Read about “The 50th Annual Mickey Marcus Memorial Service at West Point” Published by Revel board member Mr. Len Grunstein.
Pious Women in Midrashic and Aggadic Narratives
A special visiting lecture, “The Image of the Wives of the Pious in Midrashic and Aggadic Narratives” was presented by Dr Tamar Meir on Tuesday evening May 17 to an audience that filled the Revel lounge. A distinguished scholar of midrashic literature in Israel, Dr. Meir analyzed the number of rabbinic sources—both from Eretz Yisrael and Babylonia—that speak of pious men (hasidim) and their wives. While in most instances little is known about the latter, there are some remarkable cases in which the rabbis discuss the behavior and characteristics of these pious women. Dr Meir noted that scholarship was, generally speaking, not available to women in the ancient period. With rare exceptions, the wives of the rabbinic sages were not learned. But the sort of fervent devotion to, and special connection with, God manifested by the hasidim was not dependent on scholarship. Both men and women could therefore participate equally in this realm of Jewish spiritual achievement. Indeed, while it was completely possible for a great rabbinic sage to be married to an ignorant woman, a hasid could not normally maintain his piety unless he had an equally devout partner—termed hasidah in one rabbinic source cited by Dr. Meir.
Although Dr. Meir kept her academic presentation focused on the ancient rabbinic sources from Talmud and midrash, during the question-and-answer period that followed her lecture she addressed some of the modern implications of her research. In response to one question, e.g., she noted that in the modern Orthodox community today men and women can be equally learned, and so the partnership between the hasid and hasidah attested in the ancient sources can perhaps serve as a model for husbands and wives who both dedicate themselves to the study and teaching of Torah scholarship. Exemplifying this sort of partnership herself, Dr. Meir noted that her husband is a Talmud scholar—whom she thanked for caring for their six children, enabling her to come to the United States to lecture in the areas of her scholarship.
Dr Meir is director of the Literature Department at Givat Washington College and teaches Aggadah in the Masters program in Efrata College. She teaches and researches Midrash, Aggadah, Piyut and Prayer, Chassidic stories, and Modern Hebrew Literature. Dr. Meir is also founder and director of the women’s communal Bet Midrash “Kulanu” in Givat Shmuel, and teaches in the Midrasha at Bar Ilan University. Her book, Tradition Versus Innovation: Redactional Orientations and Deep Structures in Ruth Rabbah, is in press.
Written by Dr. Mordechai Cohen, Associate Dean and Professor of Bible at BRGS
The Ark and the Cherubim: Cultic Practice and Ancient Near Eastern Iconography
Raanan Eichler, an Israeli scholar who was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University this year, delivered a guest lecture at Revel that took the audience on a journey through time to uncover the secrets of the Ark of the Covenant. Adducing examples of art and cultic objects throughout the Ancient Near East to situate the Ark in its original cultural context, Dr Eichler explored how it looked, the nature of its iconography, and its cultural and cultic functions.
The basic construction of the Ark has been subject to debate over the centuries, but illuminated in modern times by archaeology. For example, medieval Jewish commentators took the expression “its four pa‘amot” (Exod 25:1) to refer to the four corners of the Ark, even though the word pa‘am usually connotes a foot. But when looking at examples from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Levant, it quickly becomes obvious that most chests were indeed raised off the ground with four feet, one at each corner. Even the hieroglyph for “box” or “chest” shows a box raised off the ground on feet!
Scholars have argued that the Ark and the Kaporet – its lid – served as a throne for G-d, much as how other chests around the Near East and Mediterranean depicted deities seated on chests or thrones of similar construction. But the Ark depicted in the Torah has no image enthroned upon it—a symbolic way of indicating that the God of Israel has no physical form.
The cherubim on the Kaporet are of particular interest. In the Torah, they are described as pure gold figures atop the Kaporet, and we see similar size cultic figures on other arks in the Near East. Eichler pointed to a golden ark from Egypt with an Anubis figurine atop it as an example. In I Kings, the cherubim in the Temple are described as olive wood gilded with a golden overlay, and ten cubits high, with their wings outspread ten cubits so that their inner wing tips touched each other and their outer wings touched the walls of the Inner Sanctuary, the Holy of Holies. This too is not unusual. We see similar outsize sculpture of divine and mythical creatures in Mesopotamia and Assyria, as well as liberal use of gilding.
Commentators have debated for millenia what the cherubim looked like. Some say they were birds, others that they were winged children, and yet others say they were winged adults. The notion that they were winged children, first appearing in the Talmud, seems to be influences from Herodian-era Roman iconography (which was actually much later than the Ark as depicted in Exodus). The eighteenth-century discovery of Ancient Near Eastern winged oxen statues led some to posit that the cherubim resembled their form. Similar creatures are depicted in Assyria in the palace of Nimrud, guardian creatures called lamassu, revealed in archaeological excavations in the nineteenth century. Others said they were griffins, a different mythical winged creature attested in Near Eastern and Mediterranean iconography, based on the theory that the root K-R-V is akin to Greek G-R-P, from which the word “griffin” originates. Yet others suggested a winged sphinx, citing the various deities in Egypt and Mesopotamia pictures sitting upon such creatures as a living throne.
Eichler favors the theory that cherubim were winged adults, based on depictions of such creatures on cylinder seals both from ancient Israel and elsewhere in the Near East. In Egypt such winged figures shelter images of the gods. For example, on one war chest there are winged figures sheltering the name of the pharaoh Ramses. But the cherubim on the Kaporet are sheltering an empty space, symbolically sheltering the Presence of a Divine being that is incorporeal. The Ark is thus like an empty divine throne. It is uniquely and purposefully abstract to deliberately prevent physical representations of divinity so common to the region at the time, to point to this empty space and say “this is where you don’t see G-d.”
Written by B. Lana Guggenheim.
B. Lana Guggenheim studied archaeology and political science at Hunter College CUNY and international conflict at LSE.
Mission of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies articulated by Dean David Berger
Torah Umadda has been the watchword of Yeshiva University almost from its inception.
The minimal understanding of this ideal is the pursuit of the study of Torah along with secular disciplines, but its highest form is a level of integration in which each pursuit enriches the other. There is no area where the interaction is as intimate and potentially rewarding as in the use of the tools of the academy to enhance one’s understanding of the Jewish heritage itself.
The study of the Jewish experience, Jewish thought, and the sacred and classical texts of Judaism in an academic mode presents both extensive benefits and substantial challenges. The men and women who study at Revel find themselves in a genuinely non-denominational school with an extraordinary faculty of twenty-one professors specializing in Jewish Studies and a curriculum encompassing a broad array of courses in Bible, Talmud, Jewish Philosophy and Mysticism, and Jewish History taught at the highest academic level. At the same time, they experience an environment suffused with a commitment to the authentic letter and spirit of historic Judaism.
The quality and quantity of faculty whose primary area of expertise is Jewish Studies along with the range of offerings render the graduate program at the Bernard Revel Graduate School among the most impressive in the field, and in some respects it is unmatched.
The professors at Revel have without exception published highly respected books expanding the frontiers of Jewish learning. In many cases, they are counted among the most prominent figures in the world in their fields, and the younger faculty are regarded as rising stars. Relatively small classes enable students to develop a close relationship with their faculty mentors.
Students may pursue MA and PhD degrees or enroll as auditors or non-degree students with the objective of deepening their knowledge of Judaism and the Jewish people. Students can pursue their studies toward the MA degree on a part-time basis by taking one or two courses per semester. Courses meet once-a-week at 2:50, 4:50 and 6:50 p.m.
Generous financial assistance is available. For information about applying and to learn more about courses and faculty, visit www.yu.edu/revel or contact Rona Steinerman, Director of Admissions, at email@example.com.
On May 10th, Dr. Raanan Eichler of Harvard University delivered a lecture on the Ark of the Covenant in its Ancient Near Eastern context sponsored by Revel and the Center for Israel Studies. Dr. Eichler’s presentation, replete with images of archaeological finds and medieval illuminations, brought the Ark to life for the audience as never before.
Most people familiar with the Bible have an image in their heads of what the Ark of the Covenant looked like, an image which is largely the result of medieval commentaries and contemporary depictions. Modern Biblical scholars too have an idea of what the Ark looked like, but theirs comes from comparing the Ark to other large fixtures in Ancient Near Eastern temples. One current academic conception of the Ark is that it served as a throne or a footstool for God, based on the many statues of deities sitting on carved thrones that archaeologists have found.
Dr. Eichler, however, disagrees with this academically constructed image, because it does not actually fit the Bible’s description of the Ark. In the Bible, the Ark is never described as a throne or a footstool (although it is described as a dwelling-place for God). The Ark is, fundamentally, a box or a chest, meant to hold the Tablets of the Law. Therefore, Dr. Eichler looked at ancient furniture, rather than ancient temple iconography, to illuminate the Ark’s construction.
His research brought clarity to many features of the Ark which have been debated by traditional commentators. For instance, the Ark is described as possessing pe‘amot, a word which elsewhere in the Bible has the sense of feet, but is assumed by all traditional commentators (save Ibn Ezra, who reluctantly bowed to the weight of the linguistic evidence) to refer to the corners of the Ark, since its having feet is never mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. Dr. Eichler showed, however, that Egyptian chests from the Biblical period often did have feet, so that it would not have been unusual for the Ark to have them as well.
Additionally, commentators have debated whether the rings for holding the Ark’s poles were on the upper edge or the lower edge. Based again on similar objects from Egypt, Dr. Eichler demonstrated that the rings would have been on the bottom of the Ark, keeping in place the poles that supported its weight. Gold rings, being a soft metal, would tear if they had to carry the weight of the Ark from higher up on its surface. Dr. Eichler then showed images of Egyptian furniture borne on four poles, one on each corner at the base, and posited that this arrangement was shared by the Ark, which is never said to have had only two poles. Not only that, but the poles on Egyptian furniture could be pushed through the rings to rest under the legs of an object when it was placed down, as can be seen on artifacts recovered from King Tutankhamen’s tomb. Dr. Eichler hypothesized based on this that the Ark’s poles could be retracted and extended without ever leaving their rings. This provides an elegant solution to a contradiction between verses in Exodus and Numbers which perplexed commentators. The former verses state that the poles cannot be removed from the Ark’s rings, while the latter mention the poles being put “into place,” or in other words, pulled back out.
The talk then moved to the top of the Ark. The kaporet the cover of the Ark, is described as if it is its own object, which Dr. Eichler believes is for the purpose of making clear that the Ark is not the seat of a deity. The verse describes the kaporet as surrounded by a zer, a word which perplexed commentators. Most, including Rashi, translated it as a raised crown, or diadem, likely due to a perceived similarity with the word nezer. The Septuagint, on the other hand, interprets the zer as a twist of gold strands, based on a perceived similarity to the word word moshzar. But by examining Egyptian furniture and altars, Dr. Eichler was able to identify the zer as the cavetto cornice, a design feature extremely common on the tops of Egyptian furniture and ritual objects.
Finally, Dr. Eichler presented his view of the Cherubim which the verse instructs to be made attached to the kaporet atop the Ark. Traditional commentaries disagree regarding their identity, with the possibilities being either two winged children, two winged adults, or some sort of unidentified bird or animal figure. Modern scholarship has identified the Cherubim with winged animal figures often found in Ancient Near Eastern temples, perhaps a sphinx or a griffin. Since many artifacts depict gods sitting on thrones shaped like such creatures, scholars have used this identity of the Cherubim to support the view that the Ark was a throne for God.
However, Dr. Eichler sees Midrash HaGadol’s view that the Cherubim were upright adult human figures with wings as being correct. An animal figure would have to be depicted lying down, and its wings would be too small to cover the Ark. Only humans, who stand upright and have an arm span equal to their height, can have wings which are large enough to provide the canopy described by the Biblical verses and are still in proportion to the body. Rather than serving as a throne for God, the Cherubim guard the empty space on top of the Ark in which God’s presence resides, just as the Bible describes. Winged human figures are also a known motif in Ancient Near Eastern iconography, and many such statues have been found in temples of the region.
Dr. Eichler’s methodology of drawing upon archaeological records of objects similar in description and function to the Ark brought the audience into the ancient world and enabled them to envision how it looked in its setting in the holy Tabernacle.
Written by Binyamin Weinreich BRGS ’16 RIETS ’18
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