A Conversation about Religious Studies and Rabbinic Texts

Elizabeth Shanks Alexander and Beth Berkowitz

Elizabeth Shanks Alexander: My interest in the academic study of religion began when I did my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies. I found Religious Studies to be a powerful approach because it addresses the big questions of life—What makes life meaningful? How does one account for evil?—without being "frontal" like philosophy. Philosophy dares to answer these questions directly—and so, in my opinion, fails. The answers of philosophy are abstract and conceptual, and did not give me a feeling of awe and amazement, which is what I thought I should feel if I've managed to answer such questions. It seems to me that answering these questions is not merely about conveying information, but about being transformed, or having an "experience" of the answer.

Beth Berkowitz: I'm on the same page about philosophy—it always felt to me to be removed from reality even as it claimed to address the most important things about reality. Individual perspective and experience, the rootedness of thought, seem to get lost. But the big questions you mention also feel that way to me. "Why is there evil?" instead of "Why is this particular evil facing me at this particular moment?" My husband, a novelist, always speaks about the telling details, and it is the telling details that I like. I find religion most interesting when it reflects the experiences of people with specific interests, anxieties, passions (even though, for the rabbinic texts we both study, that specificity or realness is very hard to recover).

Shanks Alexander: One thing I like about Religious Studies is that the disciplinary approach allows me to engage these questions in a communal setting (the academic classroom) that is not constrained by the dogmatic or social pressures at work in the community of faith. It's like we are asking: If one were to hold "x" set of beliefs, what would make them coherent and spiritually powerful? In the academic context, the question is always asked in the subjunctive. One takes a set of texts, symbols, or practices and tries to understand what is compelling about them, but there is no pressure to conform one's life to its demands. The goal is only to reconstruct imaginatively what makes such a worldview plausible and compelling.

Berkowitz: I think for both of us Religious Studies offered a new perspective on our Jewish identities, and in both our cases it was studying other religions that proved transformative. For me, it was a course on Japanese religion that I took as a first-year undergraduate. The history and culture of Japan felt foreign, but the concern of Buddhism with the suffering brought by attachment was resonant for me at the time and I had never heard it formulated that way before. At the same time I took a course on Judaism that did not resonate for me at all. Religious Studies may be important less as a disciplinary model than as a forum in which people can study other religions so as eventually to get some perspective on their own.

Shanks Alexander: I was uncomfortable in my undergraduate classes about Christian theology. Not being Christian myself, many of the concepts discussed were entirely unfamiliar to me. I was annoyed or even vaguely horrified that sometimes the teacher didn't bother to define certain concepts; I think he assumed we were all "in the know." It was so unlike my classes in Islam where all students were on an equal footing—we were all ignorant. The teacher explained everything from the beginning. I vowed that I would teach in a manner that made the classroom a viable learning space for those who had not grown up Jewish; I didn't want anyone to have to go through what I went through.

In the classroom today, I try to be transparent about the intersection between what we are doing in the academic context and the experience of religion within a community of faith. I am always explicit about the fact that in the academic classroom we do not constitute ourselves as a community of faith. I want both my Jewish and non-Jewish students to feel comfortable. I let the Jewish and non-Jewish students know that they may face different challenges in the classroom. The non-Jewish students may feel intimidated by the many Hebrew terms, the foreign concepts and the sheer mass of unfamiliar material. For the Jewish students, the challenge may be to hear concepts that they understand intuitively described in terms that don't mesh with their own experiences. They may feel uncomfortable when the academic approach forces them to see from an outsider's perspective what they've learned and experienced at home.

Berkowitz: Your teaching does exactly what teaching should—invite in the unfamiliar and unsettle the familiar. The challenge is that everyone's familiars and unfamiliars are different, so there are always a lot of things happening in the room at once, and one doesn't always get to know every student and what assumptions and expectations they are bringing to the venture.

Shanks Alexander: The experience I had in my courses on Christian theology was unpleasant, and it felt deeply unfair. I was really mad at one student in particular who didn't have intellectual discipline and kept using jargon from his community of faith, rather than the vocabulary of concepts we had developed in the classroom. I forever want to unsettle that student who interfered with my own learning experience.

Berkowitz: I had a similar experience in college, but mine was in a Jewish Studies classroom. Columbia's yeshiva-educated, Orthodox Jews were like a foreign tribe for me. The experience of alienation is painful, but in both our cases it seems to have spurred us on to understand more and better. But now, the last thing we want to do is to alienate the younger versions of ourselves.

Religious Studies, I think for both of us, provides a neutral ground that equalizes students and equips all of us with a common language of inquiry. As a product of the academy, it is open to anyone (who has the resources to gain access to the academy). I do question whether and how I fit into Religious Studies, but I rely on the discipline to remind myself and my students to step outside ourselves and to welcome new perspectives. I don't want to withdraw to a place where everyone takes Jewish insider status for granted.

Shanks Alexander: I like the way you write about "inviting in the unfamiliar" and "unsettling the familiar." It reminds me of how J. Z. Smith talks about the academic study of religion. For him, the comparative approach involves two complementary moves: familiarizing the strange and de-familiarizing the familiar ("making the familiar seem strange in order to enhance of our perception of the familiar," [Relating Religion, 383]). I think we are both on the same page in finding the implied comparative perspective to be an academic safe haven of sorts. I think we like it because it allows us insights that wouldn't otherwise be available. I also think it's interesting that one can adopt a comparative approach without doing actual comparison between religious traditions. We both focus mainly on rabbinic religion (of course, we do look at Greco-Roman and Christian materials when they help shed light on the texts that interest us, but I think we both begin with a primary interest in rabbinic materials for their own sake). For us, the comparative approach is a way of framing the material; it envisions people from all kinds of backgrounds having an equal stake in the conversation.

Berkowitz: I like the way you've described comparison as an implied perspective, since when I was coming of age in Religious Studies, people were still doing what I would call phenomenological comparison à la Mircea Eliade, for example, comparing notions of sacred space or sacred time or the experiential dimensions of religion across traditions. You often come across this kind of thing when you tell people you teach Religious Studies—all religions are really the same, everyone really worships the same God or gods, we all tell the same stories. On a certain level, that's true, we're all part of the same species and go through the same basic life processes, and of course you can compare religious concepts and rituals. But that approach flattens out the very things that make religion interesting, as we've been discussing—if you have only the familiar or the pruned-down essence, you've lost distance, difference, and variation, in other words, complexity.

Shanks Alexander: I completely agree with you that the danger of comparative work is when it flattens the richness of historical, cultural, and intellectual difference. I agree that Religious Studies fails if it espouses some kind of universalistic platitudes. It's especially problematic when the researcher constructs the so-called universal categories from their own cultural and religious perspective.

Berkowitz: I've come to embrace comparative work as it emerges from within a culture, not as something I myself have constructed (which is not to say I am not still constructing the inquiry). Now I ask not how can I compare rabbinic cultures to, for example, Roman pagan cultures, but how do the Rabbis themselves do that? What impulse lies behind the need to find parallels or contrasts, for the Rabbis and also for the people who approach me with their theories of religion's universal sameness?

Shanks Alexander: One of the things I find powerful about the Religious Studies approach is that it enables me to engage questions that religious people engage, while remaining in a secular context (which is where I need to be if I am to be true to my own intellectual and cultural sensibilities). I guess the comparative approach to religion is a safe haven for me in more than one way. I find the questions that people engage in their performance of devotion, whether in ritual or text, to be humanly compelling. In the words of Robert Orsi, "Religions provide men and women with existential vocabulary with which they may construe fundamental matters, such as the meaning of and the boundaries of the self, the sources of joy, the borders of acceptable reality, the nature of human destiny, and the meaning of various stages of their lives. It is through . . . various religious idioms that the necessary material realities of existence—pain, death, hunger, sexuality—are experienced, transformed and endured" (Between Heaven and Earth, 169).

You might say that I am attracted to studying religion generally—and rabbinic texts, specifically—because I, too, experience the human vulnerabilities that religious idioms provide a means of navigating. When I succeed in reconstructing the ancient rabbis' performance of piety or devotion, I am at the very least moved, and maybe even transformed in some small way. If I am transformed, it is a transformation brought about by sympathetically imagining how religious idioms operate.

Berkowitz: Religion and Religious Studies don't speak to me in the same way that they do to you. It's not that I don't experience my own vulnerabilities. I think it's that I'm suspicious of or alienated by others' efforts to express them for me, especially in a public setting. Perhaps it is that alienation that leads me to ask the questions I do, such as: What is at stake when religious authorities articulate a route of redemption for others? To what ends do they formulate the meaning of the pain, death, hunger, and sexuality of which Orsi speaks? What are the politics of "the existential vocabulary" that religious traditions furnish? I am interested in the social or political or cultural conditions that make this existential vocabulary possible and that this vocabulary strives either to protect or to change. Like you, I sympathetically imagine religious idioms, as you described above, but I combine that with a sense that these idioms are thoroughly political (in the broadest sense of politics) in their origins and in their impact.

Shanks Alexander: Orsi himself is quite sensitive to what you call the "politics" of religion. He writes that the "very same religious idioms do tremendous violence in society and culture and bring pain to individuals and families, all the while that they ground and shape the self, structure kinship bonds, serve as sources for alternate imaginings of the social world, and so on" (Between Heaven and Earth, 171). Berkowitz: When I speak of politics, though, I don't mean something necessarily negative or violent. I refer to the webs of relationships and social meanings in which we live and which we are always negotiating. Religion can't help but be part of them, and I don't think of that as a failing or flaw. Shanks Alexander: To a certain extent, there is something a-historical about the connection we seek to establish with the subjects of our study (though not the methods we use to achieve it). Ideally, however, identifying with the subject of one's study (in our case, the rabbis) should not lead to "subjective" research. Whenever we analyze a rabbinic text, we must maintain all the necessary disciplines of research. We must draw on philological training, attend to the intellectual and cultural contexts of late antiquity, and attend to the literary and generic conventions of the text. Orsi describes religious experience in a manner that manages to capture both that which is humanly compelling about it (and therefore transcends time and place) and that which is historically located and specific. Orsi suggests that religious idioms are particular to time and place. Ironically, only when we do the scholarly work of describing religious idioms thickly (which includes locating them historically and describing them in all of their particularities), can we appreciate that which is most humanly compelling about them.

Berkowitz: I agree with you on everything here. But I think the same is true for any field of the humanities—to do great work, one has to get to know one's subject of study very, very well, yet not get so lost in the details that one forgets what is actually interesting about it. Shanks Alexander: I'm inclined to say that rabbinic Judaism has no special status in the field of Religious Studies. As we've been saying, one feature of Religious Studies that appeals to us is its comparative approach. In such a context, rabbinic Judaism is one more piece of data for comparative analysis. Undoubtedly, the study of rabbinic Judaism is valuable because it expands our understanding of the phenomenon of religion. However we define religion, it now has to be able to encompass features of rabbinic Judaism.

Berkowitz: I would agree with you that rabbinics deserves neither more nor less of a role in Religious Studies than anything else. But I would point out a problem with the term religion. The word is popularly used to refer to God-related stuff, which means that if you start asking questions about rabbinic religion, you're going to seek out texts that deal with God in some explicit way. But there are many rabbinic texts that barely talk about God, though they may presume a lot of things about God. Take Mishnah Sanhedrin's ritual of criminal execution that I've spent some time studying: God is mentioned only a handful of times, and it's not a religious ritual in the sense that most people would use the term. Or all the legal materials in the Bavas (Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra)—the term rabbinic religion doesn't capture what is going on in those tractates. The typical meaning of "religion" has to be radically altered in order to apply to much of rabbinic literature. The same can be said for any religious tradition, where the God/gods-related stuff is only one strand within the story. We need a Religious Studies that realizes this and that operates as a sub-field of Cultural Studies or at least exists in deep interdisciplinary dialogue with a variety of other fields. So I like your conclusion that religion must encompass rabbinic Judaism, that rabbinic Judaism goes well beyond what typically falls under the category of religion, and that rabbinic Judaism as a result can push the category of religion to be very broad. But I think any other religious tradition, if studied closely and well, would force the category of religion in the same direction. Shanks Alexander: Conversely, what does the study of rabbinic texts have to gain by taking the methods of Religious Studies seriously? My sense—and you may disagree—is that, as a field, rabbinics has been somewhat slow to embrace Religious Studies as a primary scholarly tool for reflecting on our texts. I have a couple of guesses as to why that may be so. First, I think the safe haven that you and I have found through the methods of Religious Studies, was found by an earlier generation of scholars when they used historical methods. When they asked historical questions, they distanced themselves from the traditional world of study, where medieval hagiography and historiography reigned. I can empathize with the fact that they needed to study the texts, the personalities, and the events behind the texts more objectively than they felt was being done within the community of faith. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi characterizes the early ventures into historical research as the "faith of fallen Jews" (Zakhor, 86). I have nothing against historical research per se, but it doesn't serve the same existential function for me that it did for an earlier generation of scholars.

I sense that the turn to literary theory and midrash was spurred, at least in part, by a disappointment with what could be accomplished by historical research as an end in and of itself. In reflecting on the creative synergy between literary theorists and scholars of midrash in the 1990s, David Stern writes that "the midrash-theory connection sought to overcome this melancholy awareness of the failure of historicism. . . . [T]he midrash-theory connection hoped to discover in midrash a form of Jewish creativity that could be transmissible, reclaimable, in a way that purely historicist knowledge about the Jewish past could never be" (Midrash and Theory, 10). I empathize with Stern, just as I empathize with the earlier generation who found history to be a powerful means of connecting to the tradition, while maintaining critical distance. For me, however, Religious Studies proves to be the most compelling model to navigate the tension between identifying with and distancing myself from the rabbis of antiquity.

Berkowitz: I like the narrative you've created here of how Jewish Studies scholars of the last century have found meaning in their materials. I think we're not alone in finding Religious Studies particularly useful for rabbinics—I would put Neusner and many of his students in that camp. Recent panels at the AJS and AAR conferences, and my experience last year as a fellow at a law school, are leading me to think of legal theory as the next frontier. I suspect the people in law schools have more to offer to us rabbinicists than we've realized. It may just be that when you take texts to be your object of study (and why we have done that is itself worth considering), you seek out whatever conceptual framework best helps you with the text you're looking at. An eclectic approach is simply an adaptive strategy. Fortunately for us, the permeability of disciplines that characterizes today's academy facilitates and encourages this kind of eclecticism.