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Last update: 2011-08-08

A New (Virtual) Home!

2011-08-08 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

I have moved this blog and consolidated it with my other websites. Please update any feeds and keep visiting, at http://www.mlsatlow.com! I look forward to seeing you there.


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Apocalypse, One of These Days

2011-07-05 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

I had the good fortune of recently attending "The Enoch Seminar," which this year was devoted to study of the books of 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra. These two books are both thought to originate in first or second century Palestine, written in Hebrew by Jews. Both contain a series of visions, given by the angels (or God) to the protagonist, in both cases a scribal seer. (Baruch is known from the Bible as Jeremiah's scribe, and in the biblical book named after him, Ezra too is described as a scribe. Neither, in their biblical context, receive visions.) Some of these visions, which the angel interprets, have to do with the end of time.
One session of the seminar was focused directly on apocalypticism in these books. The session took place at the Catholic University in Milan and was unlike any other academic session I had attended. It took me some minutes to figure out that the charge to the speakers was not only to recover the apocalyptic elements in the ancient texts, but also to reflect on apocalypticism as an ecumenical category. That is, could apocalypticism bridge Judaism and Christianity?
Now, my first reaction to this realization was disbelief. Leaving aside my discomfort at mixing ecumenical activities into academic contexts, it was hard for me to see apocalypticism as a unifying force. After all, wasn't apocalypticism all about last days of judgment and punishment for those who didn't accept the "true" deity during their lifetimes? Hasn't the primary difference between Jews and Christians been precisely in the closely related issue of redemption, in which Christians understand the world as already redeemed by Christ and Jews still await the world's redemption? Couldn't there be better places to look for theological dialogue between Jews and Christians?
Yet as the session progressed, I found my attitude shifting. Of course there are stark differences between Jewish and Christian notions of apocalypticism, and Lawrence Schiffman correctly warned against simply trying to find a broad, common rubric into which to collapse them both. But the speakers underscored that under both, maybe all, notions of apocalypticism is hope, perhaps with a healthy dose of fear. Apocalypticism is less a religious phenomenon than a human one, in which we all share a hope for a better future. While it was not discussed by the panel, I think that this extends beyond the namby pamby banal belief in progress and calls to act in bettering the world. There is something deeply psychological here. We can approach the future with hope, but there is no denying the trepidation that contemplation of the future also brings; apocalypticism is as much a feeling as an idea. In very human terms, 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra, these largely forgotten ancient texts, may be on to something big.…


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Through the Lens of "Judeo-Christian"

2011-05-18 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

The phrase "Judeo-Christian" - as in, "America is based on Judeo-Christian values" - is a strange beast. Given the not insignificant and often fatal tension between Jews and Christians over 2,000 years over matters of doctrine and belief, what does it mean to meld Judaism and Christianity into a common concept? When and why would one do this?

According to Adam Kirsch in his recent review in Tablet Magazine, this is precisely the question that Kevin M. Schultz tries to answer in his book, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held America to Its Protestant Promise (Oxford). The answer Schultz supplies, according to Kirsch (I have not yet seen the book), is quite simple: "The change came about in the 1930s and 1940s, thanks primarily to the concerted effort of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, a lobbying and educational group founded in 1927." Schultz tells the story of the NCCJ and its (largely successful) mission to forge a common language in America between Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. The argument is certainly plausible, particularly during World War II and the post-war period. It fits neatly into the narrative of the development of the multi-cultural melting pot that was America in the post-war period.

A very quick look at the quantitative data for the use of the term "Judeo-Christian" in all English books contained by Google from 1890-1900, though, at least suggests a more complex story. Take a look at the plot produced by the Google Ngram Viewer, available here (the picture above is a thumbnail). The first use of the term appears around 1900 and lasts about five years. This would accord with the coining of the term and a brief period of popularity. The second bump, of about the same scale, occurs from about 1945-1960 (with a weird dip in the middle) - this is the story that Schultz tells. To my mind, though, the real story occurs post-1960, when the slope of the curve increases dramatically. The NCCJ's work may have been reflected in all kinds of ways, but not really in published discourse.

The dramatic increase in the use of "Judeo-Christian" seems to buck against the replacement in America of the image of the "melting pot" with that of "multiculturalism" or the "mosaic" as the governing metaphor in America of cultural relationships. (This is dramatically illustrated here.) Jews and Christians - all of them - are now lumped into one category, perhaps in recent years, as Kirsch might suggest (I am stretching his words here) to contrast America with Islamic civilization or the like - and this is before 9/11.

Kirsch, and Schultz in his telling, seem to like the concept of "Judeo-Christian", which shows a nice, benevolent ecumenicalism. Others, such as David Novak and Jon Levenson, have emphasized its negative side: it waters down Jewish and Christian distinctiveness into a pool of anodyne platitudes. Personally, the term makes me uneasy for similar reasons. Be that as it may, though, there is a rich and complex cultural history to be told through the lens of the phrase "Judeo-Christian."


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gninoitseuQ "belief"

2011-05-02 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a workshop at Yale University on the term "belief". The focus was on whether, how, and why "belief" remains a useful category for discussing and explaining religion today. The day of conversation was immensely interesting and I will make no attempt here to convey its richness. As is usually the case with such succesful conversations, I left with more questions than answers.
One such question occured to me as I began to prepare my own short presentation and sharpened in the course of the day. On the one hand, it is clear that "belief" is valuable as a first-order category: religious communities often use the language of "belief." For scholars, the question is less "What do they believe?" than "How do they (whether an institution, group, or individual) articulate what they or others should or actually believe?" The answer to this question would be descriptive. More interesting would be the next stage of analysis, in which we try to understand how and why they articulate things the way that they do.
On the other hand, the value of "belief" as a second-order category - one that we might use to describe or explain things independently of the statements of the actors themselves - is less clear to me. Here I wonder if we have the question backwards. Instead of asking, "Is belief a useful category?", might it be more productive to ask, "Is there any analytical work that 'belief' does that we otherwise could not do? In other words, if scholars of religion were to ban the word/concept "belief" (in this sense) from their writings, would anything be lost?


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To Flog or not to Flog?

2011-04-28 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

In an essay discussing his new book, In Defense of Flogging, Peter Moskos wants to begin a conversation. Prisons, we all know, don’t work as well as we would all like. Around .5% of all Americans are currently in prison, an extraordinary number when considered by any measure, and one that is up nearly four-fold since 1980. The recidivism rate is also extraordinarily high. Of all first-time prisoners, 47.3% were arrested within the three years after their release (Bureau of Justice Statistics Analysis Tool). While there is undoubtedly a need for prisons, imprisonment can also breaks lives and harden criminals, all at great, perhaps unnecessary, cost to the taxpayer. What if, Moskos asks, instead of imprisoning certain kinds of criminals, we flog them? Might we achieve the same or better results at lower human and material costs?

Flogging, of course, is currently illegal, understood as prohibited by the U.S. Constitution’s eighth amendment against “cruel and unusual punishments.” But “cruel and unusual” is a moving target. Flogging is an acceptable form of punishment in many countries today, and its use in the U.S. military was not banned until 1850. One could imagine that a day could come when flogging is seen as less cruel than a lengthy prison sentence for a minor crime.

Moskos’s essay particularly resonated with me. It was this very issue that led to a quite literally sophomoric epiphany in my own life. When I was an undergraduate in college I read a book that put the modern prison system into historical context, showing how it arose from a changing sense of human nature. Prisons only make sense if one believes that humans can be “rehabilitated,” a possibility that itself depends on certain assumptions about the nature of the self. This had never occurred to me; I had always taken for granted prisons and the prohibition against punishments like flogging. My epiphany had less to do with prisons in particular than in the implications of this realization: history can help me to see my present world differently. If I cannot take prisons for granted, can I taken anything for granted? The study of history thus opened for me the potential to re-envision my present.

Indeed, the rabbis of late antiquity took flogging for granted. It is hard to go far in rabbinic literature without running into flogging. A whole (albeit short) tractate in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot, is (putatively) on the topic, and the literature simply assumes that the vast majority of infractions against Jewish law would meet with flogging. Flogging, the rabbis are quick to point out, should not lead to death. It can disfigure, shame, and be excruciatingly painful, but it cannot kill. The rabbis were hardly unique for their time. Flogging was a common punishment throughout antiquity.

Yet while the rabbis discussed flagellation at length, they did not appear to have had any authority under the Roman law in which they lived to actually administer this punishment, as admitted by the rabbis themselves (see Berakot 58a). This raises the larger question of the administration of judicial penalties among Jews in late antiquity. Did Jews flog other Jews in the towns and villages of the Galilee? Under what law and authority, and for what crimes? Was flogging effective in deterring both the recipient and onlookers from future crime? I don’t have answers to these questions, but it is always worth bearing in mind when we look at earlier (and some modern) societies that flagellation was an actual, common practice, not just a conversation, and that understanding its use in practice might help us to see it not as merely barbarous, but as something more complex and perhaps even effective.


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The Pope, the Jews, and the Vatican Museums

2011-04-18 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

My essay on "The Pope, the Jews, and the Vatican Museums," was just posted online at "The Forward," and will appear in the next print edition.…


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If it is built, would anybody come?

2011-04-12 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

I recently watched an inspiring presentation by Professor Dan Cohen, entitled "The Ivory Tower and the Open Web." For some time I have been wondering if the web could be used to help develop an online a scholarly community that was relatively tightly focused on early Judaism. A website would offer such scholars an opportunity to engage with colleagues in an ongoing way. It would by no means replace conferences, but could help to promote a different kind of dialogue.

A website like this might ideally include:

An updated list of announcements of interest: Upcoming conferences, calls for paper, funding opportunities, etc;
An aggregate of current, relevant news, such as IAA find reports. Some of us currently get this from blogs, such as Paleojudaica, whose posts can be aggregated into a single spot on the page;
An aggregate of the tables of contents of relevant journals as they are released;
The blog itself, which would be the central focus of the site. Here scholars can post new ideas, texts, images, etc. for which they seek feedback. These would not be full drafts to workshop, but rawer ideas. Others could then develop a conversation around the idea using "Comments";
Drafts to workshop. There has been increased interest in (and tools for) online open peer review. These tools can be used in a less evaluative context;An archive of visual resources, perhaps linked in through a photo-management site such as flickr;
Guides to relevant educational materials;
A chat room. This is more whimsical, but there are times in the day that I just need recharging. It would be fun to have a site to go to in order to chat with colleagues in the field.

It would not take very much to build such a site using "Wordpress". The key to the site's success would be collaboration: would anybody actually come to it and participate in the community? I experimented with something like this a few years back using another platform, but it didn't work out. The primary reason, I think, was simply that people are busy and didn't feel that it was worth their time to participate. This, of course, is entirely understandable. I wonder, though, if now the passing of several years and a new platform would make a difference.

Of course, if anybody else would like to take this idea and run with it, I'd be delighted. Sign me up!
(The photo, of the construction of the Olympic baseball field in Beijing, was taken from here.)…


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Do Dogs Have Free-will?

2011-04-05 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

Of course not.

This, I understand, parachutes me into an area that I readily confess to know nothing about. There must be a scientific literature on this, and I am sure that there are passionate dog owners who are positive that their dogs possess free-will. This also is well outside the areas that I normally blog about, so if you, dear reader, are interested only in areas pertaining to antiquity, Judaism, or the intersection of the two, you can stop reading here.

I was brought to this musing during a recent hike that I took with my dog, pictured above.

(Incidental proof dogs don't have free-will:
1. My dog loves to roll in horse dung;
2. No being with free-will could, should, or would roll in horse dung;
3. Ergo, dogs don't have free-will, QED.)

We arrived at a beautiful lake and a thought experiment occured to me. My dog is very loyal and hates to be alone, but my dog is also very cautious. He is afraid of the water. What if, I thought, I were to swim out in the lake? At that point, my dog would be conflicted: he would be pulled to follow me but would not want to go into the water.

I'm not sure what he would do (it was far too cold for me to actually test this at that moment), but whatever he did it would not really be a "choice." When faced with such a dilemma, we humans choose one based on all kinds of criteria, conscious and not. For a dog, though, one instinct will win over the other not on the basis of a choice, but on the basis of... well, what exactly?…


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Workshop CFP: Ancient Religion, Modern Technology

2011-04-01 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

The following announcement will soon be going out widely. Please feel free to circulate!

Workshop Call for Papers
February 13-14, 2012
Brown University

The Program in Judaic Studies in collaboration with the Brown University Library’s Center for Digital Scholarship is pleased to announce plans for a two-day workshop devoted to investigating the ways in which the digital humanities has or can change the study of religion in antiquity. The workshop will take place on February 13-14, 2012, at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

We invite proposals for papers and presentations that explore the intersection of ancient religion and the digital humanities. We are particularly interested in presentations of projects that have the potential to open up new questions and avenues of research. Can digital tools not only allow us to do our work faster and more thoroughly but also enable entirely new kinds of research? How might different digital data (e.g., textual, geographic, and material culture) be used together most productively? The workshop will concentrate primarily on research rather than directly on pedagogy or scholarly communication. One session will be devoted to “nuts and bolts” issues of funding and starting a digital project.

The focus of the workshop will be on the religions of West Asia and the Mediterranean basin through the early Islamic period. Proposals relating to other regions, however, will also be considered.

Please submit proposals of up to 300 words by October 31, 2011, to Michael Satlow (Michael_Satlow@Brown.edu).

Workshop Themes

While all areas relating to the intersection of the ancient religion and the digital humanities are open, we anticipate focusing our discussions on four themes and encourage submissions that relate directly to them:

Corpus Development. While this has comprised the bulk of the effort to date, we welcome further discussion and investigation of best practices, challenges, and standards. How should data be structured?

Digital Tools. What resources that might apply to the analysis of our data already exist? Can they be easily configured to work with the data? We will be demonstrating some projects that might have applications to our data. What tools would we like developed?

Interoperability. How might data from different corpora operate together? How might data interoperability advance research?

Visions. In an ideal world, what would we like to see? What do we want to be able to do and what scholarly questions could these new approaches help to solve or open? We welcome presentations of prototypes or even mock-ups.

For updated information, please consult the website: http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Judaic_Studies/AncientReligionModernTechnologyWorkshop.html…


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Were the Rabbis Revolutionary?

2011-03-30 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

Yes. Kind of. Maybe.

Thus is the status quaestionis as it emerged from a mini-symposium at Harvard University yesterday. Firmly on one side of the question was Shaye Cohen and Moshe Halbertal. Both pointed to the radical difference between the Mishnah and Jewish literature of the Second Temple period. The extensive and systematic treatment of academic halakhic problems (grabbing on to a halakhic issue “like the proverbial dog with a bone,” in Cohen’s memorable analogy); its conceptualization; and the inclusion of rabbinic disagreements all set it apart from previous literature. Even more so, Halbertal especially emphasized the novelty of the entire halakhic process – halakhah itself was an invention of the Rabbis, he argued.

Not quite on the other side was Aharon Shemesh and Vered Noam. Both acknowledged that the Mishnah was an innovative document, but both also emphasized to different degrees the pre-existence of traditions that either made it into or were implicitly acknowledged in rabbinic literature. Shemesh highlighted striking literary parallels between rabbinic justifications for violating the Sabbath in order to save a life and passages in the New Testament. Noam focused on laws of corpse impurity in which the early Rabbis appear to be responding to laws that are attested at Qumran. Shemesh was more cautious about positing a model of “halakhic development,” but both saw more continuity where Cohen and Halbertal saw rupture.

So which is it? As strange as the Mishnah as a literary document is, its contents, I think all would acknowledge, was not entirely the creation of the Rabbis. They did create halakhah, but they also took existing practices, justified them, conceptualized them, and systematized them. The answer, then, is not either/or. Although the spotty data will always limit our ability to discern where and how the Rabbis innovated, much scholarly work is left to be done. The fundamental question (or at least the one I'm most interested in), though, is not where or how, but why. How do we explain the "Rabbinic project" in a historically sensitive way?…


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Conference Reflections: Archaeology and Texts

2011-03-29 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

Academic conferences tend to peter out. The time is late; all are tired; even some of the panelists have already left for home. There is thus often little time or energy at the end for reflection, synthesis, and robust discussion. The Talmuda de’Eretz Israel conference was no exception. While no fault of the organizers – who really did a great job bringing together a high-level panel with few (visible) organizational glitches – I missed having the opportunity to take a step back and consider with my colleagues the larger issues and implications raised at the conference.

It was striking that almost every paper followed a similar pattern: it usually began with some piece of puzzling evidence, either textual (in the vast majority of cases) or material, and used the other kind of evidence to elucidate it. The product of this analysis was a solution or better understanding of the context of the original crux.

Now there is nothing wrong with this. I know of no serious scholar who would disagree with the assertion that both textual and material evidence can be elucidated by reference to the other; we are not or should not be in silos. Obviously, actually combining this evidence in our work is often hampered by practical considerations (e.g., expertise, access, time), but that’s the ideal. And indeed, it was fascinating to see in many presentations how, for example, judicious use of material evidence can resolve textual cruxes (e.g., Sperber).

Yet even when the resolution of these small cruxes leads to more generalized conclusion, there is also something that I find vaguely unsatisfying about the method. I am currently co-teaching a graduate seminar (with Prof. Ken Sacks) on methodologies for the study of ancient history, and we recently completed two case studies that illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of this precise approach. One was the problem of whether the community that lived in Qumran produced the Dead Sea Scrolls (using primarily the fine survey of Jodi Magness) and the other was the supposed identification of Phillip’s tomb in Macedonia. Both left the class wanting – once the small question is solved, so what? I was left with this feeling at the end of the conference. I learned many small things, but did I learn anything bigger, other than the obvious idea that texts are produced in material contexts?

I wrote very briefly about this issue in an earlier essay ("Beyond Influence: Toward a New Historiographic Paradigm") but this conference helped me to further refine my thinking. I wonder if it might be more fruitful to start with questions rather than evidence. This, of course, is not meant to create a binary dichotomy between those who start from evidence and those who start with questions; there is always a back and forth to this process. But at least framing our questions in terms of issues rather than evidence (e.g., did Jews sacrifice to Greek and Roman gods in Roman Palestine? Did they have distinctive marriage rituals?) might help us to better gather all of the evidence – textual and material – that bears upon it. In order to facilitate such work, we could use more sustained and sophisticated reflection on our methods. This is the higher order question that I hope is addressed in the publication of these fine individual papers, to which I very much look forward.…


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Archaeology and the Rabbis: 2

2011-03-28 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

Today was a full day of papers. So without further ado:

Shawn Zelig Aster, Yeshiva University, Mishnah Baba Metzia 7,7 and the Distribution of the Phoenician Jar: The Relationship of Mishnaic Hebrew to Northern Biblical Hebrew and to Phoenician

Using the material evidence of settlement patterns, Aster argued that there was no continuous Israelite/Jewish settlement in the north (i.e., Galilee) from the Assyrian conquest to the Persian period. Rather, the upper Galilee was decimated, and only in the Persian period did Jews move back to the western Galilee, while the Phoenicians settled along the coast It is the contact that these two communities had through trade that led to Phoenician influence on Galilean Hebrew. This in turn accounts for what appears to be "Israelianisms" (my term) in later mishnaic Hebrew, that is, linguistic peculiarities that some have identified as traces of old northern Hebrew, which was similar to Phoenician.

Jonathan Milgram, Jewish Theological Seminary, Mishnah Baba Batra 8,5: The Transformation of the Firstborn Son from Family Leader to Family Member

Milgram argued that this text distinctly breaks with biblical rules of inheritance, that favor the firstborn son. By contrast, this mishnah introduces the possibility of "gifting," which potentially eviscerates the biblical law. Milgram attributes this change, or at least correlates it, to a change in family structure from clans to nuclear families, in which the firstborn sons played no special economic role.

Uzi Leibner, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mekhilta de-R. Ishmael, Vayehi Beshalah 1: Rabbis and the Jewish Community Revisited

Leibner focused on the mosaic in the recently uncovered Wadi Hamam synagogue. Although badly damaged, part of this 3rd-4th century mosaic is a beautiful representation of Pharaoh's army drowning in the Red Sea. At the other end of the Sea is a building that appears from its iconography to be a temple. Leibner identifies this structure as Ba'al Tzafon, mentioned in the Bible and discussed in the Mekhilta. Leibner then used this observation to argue that rabbis and "ordinary" Jews shared traditions, and thus that it was untenable to argue that rabbis remained totally disconnected from their larger world.

Steven Fine, Yeshiva University, Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 4a: Polychromy and the Jerusalem Temple in Late Antiquity

A late rabbinic source whose historicity has been widely rejected, claims that the Herodian Temple was full of colors. Fine agrees, but argues that the rabbinic imagery can instead be useful as a window into late antique aesthetics. The rabbis appear to have drawn on the visual culture of the world in which they lived, in which vivid colors commonly reflected wealth, prestige, and high artisanship.

Sacha Stern , University College London, Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zara 16a: Paganism in Sepphoris-- A Strange Baraita

Starting from what truly is a strange "baraita" (it is actually not identified as such, although it has a Palestinian setting and Stern argues that it is indeed authentically Palestinian), Rabbi Judah pays off the authorities (so it seems) so that his family does not offer sacrifices on the a pagan holiday. Stern argues for the essential plausibility of this scenario: Rabbi gained his title of Nasi by virtue of being from a wealthy family (see Stern's previous article in Journal of Jewish Studies 54(2003): 193-215), and such families, even Jewish ones, may well have participated in pagan rites as part of their civic responsibilities. Stern drew on the extensive "pagan" archaeological remains in Sepphoris as well as inscriptions from Asia Minor that demonstrate that one could buy one's way out of this sacrificial responsibility.

Steven D. Fraade, Yale University, The Rehov Inscriptions and Rabbinic Literature: Matters of Language

Fraade continued his work on multilingualism, focusing in this talk on "code switching," that is, the multilingual shift of languages to convey specialized meanings. In the Talmud in particular this is seen in the shift between Hebrew and Aramaic, in which the latter is the clear language of dialectical argumentation. The phenomenon also appears in Jewish inscriptions, though. The "Rehov Inscription," a sixth or seventh century mosaic text found in a synagogue near Beit Shean and specifying the boundaries of the "land of Israel" for the purpose of tithing, shows such switching - most of it is in Hebrew, but it contains some Aramaic. Yet in the same synagogue, there is a (still unpublished) Aramaic dedicatory inscription that contains some Hebrew, as well as an earlier copy of the larger inscription that was painted on a fresco that is somewhat different. The language of the inscription makes an implicit claim for "linguistic patriotism."

R. Steven Notley, Nyack College, Genesis Rabbah 98,17: "And Why is it Called Gennosar?" Recent Discoveries at Magdala and Jewish Life on the Plain of Gennosar in the Early Roman Period."

An ornate stone table (picture above) was found in recent excavations of what appears to be the largest first-century synagogue found to date in Israel. The table contains a relief of a menorah, which is frequently associated with priests. So too, the term Gennosar, denoting the Sea of Tiberius, is called this due to the term's reference to early Hasmonean rulers.

Yonatan Adler, Bar Ilan University, Tosefta Shabbat 1,14: “Come and See to What Extent Purity has Spread Forth”: Archaeological Evidence for the Observance of Ritual Purity in Eretz Israel from the Hasmonean Period until the Close of the Palestinian Talmud

Much recent scholarship argues that the vast bulk of Jews stopped following laws of purity with the destruction of the Temple. Yet, Adler argues, there is much evidence of continued construction of ritual baths (he takes most stepped-pools to be mikvaot) and the production of stone vessels in Judea from 70-135. There is far less use of mikvaot and stone vessels in the later period and in the Galilee (with Sepphoris being an exception).

Lawrence H. Schiffman, New York University and Yeshiva University, Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 1 (71b-72a): “Of the Making of Books”: Rabbinic Scribal Arts in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Building on the work of Emanuel Tov, Schiffman compared the actual scribal practices in the Dead Sea Scrolls, particularly of proto-Masoretic texts, to the later rabbinic scribal laws. By and large, the Dead Sea scribes appear to have conformed to these laws (with some exceptions, of course). There are many possible ways to interpret this evidence, so we must be careful using this case to generalize more broadly one way or another about the relationship of these earlier scribes to rabbinic halakhah.

That's the summary. In a little bit I'll post again with my reactions to the conference as a whole.…


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Archaeology and the Talmud: 1

2011-03-27 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

This week Yeshivah University is hosting a 2-day conference entitled, Talmuda de-Eretz Israel: Archaeology and the Rabbis in Late Antiquity. Here is a report on day 1:

Eric Meyers, Duke University, The Use of Archaeology in Understanding Rabbinic Materials: An Archaeological Perspective

Meyers pointed to some areas of intersection between rabbinic texts and archaeology. He singled out: burial customs (the move from communal to individual burials); food customs (the lack of pig bones and most Jewish sites, although other non-kosher food remains were occasionally found); purity (especially stone vessels, whose use continued into the Byzantine period); gender (the continued use of loom weights for domestic textile work); and baking (the improving technology of grinding wheat, leading to increased leisure time for women). Meyers called for the "unsiloing" (my term) of the disciplines of textual studies and archaeology.

Daniel Sperber, Bar Ilan University, The Use of Archaeology in Understanding Rabbinic Materials: A Talmudic Perspective

Using ancient archaeological finds, mainly from Italy, Sperber showed how material remains can help to unlock the meaning of some talmudic texts. One particularly intriguing example he gave was the way that locks were used in antiquity: from the outside of the door, one had to bring a key through a hole and angle it in to the lock - this can help to explain why the rabbis in some cases declare the space of an armlength around a door to be unclean. He also used examples relating to knots on the Sabbath and vessels.

Galit Hasan-Rokem, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Leviticus Rabbah 16, 1: “Odysseus and the Sirens” in the Beit Leontis Mosaic from Beit She’an

Hasan-Rokem used the Lev. R. text as a starting point - it contains an interesting comment by a certain "R. Reuben" referring to the "Siron." She sees this as an intertext to the Beit Leontis Mosaic, which contains representations of Odysseus. She also pointed to a source in the Sifra that wrestles with the question of whether a Siren is kosher!

Burton L. Visotzky, Jewish Theological Seminary, Genesis Rabbah 1,1: Mosaic Torah as the Blueprint of the Universe-- Insights from the Roman World

Taking his cue from a version of this well-known midrash found on a Genizah fragment, Visotzky argues for a reading that compares the Torah to the plan (or pattern book) of the maker of a mosaic, rather than the more conventional reading that understands Torah as the plan for an architect. This reading depends on understanding the unusual Hebrew term pishpesh as being instead a corruption of the Greek term for mosaic.

Alexei Sivertsev, DePaul University, Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 2,6 (20c): The Demise of King Solomon and Roman Imperial Propaganda in Late Antiquity

In Late Antique Roman imperial propaganda, the emperor was sometimes portrayed as having two "bodies", a kind of royal, disembodied, superbody and then an actual carnal one. The former is what ruled and connected the fleshly emperor to something beyond him. The story in y. Sanh., Sivertsev argues, takes this ideology and turns it on its head as a critique of monarchic rule.

Laura S. Lieber, Duke University, The Yotzerot le-Hatan of Qallir and Amittai: Jewish Marriage Customs in Early Byzantium

Lieber looked, but failed to find, any material evidence produced by Jews in Late Antiquity that could be definitively connected to marriage. Piyyutim (especially those from the early Middle Ages), though, do provide some references to Jewish wedding practices, such as garlands/crowns, adorning the bride, and at a late stage rings.

For the image above, see here.…


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The End of Lachrymosity

2011-03-07 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

Over half a century ago, the great Jewish historian Salo Baron famously declared an end to the lachrymose view of Jewish history. By this he meant that prior Jewish historians had an almost unremittingly bleak view of Jewish history. Jews, in these narratives, were always the persecuted victims, living tenuously in a hostile world. Baron claimed that in truth Jewish life since the "exile" (i.e., the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and the end of any semblance of Jewish autonomy) has largely flourished, nowhere more so than in the modern U.S. The positive evaluation of Jewish life outside of the land of Israel has now become the dominant trend in modern Jewish historiography written outside of the State of Israel, and has been lucidly surveyed in Michael Brenner, Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History (Princeton, 2010).

This historiographical development immediately came to mind as I was reading the New York Times "Week in Review" Section. In a whimsical piece, the Times decided to track down "the happiest man in America." That is, they attempted to find the person who fulfills all of the "happiest" criteria of Gallup's well-being index. And they did find him: "he’s a tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65 and married, has children, lives in Hawaii, runs his own business and has a household income of more than $120,000 a year."

Now this struck me as odd - since when is being Jewish a sign of happiness? It turns out that according to the Gallup survey, Jews are the happiest of all religious groups in America (followed, curiously enough, by atheists and agnostics). Don't ask me to explain the reason for this because I can't; this just seems to be exceedingly weird to me.

Yet, now finally we have empirical evidence the perhaps Baron was onto something.…


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Who is a Jew? No, Really.

2011-02-23 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

The traditional legal definition of a Jew is well-known: the child of a Jewish mother or a convert. Sure, there is a little fuzziness around the edges as Orthodox Jews in Israel in particular debate what makes a kosher conversion, and whether conversions can be retroactively revoked. But both Orthodox and Conservative Jewish institutions share their commitment to this legal definition. Jewish identity is for all intents and purposes black and white, verified or falsified with objective markers.

Yet as both the U.S. census and Susan Fendrick in a recent article remind us, life is not lived in black and white with objective markers. These legal definitions matter greatly to bean counters and lawyers (or rabbis or others in the role of lawyers), and to people only when they run up against bean counters and lawyers. As Fendrick sensitively suggests, it is not that legal definitions of Jewishness are wrong, only that they don't adequately reflect lived experience. As for the U.S. census, they can't figure out what to do with "Race" when many people, flummoxed by the check-off boxes, liberally select multiple identities.

Jews in antiquity had, if anything, even more fluid identities as Jews. Prior to the Rabbis, there were few necessary objective markers of Jewishness (circumcision for men was one, but even it was not sufficient). For most of the people most of the time this would never have been a problem; they had few if any encounters regarding their Jewishness with bean counters or lawyers. There were, of course, some exceptions: when the Romans leveled a tax on all Jews throughout the Empire following the disasterous revolt that led to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Jews had to be counted. We have little idea how they did this (although Martin Goodman has a provocative articleon its ramifications). Jewish communities locally handled their own "conversions", and it is intriguing to consider how converts, their families, and different Jewish communities might have had very different understandings of who they actually "were".

In this vein it is interesting to consider the famous CCAR's statement on patrilineal descent, which requires at least one Jewish parent and an affirmative act of identity. This is legally a nightmare: it would allow for cases in which Jewish identity was stripped and in which the children of two Jewish parents would not be considered Jewish. I doubt that there have ever been more than a few cases of either of these scenarios, if only because there is a tacit acknowledgement that although this is meant as a legal definition it is a poor one. It is, in fact, more descriptive than prescriptive, a comment on the way that Jewish identity is actually enacted today, with or without legal definitions, in living color rather than black and white.…


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The Human Condition

2011-02-11 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

Last month I saw the exhibit Figuratively Speaking: A Survey of the Human Form at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. What was particularly interesting to me about this exhibit was the chronological progression. The earliest, Renaissance and early modern works attempted to portray the human form realistically. The works of the early twentieth century moved to more abstract representation - Picasso, of course, is the most famous example of this trend. In the more modern works, though, was a surprising slide back to realism.

The focus of the exhibit was on the art, not the intellectual climates in which these works were created and bought. Yet it made me wonder: Does the move back to more realistic representations of the human form reflect a shift in our understanding of the human condition? Have we moved from a sense of unity to fragmentation back to unity? The idea that we are fragmented beings was certainly pervasive in artistic and intellectual circles throughout the twentieth century. Are we seeing in this newer generation a more optimistic view of the human self, one that understands us as whole? Or are is it just an artistic trend, no more or less?…


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2011-01-23 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik discusses the modern dessert. His investigation soon took him to Spain, where he talked with with some of the most widely admired pastry chefs in the world. While Gopnik doesn't quite frame his own essay this way, it is clear that these chefs are not just looking for "new" or "exciting" tastes, but perfect ones. Their work is personal and artistic.

By chance, I read this article shortly after my wife and I had our first meal at a Michelin three-star establishment, Joel Robuchon during a brief get-away in Las Vegas. It was, without question, the best meal that I ever ate, even with the numerous dietary restrictions that we imposed on the chefs. It may even be unfair to call it a "meal." It was perfect - everything from the environment to the service to the incredible, new, and changing flavors of the food. It was the culinary equivalent of a great work of art, symphony, or ballet.

The experience (better than "meal") made me think about my own life. Very little - actually nothing - in my life can really be called "perfect." Much is very good or excellent, but perfect? It makes me wonder about what a perfect book or article in my field would even look like. Is perfection achievable in an academic monograph or a trade history? And what would it look like to teach the "perfect class" or a whole "perfect course"? Where is the model to which I can strive, even if I wanted to and was willing to put in the time and effort, like the chefs Gopnik discusses?…


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What I Learned in Prison

2011-01-20 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

I recently finished teaching a four-class course on the Book of Psalms to medium security inmates of our state ACI (Adult Correctional Institute). The course was organized through a student group at Brown. The reasons I choose to do this are too complex to get into here; perhaps that will be the topic of another post. I had never taught in such an environment; it was quite a learning experience for us all.

First, the context and caveats. The course introduced the academic study of the Book of Psalms to students. I picked this topic because (1) I could identify few things within my area of expertise that I thought could interest this group; (2) as poetry that deals with existential issues, psalms could generate interesting discussions; and (3) I didn't know much about Psalms and wanted an opportunity to learn. I had about 15 students, all of whom (I was told) applied to get into the course. I make no claims to being an expert in prison life. I entered the prison through several sets of double-locked doors and gates; went straight to the educational/communal wing (I never saw living quarters); chatted briefly and superficially with students before class; taught; and left. I was told by the student facilitators that my students were almost all convicted of violent felonies and due to good behavior had been moved down from maximum security. I never spoke to any of them about their crimes.

I expected the class itself to be more different than other teaching that I have done. The truth was more prosaic. My students were on the whole engaged and smart, although they sometimes had difficulty expressing themselves. They prepared for class (usually a psalm or two a week), and occasionally even did additional research in the prison library. They sincerely struggled with understanding the differences between an academic approach to religion and a more engaged or "emic" one. They wanted to learn.

This is not to say that they did not have unique insights. One psalm was read as an inner spiritual struggle of resisting the temptations presented by one's evil friends. One of the funnier comments was when, having read together a psalm in which the author called on God to strike down his enemies, a student spontaneously blurted out, "Hey, he's calling for a hit!" During an off-topic discussion of the Ten Commandments (we compared the different versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy) one student perceptively pointed out that the last four commandments might actually be seen as sub-categories of "do not murder" - they summarize the reasons that people kill. They were in class, but they never forgot that they were still in prison.

As banal as this sounds, I was most struck by how typical and how human my students were. To the extent that I could see, they accepted their sentences and patiently ground through their time in a setting that minimally could be said to be drab and overbearing. They adapted to their environment.

The experience brought to my mind Foucault's ideas about the development of modern notions of discipline. We have created a penal system that quite literally takes people and makes them disappear, safely tucked away out of view. This is not to say that they themselves don't deserve this punishment, or perhaps even far worse. The question is the extent to which the system is designed to shield us from the violence that we inflict (again - perhaps correctly) on others.

For the Rabbis of antiquity, as in most societies in antiquity (and until fairly recently, in fact), punishment was understood as a communal activity - most typically a public flogging. I am in no position to say whether this different understanding of punishment would have made most people more careful about inflicting it, or more bloodthirsty. Clearly, though, the community was not shielded from its own violence.

I did not end this experience feeling sorry for my students or with any dramatic revelations about our penal system. Rather, it highlighted to me our desire to make unpleasant things disappear, and makes me wonder about the potential costs that we pay for it.…


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Fooling Around with Digital Humanities

2011-01-05 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

I have long been interested in ways in which modern technology can enhance what I do, as a scholar and a teacher. In the classroom I have used podcasts and wikis, and I continue to work on a digital collection of inscriptions from Israel/Palestine that date from antiquity. Only recently, however, has the surge of interest in humanities computing translated into more publicly accessible tools for interested amateurs such as me.

I have found two recent initiatives from Google particularly intriguing. One is the well reported tool by which you can analyze the use of words in Google Books, called the "Ngram Viewer." I had always been under the impression that in earlier times "Jews" were more often called "Israelite" or "Hebrew." It took me about 10 seconds to discover that I was wrong.

A second more powerful tool is Google Fusion Tables. This enables the merging and visualization of data sets. For reasons too complex and uninteresting, I began to wonder recently about the per capita presence of houses of worship in America today: I wanted to see a color coded map, like the one you see after elections. I suppose that one could do this, or something like it, on Fusion Tables, although I have not yet invested the time and energy I would need to actually figure out how. As with the Ngram viewer, I'm not positive yet how this powerful tool can be applied to the material I more typically work with, but I'm sure that the potential is ultimately enormous.…


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From Israelite to Jew: 6: The Torah

2010-12-22 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

In this episode I discuss the historical formation of the Torah, or Pentateuch, and provide an introduction to the documentary hypothesis. I am now receiving technical support from Brown University, and the quality of the audio is improved.

The episode can be heard here. More download options can be found here.

The podcast can also be heard on iTunes.…


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A Usable Past

2010-11-09 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

I just finished Albert Baumgarten's engaging biography of Elias Bickerman,
Elias Bickerman as Historian of the Jews: A Twentieth Century Tale, which was also recently reviewed by Anthony Grafton in The Jewish Review of Books. In Baumgarten's telling, Bickerman was a permanent refugee (who for the almost forty years that he "lived" in America actually spent half the year in European hotel rooms) never in command of English who had little but disdain for most everybody except the very small group of scholars with whom he was in dialogue. He also appears to have been what I would call a misogynist. Having read much of Bickerman's work - which even when problematic is always smart, provocative, and worthwhile - I confess that I felt a little let down. I had hoped for a more sympathetic character.

Baumgarten argues that Bickerman attempted to create a "usable past" for the Jews of his age. Baumgarten's case here is not entirely convincing; did Bickerman know what he was doing, and for whom was he doing it? At the same time, though, Baumgarten highlights a prominent theme in Bickerman's work that really was, and to a lesser extent remains, an issue in contemporary Jewish life: universalism vs. particularism. Bickerman took a side. The best Jews were those who remained particularist while adapting the best of universalist values. This is perhaps why, according to Baumgarten, he found the faculty at JTS far more sympathetic to his work than his colleagues at Columbia.

The case of Bickerman raises yet again the issue of the historian's work. Should our goal as historians be to create a "usable past"? Nearly all historians, I think, would agree that historical work should be relevant, but to whom and for what? Relevant to the scholars in one's sub-sub-field? Relevant to a particularist community? Relevant to humanity?

Earlier in my career I was very clear about my audience: other scholars. It would be an exaggeration to say that I focused on this audience solely because it was their approval that held the key to my professional success, but it would also be disingenuous for me to say that this was not an important factor. Whatever those outside of my field, or even outside of scholarship, thought of my work - well, whatever. It would be nice if they liked it and found it useful, but they would not tenure and promote me.

I still write articles for my academic colleagues but now mostly because they are fun, not for money, promotion, or prestige. I enjoy the questions, the writing, and being part of an academic community. If my academic writings add up to a "usable past" it is certainly not a conscious effort.

On the other hand, in other writings, and my teaching, I do make a very conscious effort to address a larger audience in a way that is relevant. I want to emphasize here the distinction between relevance and the construction of a usable past. The latter is but one flavor of the former. I was attracted to the study of antiquity in large measure because I found this history - like a good book, multiplied - to be a valuable conversation partner. When I engage my sources I inevitably learn from them, not only about the past but also about the present, and myself. Good historical writing does not confirm what we think we know; it challenges us to think in new ways. A usable past is in some ways antithetical to this goal, making the past familiar so that we can appropriate it for our own ends. How dull! A history should not challenge simply for the sake of challenging (some history admittedly is boring, uncertain, and all too familiar), but good history has to bring us into a world that we don't already know. Bickerman, despite his narrow audience, did that, and I am grateful both for his work and to Baumgarten's for bringing his world to life.…


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Death, and the Modern American Synagogue

2010-10-25 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

I had the pleasure this last week of listening to a lecture by Professor Carlos Eire, of Yale University. (Full dislosure: I was a colleague of Carlos's at University of Virginia, and in addition to finding him a supportive senior colleague, have followed his work with admiration since, particularly his award-winning Waiting for Snow in Havana.) Eire, summarizing part of his argument in A Very Brief History of Eternity, argued that prior to the Reformation, the Catholic Church made an enormous amount of money off of death. Believing that their dead ancestors needed their support in the form of donations to the Church to save their souls from purgatory, Christians gave an extraordinary amount of money to it. Eire provocatively suggested that the amount of capital was in fact so enormous that had it gone into other endeavors the history of Europe might as well been very different.

So this, in addition to some wonderful presentations that I heard from Professor Elisheva Baumgarten (Bar Ilan University) this week about Jewish fasting and other rites of penance in the Middle Ages, got me thinking about synagouges and economics today.

To what extent do synagogues today depend upon death for their vitality? Many synagogues today use the institution of Yahrzeit (saying the mourners kaddish on the anniversary of the death of a close relative) to justify their daily minyan, and then to use this fact to exhort others to support the minyan. Four times a year the prayer for the dead, Yizkor, attracts Jews to the pews. Synagogues are adorned with memorial plaques for which congregants pay significant sums of money. Synagogue bulletins regularly list the names of those who gave money in memory of their loved ones.

Let me put this question bluntly: Although no synagogue today uses the idea of purgatory to persuade Jews to give money, to what extent do they depend on the dead for their continued existence? Could synagogues survive if the many Jews who give money to them in remembrance of their dead or who came to minyan a few times a year to remember them, stopped?

Judaism, it is sometimes said, is a religion of the living, focusing on the here and now. As is well-known, many of the popular customs of Jews concerning the dead, such as recitation of the mourners kaddish, are not found in classical rabbinic literature, entering into Jewish practice in the medieval period. I do not intend this as a value judgment, but it does make me wonder whether there is a connection between the continuation of these customs and contemporary Jewish institutions.…


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Larry Axel Memorial Lecture

2010-10-20 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

I just presented the Larry Axel Memorial Lecture at Purdue University. The talk was entitled, "Big Givers: The Origins of Jewish Philanthropy." The publicity paragraph reads:

Whether by naming buildings, erecting plaques, or publishing name-lists, our practice of recognizing donors is so common that we hardly notice it. This lecture will examine the origins of the practice in antiquity, paying particular attention to Jews in late antiquity. When and why did Jewish philanthropy, and the public recognition of big donors, emerge? We will consider both material and literary evidence.


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"Day of Judgment"

2010-09-08 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

Tonight Rosh HaShanah begins. It is probably safe to say that many Jews associate the holiday with two theological themes. The first, emphasized especially in children's books and early Jewish educational settings, is the birthday of the world - the day on which God created the world. The second theme, which is far more prominent in the liturgy, is that it is a day of judgment, the day on which God will determine "who will live and who will die... who [will die] by fire and who by water" as the prayer states. Rosh HaShanah opens not only the Ten Days of Repentence, but a longer period of atonement and judgment that traditionally ends about a month later with Hoshannah Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot (Tabernacles).

It is striking, though, that neither of these themes actually appear in the Bible. In fact, Rosh HaShanah is arguably the most underdetermined major holiday in the Bible. It is a day of "remembrance and trumpeting" (Leviticus 23:24). Remembrance of what? Why trumpet? When Ezra reads the Torah to the assembly in Jerusalem and introduces the people to Rosh HaShanah, he and his levitical assistants merely comment that it is day to celebrate (Nehemiah 8:9-12). Again, why they should celebrate is left obscure.

So this leads to a natural question, or better set of them: When, where, and why did Rosh HaShanah become take on these associations? Why did it become, specifically, the "day of judgment"?

To my knowledge, there are exceedingly few references to Rosh HaShanah in the literature of the Second Temple period. There may be a germ of these themes in Abraham's prayer found in Jubilees (12:16-21), a book written around 200 BCE. There Abraham mentions, on "the first day of the seventh month" God's creative power and asks for God's protection. These themes, though, are so common throughout this literature that it is hard to read much into them. There is also a very vague reference to the "day of remembrance" in the Dead Sea scrolls (4Q409 1.i.5).

Prior to the Rabbis, the first century Alexandrian Jew Philo provides the most extended discussion of this holiday. For Philo, the new year begins in Nisan and is commemorated with Passover. Our Rosh HaShanah he calls the "trumpet feast," and focuses on the meaning of the trumpet. He offers two explanations. One is that it is a remembrance of the giving of the divine law (thus solving the problem of what it is we should remember). Second is that it is a sign of war, both real war and the internal war that comprises the human condition (Special Laws, 2.188-192). He does not connect this holiday to Yom Kippur.

So what are we then to make the of the rabbinic understanding of Rosh HaShanah as a new year for judgment (Mishnah, Rosh HaShanah 1:1-2)? Where did this come from?

In my book Creating Judaism, I argued that sometimes rituals persist shorn of meaning; succeeding generations of Jews preserve the ritual but change the meaning. I think that Philo also points in this direction. Philo starts with the single ritual that is associated with Rosh HaShanah that is mentioned in the Bible, trumpeting. To him, trumpeting meant war. From that, the fuller meaning of the holiday followed.

I want to suggest - and this is admittedly pure speculation as I am writing this in order to procrastinate from my real work and don't have time to track this down - that the Rabbis had a different association with the trumpet (or shofar), and thus changed their understanding of the holiday accordingly. According to the Rabbis, the shofar is sounded at dangerous times to invoke God's judgment for good. Maybe the trumpet was by that time associated with civil legal proceedings; it certainly was associated with the Roman emperor. This new association of the shofar with judgment thus led to revaluing the holiday, and moving it toward a strong association with judgment, as it also got drawn into the strong gravitational force of Yom Kippur.

Perhaps a bit of stretch, but if you have a better idea I'd be delighted to hear it!…


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Memory, History, and Jews in the Eighteenth Century

2010-06-09 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

I've just spent a fascinating few days reading through Jewish ritual calendars luhot - that date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of these calendars contain a short, one or two page, list of important Jewish historical events, dated from the creation of the world. These annual calendars were for the most part small and cheap and designed for popular sale, so they give us at least a glimpse into which dates the authors thought that their readers would want to know, and given the conformity year after year of these lists, I presume that they were right.

The lists almost always consist primarily of biblical history - the creation of the world, the flood, exodus from Egypt, etc. After noting the destruction of the second temple, the Ashkenazic calendars (published in Metz, Berlin, Sulzbach, and Frankfurt am Main) jump directly the dates of the expulsion of Jews from various locales. No history of the rabbinic period or the Middle Ages. That's it. Jewish history in a nutshell.

The Sephardic lists diverge slightly. Medieval Jewish history in these lists centers on one important person: the Rambam. They note when he was born and died, and maybe when he authored the Mishneh Torah. They too then list the expulsions of Jews, and the English ones end with the foundation of the New Synagogue (or Bevis Marks Synagogue).

These lists remind me of Yerushalmi's argument in Zakhor, although to my recollection he does not use these calendars. Jewish history in these lists is a strange amalgam of sacred history and actual history, the creation of usable Jewish memory that one can carry in a pocket.…


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"Fruit and the Fruit of Fruit"

2010-05-26 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

My article, "Fruit and the Fruit of Fruit: Charity and Piety among Jews in Late Antique Palestine" has just appeared the Jewish Quarterly Review 100 (2010): 244-277. It can be accessed online here, with an institutional subscription.…


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Costly Mistakes

2010-05-18 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

In the new Bevis Marks synagogue in London, in 1701, the hazan, or salaried prayer-leader, was fined for every mistake he made while reading from the Torah. The minute books of the synagogue record actual cases of fining the hazan. In his book, The History of the Ancient Synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (1901), Moses Gaster wryly notes, "If this operation of fining continued regularly every Sabbath throughout the year the result would be that the Hazan, instead of receiving a salary from the congregation, would remain its debtor" (p. 46).

This doesn't have much to do with anything, but I found it amusing.…


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Inscriptions of Israel/Palestine

2010-05-12 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

I am happy to report a significant upgrade to the site, Inscriptions of Israel/Palestine. The site will eventually make accessible all of the published inscriptions from the region that date from the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods.…


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2010-04-19 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

Last Friday I delivered a plenary address at the NE regional SBL meeting in Newton, MA. Below is the text:

Who Needs Theory? An Historian’s Polemic
Michael Satlow

I have to start with a confession: I hate plenary sessions. I’ve always disliked plenary sessions, and I have generally avoided them – if not quite like the plague – then like a potential source of H1N1. What is a plenary, after all, if not a platform for a scholar, perhaps of some accomplishment or recognition, to bloviate about things already published; or new research of interest only to those immediately in the same sub-field; or whatever matters that might occur as he or she casts about desperately for a topic. Better, I always figured, to use the time devoted to plenary sessions more productively to hang out with my friends to exchange ideas, or at least gossip.

Given this attitude, there was a measure of poetic justice being asked to deliver this plenary address. As the rabbis off whom I make my living would say, midah k’neged midah, measure for measure. What goes around comes around. Not that I am not honored; I am deeply honored, and I thank Shawna Dolansky, who should be held entirely blameless for both my ambivalence and my coming remarks. I am also delighted to have an opportunity to talk before so many of my friends and teachers, who might by the end of this talk wish to remain unidentified. So my task today is, first and foremost, to try to keep you awake and feeling that you are not wasting your time, despite the fact that I will pilfer from some ideas that I’ve already published; present a bit of newer research; and bloviate about matters on which I have little business speaking. Primarily, I’d like to spend my time engaging you in an overblown, polemical discussion about the nature and role of theory for those of us, like myself, who consider our work to be rooted in historiographical methods.

Let me begin this discussion with an anecdote that is largely true, although in the Thucydidean spirit I modify a few details that if they didn’t happen exactly as I relate, they should have. We were interviewing a job candidate and our discussion turned to teaching. He was talking about some fascinating historical documents that might be used in a course that he proposed. These were great documents, and we could see immediately how they would be effective in the classroom. So we asked him how he would frame or theorize these documents for this lesson. He responded that he did not have to: his job, as a researcher, was to present provocative evidence. Theory had no place here; it was up to the students to think and make sense of these primary texts.

Now, many, if not most of you here today are graduate students. Yet I would wager that even you know, or now you do, that this is the wrong answer. Even forgetting the pedagogical implications of such a stance – and perhaps later my friend Dale Martin will touch on this in his plenary session – in a job interview one never, ever dismisses theory. Allegiance to “theory,” whatever that vague and abstract term might designate, must be paid. Our candidate never got a chance to clarify or justify his stance. He was dead in the water.

But what if he did have a chance to defend his dismissal of theory, under circumstances that were less fraught? In religious studies is there a principled case to be made against theory?

I do not want to make such a case at the moment, but I do want to articulate the things that many of us think and say behind closed doors. What is not to like about theory?

Plenty, in my opinion. First and foremost, it is frequently abstruse. Let’s get the obvious out in the open – theoretical writing is often challenging to read, most of the time because it is poorly written. How many of you have waded through Foucault, Heidegger, Bourdieu, Levi-Strauss, Butler, Giddens, Bhabba, Levinas with the initial elusive goal of simply trying to figure out what the hell they mean? Then, after that enormous effort and commitment of time, just when you think you might possibly have gotten it, you wonder how such a simple idea could have been expressed so poorly. And, like our job candidate, the theorist all too frequently feels no responsibility at all for explaining how these ideas actually relate to real people living real lives. The thinking becomes our job.

This brings me to a second complaint, which is the sheer hubris of much theoretical writing. I already mentioned one aspect of this hubris. Historians are frequently chided when they do not bring their conclusions into conversation with “larger issues,” which is often a kind of code word for theory. But theorists are rarely brought to task for their failure to relate their abstract thinking to reality; they often seem to get a free pass on this. A second aspect, though, has to do with the development of theory from small, local, ethnographic studies. Although we are aware that Emile Durkheim’s theories derive almost entirely from second-hand ethnographic data from aboriginal tribes of Australia and New Guinea; that Levi-Strauss’s theories emerged from observation of tribes in the Amazon rain-forest; that Clifford Geertz’s derive from only a few communities in Southeast Asia and North Africa; that Foucault advances his theories with the support of specific historical documents that he misreads; that Mary Douglas structures some of her most influential theories around theological differences between contemporary Protestants and Catholics; that Hhomi Bhabba and Peter van der Veer create large theories from the historical experience of India under British colonial rule; and that Derrida – well, let’s forget Derrida for the moment because I don’t know where his ideas come from - despite knowing all this we allow these and other theorists to shape our understanding of our own material. Why do they get to study small local communities and make broad generalizations about them to which we then need to relate our own materials, produced in different historical circumstances? Why do we continue to teach them and hold them up as fundamental texts? I often wondered how scholars today might receive a theoretical account based on the rabbis of late antiquity. Why do modern theorists study Pentacostalists rather than Episcopalians? But I digress slightly. The point is that there is an enormous hubris involved in treating the object of one’s own specialized and local historical study as a paradigm for humanity writ large.

Given its opacity and its inherent limitations, why do we continue to glorify theory? I think – and this is entirely speculative – that the reason is less for its utility than for sociological reasons. Russell McCutcheon has strongly argued – wow, talk about polemical - that religious studies is a field rather than a discipline, and that the best local administrative response to this situation is to eliminate departments of religious studies. McCutcheon’s intellectual argument certainly has some merit, and while I would not want to go as far as he does in suggesting that we eliminate academic divisions that I think do serve a valuable function, he at least provides us with a basic framework for explaining why in many – although by no means all – religious studies departments the faculty members have so little in common. Nicer and more cohesive departments recognize this problem and attempt to address it. They do so – and I mean this in the most well-meaning way – by focusing attention on their largest common denominator, that is, “religion.” These meta conversations, about the definition and nature of religion and issues of theory, become the glue that hold an otherwise entropic department together. Thus, when departments ask job candidates about theory, what they frequently are really asking is whether we have any common academic language; it is like the proverbial sports talk around the water-cooler. It might at once be absolutely necessary for group cohesion, and completely irrelevant for our actual scholarly work.

Has theory really been irrelevant to our work in this field? Well, in my own impressionistic survey of the literature, the answer has to be a qualified yes. Sure, there are some scholars who combine theory with ancient data in sophisticated ways that, whether compelling or not, have to be taken seriously. I think, though, that there are relatively few such scholars. Far more scholars, to move to the other extreme pay no attention whatsoever to theory. Then there are the scholars who fall in the middle. I would put such scholars into two groups. One group essentially pay lip-service to theory. It might frame their argument – to prove to their colleagues that it really does make a more important contribution than, for example, adducing another example of a vav-consecutive – but does not significantly change the argument one way or the other. Other scholars – the second group – build their article around a theory, with the goal of proving it. Yes, we learn again, Mary Douglas – or at least the “early Mary Douglas” – really does apply! Frazier is wrong again! J. Z Smith? With 849 citations listed in the ISI Web of Knowledge, you would think that we would actually have made some progress figuring out how to compare religion. Eliade? Mention him if you want to kill your career. OK – that was gratuitous, but another decent tip for job-seekers nonetheless.
To confirm this impression, I simply surveyed the last year’s issues of the Journal of Biblical Literature. This is hardly scientific, but I attempted to divide the articles into three groups: those that truly integrate theory; those that allude to it or use it more as window-dressing; and those that are completely oblivious to theory. Out of the 51 articles I surveyed, an astounding 41 – that’s 80% - do not engage theory at all. By fairly liberal reckoning 5 articles – 10% - engage theory fully, and the other 10% fall in the other two groups. I don’t know if we actually tell our colleagues about our theoretical interests, but they are certainly not on display in the journal of our primary professional organization. We speak amongst ourselves.
If the JBL more or less accurately reflects the mood of the field and the composition of this conference, then a polemic against theory is preaching to the converted. Kind of like Sarah Palin addressing the Tea Party. But, alas, this is not my polemic. Indeed, while I am fully sympathetic to these complaints against theory – each one of them completely valid – my polemic runs in precisely in the opposite direction. We need theory and, more importantly, theorizing. It is not simply a matter of lip-service; the use of theory can fundamentally alter what we do. My polemic is against the 80% - it is against business as usual.
Let me be clear. I have no interest in glorifying theorists. And I have no interest in preaching to you, as if I am better-than-you when it comes to theory. To the sins of misusing and ignoring theory in much of my own work, I plead guilty. I regularly discuss these sins with my own academic confessors. Usually over coffee while the plenary sessions are going on.

Now, this polemic is of course not new; you may recognize that you were subjected to it a few years ago in Jonathan Z. Smith’s presidential address at the annual SBL meeting. Entitled “Religion and Bible,” his typically learned address delicately called for the integration of “biblical studies” – whatever that means exactly – and the academic study of religion. In somewhat elliptical language, as I read him, he drew attention to the fact that although he argued for more or less exactly the same thing nine years earlier when he gave a plenary address at the annual meeting, basically nothing had changed.

Smith’s agenda is sweeping and daunting. He calls for both the creation of classificatory and analytical schemes and the development of the linguistic skills necessary to carry them out. Smith himself recognizes the somewhat utopian and overwhelming nature of these demands. Like reading Lacan in French, it remains unclear if the investment is worth the scholarly payout.

Theorization, though, does not necessarily require going that far. In fact, I would argue that smaller steps toward the integration of theory and theorization are not only easily achievable, but are in fact necessary for us to grow individually and collectively as scholars, and to give our work wider impact within the academy and beyond.

Let me be more concrete here. We use all kinds of terms all of the time in our work without giving them much thought. These terms can be subjects: the Bible; biblical literature; Judaism; Christianity; New Testament; biblical religion; myth; Gnosticism. They can also be phenomena: asceticism; sexuality; sacrifice; piety; magic. I’m not telling you anything new. What I do want to push is the idea that our implicit definitions of these terms really do matter – they frequently determine our scholarly questions and methods. Sometimes something as simple as forcing ourselves to define each of these terms as we use them opens doors that we may not have seen. And if we find that we are unable to define our own terms, perhaps that too is indicative. This is low-lying fruit – it requires no new linguistic skills or engagement with Heidegger. Increased self-awareness is a matter of low investment, with potentially high payout.

Let’s take the word “Judaism” for example. In a parochial setting, the meaning of this term is clear, or at least clear enough. If I am a Jewish worshipper in my synagogue, my community has a good idea about what Judaism is, and what it isn’t. Even if I am a Christian minister preaching to my congregation, we have a certain shared idea of what we mean by “Judaism,” even if our meaning does not necessarily correspond to that used in the synagogue down the street. In these contexts, “Judaism” is a first-order term, used by communities to draw boundaries for a variety of reasons. One community might use the term to create a group solidarity among its members; another to mark the dangerous other. What is clear is that we, as scholars, cannot and should not use the word “Judaism” in this first-order manner, placing ourselves as arbitrators of what counts and what does not. We can and should study how communities have used the term and those like it, trace its development, etc., the normative judgments of who really belongs and who doesn’t, is or should be outside of our “four cubits of the law,” to use a rabbinic saying.

So then how can we, as scholars, use the term? Is “Judaism” a salvageable academic term? I believe that this is a critical question, and one that goes well-beyond the debates the terminological debates that pit Judaism against Judaisms or Judeanness. When I, as a scholar, walk into a classroom to teach my introduction to Judaism, what am I teaching? When I sit down to write on Judaism in the ancient world, what is my topic?

In previously published work, especially in my book Creating Judaism, I have argued for a polythetic approach to the term. That is, I have come to the realization that I cannot offer a single, simple, and essential definition of Judaism that can do justice to the wide religious diversity of communities, past and present, that call themselves Jewish. This polythetic approach to religious tradition was suggested over twenty years ago by, not surprisingly, J. Z. Smith, in his essay “Fences and Neighbors: Some Contours of Early Judaism.” The idea is that there are a number of features that are widely shared by communities of Jews through space and time. Not every community, in fact no community, will have all of these features; some may have only a few. Any two given Jewish communities might share many, or even theoretically, no features. This way of defining and thinking about Judaism thus draws on the notion of “family resemblance,” in which members of the same family resemble each other, or not, in a wide range of ways.

There are two clear and immediate advantages of this approach. First, as I mentioned, it relieves scholars from the awkward task of making normative judgments about what counts and what doesn’t. If you call yourself a Jew, then for my purposes as a scholar you are a Jew – your Judaism or that of your community is as authentic as anybody else’s. Your community’s beliefs and practices, of course, may not look much like those of others who call themselves Jews; that is a reasonable topic of analytical inquiry and explanation. But we have to take self-indentified claims seriously. Second, this approach moves away from reifying Judaism and thus treating it as if it has agency.

This latter point I believe is particularly important. Too often we speak of abstract systems, “religions,” or “traditions” as if they have agency. But, of course, they don’t. One cannot say that “Judaism” influences or is influenced, for example, because “Judaism” does not have agency – Jews do. Similarly, while there are instances when we can talk about texts doing things, we too often equate texts in a fuzzy way with communities and systems – the term “biblical religion” comes to mind, implying that the Bible is a self-contained entity of a self-contained community, rather than one among many intellectual resources that were used in different ways and combinations by different communities of actual, living people.

I am not arguing that there is no place for the word “Judaism” as a second-order scholarly category. Clearly a large number of communities through West Asia and the Mediterranean basin in antiquity understood themselves to be connected to each other through… well, what exactly? It is here that we can begin the messy, polythetic mapping that I believe can help to drive us to more interesting, precise and productive questions and research.

In Creating Judaism, I propose that we begin such an inquiry along three lines. The first, as I mentioned, is identity. How and why does a community identify as it does? In a recent essay, Steve Mason argued that ethnicity was the primary locus of identity. There is much to this argument; as Shaye Cohen and Ross Kraemer also argued, many of the extant inscriptions from antiquity that use the Greek term “ioudaios” are better translated as “Judean” rather than “Jew”. But it is also true that not all of those with roots in Judea worshipped the same god or saw themselves as connected to all other Judeans. Nor, of course, was the God of Israel worshipped only by those whose ethnic origins were Judean. Some Jews in antiquity marked this epigraphically with the term “proselyte”; I think that we are safe to assume that their children did not.

For Jews in antiquity, the issue of identity was inextricably linked to that of tradition. Tradition, particularly textual tradition, is the second polythetic map. As an “imagined community,” to use Bennedict Anderson’s felicitous phrase, Jews constructed their identity not only from their memories of their actual location of origin, but also from stories. These stories were preserved in texts that they found sacred, most notably and widespread the Torah. Nearly every Jewish community from antiquity known to us ascribed authority to the Torah, whether in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic. While I will return to this point in a minute, here I want to emphasize that the Torah contains stories upon which identities can be constructed. “Stories” and “identities” – neither are singular. First and foremost, the Torah presents a notion of identity based on blood and descent. Israel is a family. At the same time, though, the Torah tells a story that emphasizes Israel’s identity as forged in common historical experience. Jews are those who shared a history and who share a destiny; their bloodlines are largely irrelevant in this narrative. Finally, there is a notion that Jewish identity is rooted in worship of God, Yahweh, most prominently demonstrated by participating in the sacrificial cult.

The Torah thus provides at least three distinct ways of constructing Jewish identity. Later Jewish communities drew on these three ways, emphasizing and deemphasizing particular aspects in order to construct a Jewish identity that they found appropriate. I do not mean this in a cynical sense – identity construction in antiquity was more an unconscious process based on what felt right and natural than it was a deliberate choice. Jewish communities, based on their own local circumstances, would naturally be more sympathetic to one or another of these three options, emphasizing it over the other two.
Three brief examples illustrate how this played out on the ground. For Ezra, Nehemiah, and second Isaiah, option 1 – that of pure blood – was the most important criterion of Jewish identity. The Jews who lived in Egypt during the Hellenistic period, though, appear to have leaned to option 2 – identity based on common historical experience. This is why among the extant Jewish literature in Greek from this time, at least some of which was apparently produced in Egypt, emphasizes history, and especially Moses. For option 3, the emphasis on worship, we might turn to those who were not born to Jewish families who integrated into the Jewish family, whether through a process or act that we normally call “conversion,” or through marriage or other forms of identification. One extreme example might be the royal house of Adiabene, as told by Josephus.

I do not want here to argue as to the historical conditions that might have led each of these communities to construct identity as they did, although this naturally is the next question. I use these examples to make the simple point that understanding identity not as a product of “Judaism” but as one of local Jews and Jewish communities dynamically reading and making sense of their traditions better allows us to ask the right questions. There is no historical determinism to the tradition, however construed. What is in this tradition is far less important than how it was understood.

I just included a caveat – tradition, however construed. Jews in antiquity probably did widely acknowledge the authority of the Torah, but that does not mean that otherwise there was not a lot of fuzziness. Many of those texts that we call “extra-canonical,” whether as part of the modern day Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, or Dead Sea scrolls, were anything but to communities of Jews. The debates about cannon and its formation are of course ongoing, but here my point is to reframe the question somewhat. I might put it this way: For any given Jewish community, what constituted “tradition”? Avoiding the language of canon more clearly allows us to steer clear of a normative framework.

As primarily textual scholars, we are often most comfortable understanding tradition itself as textual. Yet – and this would be my third polythetic map – for most people at most times, tradition is more heavily concentrated in a set of practices mimetically passed through generations. It is less important that these practices were accurately transmitted – we are all aware that practices regularly change or are invented – than that they were believed to be authentic. Moreover, as we also are well aware, practices that are thought to be traditional relate in unpredictable ways to texts thought to be authoritative. Sometimes these practices arise from the texts; at other times texts are used to justify them; and sometimes they are in clear tension. For most Jews in most times and places throughout antiquity it would be inaccurate to talk of the halakah or Jewish law. Jewish communities maintained practices. Some of these practices clearly do come out of the text of the Torah and were widely shared by different Jewish communities, if not in all the details then at least in a general way – circumcision, avoidance of pork and sacrificial meat, and observance of a Sabbath are the three most widely noted Jewish practices in antiquity. Yet we also must assume that Jewish communities followed traditional religious practices that they shared with only some, or perhaps no, other Jewish communities. Scholars have a tendency to talk of Jewish law in antiquity, undoubtedly a vestige of the ancient Christian critique found as early as Paul. Yet simply by replacing this language with that of traditional practices we can better avoid implicit issues of normativity in order to focus on the more fruitful questions of historical recovery of these practices and their explanation.

Another, and more complex, example – that of “magic”. Nearly all of the communities that we study have practices that many scholars have labeled “magic.” In general these practices were widespread, although the details frequently differed. Jews in antiquity engaged in a wide variety of practices that scholars call magical, ranging from spells to amulets and tablets to so-called “magic bowls” in late antique Babylonia. The written texts draw freely from the Bible and other texts, whether in using God’s names or some derivative form thereof. Their cosmological and angelic details also often rely on the Bible.

But what makes these practices “magic”? These are religious and cultural practices like any other. Sometimes, when we call a practice magical we are simply reinforcing a normative first-order definition created by the ancient (and perhaps modern) religious elite themselves. If the rabbis called a particular practice “magic”, for example, modern scholars might follow their lead. Yet when done with no or little acknowledgement that we are excavating a first-order ancient normative category, this is clearly problematic. And when we expand the category as if it is a second-order scholarly category, we get into more trouble: scholars will label some practices as “magical” even when the rabbis would not! What we end up with is an ill-defined category of analysis that makes unnecessary and invidious distinctions between types of ancient religious practices. These practices too were seen as traditional, with connections to sacred texts. Why treat them as if they are different or inferior?

I picked here on the term “magic,” but the truth is that too frequently we unthinkingly we use similar kinds of terms in our writings. Like magic, the terms “myth,” “asceticism,” “cannon,” “ritual,” “belief,” and “sacrifice,” among many others, began their life as first-order normative terms that have slid into second-order usage, with little thought. Many of the basic categories of analysis are undertheorized, used as if their meanings were in some way obvious.

I am not suggesting that we do away with all of these terms. Rather, I would like to argue that like “Judaism,” “Christianity,” and other so-called “traditions,” we should stipulate clear definitions when we use them. Such categories are not ends in themselves; they are tools, and we use them in order to get at more interesting insights and comparisons.

Put gently and positively, this means that if we were all to think a little harder about each of these terms every time we use them, we stand a much better chance of asking new questions; of opening up new avenues of investigation; of breaking through old and tired scholarly discussions. This is the low-lying fruit of theory, and its potential payout is high. All it requires is that we stop using terms without thinking. It means that if we are unable to define a term without becoming embarrassed, that we search for another way to say what we want to – and that if we can’t, perhaps we need to change what we want to say.

Let me now put this polemically and negatively. To the extent that we do not do this – that we neither acknowledge theoretical issues nor define our basic terms of analysis – our scholarship suffers. It is not only that we find ourselves cut off from the larger academy, locked into a peculiarly insular and idiosyncratic set of conversations. We also severely limit our own ability to break out of tired issues and paradigms that cease to lead anywhere: where, for example, do we actually get anymore by asking about the relationship of “Judaism” and “Hellenism”? As anyone who creates or was forced to slog through reading lists for PhD exams can attest, scholars have created voluminous writings around questions that we now regard as silly with answers based on ill-defined terms. Too often when we seek to participate in these scholarly debates we plead that we must do so in their own conventional terms. To do so, though, is to cop out. Participating in a fruitless debate serves nobody. If we cannot stand in front of another group of scholars and define and vigorously and sincerely defend the central terms that govern our argument – such as “magic” or “myth” or “power” or “influence” – we have no business using them.
Throughout this presentation I have drawn my examples primarily from the historiographical field that I know best, that of Jews in antiquity. Yet my intention was not to pick on this sub-field. In fact, among the several sub-fields that you all represent, I suspect that we’re in relatively good shape. We continue to throw around terms like “Christianity,” “myth,” and “the Bible” as if their meanings were self-evident. Despite what I believe is a widespread acknowledgment of the severe problems of the term “Gnosticism,” vigorously argued by scholars such as our own Karen King, it continues to find a home in the scholarly literature. In the same vein our own Jonathan Klawans has recently pointed to the flawed conceptual models that underlie much of the enormous scholarly literature on the Israelite and Jewish temple-cult. These and other critiques of the way that we do business are not mere theoretical side-excursions; they point to the need to fundamentally shift our frame of reference.

We are neither at a crossroads nor are we in crisis, which perhaps is too bad – crisis is not always necessarily bad, our politicians tell us. Instead, if my numbers are at all representative, 80% of us continue to slog along with terms, concepts, and frameworks that we either can’t or can’t bother to question or simply articulate and defend. Perhaps I am among this 80%; you are in a better position to judge that than I am. What I do know is that I, and all of us, can do better.

So maybe we don’t need obtuse and overreaching theories that with hubristic confidence seek to describe some meta-narrative of human civilizations. That could be the subject of an entirely different polemic. But in the limited sense that I’ve argued for here, theory as self-awareness and explicit clarity of our terms, fundamental concepts, and frameworks, who needs theory? We do.…



The Gift in Antiquity

2010-04-09 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

On May 2-4, 2010, Brown will be hosting a conference entitled "The Gift in Antiquity." The purpose of this conference is to use the theoretical frame of the "gift" (especially as discussed by Marcel Mauss) as a way to explore a range of practices in antiquity, focusing on the Mediterranean region and West Asia. It is open, but registration is necessary. For more information, click here.…


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Jewish Time

2010-04-07 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

I have always been interested in how real people lived their lives; how they negotiated the quotidian demands and stresses that accompany all human societies. I like intellectual history, but one of the real joys of my job is seeing how ideas work in the world. In looking at the lives of others, of those who lived in a distant past and place, I believe that we can also see ourselves more clearly.

Yet this is also one of the greatest frustrations of my job. Due simply to the nature of the evidence, there is much that don't and never can know about Jews (and others) in antiquity. We can make informed speculations, but fundamental questions about Jewish society in antiquity are beyond are grasp. All the more so is anything approaching actual biography. Who really were these classical Rabbis? Sure, there are many stories told about some of them, but the scholarly consensus today, to which I subscribe, is that these stories are to be read more as later hagiographies than as actual historical accounts. That does not leave us with much, and that is multiplied when we turn to the inscriptions from antiquity, some epitaphs and others commemorating donations, that mention the names of Jews about whom we know nothing else.

About a year ago I was asked to take a look at the first printed luach - Jewish ritual calendar - in the United States, printed in Newport in 1806 by Moses Lopez. Two copies of this slim volume are in libraries that are within a short walking distance from my office. The more I looked into these copies the more they interested me. Not only do they raise questions about being Jewish in the early Republic, but the annotations in them give us a glimpse into how people actually used them. In contrast to the floating names from antiquity, this calendar opens up into webs of families, many of which have left extensive archives. What a joy!

The first fruit of this labor has just been published as "Two Copies of a Printed Early American Jewish Calendar in Providence," Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association Notes 15:3 (2009): 416-427. While this remains very much a side project for me, I am now continuing research on the larger issues raised by this calendar.…


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From Israelite to Jew: 22: After the Destruction: A Beginning or and End?

2010-01-21 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

The Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, a moment that typically is said to mark in Jewish historiography the end of the "second temple period" and beginning of the "rabbinic period." But to what extent did things really change?

In this episode, the last of this series, I also reflect more broadly on the series.

The episode can be heard here, or on the player below. More download options are available here. It is also available on iTunes and iTunesU.


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Please Consider a Contribution

2010-01-21 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

I hope that you have enjoyed this podcast series.

As I explain in the last podcast episode, I did not set out to create this series in order to make money. I have enjoyed what I have learned throughout the process of making the series as well as hearing from and communicating with some of you. At the same time, I have invested an enormous amount of uncompensated time into this series. So if you have found something of worth in these episodes - even fifty cents an episode - please consider a contribution, by clicking on the Paypal button in the left margin. Anything would be appreciated.…


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From Israelite to Jew: 21: Destruction

2010-01-14 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

The Jewish revolt in Judea that began in 66 CE ended with the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70. Why, though, did the Jews in Judea and the Galilee revolt? And why did the Romans destroy the Temple?

The episode can be heard here or on the player below. More download options can be found here. It can also be heard through iTunes and iTunesU.


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From Israelite to Jew: 20: The First Century

2009-11-23 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

This episode focuses on the years 6 CE - 66 CE, and the events leading up to the Jewish revolt. This episode includes discussions of Roman administration and the Sanhedrin.

The episode can be heard here or on the player below. More download options are here. It can also be found on iTunes and iTunesU.


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From Israelite to Jew: 19: Josephus

2009-11-03 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

Without the works of the historian Josephus (36/37 CE - ca. 95) we would know little about the history of the Jews in antiquity. Yet Josephus, as a historian and a man, was a complex figure: was he a Jewish patriot or a Roman toady?

The episode can be heard here or on the player below. More download options are here. The episode can also be heard on iTunes or iTunesU.


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From Israelite to Jew: 18: Jesus and Other Strange Jews

2009-10-13 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

In the first century CE the area around Jerusalem teemed with small Jewish religious groups, or sects. This episode focuses on three of the most well-known of these groups: Pharisees, Sadducees, and the early followers of Jesus.

The episode is available here, or in the player below. Other download options are here. It is also available on iTunes (and now on iTunesU).


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From Israelite to Jew: 17: The Dead Sea Scrolls

2009-09-29 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

What are the Dead Sea scrolls? This episode discusses their discovery, contents, and meaning.

The episode can be heard here or on the player below. More download options are here. The podcast can also be heard on iTunes.


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2009-08-03 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

It is time for a break.

Episodes will be forthcoming on topics such as the Dead Sea Scrolls; the development of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes;the early followers of Jesus; the worsening political conditions in Judea; and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and its aftermath. But these will have to wait.

I hope to have the next new episode posted in about six weeks.…


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From Israelite to Jew: 16: Philo

2009-08-03 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

Philo Judaeus is the most well-known Jewish philosopher from antiquity. Living in Alexandria from ca. 20 BCE - 50 CE, Philo produced an astonishing corpus that has often been held up as a signal example of "Hellenistic Judaism." Who was Philo, and what was he up to?

The episode can be heard here, or on the player below. More download options are here. It is also available on iTunes.


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From Israelite to Jew: 15: Herod the Great

2009-07-21 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

Was Herod the Great a brilliant ruler or a savage brute? This episode traces Herod's rise to power and his reign, 40 - 4 BCE.

The episode can be heard here, or on the player below. More download options are here. It can also be heard on iTunes.


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From Israelite to Jew: 14: Hellenistic Judaism

2009-07-08 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

The religion of the Jews who lived in the Greek speaking areas of the Mediterranean is commonly called "Hellenistic Judaism". This episode explains why scholars use this term; why it is less useful than it might seem; and how it is that most of these Jews would have worshiped the God of Israel.

The episode can be heard here, or in the player below. Other download options are here. It can also be accessed on iTunes.


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From Israelite to Jew: 13: Origins of Jewish Sectarianism

2009-06-26 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

On the origins of Jewish sectarianism in the second to first centuries, BCE, with a focus on Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and (if different) the first inhabitants of Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls would be found.

The episode can be heard here, or on the player below. More download options are here. The podcast is also available on iTunes.

One listener recently alerted me (thank you!) that the audio files continue to not be properly "balanced" between left and right sides. We have figured out the cause for this, and will fix it beginning with the next episode.


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From Israelite to Jew: 12: The Hasmonean Kings

2009-06-17 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

A discussion of Judah's consolidation of power around 162 BCE to the last of the Hasmonean kings, in 30 BCE.

The episode can be heard here, or on the player below. More download options are here. The podcast is also available on iTunes.


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From Israelite to Jew: 11: The Revolt of the Maccabees

2009-05-27 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

Why did the Maccabees revolt around 165 BCE? This episode explores both the revolt of the Maccabees and the origins of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

The episode can be heard here or on the player below; more download options are available here.

The podcast is also available on iTunes.


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From Israelite to Jew: 10: Jubilees and 1 Enoch

2009-05-11 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

A discussion of two books dating from the third or second centuries, BCE, Jubilees and 1 Enoch. Both books, part of a collection traditionally known as "the Pseudepigrapha," testify to a Jewish understanding of continuing direct divine revelation in the Hellenistic period.

The podcast can be heard here, or through the player below. It can also be found in iTunes. More download options can be found here.


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From Israelite to Jew: 9: Hellenism Arrives

2009-04-12 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

A discussion of Alexander's conquest of west Asia and its aftermath (323 - 200 BCE). What is "Hellenism," and how did the Jews react to it? Particular attention is paid to the Septuagint, Ecclesiastes, and Ecclesiasticus.

The podcast can be heard here; more downloading options are here. You can also use the player below:

The podcast is also accessible on iTunes.…


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From Israelite to Jew: 8: Jews of the Persian Empire

2009-04-01 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

This episode discusses two Jewish communities outside of Jerusalem, that represented by the biblical book of Esther, and that of Elephantine, Egypt. It takes place in the fifth to fourth centuries, BCE.

The podcast can be heard here; more downloading options are here. You can also use the player below:

The episode can also be found in iTunes.…


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From Israelite to Jew: 7: Nehemiah

2009-03-12 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

The seventh episode of the podcast, "From Israelite to Jew." This episode deals primarily with the career and reforms of Nehemiah, which lasted from 445 BCE to around 432 BCE.

The podcast can be heard here; more downloading options are here. You can also use the player below:

You will also find the podcast on iTunes.…


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The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Talmud

2009-02-12 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

This is not an installment of "From Israelite to Jew," but is instead a reading of an essay recently published on Zeek, an online journal. The written version is here.

This is a meditation on the Talmud as read through Tolstoy, and how such a reading can generate a useful stance in the modern world. Having just written that, I should quickly add that that makes it sound more abstruse than it really is. Check it out and let me know!

I'll be back to "From Israelite to Jew" next week or the week after.

The podcast can be heard here; download options are here. You can also stream from the player below:


It is also available on iTunes. My thanks to Giovi Roz and the Instructional Technology Group at Brown University for their technical assistance.…


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From Israelite to Jew: 5: Ezra

2009-02-03 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

The fifth episode of the podcast, "From Israelite to Jew." This episode deals primarily with the career of Ezra, in 458 BCE. I discuss intermarriage in the Bible and the emergence of the Torah as a source of authority in Israel.

The podcast can be heard here; more downloading options are here. I am continuing to have some technical problems embedding the player.

You will also find the podcast on iTunes.…


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From Israelite to Jew: A New Podcast Series

2009-02-02 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

Prior to 586 BCE, the Israelites worshipped a warrior God whom, they said, forged them into a nation and continued to protect them: He was their king, and they were His subjects. In allegiance to this God, whom they called YHWH, they regularly offered sacrifices at their Temple in Jerusalem. When the Babylonians razed the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE, resettling part of the population in Babylonia, they also unintentionally sparked the transformation of the religion of the Israelites.

A little over a century later a “remnant” of this people returned to Jerusalem, this time as Jews. Now bringing a book they called the Torah, they began to construct a religion fundamentally different from that of their Israelite ancestors. This course is the story of how the religion of ancient Israel was transformed into Judaism. Our story starts with the building of the Second Temple and ends about 1,000 years later, with the flourishing of the rabbinic movement and the creation of the patterns of thought and rituals that have lasted to the present day.

This podcast series will explore this transformation. Beginning soon - stay tuned!…


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About the Miracles (Al Ha-nisim)

2009-02-02 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

It is Hanukah, and for eight days traditional Jews will add to their prayers - specifically the Amidah and Grace after Meals - the blessing "al ha-nisim. " This blessing thanks God for delivering the Jews from the wicked tyrants who profaned the Temple, that is, the "wicked Greek kingdom" that rose up "in the days of Mattathias son of Yohanan, the Hasmonean high priest, and his sons."

Huh? What was that again?

The grammer of this clause is ambiguous. Who is the high priest here, Mattathias or Yohanan? Does this refer to a high priest who was from the Hasmonean family, or the high priest of the Hasmoneans, whatever that might have meant?

No matter how the clause is taken, though, it is wrong.

According to 1 Maccabees 2:1-5: "At this time a certain Mattathias, son of John (=Yohanan), son of Symeon, appeared on the scene. He was a priest of the Joarib family from Jerusalem, who had seettled at Modin. Mattathias had five sons, John, called Gaddis, Simon called Thassis, Judas called Maccabaeus, Eleazar called Avaran, and Jonathan called Apphus." The prayer seems to cite the very beginning of the passage, but it changed its simple notice of priestly descent into an implication that Mattathias was from the family of the high priest.

In fact, from perhaps the time of David (ca. 1000 BCE; 2 Samuel 20:25) until the Maccabean crisis the high priesthood was not claimed by the Joarib family, but by the family of Zadok. The high priest Onias III was murdered by his brother Jason, who in turn was very soon deposed by Menelaus. While Onias III's son - the aptly named Onias IV - apparently went to Egypt to found another Jewish temple there, it remains unclear if Menelaus is from a different family or was related to Onias III. In 168 BCE Jason attacked Menelaus in Jerusalem, but lost and ended up dying in exile (2 Maccabees 5:5-10). Menelaus held the office of high priest until Antiochus IV tired of his shananigans and in 163 BCE had him executed - or, in the eyes of the pious writer of 2 Maccabees (13:3-8), God gave him the punishment he richly deserved. A certain Alcimus thereafter claimed the high priesthood; the fact that both 1 and 2 Maccabees are hostile to him and yet do not dispute his claim that he had a legitimate right to the position is telling (1 Macc. 7:14; 2 Macc. 14:7). Alcimus was struck down in 159 (1 Macc. 9:54-57).

By now, Judas was dead and his brothers, Jonathan and Simon, were continuing the war. Peace came in 152 BCE, and "Jonathan assumed the vestments of the high priest in the seventh month of the year 160 [=152 BCE] at the Feast of Tabernacles" (1 Macc. 10:21). Coins dating from after 134 BCE show the Hasmonean rulers firmly in control of the position of high priest.

The preservation of the "al ha-nisim" prayer thus, at minimum, illustrates a shaky grasp of history. But this is not very surprising. The prayer probably dates to the early middle ages, and even if the rabbis then had an interest in preserving what we would consider an accurate history - and by all accounts, these early rabbis did not - it is unclear what sources they might have used, even if they had access to them.

More interesting, though, is that although it has been known for centuries that this text is inaccurate, it continues to be recited. Here the realms of history and memory meet; history is subsumed by an ancient, mistaken memory. As remembered, Mattathias and his sons are not usurpers of the legitimate priestly line (even if it might rightly be argued that by the time of Alcimus they hardly deserved that honor), but legitimate claimants to this post, aided by God. To tell the story as it really seems to have happened is also to raise uncomfortable questions about God's role in it.

And that story would just not do on the Festival of Lights.…


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From Israelite to Jew: 4: Return

2009-01-26 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

The fourth episode of the podcast, "From Israelite to Jew." This episode traces the first two returns from Babylonia to Jerusalem, first under Sheshbazzar and then under the dual leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua, and the building of the Second Temple (539 BCE - 516).

The podcast can be heard here; more downloading options are here. I am having some technical problems at the moment embedding the player.

You will also find the podcast on iTunes.…


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From Israelite to Jew: 2: Religion of Israel

2009-01-25 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

This is the second episode of the podcast, "From Israelite to Jew." It focuses on the religion of ancient Israel, as reflected in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and archaeological finds.

The podcast can be heard here, or click on the player below.

It can also be accessed via iTunes.…


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From Israelite to Jew: 3: Exile

2009-01-16 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

The third episode of the podcast, "From Israelite to Jew." This episode discusses the events leading up to the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and the resulting exile.

The podcast can be heard here, or click on the player below.

It can also be accessed via iTunes.…


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From Israelite to Jew: 1: Between Faith and Reason

2008-12-30 :: msatlow@gmail.com (Michael Satlow)

This episode introduces my podcast series, "From Israelite to Jew." In it I examine the relationship between religion and its academic study, suggesting that the two ways of understanding religion are not diametrically opposed.

The first episode can be heard here.

My Podcast Alley feed! {pca-fd7d320def25fda70324cbf5dc2940b6}…


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From Israelite to Jew

Reflections of a scholar of religion and Jewish studies with a focus in antiquity.

From Israelite to Jew

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