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New volume of _Ginzei Qedem: Genizah Research Annual_

August 15th, 2013

The 2013 volume of Ginzei Qedem: Genizah Research Annual is now available. Here's the table of contents for the journal's Hebrew section:  
Yachin Epstein and Moshe Lavee, "The Benefits of Marriage: A Case Study of the Reception of Late Midrash in the Genizah" Neri Yeshayahu Ariel, "Judges’ Duties: A Reconstruction of an Anonymous Judeo-Arabic Halakhic Commentary" Amir Ashur, "Autograph Instructions by Maimonides regarding Aid to the Needy and to Functionaries" Dan Greenberg, "Rav Sherira’s Glossary of Tractate Shabbat from the Babylonian Talmud" Abraham David, "Between Sicily and the Near East: the Sicilian Expulsion in the Cairo Genizah" Mayer Lichtenstein, "The Opinions of Babylonian Geonim Regarding the Requirement of Dual Condition" Rabin Shustri, "The Contribution of the Early Sheilta to the Research of the Editing Process of the Tractate Sukka in the Babylonian Talmud"
  (HT: Agade)

New book on _Freedom of Religion and Belief_

August 12th, 2013

Forthcoming from Ashgate Press is a collection of essays entitled Freedom of Religion and Belief, edited by Silvio Ferrari, University of Milan, Italy and and Rinaldo Cristofori. Here's the publisher's blurb:
The essays and articles selected for this volume analyze what is generally understood by freedom of religion and belief in today’s world. The different aspects of this fundamental right are considered from the contents of freedom of religion, to the possible limitations of this freedom; and from the freedom of, or freedom from, conundrum to the question of the collective or individual right. This volume reflects legal, philosophical and international perspectives, addresses numerous unanswered questions and offers an effective overview of the current literature and debate in this aspect of the discipline of law and religion.
And here's the table of contents:
Introduction, Silvio Ferrari; Part I Three Perspectives on Freedom of Religion and Belief: The development of the idea of religious freedom in modern times, Christian Starck; Religious freedoms and other human rights, moral conundrums and hard cases, Veit Bader; Freedom of religion or belief - a human right under pressure, Heiner Bielefeldt. Part II Contents and Protection of the Freedom of Religion and Belief: Freedom of religion in international law, Kevin Boyle; Regional protection of religious human rights, Natan Lerner; Limitations of freedom of religion or belief: international law perspectives, Johan D. van der Vyver; Limits to religious freedom, Rex Ahdar and Ian Leigh; Introduction, Paul Taylor; The European Court of Human Rights and religion, Javier Martinez-Torrón. Part III The Problems of Freedom of Religion and Belief: The concept of religion in the law, Rafael Palomino; The complexity of religion and the definition of 'religion' in international law, T. Jeremy Gunn; Religious liberty - freedom of conscience or freedom of choice?, Michael J. Sandel; Humanism and freedom from religion, Rajaji Ramanadha Babu Gogineni and Lars Gule; Religious liberty as a collective right, Julian Rivers; Why is there a right to freedom of religion?, Anat Scolnicov. Part IV Freedom of Religion and Belief and Other Human Rights: Tensions: Equal liberty, Christopher L. Eisgruber and Lawrence G. Sager; The struggle over accommodation, Martha Nussbaum; Liberal states and illiberal religions, Brian Barry; The freedom of religion or belief and the freedom of expression, Malcolm D. Evans; Religion, equality and non-discrimination, Nazila Ghanea; Name index.
The themes of this book should be compared with Brian Leiter's recent book, Why Tolerate Religion, which was reviewed by Alexander Kaye at the CJL blog here.

Jewish Law and the Zimmerman Case

August 8th, 2013

Over at Moment Magazine, Richard Hidary has an interesting post about how Jewish law would view the actions of George Zimmerman.

The conceptual approach to Torah study (“Brisker method”)

August 2nd, 2013

The most recent issue of Netu'im includes an article by R. Aharon Lichtenstein entitled   "הגישה המושגית-בריסקאית בלימוד התורה : השיטה ועתידה" ("The Conceptual-Brisker Approach to the Study of Torah: The Method and Its Future"). R. Lichtenstein has published numerous articles on the subject, which has attracted increasing attention from the academic community in recent years. Notable contributions include  Sergey Dolgopolsky, "Constructed and Denied : 'The Talmud' from the Brisker Rav to the 'Mishneh Torah'," in Encountering the Medieval in Modern Jewish Thoughted. James A. Diamond and Aaron W. Hughes (Leiden: Brill, 2012). Chaim Saiman has published an article situating the method's origins within nineteenth-century conceptual approaches to law in general; see his "Legal Theology: The Turn to Conceptualism in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Law," Journal of Law and Religion 21 (2005-2006). David Flatto has looked at the relationship between the conceptual and critical approaches to Talmud study in his "Tradition and Modernity in the House of Study: Reconsidering the Relationship Between the Conceptual and Critical Methods of Studying Talmud," Tradition 43 (2010). Mention should be made of another article from Tradition on the subject-- Marc Shapiro's "The Brisker Method Reconsidered," Tradition 31 (1997). Book-length treatments include the 2006 volume of the Orthodox Forum, "לומדות: The Conceptual Approach to Jewish Learning" and Norman Solomon's The Analytic Movement: Hayyim Soloveitchik and His Circle.  

Review of Stern, _The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism_

August 1st, 2013

Review of Eliyahu Stern, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 336 pp. $45.00 By Joshua Teplitsky Elijah ben Solomon (1720-1797), the “Gaon” of Vilna, has given historians no shortage of material with which to work.  Hardly a text of rabbinic literature exists that Elijah did not comment upon, and he has been the subject of a number of studies even within the last decade.  Some of these have examined the content of Elijah’s thought vis-à-vis other Jewish movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Enlightenment and Hasidism, or considered the fashioning of his formidable reputation and authority despite the fact that he held no communal post.  In contrast to these enterprises, Eliyahu Stern’s new study of Elijah of Vilna—The Genius—reads as an exercise in counter-history.  Formulated most concisely by David Biale in his work on Gershom Scholem, “counter-history is a type of revisionist historiography, but where the revisionist proposes a new theory or finds new facts, the counter-historian transvalues old ones.”[1]  Although Stern never uses this term to describe his project, his arguments provocatively transvalue several dominant historiographical strains, reorienting our understanding of Jewish life in eastern Europe and challenging the very concept of modernity.  With Elijah as his fulcrum, Stern reorients both conceptual and geographic understandings of modernity.  In the first case he assails the binary of “tradition” versus “modernity.”  In the second case he challenges the tendency to identify (north)western Europe as modern and Europe’s east (and the rest of the globe) as laboring to conform to that paradigm.  Instead, Stern argues that the modern experience was expressed not as a movement within Judaism, but rather as a condition. Placing Elijah—who avoided the realm of the social and political—at the center of his narrative necessarily emphasizes the importance of intellect to modern Jewish life in eastern Europe, rather than legal rights, Emancipation, the military, or the mass politics of socialism, liberalism, or Zionism.  Following an introductory chapter on of Elijah’s place in the city of Vilna, the book proceeds to explore the man’s religious and philosophical worldview.  Stern treats Elijah’s conceptions of epistemology, theodicy, and human agency by situating him within eighteenth-century modes of Idealist thought, especially that of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1713) of Hanover.  Stern acknowledges that “it would have been historically impossible for him [Elijah] to have read many of Leibniz’s and his students’ most important works” (62), and thus forges this otherwise unattributable linkage phenomenologically, by noting the use of mathematical tropes common to both Leibnizian Idealism and Elijah’s apprehension of the cosmos.  Rather than fret over the absence of textual evidence for this shared philosophical orientation between Leibniz and Elijah, Stern transvalues the paucity of contact into an argument for Elijah’s near-spontaneous genius.  In Stern’s reading, mathematics—a departure from the dominant strain of Jewish mystical writing that focused on emanations of the Godhead—offered an expression of the underlying “original harmony” of the divine order, a preoccupation of Leibniz as well as Elijah.  This quest for harmony through mathematical precision is shown by Stern to have liberating consequences: the intelligibility of all of creation to the human mind and the pre-historicist hermeneutic that held of an eternality of concepts authorizes the reader to emend a text to cohere with its expected, ideal state (55), or rather, to make the content of a text conform to its purported subject.  Elijah’s “hermeneutic category of emendation” (38) became a favored pattern of his textual approach. Stern creatively uses a comparative approach, contrasting Elijah’s thought to other eighteenth-century figures, not to establish actual ties but to assert the uniqueness of his subject.  True to the counter-historical impulse, Stern makes the absence of evidence for intellectual exchange into a virtue, liberating Elijah’s intellectual profile from an antiquarian search for direct antecedents to his thought and considering instead a larger, less tangible, context for his thinking.  In chapter 3 Stern uses his comparative method to revise the relationship between Elijah and his Berlin contemporary Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) by considering the impact of demography on culture and intellect.  Whereas Mendelssohn’s writings were forged in the crucible of the scrutiny of Berlin Protestantism and were forced to defend minority rights, the demographic majority of Vilna’s Jews enabled Elijah to innovate without the threats posed by Christian critics or Jewish confessional boundary guards.  Stern thus shifts the discussion away from questions of influence or intellectual transit, inquiring instead after contextualized significance.  Not all readers may be swayed by Stern’s transvaluation of which eighteenth century “genius”—Mendelssohn or Elijah of Vilna—is more innovative, but his method of arriving at this assessment should surely be studied as a model of considering intellect in its fullest context. This act of transvaluation continues in chapter 4, in Stern’s consideration of Elijah’s campaign against Hasidism, the aspect of his career for which he is most famous.  Challenging those scholars who would identify Hasidism as innovative and its opponents as traditionalist, Stern argues that the controversies over Hasidism represent a clash of two equally new ideologies, one (Hasidism) elevating the charismatic individual and his relationship to the divine, the other (Elijah’s oppositional Mitnagdim) as the apotheosis of text-centeredness.  This is a departure from the common understanding of Elijah’s extreme nomianism as compared to Hasidic charisma, or of patently mistaken contrasts of legalism versus kabbalah—a false dichotomy in Elijah and eighteenth-century Jewish literature in general.  Here Stern joins a chorus of Jewish historians who have applied advances in the history of reading and the complex relationship between oral praxis and textual precept to consider the importance of text-centeredness in various times and places in Jewish history.  Not law, in Stern’s reading, but text is Elijah’s preoccupation. Elijah’s approach to rabbinic texts forms the subject of chapter 5, in which Stern analyses his most important literary contribution, the Biur (not to be confused with Mendelssohn’s project of the same name), a commentary to the Code of Jewish Law (Shulhan Arukh) by Yosef Karo.  Stern demonstrates Elijah’s rejection of two prior centuries’ method of study in the form of pilpul in favor of a re-emphasis on the Talmud.  This shift in emphasis was promulgated by Elijah’s students in the nineteenth century, chiefly in the Volozhin yeshiva.  The rise of the nineteenth-century yeshiva represented a transfer of power from the autonomous community to the privatization of Jewish institutions.  Stern metonymically links Code to premodern community and Talmud to privatized yeshiva in the  modern Jewish culture. This emphasis on context for counter-history and focus on Elijah’s intellectual, rather than social, import, occasionally leaves the reader wanting more content about Elijah’s political agency, rather than solely his intellectual force, in order to fully understand the transmission of his ideas and their impact.  For example, although Stern’s first chapter posits a “symbiotic relationship that made both Elijah ‘the Genius of Vilna’ and Vilna ‘the mother of Eastern European Jewry’” (13-14), it remains unclear how this symbiosis operated.  Were settlers attracted to Vilna on account of Elijah?  Did an influx of settlers reshuffle the balance of power within Jewish circles there?  In the absence of a clear answer to these questions based in archival data, it seems, rather, that events ancillary to Elijah’s biography stimulated urban growth, of which Elijah was a beneficiary, not a cause, events which might productively have been given greater consideration. Elijah’s influence is also difficult to discern.  Stern offers examples of scholars who came to study with Elijah, but notes that his “brilliance was directly experienced by only a select few” (28).  Contrasted with the Hasidic masters, who related holistically to their students, not limiting themselves merely to intellectual encounters, Elijah’s limited contact with his students makes the power of his reputation even more intriguing, and raises interesting questions about the ways in which this reputation was crafted and communicated.  Indeed, Stern reminds us that Elijah stood aloof from kehilla leadership, always predicating his opposition to new developments not on social unrest but theological deviance.  But this serves to further obscure Elijah’s relationship with the levers of power in Vilna, rather than illuminate them.  Stern tells us that Elijah “wielded his power unsparingly” (84)—but what was the source, nature, and efficacy of that power?  While he demonstrates increasing favoritism and patronage of Elijah by the Vilna community (in the form of legal backing and tax exemptions), one wishes that an example of Elijah’s use of this newfound authority on the communal stage was offered as illustration of his power. Stern gestures towards this, by pointing to the noxious struggles of the 1760s between Vilna’s chief rabbi and the members of the community, allowing him to argue that Elijah’s authority was enhanced as a by-product of his non-partisanship in this searing event that imploded the legitimacy of the traditional rabbinate.  He also shows us Elijah’s diffidence when under interrogation by Christian authorities regarding the kidnapping of a would-be convert from Judaism to Catholicism in Vilna, but this stands as a single example of reticence, rather than of Elijah’s engagement with state authority (71).  Even in his treatment of Elijah’s opposition to Hasidism, we learn more about the intellectual underpinnings of this opposition and its polemical expressions than its manifestations in the realm of human relations.  His own retreat into private study, refusing “to go out beyond my own courtyard” (as he wrote in 1781), seems to epitomize political passivity, rather than agency (104). The counter-historical drive is strongest in Stern’s use of Elijah to reconsider our understanding of modernity.  As he states in his introduction, the book aims to sidestep both the classical narrative of modernity as secularity and more recent images of both secularists and their traditionalist critics as engaged in a quintessentially modern enterprise.  Instead, Stern reaches to understand “the experience of the overwhelming majority of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century eastern European Jews, who did not spend their days either combating the western European secular pursuit of science, philosophy, and mathematics or holding on to the same political and social structures of their sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ancestors” (7).  This is a worthy project.  Given his dissatisfaction with earlier historiographical enterprises’ grasp of this overlooked, silent, “overwhelming majority,” one might have expected Stern to depart from a biographical treatment of an individual exemplar in favor of a broader canvas.  Consistent with concerns for a majority, one might also have expected him to locate the engine of modernity not in intellect but elsewhere.  Surprisingly Stern narrates the story of the “condition” of eastern European Jewish modernity as the story of one remarkable life, and places intellectual output at the core of that life’s achievements.  While Stern’s work as an intellectual historian brims with insights about the nature of Elijah’s thought, it may be too heavy a burden to suggest Elijah’s responsibility for major changes undergone by eastern Europe’s Jews which involved major social, political, and economic novelties. Stern is clearly aware of the pitfalls of using Elijah to represent this alternative understanding of Jewish modernity, and therefore shifts between the man’s achievements in his own context and his image and impact as crafted by his students.  This change between the man and his legacy can be confusing.  In his final chapter, entitled “The Genius,” Stern marshals eighteenth- through twentieth-century conceptions of genius and states that “the Gaon’s celebrity was less the fruit of any particular writings (which were tremendous but little appreciated by the masses) than the result of his reputation for intellectual brilliance” (143), apparently moving away from his own emphasis on Elijah’s thought and writings towards the images wrought by his successors.  Stern convincingly demonstrates that this reputation was the product of a polemical stance vis-à-vis Hasidism and the emerging opportunities for higher education for Jews in eastern Europe (150), thereby acknowledging social and cultural values beyond Elijah’s control that shaped his reception by later generations.  Stern’s initial emphasis on Elijah’s exceptional brilliance thus sits somewhat uncomfortably astride his observations regarding the crucial role of the circles around Elijah as shapers of this incipient modernity and their responses to changing cultural needs.  Despite these observations, in the final sentence of the chapter, Stern returns to his motif of the city of Vilna as representing an idea of genius telling us that “the man most responsible for fashioning it and then burnishing it to high polish was the Gaon” (165).  Rather than allow for the images of Elijah to serve as a barometer of larger social, political, and cultural shifts, this argument maintains a very tight focus on the individual, a focus Stern might have expanded to more fully integrate the role of the circles around Elijah. Notwithstanding these critiques based in social and political categories of analysis, The Genius is an innovative piece of intellectual history, inviting the reader past the traditional questions of origin, influence, and impact into an assessment of the strength of ideas in their own time and place against varying intellectual contexts.  Wedding close textual analysis to questions about reputation and the social product of the image of genius, the book raises valuable themes about how we consider modern experience and restores the importance of ideas to that consideration.  It forcefully argues against the conventional concepts of tradition versus modernity and East versus West, complicating modernity’s trajectories and boundaries, integrating the rabbinic culture of eastern Europe squarely within the notion of a modernity understood less as project or even ideology and more as a condition.

[1] David Biale, Gershom Scholem : Kabbalah and Counter-history, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), 7.