Exploring the Milieu of Great Minds: Associate Dean Cohen as Scholar-in-Residence at Jewish Center in Manhattan

As the first in a three-part celebration of Revel’s 75th anniversary intended to bring the school’s work to the attention of the broader Jewish community, Mordechai Cohen, Professor of Bible and Associate Dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, was scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on Shabbat Vayakhel-Pekudei, March 17, 2012. The second part of the celebration was a yom iyun (study day) at the Jewish Center the following day, honoring Dean David Berger (see associated story). The third part of the celebration will be a series of four public lectures at the Jewish Center by some of Revel’s finest PhD students.

Cohen had been invited by Jewish Center Rabbi Yosie Levine, himself a graduate of Revel and a former student of Prof. Cohen. (Rabbi Levine’s wife, Rachel, was also Cohen’s student at Stern College.) Rabbi Levine regarded this occasion—as well as the Revel yom iyun and PhD lecture series—as an opportunity to promote this year’s Jewish Center educational theme of “Jewish Literacy.”

The focus of Cohen’s three Shabbat lectures, which proved to be of special interest to his Jewish Center audience, was the international research project “Encountering Scripture in Overlapping Cultures: Early Jewish, Christian and Muslim Strategies of Reading and Their Contemporary Implications” that he convened and directed at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last year. This collaborative project brought together fourteen distinguished scholars from around the world to study the interpretation of Scripture comparatively. At the Jewish Center, Cohen shared some of the exciting results of his team’s research project and its implications for understanding the great Jewish Bible commentators.

Following services on Shabbat morning, Cohen gave his first lecture, “Rashi in a Christian World: Parallel Revolutions in Bible Commentary?” He began with a general outline of the collaborative research project in Jerusalem, which was an academic exploration, and not a multi-faith encounter. While the project ranged from antiquity (interpretation of the Bible in the Dead Sea Scrolls) to the modern period (the 1611 King James Bible to post-modern analysis of biblical narrative), it focused largely on the medieval period, which produced the best-known names of Jewish interpretation featured in the Miqraot Gedolot (Rabbinic Bible): Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak (David Kimhi) and Ramban (Moses Nahmanides). Cohen then turned to the specific example of Rashi (northern France, 1040-1105), perhaps the best-known Jewish Bible commentator. Yet Cohen noted that we gain a better appreciation of Rashi’s methods and goals by exploring how they relate to developments within his broader Christian surroundings. In this respect, the Jerusalem research group proved especially enriching as it revealed distinctive parallels between Rashi’s new interest in peshuto shel miqra (the plain sense of Scripture) and similar developments in Christian Bible interpretation in eleventh-century northern France.

On Shabbat afternoon, Cohen delivered his second lecture, “New Light on Maimonides: Bible Interpretation and Jewish Law in Muslim Context,” which was based in part on his recently published book, Opening the Gates of Interpretation: Maimonides’ Biblical Hermeneutics in Lights of His Geonic-Andalusian Heritage and Muslim Milieu (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2011). Although Maimonides is usually not recognized as a Bible interpreter (primarily because he did not write running commentaries on any biblical book), Cohen demonstrated that he made critical contributions to Jewish Bible interpretation by exploring key issues in this field. For example, Maimonides discusses most clearly how the Bible must be reconciled with science through figurative interpretation. In his lecture, Cohen focused on Maimonides’ bold endeavor to integrate peshuto shel miqra into the system of Jewish law (halakhah). Faced with the apparent divergence between talmudic “interpretation” of the Bible and the literary-philological (“plain sense”) exegetical method, other Jewish commentators and jurists typically regarded Bible exegesis and halakhah as two entirely distinct realms. Maimonides, on the other hand, drew upon concepts from Muslim jurisprudence to develop a system of legal hermeneutics that granted a key role to peshuto shel miqra within the halakhic system.

Seudah shlishit featured Cohen’s third lecture, “Schools of Thought: Maimonides and Rashi on Job—Philosophy vs. Psychology.” Having established Maimonides’ credentials as an important Bible commentator, Cohen outlined his literary-philosophical analysis of the Book of Job in the Guide of the Perplexed. In Maimonides’ view, the tale of Job is fictional rather than historical, and is intended to address a perennial religious dilemma: why bad things happen to good people. To do this, according to Maimonides, the Bible presents a debate among Job and his friends, from which philosophical solutions can be extracted. On this view, the goal of the Book of Job is to present the correct philosophical doctrine on this matter—which Maimonides synthesizes by interpreting various biblical texts in light of Greco-Arabic philosophical conceptions. Cohen then turned for comparison to Rashi’s commentary on Job, which was actually completed by his grandson Rashbam. Living in eleventh-century northern France, neither Rashi nor Rashbam were exposed to Greco-Arabic philosophy; but they developed a completely different, non-philosophical interpretation. On their view, this biblical book lauds the friend (Elihu) who consoled Job and reveals the wickedness of Job’s other friends (Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar) who blamed him for his suffering by accusing him of sinning. The book, then, is not about correct or incorrect philosophical doctrines, but rather the proper psychological and moral response one must offer toward a suffering companion.

There were many positive reactions to Cohen’s three lectures, which were all well attended—the Shabbat morning lecture attracting over 400 people in the Jewish Center’s main sanctuary. As one congregant remarked: “It was fascinating to see how cultural and historical factors played into the ways in which our commentators interpreted the Bible, making it meaningful for their own times.” Another Jewish Center member, a practicing attorney, found special relevance in Maimonides’ use of Muslim jurisprudence, as he related that he used his own background in American law to understand certain intricacies of talmudic family law.

This Revel-Jewish Center Shabbat exemplified the importance of academic Jewish studies—as taught at Revel—for a full appreciation of the sacred texts of Orthodox tradition.


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