It was a great honor and deeply humbling to succeed Dean David Berger in July 2020 and take the reins as the Dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

When I signed on to do so in late February 2020, I was not expecting to spend much of my first year sat in a home office becoming an amateur epidemiologist. Yet, despite the challenges this presented, thanks to Revel’s indefatigable faculty, staff, and students, we continued to progress on all fronts.

Necessity, it is often said, is the mother of invention, and the enforced move to remote platforms that we all experienced this year enabled Revel to engage new audiences both nationally and internationally. This past academic
year, our student numbers increased by almost 40%, our internationally renowned faculty continued to produce outstanding scholarship, and we were able to put on events that reached audiences the size of which Revel has never seen before.

This “Year in Review” newsletter highlights some of the best of this past year for you, emphasizing Revel’s continued commitment to superior academic achievement and communal engagement.

As we move into the academic year 2021–22, we hope to be able to share more exciting developments with you as Revel continues to build for the future.

With all best wishes,

Daniel Rynhold, PhD
Dean, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies

Dr. Daniel Rynhold at the podium

 

Dr. Jonathan DauberIt is my pleasure to share some highlights of a very successful academic year at the BRGS PhD program. Despite the hardships that Covid created, our Ph.D. students enjoyed an intellectually stimulating year with significant
accomplishments. In the opening event of the fall 2020 semester, advanced PhD students presented summaries of their dissertation research to their peers. Over the course of the academic year, we had a number of Zoom gatherings where PhD students interacted with leading scholars in a range of fields, including Dr. Susan Weissman, Dr. Jordan Finken, Dr. Cedric Cohen Skalli, and Dr. Lawrence Schiffman.

I am honored to recount the accomplishments of our students. Several articles published by our students are listed later in this publication. BRGS is especially proud of our two most recent PhD graduates who both successfully defended their first-rate dissertations. Dr. Asher Oser’s dissertation, “When an American Jew Produced: Judah David Eisenstein and the First Hebrew Encyclopedia,” tells the story of the publication of the first modern Hebrew encyclopedia, Ozar Yisrael, by Judah David Eisenstein, an amateur scholar and entrepreneurial immigrant to New York City. Dr. Jeong Mun. Heo’s dissertation, “Images of Torah From the Second Temple Period Through the Middle Ages,” tracks the ramifications of the development of conceptions of Torah across a long historical period. We wish Drs. Oser and Heo great success in their future academic endeavors. We are looking forward to building on this year’s successes in the year to come.
Signature of Jonatha Dauber

Jonathan V. Dauber, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Jewish Mysticism
Director of the Ph.D. Program

Dauber at whiteboard

Events

JULY 3, 2020
How Will We Remember Covid? A View from the Archives
Presented by Shulamith Berger and Prof. Steven Fine
WATCH VIDEO

FEB 10, 2021
On the Margins of Medieval Jewish Society in Halakhah and History: the Ger Toshav and the Apostate
Presented by President Ari Berman and Prof. Ephraim Kanarfogel celebrating the publication of Prof. Kanarfogel’s Brothers from Afar: Rabbinic Approaches to Apostasy and Reversion in Medieval Europe
WATCH VIDEO

FEB 16, 2021
Shabbetai Zvi and the Most Successful Messianic Movement in Jewish History after the First Century
Presented by Prof. David Berger
Sponsored by a Revel supporter and hosted by Young Israel of Great Neck
READ MORE

MARCH 17 2021
Crisis and Hope: Ambassador Dan Shapiro and Rabbi Yosef Blau in Conversation
Presented by Prof. Jess Olson
WATCH VIDEO

APRIL 20 2021
Book Launch: Contextualizing Jewish Temples
Presented by Prof. Shalom Holtz in celebration of the publication of his new book, Contextualizing Jewish Temples
READ MORE
WATCH VIDEO

APRIL 27, 2021
Antisemitism, White Nationalism and Racism in America Today
Presented by Eric Ward and Prof. Jess Olson
WATCH VIDEO

MAY 5, 2021
Magefah: Pandemics throughout Jewish History
Presented by Prof Richard Hidary, Prof. Ronnie Perelis and Prof. Jess Olson
Sponsored by a Revel supporter and hosted by DAT Minyan
WATCH VIDEO

Chinese-Jewish Conversation

Names in Hebrew and Chinese from a Kaifeng Jewish prayer book. Courtesy of the Klau Library in Cincinnati.

The Chinese-Jewish Conversation held its last in-person event on March 3, 2020 on Biblical and Chinese Ecological Values. The next day, YU shut down due to Covid. During the academic year 2021/22, the CJC migrated to an online platform, both in English and Chinese. The newly designed CJC website includes a rich video library that presents aspects of the Chinese and Jewish traditions comparatively. The newly created CJC Chinese blog presents essays on Jewish beliefs and customs, festivals, ancient and modern history, and world-famous personalities. Through the CJC WeChat account, the blog is publicized widely on Chinese social media, answering questions that many Chinese people have about Jews, Judaism, and Jewish culture and history.

Publications

DAVID BERGER

BOOK CHAPTERS

  • “Scholarship and the blood libel: Past and present.” In A. Lange, K. Mayerhofer, D. Porat, & L.H. Schiffman (eds.), Confronting anti-semitism in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (pp. 71-85). De Gruyter. (2020).
  • “The problem of exile in medieval Jewish-Christian Polemic. In Y. Berger & C. Milikowski (eds.), In the dwelling of a sage lie precious treasures: Essays in Jewish studies in honor of Shnayer Z. Leiman (pp. 189-204). KTAV Publishing House. (2020).
  • “Metamorphoses of the concept ‘antisemitism’: A response to David Engel’s article.” In S. Ury & G. Miron (eds.), Antisemitism: Historical concept, public discourse (pp. 363-373). Zion: A Quarterly for Research in Jewish History.
MORDECHAI Z. COHEN

BOOK

  • The Rule of Peshat: Jewish constructions of the plain sense of scripture and their Christian and Muslim contexts, 900-1270. University of Pennsylvania Press.
STEVEN FINE

EDITOR

  • Miller, S., Swartz, M., Fine, S., Grunhaus, N., & Jassen, A. (eds.). (2020). Scrolls to traditions: A Festschrift honoring Lawrence H. Schiffman. Brill.

BOOK CHAPTER

  • (2020). “The treason of Yosa Meshita (Genesis Rabba 65:27): A rabbinic reflection on the fate of the Temple Lampstand.” In S. Fine, N. Grunhaus, A. Jassen, S. Miller, & M. Swartz (eds.), Scrolls to traditions: A Festschrift honoring Lawrence H. Schiffman, (pp. 254-275). Brill.

JOURNAL ARTICLE

  • (2020). Review of Abraham Tal, ed., Tibåt Mårqe: The ark of Marqe: Edition, translation, commentary. In Review of Biblical Literature Online. (2020).
  • Review of Ross Shepard Kraemer: The Mediterranean diaspora in late antiquity what Christianity cost the Jews. In Review of Biblical Literature Online.
NAOMI GRUNHAUS

EDITOR

  • Miller, S., Swartz, M., Fine, S., Grunhaus, N., & Jassen, A. (eds.). (2020). From Scrolls to traditions: A Festschrift honoring Lawrence H. Schiffman. Brill.
JEFFREY S. GUROCK

BOOK CHAPTER

  • (2020). “The dilemmas of immigrant ‘tweeners’: An exploration of age and Americanization.” In Y. Berger & C. Milikowsky (eds.), In the dwelling of a sage lie precious treasures: Essays in Jewish studies in honor of Shnayer Z. Leiman, (pp. 281-296). KTAV Publishing House.
  • (2021). Jewish geography in New York neighborhoods. In D. Soyer (ed.), The Jewish metropolis: New York from the 17th to the 21st century, (pp. 205-228). Academic Studies Press.

ONLINE WORK

  • (2020). “In memoriam: Moses Rischin.” Perspectives of History. Historians. READ MORE
RICHARD HIDARY

BOOK CHAPTER

  • (2021). “A Tale of Two or Three Witnesses: Oral Testimony in Greco-Roman, Qumranic and Rabbinic Court Procedure.” In Miller, S., Swartz, M., Fine, S., Grunhaus, N., & Jassen, A. (eds.), Festschrift in Honor of Lawrence Schiffman (pp. 296-324). Brill.

JOURNAL ARTICLE

  • “Why Are there Lawyers in Heaven?: Rabbinic Aggadot on the Divine Courtroom” In Mehkerei Yerushalaim be-Sifrut Ivrit 31 (2020), 65-90.
  • “Talmud as Rhetorical Exercise: Progymnasmata and Controversiae in Rabbinic Literature” In Mada`e Ha-Yahadut (2021), 81-113.

ONLINE WORK

  • (2021). “Love, loathing, and the law of return.” Tablet. READ MORE
SHALOM HOLTZ

EDITOR

  • (2020). Contextualizing Jewish temples. The Brill Reference Library of Judaism. Brill.

BOOK CHAPTER

  • “Festschrift: Preliminary Observations on Trial Procedure in the Al-Yahudu Texts” In Koller, A., Cohen, M., & Moshavi, A. (eds.), Semitic, Biblical and Jewish Studies in Honor of Richard C. Steiner (pp 27*-37*). Bialik Institute and Yeshiva University Press.

JOURNAL ARTICLE

  • “Review of David A. Bosworth, House of Weeping: The Motif of Tears in Akkadian and Hebrew Prayers (2018)” In The Journal of Religion 100 (2020), 270–271.
EPHRAIM KANARFOGEL

BOOK

  • (2020). Brothers from afar: Rabbinic approaches to apostasy and reversion in Medieval Europe. Wayne State University Press.

BOOK CHAPTERS

  • (2020). “Understanding the trajectory of medieval Jewish studies.” In D. Sorkin (ed.), A commitment to scholarship (pp. 119-32). American Academy for Jewish Research. (2020).
  • “Gishot la-nevu’ah be-Zefon Zarefat ve-Ashkenaz bimei ha-Benayim.” In A. Koller, M.Z. Cohen, & A. Moshavi (eds.), Biblical, semitic, and Jewish studies in honor of Richard C. Steiner (pp. 158-75). Mosad Bialik and YU Press. (2020).
  • “Prognostication in medieval Jewish law and legal thought.” In M. Heiduk, K. Herbers, & H.C. Lehner (eds.), Prognostication in the medieval world: A handbook (vol. 2, pp. 944-47). De Gruyter. (2020).
  • “Assessing the (non-) reception of Mishneh Torah in medieval Ashkenaz.” In Y. Berger & C. Milikowsky (eds.), Essays in Jewish studies in honor of Shnayer Z. Leiman (pp. 123-45). Ktav. (2021).
  • “Ta`amei ha-Mizvot in Medieval Ashkenaz.” In J. Brown and M. Herman (eds.), Accounting for the Commandments in Medieval Judaism: Studies in Law, Philosophy, Pietism and Kabbalah (pp. 177-90). Brill. (2021).
  • “The Role of the Tosafists in Jewish-Christian Polemics” In C. Cluse and J. R. Muller (eds.), Medieval Ashkenaz: Studies in Honor of Alfred Haverkamp, (pp. 241-53). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. (2020).
  • “Understanding the Trajectory of Medieval Jewish Studies.” In D. Sorkin (ed.), The American Academy for Jewish Research Centenary Volume (pp. 119-32.) American Academy for Jewish Research. (2020). “Gishot la-Nevu’ah be-Parshanut Zefon Zarefat ve-Ashkenaz Bimei ha-Benayim.” In A. Koller, M. Cohen, & A. Moshavi (eds.), Mehqarim be-Safot Shemiyyot, Miqra, u-Madda`ei ha-Yahadut, (pp. 158-75). Bialik Institute and Yeshiva University Press.
AARON KOLLER

BOOK

  • (2020). Unbinding Isaac: The significance of the Akedah for modern Jewish thought. University of Nebraska Press, The Jewish Publication Society.

EDITOR

  • Koller, A., Cohen, M., & Moshavi, A. (eds.) (2020). Semitic, Biblical, and Jewish studies: Festschrift for Richard Steiner. Bialik Institute and Yeshiva University Press.

BOOK CHAPTERS

  • (2020). “Hebrew and Aramaic in contact.” In: R. Hasselbach-Andee (ed.), A companion to Ancient Near Eastern languages (pp. 439-455). Blackwell.
  • (2020). “Richard Steiner: An appreciation.” In: A. Koller, M. Cohen, & A. Moshavi (eds.), Semitic, biblical, and Jewish studies: Festschrift for Richard Steiner (pp. 7-14). Bialik and Yeshiva University Press.
  • (2020). “Thrones and crowns: On the regalia of the West Semitic Monarchy.” In: L. Naeh & D. Brostowsky (eds.), The throne in art and archaeology from the dawn of the Ancient Near East until the Late Medieval Period (pp. 123-134). Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
  • (2020). “Tree and wood, polysemy and vagueness: Detangling the branches of the Hebrew word עץ . In: A. Koller, M. Cohen, & A. Moshavi (eds.), Semitic, biblical, and Jewish studies: Festschrift for Richard Steiner (pp. 164-181). Bialik Institute and Yeshiva University Press.

JOURNAL ARTICLES

  • “Review of James A. Diamond, Jewish Theology Unbound.” In AJS Review 44 (2020), 411-413.
  • “Review of Yosef Ofer, The Masora on scripture and its methods.” In Lešonénu 82 (2020), 432-436.
ARI MERMELSTEIN

BOOK

  • Power and Emotion in Ancient Judaism: Community and Identity in Formation, Cambridge University Press.
DANIEL RYNHOLD

BOOK CHAPTERS

  • (2020). “Maimonides’s theology.” In S. Kepnes (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Jewish Theology (pp.105-31). Cambridge University Press
  • (2021). “The nature of good and evil.” In Dan Frank and Aaron Segal (eds.), Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed: A Critical Guide (pp. 60-77). Cambridge University Press.

JOURNAL ARTICLE

  • Response to Kepnes: Theology and Aesthetics.” In Journal of Textual Reasoning Volume 12:1 (2021). READ MORE

Of Note

  • Dr. Joshua Karlip was awarded a generous book grant from SEFER, an institute of Jewish history in Moscow, for research on his book project, Rabbis in the Land of Atheism: The Struggle to Save Judaism in the Soviet Union. • READ MORE
  • Dr. Ronnie Perelis hosted a conference, Translating Americas, sponsored by the American Academy for Jewish Research. • READ MORE
  • Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky, a Ph.D. student, wrote an article in the forthcoming edition of Tradition. • READ MORE
  • Rabbi Yaakov Taubes, a Ph.D. student, published an article, “A Fresh Approach to Nahmanides and Aggadah at Barcelona,” in Jewish Quarterly Review 110 (2010), 769-701.
  • Binyamin Goldstein, a Ph.D. student, published an article, “Encountering the Grotesque,” in (Anna Krauß, Jonas Leipziger and Friederike Schücking-Jungblut, eds.) Material Aspects of Reading in Ancient and Medieval Cultures (pp 233-250). De Gruyter.
  • Miriam Zami, a Ph.D. student, published an article, “Yefet, Shem, and the New Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Tradition. • READ MORE
  • Dr. Daniel Rynhold, dean, participated in the podcast “The Philosophical Legacy of Jonathan Sacks” and a panel discussion with the London School of Jewish Studies on The Life Changing Ideas of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”L. • LISTEN HEREWATCH VIDEO
  • Rabbi Dr. Yosie Levine, a recent Revel Ph.D. graduate, wrote this important article about COVID vaccines. • READ MORE

Recent Graduates

Jeong Mun Heo recently completed his Ph.D. His dissertation is titled “Images of Torah from the Second Temple Period Through the Middle Ages.” He also holds a B.Sc. in Mathematics and Computer Sciences from Kosin University and an M.Div. from Korea Theological Seminary in his native South Korea, and an M.A. in Jewish Education from the Hebrew University Jerusalem as well as a Th.M. in Biblical Studies from Boston College. He hopes to continue research in the area of phenomenology of religion, and the philosophical and theological discourse between Judaism and Christianity. He would like to establish an academic center for Jewish Studies and Jewish-Christian Dialogue in South Korea, which would contribute to not only promoting a mutual and positive understanding of their ancient roots that preserve academic, religious, and cultural Jewish-Christian heritages but also broadening the understanding of the interreligious dialogues between Jewish-Christian faiths, as well as other religious faiths.

“Looking back at great memories of my time at YU, I can say that it was the most fortunate, blessed, and rewarding experience in my academic life.”

“I was particularly privileged to have had the opportunity to meet and learn from Revel’s faculty. I enjoyed the classes which were taught by the excellent professors who have contributed to my experience and intellectual development—enriching and empowering my knowledge and understanding of a broad range of academic areas…[O]ne of the major highlights of my experience during the first year at YU—how, in an individual tutorial with my supervisor, Dr. Jonathan V. Dauber, I enjoyed reading the Hebrew original texts of the Nefesh HaChaim, written by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, who discusses the idea of Torah lishmah, Torah for Torah’s Sake.”

“My experiences and studies at YU provided me with immense joy of learning. I was empowered by the spirit of integrating faith and scholarship…”

Asher Oser recently completed his Ph.D. His dissertation is titled “When an American Jew Produced: Judah David Eisenstein and the First Hebrew Encyclopedia” and tells the story of the publication of first modern Hebrew encyclopedia, Ozar Yisrael, by Judah David Eisenstein, an amateur scholar and entrepreneurial immigrant to New York City.

Aron White is originally from the U.K., and has a B.Sc. in Politics and International Relations from the University of London. After studying at Yeshivat Hakotel, he began his semikha studies at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), which he completed in 2020. During his semikha studies, he also earned a certificate in Mental Health Counseling through the RIETS/Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology as well as an M.A. in Jewish History through the Bernard Revel Graduate School. Aron made aliya with his family in October 2020 and now works as the Torah Projects Coordinator for Mizrachi USA/RZA.

“I feel that my time in Revel has made me a better Jew, and enabled me to be a better Rabbi and teacher. Through the range of courses I was enabled to study, all taught by genuinely world leading professors, I felt I both deepened and broadened my understanding of Jewish history, heritage and learning. By combining the best of academic scholarship with an institution that celebrates a commitment to Jewish life, Revel has given me something invaluable that I will take with me for the rest of my life.”

Denise Zami currently teaches Tanakh to 9th and 11th grades at SAR High School in Riverdale. She just completed her M.A. in Bible Studies at Revel. Denise also received her B.A. in Jewish Education from Stern College for Women, where she was a Legacy Heritage Scholar. Denise previously taught Jewish Studies at Gann Academy, an innovative pluralistic high school in the Boston area. Denise lives in Manhattan with her husband Jason and
new baby girl, Regina.

Rebecca Zami completed her M.A. in Ancient Jewish History. Currently, Rebecca is the Leon Charney Research Associate at the YU Center for Israel Studies working on the upcoming exhibition, Samaritans: A Biblical People. Rebecca has a particular interest in Biblical archaeology and has participated in archaeological excavations in Israel and hopes to pursue a degree in archaeology following her graduation from Revel.

Incoming Ph.D. Students

Mendel Breitstein holds a bachelor’s in English literature from the University of Maryland an M.A. in Medieval Jewish history from BRGS. He is a teacher at Yeshivat Bne Akiva Netivot Haim in Pisgat Zev and also teaches in Israeli colleges. He is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy.

Avishag Damari has a joint B.Ed. in Judaic Studies and Educational technology from Michlala Jerusalem College and an M.A. in Leadership and Educational System Management from Bar-Ilan University. After teaching Middle School Judaic Studies and Media Communications for several years in Israel, Avishag came to New York as a Shlicha for the World Zionist Organization whereby she taught Hebrew Language, Israeli Culture, and Zionism, at both Barkai Yeshiva in Brooklyn and SAR Academy in Riverdale. Avishag received an MA in Jewish philosophy at the Bernard Revel Graduate School, where she is now engaged in Ph.D. studies in the same discipline.

Roy Feldman holds a B.A. in History and Linguistics from Columbia University, an M.A. in Jewish Philosophy from BRGS, and Rabbinic Ordination from RIETS. He is currently Associate Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. Roy is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish History and has a particular interest in American Jewish History.

Elisha Fine is a doctoral student in Jewish History of the modern period at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva University.

Having recently completed his M.S.W. at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, his work focuses on the cultural history of death and dying.

Noam Kornsgold holds a B.A. in History from Columbia University and a B.A. in Talmud and Rabbinics from JTS. He also earned an M.A. in Talmud and Rabbinic and rabbinic ordination from JTS.

Noam currently serves as the Director of Education and Programming at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. He is pursuing a doctorate in medieval Jewish history with a particular interest in the development of halakhah in medieval Ashkenaz.

Annie Nagel holds a B.A. in Biology from Stern College and a J.D. from UCLA School of Law. Annie practiced law in Los Angeles for several years and currently teaches Tanach at YULA Girls High School.

She is pursuing a doctorate in Bible and has a particular interest in the biblical commentaries of Ramban.

David Selis is the Leon Charney Doctoral Fellow at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva University, and a research fellow of the YU Center for Israel Studies.

His particular interests are the history of the Hebrew book and Modern Jewish cultural history.

After a year of Covid -19, a pandemic hopefully receding for good, three professors at Bernard Revel Graduate School shared some varied reflections related to pandemics. Over fifty participants joined in the virtual event on May 5, Magefah: Pandemics Throughout Jewish History.

Dr. Richard Hidary presented “Talmudic Teachings on Loss and Survival during a Pandemic.” He collated sources from the Talmud which recommend introspection, repentance, and prayer in the face of a plague. Interestingly, he also showcased a Talmudic source, Bava Kamma 60b, which recommends notions of quarantine (“Come in your rooms and close your doors…(Isaiah 26:6)) and social distancing “Do not walk in the middle of the road..”

Dr. Ronnie Perelis spoke about “Dancing with Death: Life and Death and the Plague in Sepharad.” He analyzed the words of the Danse Macabre, a popular song in Spain after the Black Death which personified Death and described ‘his’ dancing with all different characters in Spanish society. Dr. Perelis argued that the specific descriptions of Jews and Muslims in the song evince the real social familiarity the different religious groups shared in medieval Spain.

Dr. Jess Olson commented on “1919 to 2020: Jews and Two Centuries of Pandemics.” He compared the influenza epidemic of 1919 to the Covid-19 pandemic of today. He mentioned that though our medical knowledge has advanced considerably in the century, the Unites States has suffered disproportionately in the Covid 19 pandemic. On a positive note, Dr. Olson suggested that the global position of Jews is more secure now than it was a century ago.

 

Dr. Joshua Karlip

Dr. Joshua Karlip is associate professor of Jewish history and Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Chair of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. He has taught in the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish StudiesYeshiva College and Stern College for Women.

On May 17, 2021, he received a letter from the SEFER Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization in Moscow, Russia, announcing that he had been awarded a grant to support his newest book project, tentatively titled Rabbis in the Land of Atheism: The Struggle to Save Judaism in the Soviet Union. (YU News has posted a story about Dr. Karlip also receiving support from Yeshiva University for this project.)

“I learned about the SEFER Center and the grant through an announcement on a listserv I’m a member of,” he noted. “The grant will cover all expenses related to research, such as airfare, hotels, costs for use of archives, and so on.”

He plans to use the grant money to travel to Israel this summer to conduct research at the National Library of Israel and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, both of which are located in Jerusalem.  “They possess rich archival material on the lives and writings of rabbis in the Soviet Union during the interwar period.  I also plan to use the money to travel to Moscow in the summer of 2022 for the SEFER conference and also to travel to archives throughout the former Soviet Union that house material about Jewish religious life in the Soviet Union.”

Dr. Karlip explained that the heart of the book is the untold story of how Soviet rabbis attempted to keep Judaism alive and relevant to their followers when living in a militantly atheistic state.  “By analyzing responsa, sermons, Hasidic addresses, and correspondence, I will demonstrate how rabbis constructed a political theology to make sense of the success of the Soviet government even as they sought to make room for religious belief and observance in the lives of Soviet Jews.

 

On April 6th, students and community members were treated to a special virtual tour in the latest installment of the Crisis and Hope series. Dr. Ronnie Perelis welcomed Monica Unikel-Fasja, the author of “Synagogues of Mexico.”  Using many detailed photographs, Monica explored the history of the Jewish settlement in Mexico, from the first crypto- Jews to the modern day community. She specifically spoke about and showed beautiful images of the Sinagoga Justo Sierra, the first Ashkenazic synagogue in Mexico, built in 1941, where Monica now serves as director. The full video from the event can be viewed here: https://www.yu.edu/crisisandhope/past-recordings

 

Who was Shabbetai Tzvi? Why was his messianic movement incredibly successful, even surviving the apostasy and death of the purported messiah? What lasting impact did this false messiah have on Jewish History?

On Tuesday Feb. 16, over 400 people joined a Zoom lecture organized jointly by the Bernard Revel Graduate School and the Young Israel of Great Neck to hear Dr. David Berger, former Dean and current professor at Revel, speak about one of the areas of his scholarly expertise.

Dr. Berger, drawing upon the work of Gershon Scholem and other academic treatments of the subject, first sketched a biography of Shabbetai Tzvi. Born in Smyrna in 1626, Shabbetai began acting strangely at the age of 22, pronouncing the name of God, telling the sun to stop in its tracks, later marrying a Torah scroll, and engaging in other bizarre, or even forbidden acts. Dr. Berger explained how this possibly manic-depressive individual’s eccentricities developed into a full-blown messianic movement with the involvement of Nathan of Gaza, who became the prophet and theologian for Sabbateanism, which at one point captured the allegiance – to a greater or lesser degree- of most of world Jewry.

Scholars argue as to the cause for Sabbateanism’s unprecedented success. Some point to the Chmielnicki Uprising in Poland, which occurred in 1648, the same year Shabbetai Tzvi began to garner attention. They suggest that the despair of Ashkenazic Jewry in the aftermath of the bloody uprising was fertile ground for a messianic movement. Gershon Scholem rejected this explanation on the grounds that the movement’s origin and greatest intensity were in the Sephadic orbit and instead emphasized the influence of widespread Lurianic mysticism in the movement’s success. Moshe Idel and others rejected this on the ground that Lurianic mysticism was not that widespread. A third, plausible factor is the extensive diaspora of Marranos, former Marranos, and relatives of Marranos. Crypto-Jews had been forced to declare their belief in a false messiah and now had the opportunity to welcome the true redeemer. An additional consideration is the rapid international communication that was available by the seventeenth century, a factor noted by Jacob Katz. Finally, the rational approach of Maimonides, who says THAT the exact messianic process is unclear, made it difficult to disprove that Shabbetai Tzvi might turn out to be the messiah.

Sabbateanism had a lasting impact on world Jewry. It led to communal weakness and a diminution of respect for rabbinic authority. It yielded a small but significant number of conversions to Christianity and perhaps contributed both to the rise of and opposition to Hasidism. The decline of traditional Jewish messianism and new movements of Emancipation, Enlightenment, Reform Judaism and Zionism have all been associated with Sabbateanism as well.

As always, Dr. Berger’s lecture was engaging, enjoyable, and erudite. The audio link is available here.