Academic Year 2009-2010
Beth Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University and has held post-doctoral fellowships in Yale University’s Program in Judaic Studies and the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. Her book, Execution and Invention: Death Penalty Discourse in Early Rabbinic and Christian Cultures, was published by Oxford University Press in 2006 and won the Baron Prize for First Book in Jewish Studies. Her interests are classical rabbinic law and literature, Mediterranean cultures of late antiquity, and theories and methods in the study of religion. Her profile can be found here.
'Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s Ambivalent Responsa about Thanksgiving: The Status of the Secular in American Jewish Orthodoxy
I trace the interpretive trajectory of Leviticus 18:3’s injunction to Israel to be distinct from its neighbors. The theme of “their laws” explodes in modernity, with Jewish responsa writers invoking the verse to address the permissibility of everything from sports events to Thanksgiving dinners to burial practices, but this project’s aim is to uncover the back-story by which this preoccupation with boundaries came into being.
I have so far explored the Leviticus passage itself, along with ancient readings of it in Philo, the Church Father Clement, and the early rabbinic Sifra. All three writings address, exploit, and transform the ambiguities within Leviticus 18 as they each construct compelling Jewish and Christian identities for their own contexts. The Babylonian Talmud’s two periscopes treating Leviticus 18:3 provide contradictory approaches to the scope of the verse’s prohibition.
At NYU’s Tikvah Center, I plan to take this story from the Babylonian Talmud into contemporary times, looking at the attempts of the Talmud commentators Tosafot and Ran to reconcile the Talmudic treatments, as well as at a key responsum by the 15th century Franco-Italian scholar Mahariq about the permissibility of an academic robe known as cappa. Leviticus 18:3’s prohibition on imitating others provides an extraordinary opportunity to explore the nexus between law and culture as well as between Bible exegesis and identity ideologies in the history of Judaism and Christianity. My purpose in the project is not to provide an encyclopedic history of interpretation but rather to spotlight a selection of texts whose interpretive dynamics best illuminate the dialectical relationship between Jewish legal interpretation and Jewish self-formation.