonatan Brafman, Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics and Director of the MA Program in Jewish Ethics

What is the relationship between our self and the other, and where does our relationship to the other Other—God—fit in? Modern Jewish philosophers, including Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas placed the intersubjective relationship—the relationship between persons–at the center of their thinking. Join Dr. Yonatan Brafman to explore their reflections—their similarities and differences—in order to grapple with its implications for Jewish ethics.

March 15

When Jews Made Fellow Jews ‘Other’: Hasidism and its Opponents

With Dr. David Fishman, Professor of Jewish History

The Hasidim, followers of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his spiritual heirs, emerged in the 18th century with controversial ideas related to Jewish practice and belief. While Hasidim coexisted peacefully with non-Hasidim in many communities, the Mitnagdim (“opponents”) in many larger Jewish centers in Eastern Europe reacted to the Hasidim not only with condemnation, but with writs of excommunication and measures to persecute the members of the new movement. This internal Jewish religious strife led to the division of the community into rival “denominations” for the first time in nearly a thousand years. We will study the conflict between the Hasidim and Mitnagdim and reflect on how the core principles of the dispute continue to shape our Jewish lives and guide our homes and institutions.   

March 22

Freedom for Whom?

With Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, Rabbi Judah Nadich Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics

First and foremost, the traditional Haggadah celebrates our liberation from Egypt. At the same time, it reflects our experience of oppression over the course of many centuries. It is therefore a plea to be redeemed anew that reflects and potentially re-enforces an adversarial relationship with the non-Jewish world. In our own time the Jews of the United States and Israel enjoy unprecedented freedom. How do we honor the voice of tradition while also including the modern voices seeking liberation for all?

April 5

Looking Back at Jews and the Civil Rights Movement

With Dr. Jason Schulman, Adjunct Instructor

The story of how Jews were key allies to African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement is well known. But when historical narratives become conventional wisdom, it can lead to stagnation. Now, many are asking when it comes to Black-Jewish relations, where do we go from here? In this session, led by Dr. Jason Schulman, we will look back at the story of Jews and the Civil Rights Movement to explore some new directions for the study of the field and new bases for honest dialogue. 

April 12

Learning Torah from the Talmud’s Greatest Gentiles

With Dr. Rachel Rosenthal, Assistant Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics

The Talmud, in Sanhedrin, says that it is forbidden for non-Jews to learn Torah. However, throughout rabbinic literature, the rabbis frequently imagine themselves engaging in dialogue about religious issues with non-Jews, be they kings or merchants. Why do the rabbis use these gentiles as repositories of Jewish wisdom and questions, and what might that tell us about how they understand their relationship to the larger world?

April 19

Nonhuman Others: The Jerusalem Talmud on Animal Ethics

With Dr. Alexander Weisberg, Adjunct Instructor

When we think of others, we often think of human others—those different from ourselves. Yet we live in a world populated by a multitude of other animals that we interact with in a variety of roles such as companions, laborers, helpers, and food.

What does the Jewish tradition tell us about how we ought to treat and behave toward these animals that fill our world? Through a close reading of a narrative in the Jerusalem Talmud, we will uncover how one may use animals as workers, or for the sake of human needs, while also treating them as subjects, noticing and caring for their sufferings. This, according to the Talmud, is the ideal ethical stance for how to behave towards nonhumans.

April 26

Like ItOr Not? The Existential Tension of Similarity and Difference 

With Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, Director of the Block / Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts

Foundational Jewish texts point to a series of irresolvable dilemmas or polarities at the heart of the human condition, among them the way in which each of us is both like, and unlike, all others. How does this fundamental tension manifest in our personal relationships, our collective challenges, and our religious expressions, and what wisdom does our tradition offer to help us manage, and even grow from our differences?

May 3

Entering our Mother’s House: The Book of Ruth as a Model for Welcoming the Other

With Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky, Dean of List College and the Kekst Graduate School and Blanche and Romie Shapiro Professor of Bible

The book of Ruth tells the story of a Moabite woman who marries an Israelite man and ensures the future of the house of Israel. Join Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky to examine how this remarkable book understands the formation of identity and how it offers a model of inclusion that remains relevant and essential today.

May 10

From the Outside In: How a History of Marginalization Affects Jewish Responses to Marginal Populations Today

With Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and the Division of Religious Leadership and Senior Lecturer of Professional and Pastoral Skills

In the book of Numbers, the gentile prophet Balaam says that the people Israel are “a nation that dwells apart.” This has been both a blessing and a curse. How has the experience of marginalization defined Jewish identity? Join Rabbi Daniel Nevins to look at classical Jewish texts and then consider their implications for the role of Judaism in addressing marginalization in contemporary contexts.

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Sponsor a session

Did you know that you can sponsor a learning session to honor a loved one, celebrate an occasion, or commemorate a yahrzeit? To learn more, contact learninglives@jtsa.edu.