From Kabbalah to Conversos

Three Yeshiva College Students Present Research at Princeton Undergraduate Judaic Studies Conference

Three Yeshiva College students presented their research at Princeton University’s second annual Undergraduate Judaic Studies Conference, which brings together students from different college campuses and academic fields to present and discuss advanced Jewish studies research and connect with other highly motivated undergraduates.

“Students who come to Yeshiva University have excellent skills, and high interest, in Jewish thought and texts,” said Dr. Aaron Koller, associate professor of Near Eastern and Jewish studies and chair of the Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva College. “The extremely talented faculty we have are fortunate to be able to work with such students, showing them the excitement of academic research. It’s not surprising, but it is gratifying, that three of our students are presenting at the Princeton undergraduate conference. It’s an excellent opportunity for our students to meet students from top universities around the country doing high-quality Jewish studies work, and it’s also wonderful that the broader academic community will have the chance to see some of the work being produced in YU.”

Three students who were involved in the Princeton Judaics Conference
Left to right: Tzvi Aryeh Benoff, Yakov Ellenbogen and Yehuda Fogel

It was the second year presenting at the conference for Yakov Ellenbogen, a senior majoring in history with a minor in Jewish studies from Sharon, Massachussets. He shared a paper about medieval kabbalistic views of people with physical disabilities.

“I became interested in this a couple of years ago when I was in a summer program and was introduced to a very rich excerpt from the Zohar which discusses priests with physical impairments which disqualify them from service in Temple ritual,” said Ellenbogen. “For my term paper in a class I took with Professor Jonathan Dauber on Kabbalah, I decided to look further into this passage as well as the writings of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero regarding people with disabilities.”

Ellenbogen discovered that for kabbalists, kabbalah was a method of understanding and processing the world around them, including their encounters with disabled people. But their approach stood out in many ways from those of their medieval Christian and Ashkenazic counterparts. “I think that this type of research can further the dialogue surrounding disabilities in the Jewish community, exposing biases and uncovering the lives of their premodern Jewish predecessors,” said Ellenbogen.

Tzvi Aryeh Benoff, a senior from Bergenfield, New Jersey, discussed how various social, political and religious institutions in the Spanish Portuguese Jewish community in early 17th century Amsterdam facilitated the education and integration of Jews who had recently immigrated from Spanish-controlled lands and had been living outwardly as Christians while secretly remaining Jews.

“Having lived this way their entire life, they lacked a basic familiarity with Jewish law and Jewish thought, and I wanted to learn how the Amsterdam community helped them adjust,” he said.

Benoff found that for the most part, these issues were addressed on a symptomatic basis, as the community itself didn’t really recognize the difficulties of education and integration for the immigrants as distinct problems. “To the community, there were two categories of Jews: those who had accepted upon themselves to live according to the customs and laws of the community and Judaism, and those who had not yet done so,” Benoff said. “There was no concept of a middle category of someone still growing in learning and faith.”

Benoff, who is majoring in mathematical economics and double minoring in history and American studies, initially conducted the research as part of a course on conversions to and from Judaism, taught by Dr. Chaviva Levin, visiting assistant professor of Jewish history. He plans to explore a similar topic for his senior thesis with Dr. Jeffrey Gurock, the Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History, focusing on the Young Israel of Parkchester and how the rabbi and lay leadership worked to inspire the congregation during the post World War Two era. “I see this project as part of a larger question in understanding how religious revival movements develop in the Jewish community: what factors and dynamics inspire, catalyze and effectuate a large-scale re-commitment to Jewish observance and tradition, and have those factors changed throughout history?”

Fogel, a junior studying psychology and Jewish philosophy from Woodmere, New York, presented a paper titled, “Ayzehu Gever: Haredi Draft Aversion and the War for Jewish Masculinity” at the conference. His studies focus on gender descriptions in Jewish philosophy. “I was first exposed to what I discussed at Princeton in Professor Daniel Kimmel’s Interrogating Masculinities class, and have since discussed these ideas with Professor Chaviva Levin and Rabbi Yosef Bronstein,” said Fogel. “The conference was a nice exposure to the interests of others studying Judaism with a variety of bright, driven students from colleges across the world.”