Courses

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JWST 101(F)Judaism: Before The Law

This course introduces the academic study of Judaism through a humanistic exploration of "the Law" as a concept in Jewish thought and practice. Coverage will include the Law of Moses in the Hebrew Bible, the rabbinic distinction between "Oral Law" and "Written Law," medieval philosophical justifications for the Law, modern interpretations of the Law as Moral Law, Hasidic challenges to the centrality of the Law, and twentieth-century Jewish fiction that is haunted by a felt absence of the Law. Topics may also include the nature of rabbinic authority, methods of Jewish legal interpretation and innovation, and Jewish law as it pertains specifically to women, gentiles, idolaters, food consumption, and the Land of Israel. Course materials will include classical sources such as the Talmud and Midrash, modern philosophical texts by Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss and Joseph Soloveitchik, Kafka's The Trial with his parable "Before The Law," Woody Allen's film Crimes and Misdemeanors, and ethnographic accounts of contemporary Jewish observance. All readings will be in translation. [ more ]

JWST 201The Hebrew Bible

Not offered this year

The Hebrew Bible is perhaps the single most influential work in the history of Western philosophy, literature, and art. But the overwhelming presence of the text in nearly every aspect of modern culture often obscures the sheer brilliance of its narrative technique as well as the complex interplay between law, history, prophecy, and poetry. This course offers a comprehensive introduction to the literary, historical, and theological aspects of the Hebrew Bible with an eye towards developing a sophisticated understanding of the text in its ancient context. Through the close reading of substantial portions of the Hebrew Scripture in translation and the application of various modern critical approaches to culture and literature, students will explore fundamental questions about the social, ritual, and philosophical history of ancient Israel, as well as the fundamental power of storytelling that has resonated across two millennia. [ more ]

JWST 202Moses: Stranger in a Strange Land

Not offered this year

As chieftain, priest, prophet, and lawgiver all in one, Moses occupies the central place in the history of Israelite and Jewish leaders. However, he is a somewhat unlikely candidate for such an important role. He is God's chosen leader among the enslaved Israelites, but he is raised as an Egyptian prince. He is a spokesman for his people, but he is slow of speech. He is the lawgiver and first judge of his nation, yet he is quick-tempered and impatient. The story of the most revered figure in the Jewish tradition, who nevertheless remains an outsider to the very end, has fascinated commentators and inspired countless artistic and literary interpretations. This course will engage in a close study of the figure of Moses by examining the biblical narrative of his life and career from Exodus through Deuteronomy with an eye towards understanding the complex and often contradictory portrait of this self-described "stranger in a strange land." We will also examine some of the ancient legendary and folkloric accounts about Moses, as well as philosophical and allegorical treatments in Hellenistic Jewish, early Christian, and Muslim biographies. We will then proceed to investigate key modern reconfigurations and critiques of Moses in several genres, which may include renaissance visual depictions, literary works by Sigmund Freud, George Eliot, Thomas Mann, and Zora Neale Hurston, and even musical and cinematic renditions. All readings are in translation. [ more ]

JWST 204(F)Jesus and Judaism

Was Jesus a Christian? Was he Jewish? And if Christianity's ostensible founder was Jewish, what does that mean for his Christianness? This course will explore Christian, Jewish, and secular depictions of Jesus' Jewishness to see what they reveal about the nature and history of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Broad in its historical scope, the course will include examinations of ancient Jewish messianic expectations, New Testament depictions of Jesus' Jewishness, covert references to Jesus in the Talmud, medieval debates between Jews and Christians, and modern scholarly "quests" for the historical Jesus. Was Jesus Jewish? How so and for whom? [ more ]

Taught by: Phillip Webster

Catalog details

JWST 205(S)Ancient Wisdom Literature

The Biblical books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job are often grouped together under the Hebrew category of hokhmah, 'wisdom.' Although these books are very different in content, they can all be interpreted as meditations on ethical and practical philosophy. In this way, they represent the Hebrew Bible's canonical embrace of a widespread Near Eastern literary phenomenon. From the instructional literature of Egypt and Mesopotamia to Greek didactic poetry and fables, ancient Mediterranean cultures offer a wide range of texts that engage the issues of personal behavior, leadership, and justice. Starting with the central wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible and moving through relevant material from the Apocrypha, New Testament, and the Egyptian and Babylonian traditions, this course will examine the literature of wisdom throughout the ancient world with an eye toward understanding its various social, political, and philosophical contexts. We will then consider the Greek wisdom tradition in such texts as Hesiod's Works and Days, Aesop's fables, and fragments from the pre-Socratic philosophers. Finally, we will explore the influence of these ancient sources on later expressions of wisdom in medieval European literature, as well as more recent examples such as Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack. All readings are in translation. [ more ]

JWST 206The Book of Job and Joban Literature

Not offered this year

The Book of Job has often been described as the most philosophical book of the Hebrew Bible. The story of one man's struggle to understand the cause of his suffering and his relationship to God represents the finest flowering of the Near Eastern wisdom literature tradition. Through its exploration of fundamental issues concerning human suffering, fate and divinity, and the nature of philosophical self-examination, Job has served as a touchstone for the entire history of existential literature. At the same time, the sheer poetic force of the story has inspired some of the greatest artistic and literary meditations in the Western tradition. This course will engage in a close reading of the Book of Job in its full cultural, religious, and historical context with special attention to its literary, philosophical, and psychological dimensions. We will then proceed to investigate key modern works in several genres that involve Joban motifs, themes, and text both explicitly and implicitly. These texts will include Franz Kafka's The Trial, Archibald MacLeish's J.B., Robert Frost's "Masque of Reason," Carl Jung's Answer to Job, and William Blake's Illustrations to the Book of Job. All readings are in translation. [ more ]

JWST 207(F)From Adam to Noah: Literary Imagination and the Primeval History in Genesis

How long did Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden? What was the mark of Cain? Why did Enoch not die? Who was Noah's wife? How did Giants survive the Flood? These are only a few of the fascinating questions that ancient readers and interpreters of the Book of Genesis asked and attempted to answer. The first ten chapters of Genesis present a tantalizingly brief narrative account of the earliest history of humankind. The text moves swiftly from the Creation to the Flood and its immediate aftermath, but this masterful economy of style leaves many details unexplained. This course will explore the rich and varied literary traditions associated with the primeval history in the Genesis. Through a close reading of ancient noncanonical sources such as the Book of Enoch, Jubilees, and the Life of Adam and Eve, as well as Jewish traditions represented in Josephus, Philo, and Rabbinic literature and other accounts presented in early Christian and Gnostic texts, we will investigate the ways in which the elliptical style of Genesis generated a massive body of ancient folklore, creative exegesis, and explicit literary re-imagining of the early history of humankind. We will then turn to several continuations of these variant traditions in medieval and early modern literature, with particular attention to the extensive material on the figures of Cain and Noah. All readings are in translation. [ more ]

JWST 209(S)Jewish America

Who and what counts as "Jewish" in America? Does stand-up comedy have a distinctly Jewish pedigree? What about neoconservatism? How is it possible to answer such questions without falling into what David Hollinger has called the "booster-bigot trap"? How is it possible, that is, to avoid answers that uncritically celebrate "Jewish contributions" or perniciously suggest "Jewish influence"? This course will explore the various meanings of Jewishness in American culture as expressed by artists, rabbis, activists, intellectuals, boosters, bigots and others. We will seek to avoid the booster-bigot trap by focusing vigilantly on what is at stake wherever Jewishness is invoked, defined or ascribed. We will draw methodological support from scholars like Hollinger, Jonathan Freedman, Laura Levitt, Yuri Slezkine, Shaul Magid, Andrea Most and others. Particular attention will be given to the appearance of Jewish themes and involvement in popular culture and political action, as well as to Jewish American communal institutions, the everyday lives of Jewish Americans, and Jewish variations on American religion. Coursework will involve some historical, sociological and ethnographic readings, but will focus primarily on close analysis of films, literary fiction, stand-up comedy, political magazines, theological texts, and television shows. We may, for instance, watch films like The Jazz Singer (1927 and 1980), Exodus and Annie Hall; read John Updike's Bech: A Book, Philip Roth's Operation Shylock or Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers; listen to the comedy of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Sarah Silverman; read from Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent, the Menorah Journal or Commentary; study works by Rabbis Stephen Wise, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Meir Kahane; and watch episodes of Bridget Loves Bernie, Northern Exposure and Curb Your Enthusiasm. We will also study arguments about the role and meaning of Jewishness in American secularization, "therapeutic culture," the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and feminism. [ more ]

JWST 217The Modern Middle East

Not offered this year

This survey course addresses the main economic, religious, political and cultural trends in the modern Middle East. Topics to be covered include the cultural diversity of the Middle East, relations with Great Powers, the impact of imperialism, the challenge of modernity, the creation of nation states and nationalist ideologies, the discovery of oil, radical religious groups, and war and peace. Throughout the course these significant changes will be evaluated in light of their impact on the lives of a variety of individuals in the region and especially how they have grappled differently with increasing Western political and economic domination. This course is part of the Exploring Diversity Initiative because it compares the differences and similarities between different cultures and societies in the Middle East and the various ways they have responded to one another in the past. [ more ]

JWST 219(S)Judaism Under Ancient Greek and Roman Imperialisms

How did ancient Greek and Roman empires shape the beginnings of Judaism? In this course, we will examine how Greek and Roman imperial systems of identity, ethnicity, law, religion, and knowledge affected Judaism as a religious and cultural system. We will pay particular attention to the ways that Jews/Judaeans responded to these imperial pressures, especially as those responses articulated "hybrid" versions of Judaism that were informed both by resistance to imperial centers as well as the sheer hegemony of those cultural systems. The course thus uses (and introduces students to) postcolonial theory to study the history of Judaism under Greek and Roman empires. Readings for this course will include a wide array of ancient Jewish works, such as the books of Maccabees, Flavius Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Mishnah. The course will also include select readings from early Christian texts and postcolonial theory. [ more ]

Taught by: Phillip Webster

Catalog details

JWST 230Modern European Jewish History, 1789-1948

Not offered this year

What does it mean to be a Jew? The vexed question of Jewish identity emerged anew at the end of the eighteenth century in Europe and has dominated Jewish history throughout the modern period. Although Jewish emancipation and citizenship followed different paths in different parts of Europe, in general Jews were confronted by unprecedented opportunities for integration into non-Jewish society and unprecedented challenges to Jewish communal life. Focusing primarily on France and Germany, and to a lesser extent on the Polish lands, this course will introduce students to the major social, cultural, religious, and political transformations that shaped the lives of European Jews from the outbreak of the French Revolution to the aftermath of World War II. We will explore such topics as emancipation, Jewish diversity, the reform of Judaism, competing political ideologies, Jewish-gentile relations, the rise of modern anti-Semitism, the role of Jewish women, interwar Jewish life and culture, Jewish responses to Nazism and the Holocaust, and the situation of Jews in the immediate postwar period. In addition to broad historical treatments, course materials will include memoirs, diaries, and a novel. [ more ]

JWST 259Ethics of Jewish American Fiction

Not offered this year

After the Second World War, Jewish American writers who wrote about Jewish characters and Jewish themes were increasingly celebrated as central figures in American fiction. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick and Philip Roth are among those who gained prominence in this period. These writers were literary innovators and often addressed broad humanistic themes. But they also struggled with profound questions that arose in the postwar period about Jewishness, the legacy of the Holocaust, and what it means to be an American. In this course we will read the above authors and others. We will focus, in particular, on the distinctive ethical and political ideas, emotions, and aspirations that animate their work. The course will begin with a study of theoretical approaches that will provide the basis for our ethical criticism: we will read, for instance, Lionel Trilling, Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, and Noel Carroll. Then we will delve into the fiction, following a trail that begins in the postwar period and continues in fictions by Erica Jong, Rebecca Goldstein, Michael Chabon, Gary Shteyngart, and others. Can we find a distinctive Jewish American ethics in Jewish American fiction? [ more ]

JWST 334(S)Imagining Joseph

Beloved son, rival brother, faithful servant, dreamer, seer, object of desire, lover, husband, bureaucrat, Joseph is one of the most fully-limned and compelling figures in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptural traditions. The story of Joseph unfolds over fourteen chapters in the Hebrew Bible, and is the subject of the fourth longest sura in the Qur'an. Through millennia, the story of Joseph has inspired a wealth of interpretations, commentary, apocrypha, re-tellings, and back-story, including an apocryphal book of scripture about Joseph and his wife, Asenath, Sufi poetry about Joseph and Zuleikha (Potiphar's wife), a trilogy by the 20th century German novelist Thomas Mann, a musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber, and many expressions in Western visual art. The course will explore these various expressions, looking to them for the ways in which Joseph has captured the imaginations of peoples and cultures across time and space. The course will be organized as a collaborative seminar in which the class will read the foundational scriptures together, followed by thematic discussions to which students will contribute insights from their own readings of particular peripheral texts. Students will learn the pleasures of close and intense exegetical reading in approaching the Hebrew Bible and Qur'an, as well as the more expansive pleasures of linking post-scriptural expressions together. [ more ]

JWST 338The History of the Holocaust

Not offered this year

In twenty-first century United States, the murder of approximately six million European Jews by Nazi Germany remains a central event in our political, moral, and cultural universe. Nevertheless, the Holocaust still confounds historians' efforts to understand both the motivations of the perpetrators and the suffering of the victims. In this course, we will study the origins and unfolding of Nazi Germany's genocidal policies, taking into consideration the perspectives of those who carried out mass murder as well as the experiences and responses of Jews and other victim groups to persecution. We will also examine the Holocaust within the larger context of the history of World War II in Europe and historians' debates about Germany's exterminatory war aims. Course materials will include diaries, speeches, bureaucratic documents, memoirs, films, and historical scholarship. [ more ]

JWST 343Spectacles on His Nose and Autumn on his Heart: The Oeuvre of Isaac Babel

Not offered this year

Known alternately as "master of the short story" and "Russian Maupassant," Isaac Babel was not only one of the most celebrated and intriguing authors of early Soviet Russia, but also a cultural figure of profound national and international significance. For a number of reasons (political, aesthetic, professional, ethical) Babel was not prolific and this will allow us to read almost all of his creative output, something we rarely get to do in the course of a single semester. Babel's writing is extremely varied--it includes sketches, journalistic prose, short stories, plays, movie scripts, one unfinished novel--and richly intertextual. This will afford us the opportunity to read the work of some of his contemporaries and predecessors, from both Russia and abroad, with whom he fashioned brilliant literary conversations, among them Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, Sholem Aleichem, and Ivan Turgenev. Babel saw self-definition as the core of his writing and as an EDI offering, this course will ask students to reflect on what it meant to be a Russian, a Jew, and a non-party author--an outsider, insider, and problematic hybrid rolled into one--in the highly unsettled, and unsettling, 1920s and 1930s. All course readings will be in translation, but students are highly encouraged to read in the original (Russian, French, Yiddish) whenever possible. [ more ]

JWST 352Writing after the Disaster: The Literature of Exile

Not offered this year

This course will consider different kinds of works (poetry, memoirs, fiction, essay) written by authors forced to live in exile as a consequence of political and/or religious persecution. Our point of departure will be the paradigmatic expulsion and subsequent diaspora of the Jews of Spain and Portugal. Most assignments, however, will be drawn from twentieth century texts written during, or in the wake of, the massive destruction and displacements brought about by the Spanish Civil War and World War II. How is the life lost portrayed? How are the concepts of home and the past intertwined? What kind of life or literature are possible for the deracinated survivor? We will discuss the role of writing and remembrance in relation to political history, as well as in the context of individual survival. Readings might include works by Nu?ez de Reinoso, Leon, Cernuda, Semprun, Benjamin, Nancy, and Blanchot. [ more ]

JWST 410Kings, Heroes, Gods, & Monsters: Historical Texts and Modern Identities in the Middle East

Not offered this year

What role does ancient history play in modern societies? What is the role of myths and fables in the creation of national identities? This course will address the use and abuse of ancient history and archaeology in the modern Middle East. The first part will focus on some of the primary ancient texts, with special focus on Ferdowsi's epic Shahnameh (Book of Kings); we will compare its themes and world view with those of the Icelandic sagas that share many similarities with the Iranian canon. In the second part of the course we will explore how ancient history, archaeology, and epic texts helped forge national identities in the modern Middle East. Our primary attention will be Iran and its relationship with the Shahnameh. But we will also consider the relationship of Biblical history to the establishment of modern Israel and Israeli nationalism, how contemporary Egypt relates to its Pharaonic past, the obsession with pre-Islamic history in modern Turkey, and the relationship between archaeological artifacts and ancient Mesopotamian history and 20th century Iraqi politics. Because of its comparative focus, this course is part of the Exploring Diversity Initiative. [ more ]

JWST 433The Justice of Violence? Histories of Terrorism in Europe

Not offered this year

The word "terrorism" entered the English language in 1795, an import from France that referred to the use of violence and intimidation by the ruling party during one phase of the French Revolution. Over the ensuing two centuries, terrorism has come to refer to the employment of violence, not only as a means of governing, but also and more often as a means of undermining the authority of those in power. This seminar examines a series of episodes of terrorism in Europe from the "Terror" of the French Revolution to the late twentieth century. It also explores various interpretations of the legitimacy and ethics of political violence and the phenomenon of terrorism in different historical contexts. In addition to common readings, students will conduct independent research on some aspect of the history of terrorism that will culminate in a 20-page paper. [ more ]

JWST 434The Meaning of Diaspora and the Jews of Europe

Not offered this year

Dispersion, exile, migration, statelessness are all aspects of diaspora. And in the study of diasporic peoples and cultures, the Jews have long figured as the archetype. As a result, Jewish political figures, intellectuals, social activists and scholars have played a central role in discussions of the meaning of diaspora, including debates about its political and social implications, economic value, and cultural significance. In the first half of the semester, in discussions of common readings, this seminar examines various interpretations of Jews' diasporic existence from the nineteenth century to the present, both as a cultural practice and a form of group identity from which political claims have been made. We will test the proposition that "The Modern Age is the Jewish Age," that is, that the meaning of diaspora in modern Jewish history has direct relevance to students of human identity not just of Jewishness. Throughout the second half of the semester, students will conduct independent archival research on some aspect of the history of the Jewish diaspora that will culminate in a 20-page paper. The seminar will continue to meet weekly as a research colloquium, to provide a forum for students to present their research and drafts in progress and provide feedback on fellow students' work. [ more ]

JWST 480 TInterpretations of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Not offered this year

This tutorial addresses the powerful, competing, and bitterly contested historical narratives that underpin the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both Israelis and Palestinians appeal to history to legitimize their territorial claims and to justify contemporary action. Special attention will be paid to the interpretations of key historical moments , especially the 1948 and 1967 wars, and on the contrasting views of some of the core issues of the conflict (Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, terrorism). [ more ]

JWST 490 TMemory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe

Not offered this year

The atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during the Second World War continue to trouble historians in their attempts to understand and represent them in all their magnitude and horror. Beyond historians, the complicity of segments of European societies in perpetrating those atrocities continues to raise thorny questions for postwar European nations about what their responsibilities are toward that past. This tutorial will focus on a series of questions relating to the historicization and memorialization of the extermination of European Jews. They include: Is the Holocaust unique? Is it a Jewish story or universal story? Does the Holocaust raise different issues for the historian than other historical events? How should the Holocaust be represented and what are the implications of different means of representing it? What role, if any, did European Jews play in their own destruction? Has Germany faced up to its past? Were Germans also victims of World War II? Who were the "bystanders" as compared to the "perpetrators"? Were the postwar trials of perpetrators a travesty of justice? How appropriate are the different uses that Israel and the United States have made of the Holocaust? By the end of the course, students will have grappled with the ongoing controversies that have arisen among scholars, governments, and lay people about the meaning (and meaninglessness) of the Holocaust for the postwar world. In a world in which extraordinary acts of violence continue to be perpetrated and more and more nations' pasts are marked by episodes of extreme criminality and/or trauma, exploring the manner by which one such episode has been remembered, avenged, and adjudicated should prove relevant for future consideration of other societies' efforts to confront their own traumatic pasts. [ more ]

JWST 492Modern Jewish Political Theory

Not offered this year

By the late 19th century, Jews across Europe were faced with an urgent political problem. Amidst bourgeoning national self-consciousness throughout the continent, despite the liberatory promises of the Enlightenment, Jews remained a vulnerable, segregated, and stigmatized minority population. Jews had to decide where to pin their hopes. Should they ally themselves with the liberals or the communists? Should they embrace nationalism or cosmopolitanism? Should they, perhaps, abandon Europe altogether and re-constitute themselves elsewhere? If so, should they focus their efforts on relocation to the historical land of Israel? Or could they go anywhere? Wherever they might go, should they aspire to build a modern Jewish nation-state, a semi-autonomous Jewish community, or some other arrangement? Should this coincide with the cultivation of a distinctively Jewish modern language? If so, should it be Hebrew or Yiddish? In this course we will assess various answers to these questions proffered by Jewish political thinkers in the modern period. We will pay particular attention to the construction of "Jews" and "Judaism" in these arguments. And we will ask persistently: what constitutes a "Jewish justification" for a political claim in modern Jewish political theory? Coverage will include: Jewish liberalism, political Zionism, Yiddishist autonomism, messianic quietism, and other views. We will read mostly primary sources, including texts by: Hermann Cohen, Theodore Herzl, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and many others. [ more ]