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Review of Deborah A. Green, The Aroma of Righteousness: Scent and Seduction in Rabbinic Life and Literature

January 24th, 2013

Review of Deborah A. Green, The Aroma of Righteousness: Scent and Seduction in Rabbinic Life and LiteratureUniversity Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011. 304 pp. $69.95. By Yehudah Cohn The Hebrew word צרי, often translated as balm, first makes its appearance in the book of Genesis, where Joseph’s brothers encounter a caravan of Ishmaelites carrying it down to Egypt on their camels, along with other aromatic products. Some chapters later their father Jacob also has his sons take a little צרי to Egypt – as part of a gift-package to the powerful man who will turn out to be none other than their long-lost brother Joseph, who had earlier been sold to those same Ishmaelite traders. Much later, in a line that appears in both Talmuds and is repeated in the Jewish prayer book, we are told in an entirely different context that the otherwise mysterious balm bearing the name צרי is “nothing other than the resin that drips from balsam trees”. But despite the apparent put-down the precise identity of צרי is no small matter, as the omission of this or any other ingredient from the recipe for incense burned in the Jerusalem temple, is said in these late-antique sources to be punishable by death. Not the least of the virtues of Deborah A. Green’s book is that it leads the reader to rethink such texts on pleasing scents and their impact, even when, as here, they are beyond her purview. In her own description, the book “examines rabbinic imagery of fragrance and explores how the ancient rabbis employed aromatic images to propagate their social, theological, and religious claims” (p. 2). In reality however it offers far more, and as a general matter one might say that Green occasionally seems to deliver more than she has led us to expect, to the point where her own summaries of sections of the book actually turn out to be a little confusing. After a brief introductory chapter Green starts by investigating evidence of all kinds for the use of perfumes and incense in Palestine in the classical rabbinic period, together with an assessment of relevant material remains and literature from the wider Roman culture within which the rabbis were embedded. (Her survey may now be augmented by Catherine Hezser’s book Jewish Travel in Antiquity [Mohr Siebeck, 2011], with its intriguing suggestions of rabbinic involvement in the spice trade.) This second chapter of Green’s book is of the essence, one might say, in laying the groundwork for what follows, and a nice element in the chapter is the inclusion of several figures of vessels used in fragrance consumption in the Roman period. In Chapter 3, entitled “Election and the Erotic,” Green discusses the importance of aroma in the Israelite cult, as well as its use in the imagery of the Hebrew Bible. She highlights the role of perfume and incense in pleasing both humans and God, and usefully breaks down the biblical material into three major sections (Priestly Contexts and Concerns, Erotic Descriptions, and Prophetic Formulations), and numerous sub-sections. The fourth chapter is entitled “Spicy Ideologies: Fragrance and Rabbinic Beliefs.” Here, and in the following chapter, Green primarily addresses midrashim from Song of Songs Rabbah. The use of aroma-imagery in the Song of Songs itself (discussed in Chapter 3) is compounded in this rabbinic work on the biblical book, making it a particularly suitable text for the author’s purposes, and other midrashim, especially from the earlier Genesis Rabbah, are also presented. The chapter is organized around the four themes of The Garden, The Other (usually female), Rabbinic Values, and Historical Moments (as depicted in the Bible), and here I found the categories to overlap, and consequently to be a little less useful than in Chapter 3. Green shows how the various characteristics of aromas – ephemeral, pleasing, lingering, sensual etc. – are used in rabbinic interpretations to engender the overall messages imparted in the relevant midrashim. The short fifth chapter, “Soothing Odors: Death, Suffering and Sacrifice,” continues in the same vein, with a focus on martyrdom narratives, and a brief concluding chapter on “Ephemerality and Fragrance” rounds out the book. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously remarked that animals are chosen for totems not because they are good to eat (as Bronislaw Malinowski had argued), but rather because they are “good to think with.” Green’s book shows us how the rabbinic authors of the midrashim she discusses, as well as texts of the Bible itself, used aromas in their imagery to think with, and not (merely) because they smell nice.

New book by Snyder, _Building a Public Judaism: Synagogues and Jewish Identity in Nineteenth-Century Europe

January 24th, 2013

Saskia Coenen Snyder (University of South Carolina) has just published Building a Public Judaism: Synagogues and Jewish Identity in Nineteenth-Century Europe with Harvard University Press. Here's the publisher's description:
Nineteenth-century Europe saw an unprecedented rise in the number of synagogues. Building a Public Judaism considers what their architecture and the circumstances surrounding their construction reveal about the social progress of modern European Jews. Looking at synagogues in four important centers of Jewish life—London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin—Saskia Coenen Snyder argues that the process of claiming a Jewish space in European cities was a marker of acculturation but not of full acceptance. Whether modest or spectacular, these new edifices most often revealed the limits of European Jewish integration. Debates over building initiatives provide Coenen Snyder with a vehicle for gauging how Jews approached questions of self-representation in predominantly Christian societies and how public manifestations of their identity were received. Synagogues fused the fundamentals of religion with the prevailing cultural codes in particular locales and served as aesthetic barometers for European Jewry’s degree of modernization. Coenen Snyder finds that the dialogues surrounding synagogue construction varied significantly according to city. While the larger story is one of increasing self-agency in the public life of European Jews, it also highlights this agency’s limitations, precisely in those places where Jews were thought to be most acculturated, namely in France and Germany. Building a Public Judaism grants the peculiarities of place greater authority than they have been given in shaping the European Jewish experience. At the same time, its place-specific description of tensions over religious tolerance continues to echo in debates about the public presence of religious minorities in contemporary Europe.

Lecture by Yair Lorberbaum on “The Concept of the ‘Decree of Scripture’ (Gezerat ha-Katuv) in the Thought of Maimonides” at Cardozo Law School

January 17th, 2013

The Yeshiva University Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law invites you to

The Seventh Annual Ivan Meyer Lecture in Jewish Law

Yair Lorberbaum (Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Law), "The Concept of the 'Decree of Scripture' (Gezerat Ha-Katuv) in the Thought of Maimonides”

  Date: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 Time: 6-8pm Place: Jacob Burns Moot Court Room, Cardozo School of Law, 55 Fifth Avenue (at 12th Street) The event is free and open to the public, but advance registration is required. To RSVP, go to or call 212-790-0258

New book on “Animal Rights and Animal Laws in the Bible: The Daily Practice of Reverence for Life”

January 17th, 2013

Chilkuri Vasantha Rao (Andhra Christian Theological College) has just published Animal Rights and Animal Laws in the Bible: The Daily Practice of Reverence for Life with Edwin Meller Pres. From the publisher’s abstract: What characterizes the proper ethical treatment of animals as outlined in the Old Testament? Animals play an important role in the Old Testament, and in particular the Pentateuch. Ritual sacrifices were a part of the ancient traditions, and there are rules written into the laws that pertain to this practice as well as the religious approach to animals and nature. In the oft quoted passage from Genesis the call is to not only be fruitful and multiply, but to reign over the earth and subdue it along with the animals that God created. The author explores the fallout of an anthropocentric way of approaching nature that he claims is a misreading of Genesis. Taken out of context this can seem as though ethics is arbitrary in the pursuit of such dominion, but in reality the Pentateuch shows a rather rigid set of laws revealing the careful treatment of animals as sacred beings necessary for the flourishing of human life on earth. (HT: Center for Law and Religion Forum)

Day-long symposium on “The Rationales of the Commandments (Ta’amei ha-Mitzvot) in Historical Perspective”

January 16th, 2013

The YU Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and the Leonard and Bea Diener Institute of Jewish Law will be hosting a day-long symposium on "The Rationales of the Commandments (Ta'amei ha-Mitzvot) in Historical Perspective" on Sunday, February 10, 9:30am-5:15pm, at Cardozo Law School (55 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY). Attendance is free, but advance registration is required; please register here, or by calling 212-790-0258. Here's the schedule:
  Ta'amei Ha-Mitzvot in Antiquity (9:30-11:30) David Flatto, (Assistant Professor of Law, Penn State Law School), “Categorizing Commandments in Late Second Temple and Rabbinic Literature” Richard Hidary (Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies, Yeshiva University), “‘You Might Come to Fix a Musical Instrument’: The Bavli’s Reasons for Shevut Laws” Lawrence Schiffman (Professor of Jewish Studies and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Yeshiva University), “Second Temple Period Rationales for the Torah’s Commandments” Commentator: Yaakov Elman (Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Chair in Talmudic Studies, Yeshiva University)   Ta'amei Ha-Mitzvot in the Medieval Period (12:30-2:30) David Berger (Ruth & I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History and Dean, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies), “Ta‘amei ha-Mitzvot and the Jewish-Christian Debate” Ephraim Kanarfogel (E. Billi Ivry Professor of Jewish History, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Yeshiva University), “An Unnoticed Strategy of the Sefer ha-Hinnukh in Presenting Ta'amei ha-Mizvot and Halakhic Teachings” Yair Lorberbaum (Bar-Ilan Faculty of Law), “‘There are People who Consider it a Grievous thing that Reasons Should be Given for any Law’ (Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed III:31) - Ta'amei ha-Mitzvot and Halakhic Reasoning” Commentator: Gerald Blidstein (Professor Emeritus of Jewish Thought, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)   Ta'amei Ha-Mitzvot in the Modern Period (2:45-5:15) Yonatan Brafman (Columbia University), “Halakha as ‘The Objectifying Instrument of Religious Consciousness’: Halakhic Norms as Expression and Discipline in R. Soloveitchik’s Thought”  Daniel Rynhold (Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Philosophy, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva University), “What’s the Reason for Reasons? Towards an Unprincipled Judaism” David Shatz (Professor of Philosophy, Yeshiva University), “Mastery Over the Body in Modern Theories of Mitzvot”  Howard Wettstein (Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Riverside), “The Flavor of the Commandments”  Commentator: Shalom Carmy (Assistant Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Bible, Yeshiva University)

Adam Kirsch on the distinction between law and legend in Bavli Shabbat

January 15th, 2013

This week's reflections on Daf Yomi by literary critic Adam Kirsch in Tablet takes up, among other subjects, the "distinction between law and legend" in talmudic literature. An excerpt:
In order to make sense of Shabbat regulations ... it’s necessary to reconstruct in the imagination just what kind of work the Israelites did—to transport oneself back to Moses’ time. Usually when we want to travel back in time, we turn to literature; for the rabbis, law collapses history just as effectively. Every time they reason about Shabbat, the whole spectacle of the Israelites building the Tabernacle appears before their eyes.To explain why throwing across a public domain is permitted, while handing an object across a public domain is not, the rabbis envision the kind of work the Levites did when transporting the boards for the mishkan. The Levites would transport the boards in wagons that traveled two abreast, and they would customarily hand the boards from one wagon to the next; but they would not throw the boards. On Shabbat, we refrain from doing what the Levites did, so we cannot hand things over; but we can throw, since that was not part of the original activity of the mishkan. The Gemara goes on to speculate in amazing detail about various aspects of the Tabernacle’s construction. How wide were the boards used to build its walls? How many boards made up each wall? Did they taper at the top, or were they pure rectangles? And what about the tapestry that was draped over the walls and ceiling: How long was it, and how much material hung down on each side, and how much of the bottom of the wall was exposed? The rabbis advance various theories about each of these questions, displaying both a clear visual imagination and a talent for mathematics. I found it very difficult to “see” the Tabernacle without diagrams (which the Schottenstein provides), but the rabbis needed no such visual aids. For me, the detail that stuck out was Rabbi Nechemya’s contribution: The goat hair used for the tapestry, he taught, was washed and spun while still on the goats.

CFA: Research dissertation fellowships at the Center for Jewish History

January 15th, 2013

The Center for Jewish History has recently put out a call for applications for its dissertation research fellowships. Here are the details:
The Center for Jewish History offers fellowships to doctoral candidates to support original research using the collections at the Center. Preference is given to those candidates who draw on the library and archival resources of more than one partner institution. Fellowships carry a stipend of up to $15,000 for a period of one academic year. Applicants for the fellowship must have completed all requirements (coursework, exams, dissertation proposal) for the doctoral degree except for the dissertation. It is required that each fellow spend a minimum of 3 days/week in residence in the Lillian Goldman Reading Room using the archival and library resources. Fellows must also participate in the Center for Jewish History Fellowship Seminar Program and deliver a minimum of one lecture based on research at the Center and the collections used. The fellowship is open to qualified doctoral candidates from accredited domestic and international institutions. All application material, including letters of reference, must be received by February 4, 2013 for full consideration. Application Requirements: Cover letter stating area of interest, knowledge of relevant languages, and how the project relates to the general mission of the Center for Jewish History Research proposal of no more than four pages double-spaced, including specific reference to the collections at the Center and clearly stated goals for research during the period of the fellowship A one-page bibliography of important secondary sources for the project Curriculum Vitae, including contact information, education, publications, award/fellowships received, scholarly and/or museum activities, teaching experience, and any other relevant work experience Official graduate school transcript Three letters of recommendation, one of which must be from the candidate's adviser, which address the significance of the candidate’s work for his or her field, as well as the candidate’s ability to fulfill the proposed work Letters should be sent under separate cover – or via a separate email – to the address below. All of the other application materials should be sent together electronically as one continuous PDF document Applications are to be submitted to: Judith C. Siegel Director of Academic and Public Programs Center for Jewish History 15 West 16th Street New York, NY 10011 United States of America Email:

Review of Jacobs, Law, Reason, and Morality in Medieval Jewish Philosophy: Sadia Gaon, Bahya ibn Pakuda, and Moses Maimonides

January 14th, 2013

Review of Jonathan Jacobs, Law, Reason, and Morality in Medieval Jewish Philosophy: Sadia Gaon, Bahya ibn Pakuda, and Moses Maimonides. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 256 pp.  $99.00 By Ute Steyer Jacobs sets out on an ambitious project: to motivate a broader audience to pay attention to medieval Jewish philosophy and to demonstrate that medieval thought has relevance to contemporary moral philosophy. With the help of the “big three” of medieval Jewish philosophy, Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, and Bahya ibn Pakuda, Jacobs wants to demonstrate that meta-ethical and ethical thought is enriched, rather than inhibited, by rootedness in a theological universe. There is undoubtedly a strong rationalist stream within Jewish philosophy and Jacobs picked the three most prominent proponents of that stream, a choice that doesn’t undermine his claim. This choice does, nevertheless, somewhat limit his goal of making medieval Jewish philosophy more interesting to the wider audience, since these three continue to be the most well-known and influential thinkers. This choice does make sense, however, for his second goal, namely, showing the relevance of medieval thought for contemporary moral philosophy and demonstrating how a “religious” philosopher’s moral philosophy can actually be enriched, not limited, by his faith. Many books have been written attempting to reconcile reason and religion, including those by the above mentioned three Jewish thinkers, but none of them really does justice to their declared goal. Jacobs is aware of the potential tendentiousness of his effort to harmonize reason and religion and proceeds very carefully. He often invokes moral psychology to establish that both faith and reason attempt to define that which is “good”, “true”, and “real,” and that both have human perfection as its goal. In rational thought this perfection lies in the highest possible comprehension of the intelligible order, while in Jewish religious thought it lies in imitatio dei, the imitation of the divine. Faith and reason can then be understood as different yet complementary ways toward achieving a common goal. The author’s background in moral philosophy as well as in moral psychology is evident throughout the work and allows for many interesting insights and parallels that he can draw between the different fields. He moves back and forth between the different fields with ease while remaining sensitive to classic philosophy, scholasticism and Jewish thought. He starts by outlining the connections and parallels between basic tenets of Jewish religious thought and classical rational philosophical thought, and structures the book in seven chapters. In chapter one the author attempts to show connections between Greek classical thought and Jewish thought (what he calls “Athens” and “Jerusalem”) and how reason and religion might share a common objective. One of the questions he asks is whether Jewish moral thought is a version of theorizing about practical wisdom and natural law. He moves in the subsequent chapters to explore specific areas that are intimately connected with the essential questions of morality and how they are answered by religion and reason, such as freedom of will and the nature and importance of repentance. Jacobs very skillfully shows not only the parallels between Greek and Jewish thought but also where they differ in their views on specific issues. For example, he notes that gratitude and shame exist in Greek thought in the social and political sphere alone but play a tremendously important (and positive) role in Jewish thought as a cornerstone and basis of the relations between God and humans. In Greek thought, a person can free himself from shame by achieving excellence, an impossibility in Jewish moral thought, where, on the contrary, the most righteous person is the one whose awareness of his unlimited gratitude towards God instills in him a sense of humility and shame. The last chapters are dedicated to outlining the contrasts between Jewish medieval moral thought and two approaches of moral theory: practical wisdom theory and natural law theory. He argues that despite some overlaps, Jewish thought contains its own distinctive insights and should not just be seen as a version of these two. For instance, he shows nicely the differences between Jewish thought and Aristotelian practical wisdom: the former is rooted in a concept of imparting holiness to life, with associated dimensions of gratitude and devotion, while the latter is not.  Jacobs is careful not to overstate this difference: Habituation is the goal of Aristotelian wisdom and, although experience-based, it too is reinforced and preserved by law—although not part of an integrated view of a universe ruled by God and an expression of a divine-human relationship, as in Jewish thought. This aspect of Jewish thought finds its expression, as Jacobs elaborates, in the concept of lifnim mishurat hadin, supererogatory acts that are not clearly distinguished in the rabbinic writings from legal requirements but that reflect the overall Jewish view on the Law as both a set of legally enforceable requirements as well as a way of achieving holiness and coming closer to God. Jacobs dedicates a whole chapter to the historical and conceptual background of natural law and Judaism and very skillfully interweaves views on natural law by the Stoics, Aristotle, Aquinas and its subsequent entry into Jewish thought. He presents both sides in the question of whether natural law is evident in Jewish moral thought or not and also how and where it differs from the Christian application of the concept. Jacobs concludes that although there are significant points of overlap between natural law theory and Jewish moral thought, the objectivity and universality of the latter cannot be rooted in the former. I was surprised by the almost complete absence of any reference to contemporary Israeli scholarship on the subject. In addition, I believe that a look at some more recent legal philosophers in particular (with the exception of David Novak, whom Jacobs refers to frequently in the sections dealing with natural law and Judaism, most of the other cited works are a bit dated, ranging from the 1970s to the 1990s) would have made this book even more relevant. Those quibbles aside, I very much enjoyed reading this book and will surely return to it to reread passages.

Syllabus on “The Matrix of Law and Literature in Jewish Texts”

January 10th, 2013

Dr. Lynn Kaye, alumna of the CJL Graduate Fellowship in Jewish Law & Interdisciplinary Studies and now Assistant Professor of Rabbinics at HUC, is currently preparing a course on "The Matrix of Law and Literature in Jewish Texts" that she'll be teaching at USC. Here's the course description:
This course examines legal and literary texts and their points of contact within the Jewish canon ranging from the Bible to modern fiction. Students will be introduced to the interplay between the hermeneutics of literary and cultural criticism and legal textual interpretation. Special attention will be given to recent legal and literary scholarship which analyzes the roles of narrative and figurative language in legal interpretation, as well as legal scholarship that reaches beyond the confines of the traditional legal canon to examine literary accounts of trials or the invocation of judicial motifs in literature. Through this multidisciplinary lens, students will develop a greater appreciation of the richness of Jewish legal and imaginative literature as well as an understanding of the complex relationships that exist between texts and between differing interpretive practices.
Lynn's syllabus for this innovative course can be accessed here; please contact her with all critical feedback!

Literary critic Adam Kirsch on intention versus action in Bavli Shabbat

January 8th, 2013

This week's reflections on Daf Ha-Yomi by literary critic Adam Kirsch in Tablet focus on the subject of intention versus action. From the article's conclusion:
It is at this point that the Talmud makes its most amazing, and yet somehow most characteristic, gesture. After laying out these intricate logic problems—so intricate that I’m not totally confident I’ve grasped every nuance of them—the rabbis conclude, “Let it stand”: that is, the question remains open. We are not even given the satisfaction of a resolution to Rava’s problems! This is frustrating and casts further doubt on the practical application of everything that’s gone before: If the rabbis are willing to leave these questions unanswered, they couldn’t be very relevant to actual Jewish practice. However, the Talmud is also sending a powerful implicit message. The act of thinking about law, of reasoning out its most distant ramifications, is itself sacred and pleasurable to the rabbis, regardless of its practical application. To read the Talmud at all, I’m finding, it’s necessary to be able to share at least their pleasure, if not their sense of sanctity.