Imagine, for a moment, that you run an organization that is staunchly anti-death penalty. Now, to make things interesting, imagine that that organization is the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). And to make things really interesting, imagine that you just learned that the Israeli courts have confirmed the conviction and death penalty of Adolf Eichmann, who of course played a critical role in the Shoah. What would you do?
Personally, I might have let this one slide. Eichmann’s case was extraordinary and his sentence was largely considered just, especially but not solely by my American Jewish constituency. I need not vocally support his execution, but not condemning it would not in any serious way erode my organization’s opposition to the death penalty.
This, however, was not what the CCAR leadership did. They actually wrote a letter to the Israeli president urging that he commute Eichmann’s sentence:
As the representative rabbinical body of American Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which supported Israel’s right to try Eichmann and applauded the [illegible] fairness of the trial, but which is in principle opposed to the death penalty, we appeal to your Excellency to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. (One report of the text here.)
It turned out to be not only ineffective but also deeply divisive. Twelve Reform rabbis (including, coincidentally, Rabbi Louis Satlow who we believe is a distant relative of mine) immediately sent off a cable to the Israeli president protesting their leadership’s statement, calling it “unauthorized.” Later that month, though, these rabbis were rebuffed: “the convention and the CCAR executive board” supported the plea for commutation, as the leadership acted “in accordance with the standing policy of the CCAR regarding public statements endorsing accepted CCAR principles.” That is, the CCAR’s president and vice-president did not need special authorization to send the appeal, as they were simply acting in accord with a principle the CCAR already accepted.
The principle won, but I doubt that a lot of people felt very good about it.
Last month I discussed a role-playing exercise that I did with my class, “Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible,” in which, at the very end of the course, I asked my students to recreate the Christian Bible. If all the interested parties had a voice — which they assuredly did not — what might the canon have looked like? I followed with interest the amazing conversation that this generated on James McGrath’s blog, “Exploring our Matrix.” As some of the comments there suggest (or ask), the intention of my exercise was not to make judgments about each book of the present Christian Bible (and the myriad of other contemporary writings that did not enter the canon), but rather to get students to wrestle in a more general way with the issues of canon and authority. So without further ado, this is what my students came up with:
- The canonical Christian Bible would consist of the historical and prophetic writings of the Jewish Bible and more or less the entire New Testament as it now exists. Both Greek and Latin would be equally authoritative versions;
- The remainder of the books of the Jewish Bible (including the Pentateuch) would have apocryphal (deutero-canonical) authority;
- The canon will remain open, to be revisited by council meetings every 50 years (or so)
This result certainly surprised me, but was in line with our class discussions that consistently noted how important the Jewish prophetic books were — more than the written Torah (this is arguable, but I do argue it in my forthcoming book, How the Bible Became Holy) for most Jews and Christians in the first few centuries of this era. The emperor and his court desired the historical books as helping to give authority to the monarchy; they particular wanted the story of David included. The bishops were not entirely happy with this outcome, but they also were willing to compromise with the Marcionites and Gnostics in order to keep the peace and preserve an agreement that would not lead to schism. (Interestingly, the rabbis decided that it would be best if the Jewish Bible was fully excluded from the Christian canon, as they determined that the Jews had no interest in being part of the Christian story.) The decision not to close the canon was a bone thrown to the Montanists, along with a declaration that female prophecies in the Jewish Bible were to be particularly valued.
I thought that this result was as brilliant as it was historically implausible. As several of the comments in Exploring our Matrix note (as well as my students in the post-mortem), in reality this process was not a game: many of the participants in these decisions would rather have died than compromised, and the empire decided to crush rather than negotiate with dissidents. But that said, this solution was rather nifty and makes one wonder what would have happened if the canon was formed by taking into account the concerns of the “heretics.”
Pedagogically, I thought that the exercise was quite a success. I would change a few things, but I plan on doing it again. Here are a few student comments:
- The simulation clearly showed the impact of human personality on the development of religion…. The synod also illustrated the ironies associated with negotiating a canon. In our modern context, it often seems that theological differences lead directly to violence; in our simulation, groups who came to the synod with conflicting views often had the same goals. [Despite their bitter differences], the rabbis broke into applause when the Gnostics argued that the Old Testament should not be held on the same canonical level as the New Testament.
- The simulation itself was an effective way to learn about the roles of several different political groups. By engaging in debate with them, it was much easier to gain an understanding of, absorb, and retain what their stances were on the Bible. I also took away some important lessons about how power and politics influenced and intertwined with religion.
- The simulation tied this course together perfectly. It allowed us to apply what we have learned about authority while we were forced to come to a conclusion of what texts we thought deserved authority and what texts didn’t. It was an exceptional final because not only did we put a lot of effort and work into learning and preparing for this simulation, but we also were able to do all of this in an enjoyable and comfortable manner.
- Most interestingly, the simulation put the idea in my mind of an imaginary future in which the Bible did not include the Old Testament. I am curious how history would have developed in terms of Jewish/Christian relations if the Old Testament had not been ultimately included in the Christian Cannon.
- I learned from this experience that power is not always as centralized as it seems. While we assumed at the beginning of the simulation that the emperor could dictate the outcome as much as he wished, many of the factions could, by means of negotiation and persuasion, achieve at least some of their objectives – even if they did not have a direct vote. It was also quite interesting to see how some individuals were able to sway other peoples’ opinions just by the persuasive manner of their speech.
A short interview in which I discuss using different technologies to teach Talmud (in English) to undergraduates.
I refer in the video to C-Map, which can be found here.
Yesterday I found some time to drop in on part of a conference on Finance in Religious Law. While unfortunately I was unable to attend to the entire conference, it seemed that much of it revolved around one particular issue: usury or the charging of interest. The problem goes back to several biblical verses (e.g., Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:37; Deuteronomy 23:19-20; Ezekiel 18:17; Psalms 15:5) that condemn or prohibit the collecting of interest on loans. Since there is a similar prohibition in the Quran (e.g., 2:275), Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all had to wrestle with this norm as it applies to their commercial activities. While each religious tradition has extensively debated the precise definition of “interest,” the basic idea behind it – using money to make money – is at the heart of modern finance.
The papers and issues raised at the conference were interesting, if not earth-shattering, and helped me to reflect on the intersection of religion and money. There were three issues or themes in particular that I saw running through the conference:
- Actors. As is well-known, both rabbis and Catholic canon lawyers took the biblical verses (1) to prohibit the charging of any cost for the use of capital if it involves little or no risk on the lender’s part; and (2) to apply only to co-religionists. This has been seen, quite simplistically but perhaps not without a grain a truth, as leading to the rise of Jewish bankers in northern Europe in the Middle Ages; they supplied the necessary capital to Christian leaders. At the same time, the Muslim prohibition is a universal one (not just limited to co-religionists), and may thus have played a role in limiting the growth of banking in Islamic lands. This distinction, though, is hardly as clean as it looks. Islamic economies were also shot through with credit, and creative ways of raising capital were (as today) used in avoid these strictures. Religion was not the only potential limiting application, though. John Calvin was among many other Christians of his day to link the prohibition to its (perceived) social goal, and he thus ended up prohibiting loans with interest only to the poor. The rich are free to use their capital productively.
- Religion and Reality. What is the relationship between religious law and society? The Jewish case is particularly interesting: whereas northern European rabbis, living among Jews who increasingly made their livings off banking, developed instruments for evading the prohibitions on charging interest, rabbis in Islamic lands did not. Here would seem to be a case of religious law merely following what the people did anyway. This, however, was hardly an obvious or necessary step. Religious leaders are often out of step with their co-religionists, sometimes intentionally and sometimes less so. The more interesting question is the social place of the individual rabbis, whose economic interests they were most attuned to, and why. The narrative of religious legal development in this case marginalizes the many rabbis and canon lawyers who continued to oppose the charging of interest. Were they, as individuals, embedded in different social networks?
- Morality and Formalism. Here is what I see as the real nub of the issue: Why prohibit interest to begin with? The papers at this conference suggested a real divergence between Christian, on the one hand, and Jewish and Islamic approaches, on the other. Beginning in the Early Modern period, Christians were increasingly comfortable loosening restrictions on interest and focusing on the underlying goals of social justice and economic equity. Such moral considerations, though, are largely absent from the formal rules of Jewish and Islamic jurists. Partly, of course, this is simply due to the genre of religious legal writings. Nevertheless, the occasional gap between the formal rules and their (supposed?) purpose is striking. One speaker related that according to some rabbis, the biblical prohibition against interest was meant only for an ancient agrarian society, which, since the prohibition must remain applicable anyway, therefore justifies finding formal legal ways around it.
One final, more personal reflection. I found the modern Catholic position on the economy – that, to be a bit reductionist and perhaps misrepresent it, the economy should be seen as a means to human flourishing – to be powerfully compelling. Such a view need not be naive, nor must it deny the right of some people work harder than others in order to achieve greater material comfort. How that view, which I doubt that many rabbis or muftis would disagree with, can find expression in norms is a matter that should deeply concern us all, religious or not.
What if the Christian Bible emerged not from a long and murky process that involved the bishops, backed by imperial authorities, beating down challenges that they deemed “heretical” but in a kinder, gentler way? Say, a synod to which those very heresies (and even the Jews!) were invited to attend and participate, even if not on a fully equal footing. If there were such a synod, a meeting presided over by an emperor who sought at least one small measure that would unify rather than divide the fractured Christian community in late antiquity, would the Christian Bible look the same as it does today?
This was the question that I posed to my students at the end of our course, “Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible” as a concluding exercise. I set up a role-play exercise modeled somewhat on the Reacting to the Past (RTTP) “games.” Below is an outline of our game; it is more or less what I gave to the students. We ran the role-play yesterday. The results? That’s for a future post.
Canonizing the (Christian) Bible
We are sometime in the fourth century CE in Constantinople. The Roman emperor, a devout Christian (and also a practical ruler), spurred by the bishops in his court and concerned about both growing Christian diversity and his own eternal salvation, has recently convened a series of synods to hash out “orthodox” Christian theology. They have not gone particularly well. While some bishops were able to develop creeds that they could live with, other participants left angry and alienated. Chastened by the limited success of these synods, he has decided to address an issue that he hopes will be significantly easier to resolve: the confusing state of “scripture” within the Church. Does the Church need a cannon, and if so, what should be in it?
You have been summoned to participate in this Synod. Representatives of the competing parties will attend; the emperor expects you all to arrive at an agreement. Representatives of the Jewish community have also been invited to participate, although since they are unredeemable heretics they will of course have no direct vote or say.
[N.B. This Synod is a historical fantasy. There was no Synod convened at this time to canonize the Christian Bible. If there was, Jews would not have been invited and some of the other participants would have been long dead. This is pretend.]
The Emperor and Royal Authorities.
The Bishops within the Royal Court
Procedure and Schedule
Prior to first class: Read background material (distributed) and begin independent research on your role.
First class: Meet in groups and formulate your victory objectives. This should be a list of three or four goals that align with your character with points associated with each one. The total number of points should come to 100. Each group should submit this list with a brief explanation. On this document also indicate a bibliography of resources (perhaps 4-6 items) that you have or planning to consult for your role.
N.B. Some individuals within groups may have been assigned roles that require somewhat different objectives from their groups. These roles and instructions will be communicated privately and should not be revealed to other group members.
Prior to second class: Each student must submit an “opening statement” for their group. This should run 2-3 pages (double-spaced) and is individual work.
Second Class: Meet in groups to craft the group’s single opening statement.
Role-Play Day (3 hour block)
- Each group will denote a representative to deliver its opening statement. The statement should run 5-7 minutes, no less. Each statement will be followed by about 5 minutes of questioning.
- After the opening statements, groups will meet/negotiate for 15-20 minutes.
- A second round of statements (which can be shorter than the first), each followed by Q&A period.
- Voting and resolution, in a manner determined by the Emperor.
- Calculation of victory points.
- General discussion
After the class, submit a document that assesses the simulation: What did you learn from this experience?
The ASOR Blog has published my note on my stay last year at the W. F. Albright Institute for Archaeological Research as the Seymour Gitin Distinguished Professor. It can be read here. Please excuse the picture.
I have found myself at a delicate nexus this week. I facilitated a faculty discussion on active learning; prepared a draft of a proposal to teach a MOOC through Brown; helped my oldest son to submit his college application; and, of course, went about my usual job of running my own university classes. This particular confluence of events prompted me to reflect a bit more deeply about the very nature of teaching and learning and the “value added” (and yes, the monetary cost) of face-to-face college instruction.
I have never felt that MOOCs (massive open online courses, such as found at Coursera) threaten the future of higher education. They are primarily “information delivery” platforms, with some very limited interactive abilities, that help to disseminate knowledge widely. This strikes me as largely a good thing, even if it does have costs. Yes, MOOCs may threaten institutions of higher learning that more or less structure their classes as “information delivery” platforms, but this strikes me largely as a good thing: for the sometimes extraordinary price that families pay, they should be getting more than information delivery.
In the past I have most often articulated the “value added” of the face-to-face classroom as providing the opportunity for dialogue and critique. It is one thing to think that one has “learned” as a reader or auditor, but it is another to actively engage it. Classrooms, and the writing assignments associated with them, are labs of self-formation in which students are given the opportunity to develop habits of mind through an ongoing interaction with the professor and their classmates. They can take advantage of this opportunity to a greater or lesser degree, but the option is there to get something that no MOOC can ever deliver. (Or, at least not yet.)
This week, though, I have begun to think more about the relationships involved in classroom teaching, both among students and between students and the teacher. A real relationship, though – the deep transformative kind – involves some degree of vulnerability. As a student, the more open I become – the more I am able to really hear the critiques and suggestions of my teacher and then to acknowledge and grapple with my weaknesses in conversation with others – the more and faster I am able to learn. As a professor, the more open I am to students’ needs and concerns – to listening to their own critiques of my teaching – the more effective I will be. Indeed, some of the most rewarding moments I’ve had as a teacher has been precisely when I open up and make myself vulnerable to my students.
Easier said than done, though. I do not want to make myself open and vulnerable to all of my students each semester; even the thought of it is frightening and exhausting. Nor, though, would doing so be professional. There is a line between student and professor that I believe is important to maintain, even if it is often fuzzy. The trick is finding it.
We don’t talk much about vulnerability in higher education, in large measure, I suspect, because it can bring with it the kind of overtones that can lead straight to thoughts of sexual harassment and disciplinary action. But I think that the role that vulnerability plays in education should not be a taboo topic. It is at the heart of what distinguishes the MOOC from the classroom.
Few biblical phrases have been as thoroughly parodied as the “goring ox.” In fact, the entire ox-thing that the Bible has going is, for many, an ongoing source of amusement and puzzlement. Why does such a great, lofty, and divine text spend so much time talking about oxen and other barnyard animals? Most everywhere you turn in the Bible, when they are not being slaughtered, these animals are wandering about, falling into pits, digging up your neighbor’s garden, or trampling to death unsuspecting pedestrians.
One such passage deals with the latter case. According to Exodus 21:28-30 (NRSV translation):
When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and the owner also shall be put to death. If a ransom is imposed on the owner, then the owner shall pay whatever is imposed for the redemption of the victim’s life.
This is a relatively common-sense approach to the case of a goring ox. If the owner took proper precautionary measures, the goring ox is killed but the owner has no further liability for the damage (i.e., death) caused by the ox. If the owner did have reason to think that the ox would gore, though, and did not take proper precautions, then he is liable for any damage that it causes.
The rule seems relatively clear and is cited, basically verbatim, in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q251, fr. 8). And yet, this issue is at the center of one of the Mishnah’s list of key issues that divided Pharisees and Sadducees:
The Sadducees say: We accuse you, Pharisees! An ox or donkey that causes damage – [the owner] is liable [to pay damages]. But a slave or female slave [causes damage] – [the owner] is exempt [from paying damages]. (Mishnah Yadaim 4:7, my translation).
The Pharisee position here seems peculiar; it seems to directly contradict biblical law. Some commentators explain that the Pharisees are here relying on a slightly later biblical passage, Exodus 21:35-36, that speaks of an ox that hurts the neighbor’s ox. This is not impossible, but this latter biblical passage does not use this language of liability, as one might expect.
I was wondering if it might be possible that the reason that the Pharisaic position here seems to contradict the Bible is that it actually does. Either these Pharisees knew the rule and rejected it, or they did not know that this biblical rule existed. The Sadducees, and the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, on the other hand, gave more legal or normative authority to texts that they thought were divine. Hence both the disagreement between the Sadducees and Pharisees and the citation of the verse in Dead Sea Scroll collection of laws.
Seventh-century BCE Judah is not typically thought of as a hotbed of feminism. If the Hebrew Bible is to be believed, women were very much on the economic, social, religious, and legal margins of this society. The texts portray a society largely created by and maintained for men.
It turns out, however, that these texts do not tell the whole story. For seventh-century BCE Jerusalem, as for virtually all pre-modern societies, evidence for the non-male elite is sorely lacking; we often cannot know how the 90% lived. Yet every once in rare while a small window into their lives will emerge from the ground. For Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE, this window often takes the form of a tiny lump of clay that somebody has stamped with his – or her – seal. The seals themselves rarely survive, but we already have an impressive number of stamps that were often used to mark ownership and validate legal documents that have long since crumbled to dust.
Not long ago I happened to stumble across the publication of one of these seal impressions, or bullae, that was made by a woman. It was the first time I had encountered a seal impression of an Israelite woman, and I was unsure what to make of it. What kind of woman in this society would own a seal? In a wealthy family, would both a husband and wife possess a seal, or are we necessarily dealing with single (or widowed) women? Does possession of a seal, which often belonged to scribes, imply literacy, and if so, how would a woman at this time have been educated?
I don’t think that we have an answer to these questions, but now I have discovered some further evidence that suggests that women were far more involved in public roles in the Kingdom of Judah than the biblical texts would lead us to suspect. The following excerpts come from a publication of a seal that belonged to a woman named Hannah, and can be found in Nahum Avigad, “A Note on an Impression from a Woman’s Seal,” Israel Exploration Journal 37 (1987): 18-19:
We know from archaeological evidence that Israelite women in the biblical period owned seals. A dozen or so of them have been found, and it has been inferred from this evidence that Israelite women had the right to sign legal documents, a fact which is not apparent from the biblical sources.
[This seal] proves that Hannah, the owner of this seal, was involved in a business enterprise. She stamped jars which apparently contained some liquid merchandise such as oil, wine, or the like. She probably acted in the capacity of a private estate owner marking the container of her products with her name, or else as a functionary in the service of some other estate.
Was Hannah a seventh-century BCE Gluckel of Hameln, that is, a woman who against expectations can be found running a business and fully able to look out after her own affairs, thank you very much? We are very unlikely to discover the answer to this question. We can, however, be reasonably confident that Hannah was not the only Judahite woman involved in commerce in her time and that our understanding of Judahite society must include room for her and her sisters.
A couple of months ago, I sat down with an Israeli journalist to talk about my work. It turned out that she was primarily interested in the issue of when and how “Judaism” as we more or less know it today emerged from the Israelite religion of the Bible. In the scholarly circles in which I travel, there is a loose consensus that this occurred during the “Restoration” period, beginning around 520 BCE with the building of the second temple in Jerusalem. This reformed worship of the God of Israel continued with some hiccups until the rabbinic period, when the rabbis shifted the former emphasis on sacrifice to Torah. I related this narrative to her and tried to tie it in to some of my more recent work. The interview was recently published online in Hebrew on Ynet here. I don’t know if it will be translated into English, but it does a nice job summarizing (in slightly sensationalistic form) this scholarly narrative.
I was stunned to watch this piece gather comments. Over the week it was published, according to the YNet page, the article received 565 comments; 67 Facebook comments; and 1,200 “likes.” The pace of comments has now slowed to a trickle. Much more interesting than the number of comments, though, is what they said.
Somewhere close to 90% of these comments excoriate me for ripping down Judaism. Maybe the tone of these comments is best captured in the one liner, “This is absolute heresy. The professor is a bad man.” These comments do not mention that at the end of the article I strongly separate the historical conclusions from issues of applied religion. If they made it to the end, I guess that they either did not understand what I was trying to convey or did not care.
Nor did the end of the article register with another 5% of the commenters who used the article to show either (1) that today’s rabbis are evil and that Judaism in Israel must be reformed, or, more extremely, (2) that Judaism itself is a bad and modern religion. The other 5% of the comments offered reflective thoughts that more seriously engaged the issues raised in the article.
In my own reading of the comments, I was struck by the ease with which people read this article through the lens of their own worldviews. Most of these readers approached this article with their own convictions firmly in place; their engagement with it was on the level of whether it confirmed or denied these convictions. If the latter, then its arguments and its author must be explained, put into the right cognitive “box,” and safely stored away.
I am not observing anything new. I see this kind of approach to new data and opinions all the time in the press; on partisan cable channels; on my Facebook page; and in my classroom. Psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman have discussed the cognitive mechanisms that lead to such responses. Watching it happen to me, though, in real time, was a a bit of a shock. The vast bulk of the comments said much more about the commenters than they did about the article or the ideas presented therein.
There was another take-away for me. I don’t think that an interview like this would have attracted very much notice if done in English in the U.S., even within the Jewish community. One reason, I think, is that in the U.S. “public square” we talk and think about religion very differently than they do in Israel. We have developed a civic discourse that to some extent bifurcates discussions that are consequential to religious communities from those that are about them. This, in turn, has allowed us to discuss religion in a way that does not immediately escalate into verbal brawling; it has perhaps injected enough critical distance to take the potential edge out of these types of discussions.
And that makes me wonder: If, in Israel, the more serious public discussions about religion and its relationship to the state had a tad less of an edge, might they also be a bit more productive?