By Rona Steinerman

On April 10, 2018 the Bernard Revel Graduate School hosted Rabbi Jeffrey Saks (Revel MA 1994), who spoke about S.Y. Agnon, his contribution to Hebrew literature, and the challenges of editing and translating the Nobel Prize winner’s works. In high school, Saks received a copy of S.Y. Agnon’s “Twenty-One Stories” from his grandmother. Even in English translation it made a profound impact on him. Since then he has grown to appreciate Agnon’s rich works in Hebrew and now is the founding director of the Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions in Jerusalem, and its program, as well as Director of Research at the Agnon House and Series Editor of the Toby Press Agnon Library.

Saks gave examples to highlight Agnon’s evocative style and the complexity of translating his writing, which draws heavily on all of classical Jewish literature. In many cases, a simple literal translation loses the implications of the original, which depends on an understanding of the Jewish literary tradition and customs.

“A Simple Story” in the citation below in Hillel Halkin’s translation—highlights this dilemma of expressing Agnon’s Jewish roots in translation. In Hebrew, he uses the currency of the perutah and dinar, coins mentioned in the Talmud. The English “penny” and “pound” are reasonable substitutes, and work perfectly on the idiomatic level, but do not convey the same connection to talmudic history. Although subtleties like this one are lost in translation, Agnon’s writing retains much of its vividness in other languages. As Saks noted, Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature by judges who read his work in German translation.

The challenge of translating the graphic novel written in the more condensed language of Hebrew to English. Two panels needed to be redrawn so that the action progresses in the proper order.

Agnon was from Buczacz, a small town in eastern Galicia (today’s Ukraine), spoke Yiddish, wrote in Hebrew and was immersed in biblical text and Jewish tradition. Saks, echoing Gershom Scholem, described Agnon as “the last Hebrew Classicist,” an author that mastered the “intertextual matrix.” His writing is much like an archeological dig, revealing layers of history and life as a reader or researcher peels off the layers of text, like an onion, working back to the classical sources Agnon was in dialogue with.

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by Hannah Grossman

Dr Laura Arnold Leibman, a professor of English and Humanities at Reed College, delivered a lecture on the topic of “Jews, Race, and Material Culture.” Dr Leibman, as a scholar of material culture, analyzes artifacts rather than documents in order to draw historical conclusions, and in this talk, she guided the students through analyses of depictions of Jews in caricatures, sketches and paintings in order to draw conclusions about racialized depictions of Jews, largely in the 1800’s in North and South America.

The lecture began with an introductory look at two types of depictions of Jews, one a 1723 sketch of Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam doing hakafot in their synagogue and the other a pair of propagandistic caricatures of Jews from Nazi Germany. As students raised various differences between the illustrations, specifically focusing on various anti-semitic tropes invoked in the Nazi cartoons, a clear contrast began to emerge- in 1723, a drawing of Jews made them look “normal,” like any other Europeans of the time and place, and in the 1930s, drawings depicted Jews as not just “others,” but vermin, untrustworthy, predatory, and ugly. Sometime between 1723 and the 1930s, a shift had occurred in which Jews went from being depicted as an ethnicity (an in-group with unique cultural and religious markings) to a race (a grouping imposed from the outside and assigning negative and innate physical behavioral characteristics to the group), and Dr Leibman led the group through an analysis of art throughout the 19th century which showed that this trajectory of racialized Jewish depictions came in concert with the legacy of the Inquisition, slavery, imperialism, and Jewish emancipation.

The class looked at sketches by Jacques Benoit, a Belgian artist who sketched and painted scenes in Dutch Suriname and Curacao, and who betrayed, in several of his paintings, racist attitudes toward African slaves, native tribespeople, and Jewish settlers. Dr Leibman led the class through an analysis of one painting in which he depicted a shop in which a Jewish merchant and an African tailor are serving African and native clientele; students could see many ways in which the artist purposefully used racist tropes to compare both the Jewish merchant and the African tailor are compared to a monkey in the image, and analyzed the anti-semitic tropes used in the depiction of the merchant (stereotypical trade, hooked nose, etc). She also pointed out the significance in the timing of Jews’ full emancipation in colonies like Jamaica and Curacao- the timing of Jews’ receiving rights such as the right to vote often coincided with (in Jamaica EXACTLY coincided with) the freeing of African slaves, something which influenced a racialized look at Jews, especially by those who supported slavery. Other paintings in the lecture, such as two of a carnival by Isaac Belisario, invited the class to explore the theme of racialization in art. Belisario was a prominent member of the Sephardic community of Jamaica and one of the more famous artists of the colonial period. His depictions of carnival opened up a discussion of the racial dynamics in the work of this Jewish artist.

Another major theme of her lecture was depictions of clothing and dress by Jews. In this period, cloth and clothing styles were strictly regulated by one’s class and legal status, with elegant clothing styles being extremely fitted and formal and, in contrast, with some colonies having sumptuary laws which forbade the lower classes from covering certain parts of the body. On the one hand, Dr Leibman showed several paintings of Jews in which pains were taken to show that the Jews had formal high collars, elegantly tapered torsos, and  sophisticated hair styles like those of their Christian compatriots. On the other hand, a painting of several slaves of different faiths, including a Jewish slave, showed the Jewish slave being the least dressed of all of the others, showing a specific degradation of the Jew through her clothing. Similarly but in a different vein, a sketched caricature of a Jew, Mordecai Manuel Noah, by someone known only by the signature Weedon, shows Noah in dress which is meant to demonstrate that Noah is aping conventional fashion of the time- the collar, the hair, the clothing- but that he cannot pretend to be of the right caliber, at least sartorially. His hair is shown to be unruly, his collar all the way up to his scalp, his coat baggy and his skin, tellingly, sketched dark- a combination of a racialized perception (in a time in which slavery was still a force) and a perception that no matter how much the Jew tries to blend in with the gentiles, the truth will always get out.

The talk was one which fit in well with the overall themes of Dr. Ronnie Perelis’ class, Jewish Presence in Latin America, which focuses on Jews in Latin America- and the phenomenon of slavery cannot be ignored in that case. Through Dr Leibman’s lecture, the class was able not only to reexamine Jews’ connections with slavery during their settlement in Latin America and the Caribbean, but also to examine the possibility of Jews being seen in a racialized light by other Europeans, even as the Jews themselves, in fact, saw the African slaves in this racialized light and saw themselves as white and European.

Isaac Belisario, Carnival

Weedon, Mordecai Manuel Noah


Dr. Mordechai Cohen, professor of Bible, associate dean of Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and divisional coordinator of academic Jewish studies at Yeshiva College, recently delivered a lecture about research he conducted as the head of a 14-member group of distinguished scholars from America, Europe and Israel at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem in 2010. Their year-long study aimed to bring to light aspects of interpretive approaches to sacred scriptures in the three major faith traditions.

In a Library Book talk given on Sunday, February 11, Cohen spoke about the volume produced by the research group, “Interpreting Scriptures in Judaism, Christianity and Islam” (edited by Cohen and Adele Berlin, a Biblical scholar at the University of Maryland). He showed how the Jewish tradition of Bible interpretation (parshanut ha-miqra) is best understood when we consider how our great commentators, such as Saadia Gaon, Rashi and Maimonides, met the cultural challenges posed by Muslim and Christian interpretation of scripture.

“This broadly interdisciplinary project was especially rewarding for me as a scholar of Jewish Bible interpretation,” noted Cohen, because it provided rich and profound perspectives on the Muslim and Christian cultural contexts in which our great commentators worked.” He added that the scholars of the three faith traditions that convened in Jerusalem all felt similarly that they gained a deeper perspective on their own scholarship by understanding parallel strategies of reading sacred scripture adopted within other faiths.”

The lecture can be viewed on Revel’s YouTube channel.


Dr. Cohen

In 2010/11, Dr. Mordechai Cohen headed a fourteen-member research group of distinguished scholars from America, Europe, and Israel at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem. Their study aimed to bring to light aspects of interpretive approaches to sacred scriptures in the three faith traditions that remain hidden until set in relation to one another.

In his talk, Dr. Cohen spoke about the work product of the research group, a volume he edited with Adele Berlin entitled Interpreting Scriptures in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He showed how the Jewish tradition of Bible interpretation (parshanut ha-miqra) is best understood when we consider how our great commentators, such as Saadia Gaon, Rashi, and Maimonides, met the cultural challenges posed by Muslim and Christian interpretation of scripture.

In the Spanish – Andalusian tradition, Moshe Ibn Ezra (11th cent. Spain) drew upon Arabic poetics to write his Kitāb al-Muḥāḍara wa al-Mudhākara, in which he highlighted poetic techniques found within the Bible. Maimonides, in the same tradition, used terms and concepts from Muslim jurisprudence in privileging peshuto shel miqra in his halakhic codification.

Rashi may also have been aware of intellectual trends in his surrounding culture, which was Christian and not Islam. A contemporary of his, Bruno of Cologne, who came to be known as St Bruno the Carthusian, wrote a commentary to Psalms in which he critically selected Christological interpretations of the early Church fathers. St. Bruno selected those interpretations that best fit the language and sequence of the text. This is similar to Rashi’s endeavor in his commentary to the Bible, in which he critically selects midrashim that fit and elucidate the words of the text.

Mr. Leonard Grunstein

Mr. Leonard Grunstein

Does G-d need the Tabernacle[i] or the Temple to live in and is that where G-d can be found? Isn’t G-d everywhere? Why then all this focus on the construction of the Tabernacle in last week’s Torah reading of Parshat Terumah and the accouterments of the High Priest in this week’s portion of Parshat Tetzaveh? Is there another message buried in these detailed recitations?

The Bible notes G-d commanded a Sanctuary be built. However, the verse[ii] goes on to say that G-d would then dwell in the midst of the people, not in the Sanctuary. Interestingly, at the end of this week’s Torah reading, which describes the Golden Altar, the Bible[iii] reiterates that the Divine Presence resides in the midst of the Children of Israel.

However, it would appear, the First Temple and, its predecessor, the Tabernacle, did not accomplish this mission. The Prophets are replete with admonishments against idol worship, which apparently continued throughout the First Temple period[xi]. Indeed, as the Talmud[xii] reports, idol worship was among the primary causes of the destruction of the First Temple.

What then is a sustainable approach to solving the problem? How can we, bereft of the Holy Temple, bring the Divine Presence into our lives?

It is suggested, the Bible both anticipated the problem and provided the cure. It does so in a most dramatic fashion. Bilam, an arch nemesis of the Jewish people, gave voice to the remedy, in a blessing, which G-d caused him to utter in place of the curse he intended. He gazed upon the Jewish people encamped before him. According to the Talmud[xiii], he noticed how the entrances of each of the dwellings did not face one another. Rather, they were located so as to preserve family privacy and avoid immodesty. Respecting boundaries is an essential building block in the family structure, as well as, society. As Tosafot[xiv] notes, Bilam visualized how the Divine Presence rested on them. This inspired Bilam to express how wonderful are your tents Jacob, your tabernacles[xv] Israel, as recorded in the Bible[xvi].

The Talmud[xvii] states the tents of Jacob referred to by Bilam symbolize the synagogues and study halls, where Jews pray and study Torah. The tabernacles of Israel represent the sanctity of Jewish home life. These are the two prongs of the sustainable model, which has enabled the Jewish people to survive the millennia. It benefits from the protection afforded by Divine Providence, which is a particular feature of the Divine Presence residing in the midst of them[xviii].

The Talmud[xix] reports that the Divine Presence resides in a home if the husband and wife are worthy. Rashi on this Talmudic text explains that this occurs when both spouses follow the straight path and are faithful to each other. The focus on spousal and family harmony is a reoccurring theme in the Talmud. Thus, a husband is required to respect his wife more than himself[xx] and a wife is also required to respect her husband[xxi]. Verbal abuse of a spouse is not only wrong it is a sin, which causes the offender to be punished[xxii]. The Talmud[xxiii] declares that a household is blessed, including with riches, only because of the honor and respect a husband accords his wife. The home is viewed as a sanctuary and it is important to strive to have it well provisioned, because strife within the household is typically the result of a lack of sufficient sustenance for the family[xxiv]. A person is also encouraged always to eat and drink less than his financial means permit and correspondingly treat his spouse and children better than his means would otherwise allow[xxv]. Maintaining peace and harmony in the home is critical. Indeed, the Talmud[xxvi]notes purchasing Shabbos candles takes precedence over Chanukah lights, because of the importance of maintaining family peace in the home.

In this warm and convivial environment of trust, peace and harmony in the family home, the Divine Presence resides. It is a holy sanctuary and therefore the Talmud[xxvii] cautions a person not to enter the home suddenly and to make some noise, like knocking, before entering. Rav Yochanan compares this to the ringing bells sewn into the hem of the High Priest’s robe, which announce his entry into the Holy area in the Temple before G-d[xxviii].

The Talmud[xxix] records that the synagogue and study hall are also places where the Divine Presence resides. This may help explain why the experience of praying in a quorum at the synagogue is so embracing. There is a unique brand of energy that suffuses those present and the effect is invigorating. The experience of studying Torah in the study hall is similar, except that it is often even more engaging. The give and take of Torah study with others, in this space specifically dedicated for this purpose, is energizing. The animated discussions and active engagement in the exchange of ideas are thrilling. Torah study in this setting has the power to transcend our mundane existence and it’s sublime.

The home, synagogue and study hall form a circuit dedicated to experiencing the Divine Presence, regularly, each and every day. They are holy sanctuaries, which refresh and revitalize us. They are the antidote to loneliness and feelings of ennui. Whether it is building a family in the warmth and security of the home or the unique form of social and intellectual engagement of the synagogue and study hall, they engender the sense of fulfilling a higher purpose, as a part of greater whole that transcends the individual. The effect is to inspire the feeling of being a complete person. Is that what it means to feel the Divine Presence?

As I age, I better appreciate the wisdom of this approach to life. There is a unique power to the combination of sublime experiences in these spaces, which are so effective in preserving and enhancing our existence in the face of seemingly overwhelming challenges. Enjoy them; but don’t forget to knock before entering the home and the warm embrace of family and the Divine Presence.

[i] The Hebrew term used in the Biblical text is the “Mishkan”.

[ii] Exodus 25:8.

[iii] Exodus 29:45.

[iv] Midrash Tanchuma, Teruma 8.

[v] Exodus, Chapter 32.

[vi] See Rashi’s commentary on Exodus 32:34, which notes that the sin of the Golden Calf was so overwhelming that the punishment had to be meted out in small measures (tacked on to punishments for other sins), over the ages, in order to avoid the complete annihilation of the people. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 102a.

[vii] In his commentary on Exodus 31:18.

[viii] See, for example, Nachmanide’s commentary on Exodus 25:1.

[ix] In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 20 and Mishne Torah, Hilchot Beit HaBechira 1:1.

[x] In his Guide to the Perplexed 3:32.

[xi] See, for example, Judges, Chapter 18; Isaiah, Chapters 10 and 44; and Jeremiah, Chapter 10.

[xii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 9b.

[xiii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 60a.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] The Hebrew term used is “Mishkanot”, mirroring the term “Mishkan”, as noted above.

[xvi] Numbers 24:5.

[xvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 105b.

[xviii] See Sforno and Ralbag commentaries on Exodus 29:45.

[xix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah, at page 17a.

[xx] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 59a. See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ishut 15:19.

[xxi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 31a. See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ishut 15:20.

[xxii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 59a.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chulin, at page 84b. See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Deot 5:10.

[xxvi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at page 23b.

[xxvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, at page 112a.

[xxviii] See Exodus 28:33-35 and commentary of Nachmanides on Exodus 28:35.

[xxix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at page 29a.