Meet the three Zami sisters studying at Revel:

Denise Zami currently teaches Tanakh to 9th and 11th grades at SAR High School in Riverdale. She is also studying towards her MA in Bible Studies at Revel. Denise received her BA in Jewish Education from Stern College, 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, around the corner from her sisters Miriam and Rebecca.⠀

Miriam Zami is in her first year studying towards a PhD in Ancient Jewish History at Revel. She received her BA from Stern College for Women and previously served as the Jewish educator at the Hillel at Baruch College, where she brought Jewish texts and ideas to hundreds of students in New York City. Miriam is especially interested in the study of Tannaitic literature in its cultural context and is excited to pursue research under the guidance of the wonderful professors at Revel.⠀

Rebecca Zami is a Master’s student at Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies studying ancient Jewish history. Currently, Rebecca is the Leon Charney Research Associate at the YU Center for Israel Studies working on the upcoming exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum, 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.


Dr. Ephraim Kanarfogel
Dr. Ephraim Kanarfogel

Dr. Ephraim Kanarfogel, E. Billi Ivry University Professor of Jewish History, Literature, and Law at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, has published Brothers from Afar: Rabbinic Approaches to Apostasy and Reversion in Medieval Europe, with Wayne State University Press, which has published three of his previous books. (Dr. Kanarfogel has authored or edited 11 volumes in all.)

In this new book, Dr. Kanarfogel challenges a long-held view that those who had apostatized and later returned to the Jewish community in northern medieval Europe were encouraged to resume their places without the need for a ceremony or act that verified their reversion.

His evidence suggests that from the late 12th century onward, leading rabbinic authorities held that returning apostates had to undergo ritual immersion and other rites of contrition. “I also identity,” he says, “a series of concomitant shifts in rabbinic positions during the 12th and 13th centuries concerning the halachic [Jewish legal] status of ongoing apostates, which I argue were also developed largely in response to changing Christian perceptions of Jews.”


Brothers From Afar Cover


Dr. Paola Tartakoff, professor of history and Jewish studies at Rutgers University, finds that Brother from Afar “reorients understandings of the attitudes of medieval rabbinic authorities toward apostasy, opening new avenues for research in medieval Jewish-Christian relations,” and Dr. Edward Fram, Solly Yellin Chair of Lithuanian and Eastern European Jewry at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, praises Dr. Kanarfogel for unearthing “a goldmine of material […] that sheds a whole new light on the place of repentant apostates in medieval Jewish societies.”

With this publication, Dr. Kanarfogel cements his reputation as a preeminent scholar in the fields of medieval Jewish intellectual history and rabbinic literature, writing prolifically in both English and Hebrew about these topics. (His 100th scholarly article is in press.)

His first book, Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages, won the National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship. Dr. Ivan Marcus, Frederick P. Rose Professor of Jewish History at Yale University, characterized Peering through the Lattices: Mystical, Magical and Pietistic Dimensions in the Tosafist Period as a “stimulating tour de force,” while Dr. Moshe Idel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem concluded that it is “a major contribution to the understanding of medieval Jewish culture.”

The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz won the Goldstein-Goren Prize for Best Book (2010-2013), awarded by the International Center for Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and the Association for Jewish Studies’ Jordan Schnitzer Book Award for the best book in biblical and rabbinic literature. Dr. Elliot Wolfson of New York University noted that “with the publication of this volume, Ephraim Kanarfogel has solidified his status as the leading intellectual historian of rabbinic culture in medieval Ashkenaz.”

Frequently invited to address international conferences in North America, Europe and Israel, Dr. Kanarfogel has been a three-time Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Advanced Jewish Studies and has held visiting appointments at UPenn and at Ben-Gurion University. He is editor-in-chief of the academic journal Jewish History and a lifetime Fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research, where he has served as secretary and a member of the executive committee.

He is also a valued mentor and guide for his students. Five doctoral candidates at Revel have completed their dissertations under his direction, five are currently writing their dissertations, and another five are preparing to write under his guidance.

Dr. David Berger, former dean of Revel, was impressed by the “unprecedented detail” that Dr. Kanarfogel’s research uncovered about the actions and rituals required to readmit returning converts to the Jewish community as members in good standing. “As we have come to expect of Dr. Kanarfogel,” said Dr. Berger, “he has greatly enriched our understanding of a significant phenomenon that illuminates the development of halacha, the self-image of medieval Jewry and the relationship between Jews and their environment.”

Dr. Karen Bacon, the Mordecai D. Katz and Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of the Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yeshiva University, felt that Dr. Kanarfogel had outdone himself with this new publication. “Even for someone as remarkable as Dr. Kanarfogel, this new achievement is ‘off the charts’! Brother from Afar is a page turner, if one is allowed to say that about a scholarly work of this level of sophistication.”


By Dean Daniel Rynhold

Today is Remembrance Sunday in the UK, when we honor the contributions of British and Commonwealth servicemen and women. I did not expect that it would also become a day on which I would, with deep sadness, also be honoring the memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. The sheer volume of tributes pouring out in the media, social and print, from world leaders and dignitaries, is a measure of the unquantifiable influence that Rabbi Sacks exerted within and far beyond the Jewish community. Such a tribute from me would pale in comparison. But I’ve realized as I sit here agonizing over what I should say, that measured intellectual tributes are for another day. Oddly enough, today it seems more appropriate to be almost self-indulgent, and remember the times I was honored to spend with him. Whether interviewing him early in his tenure as Chief Rabbi alongside my cousin (now Professor) Jonathan Rynhold when I was a simple undergraduate; drinking tea in his sukkah together with (now Rabbi Dr) Raphael Zarum; filming with him for his BBC Rosh Hashanah message in 1998; or sitting around the table at Hamilton Terrace where Rabbi Sacks would take the time to sit with the younger generation of Jewish educators who were barely finished – often indeed not yet finished – with their own education (when I’m sure some would have thought he could have better used that time with the great and the good). And what strikes me today is indicated by the parentheses above. That is, how many of the young people who sat around that table are now educators and communal leaders, rabbinic or otherwise, across the Jewish world. I know personally that I would not be doing what I do were it not for Rabbi Sacks. I guarantee that is the case for many of those from my generation posting today. Not only because he modelled what it was to be committed unapologetically to Orthodox Judaism without sacrificing – indeed while excelling – in the world of general philosophy and culture, but for taking the time to sit around the table not just with Prime Ministers and Presidents, but with us. To speak to us, to teach us. And to model right in front of our eyes what it is to be a Jewish leader, to be the voice of religious reason for a generation, and a public figure in whom we could all take great pride as a living, breathing kiddush hashem. יהי זיכרו ברוך


Dr. Susan Weissman

BRGS was pleased to welcome Dr. Susan Weissman for the first PhD “zoom” lunch of the semester on October 22, 12:30PM-1:30PM.  Dr. Weissman, who is a graduate of BRGS and chair of the Judaic Studies Department at Lander College for Women, discussed her new book Final Judgement and The Dead in Medieval Jewish Thought, which describes medieval Ashkenazic attitudes towards death and the afterlife against the background of the majority Christian culture.  Dr. Weissman also described her intellectual development at Revel and beyond.


The Chinese-Jewish Conversation (CJC) held its fifth event, “New frontiers of Torah U-Madda: Chinese and Jewish Ecological Values,” on March 3, 2020, with the support of the Katz School of Science and Health, the Provost’s Colloquium Initiative, and the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. CJC director Prof. Mordechai Cohen opened with a discussion of the biblical precept of shmitta and the socio-ecological values it represents. Scientifically speaking, the obligation to let the land lie fallow every seventh year protects the environment, as it ensures the land’s continued fertility by preventing the depletion of its nutrients. But shmitta has other important features: on the seventh year all loans are forgiven. In effect, society re-boots: the land, the agricultural cycle, and commercial activity begin anew. After seven shmitta years, the fiftieth year is the Jubilee. The shofar is blown and “liberty is proclaimed throughout the land” (Leviticus 25:10, engraved on the Liberty Bell). In biblical times, impoverished people were sold into servitude to repay their debts. On the Jubilee year, these slaves go free, and are granted a new beginning. Land that had been sold reverts back to its original owners. As God says in Leviticus 25:23, “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as temporary dwellers.” We never truly “own” the land. We use it—but it belongs to God. This provides a comprehensive explanation for the Jubilee and the shmitta. Those who hold financial power—be they slave owners (in ancient times) or lenders—must understand that their wealth is entrusted to them by God and ultimately is temporary. It is their social responsibility to let others have the opportunity to advance. The shmitta requirement to let the land lie fallow, likewise, demonstrates that we do not own the land. Therefore we are not permitted to ruin it. We are entrusted with the land and may use it, but are obligated to preserve it for coming generations.

In ancient times Israel was an agrarian society. The Jewish people experienced and appreciated the natural landscape of the Land of Israel. All of this changed with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, when we were exiled from the land and essentially lost our physical connection with it. “The Land of Israel” (Eretz Yisrael) was primarily a spiritual ideal over the long exile. In the modern state of Israel, however, Jewish people have re-established their connection with the natural landscape. This is reflected in modern art and literature, as brought out in the next presentation, by Dr. Rachel Ofer, Professor of Literature at Efrata and Herzog Colleges in Israel. Deuteronomy 20:19 prohibits cutting down fruit-bearing trees during a siege, saying: “For is the tree in the field a man, that would oppose you in battle?” In the Bible, this is a rhetorical question, with the obvious answer: No! But, as Dr. Ofer noted, this verse is given new meaning by the modern Israeli poet Nathan Zach, in his Hebrew poem: Ki ha-Adam Etz ha-Sadeh (“For man is a tree in the field”), meaning that there are many points of similarity between man and the tree—an element of the natural world around us. This identification is also brought out by the modern Israeli artist Anna Ticho, who portrayed trees and plants expressing human emotions. Dr. Ofer concluded with the Israeli singer Shalom Hanokh’s rendition of “For man is a tree in the field.”

The main speaker of the evening, Daniel K. Gardner, Dwight W. Morrow Professor of History at Smith College, is a world-renowned expert on the Confucian tradition and its contemporary relevance. His current project, for which he was awarded an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship in 2016, is “Imagining an ‘Ecological Civilization’: China’s Environmental Turn in the 21st Century.” Gardner was interviewed by Elena Peng, a co-author on Chinese environmental legislation since 2014, and now a consultant for the CJC. Referring to Gardner’s 2018 book, Environmental Pollution in China: What Everyone Needs to Know, Peng remarked: “What I want to know is what motivated China now to adopt a new policy of environmental consciousness?” Gardner explained that it reflects the confluence of socio-economic and political-ideological factors. To begin with, pollution was causing increasingly visible hazards and dramatic threats to public health. Garbage was floating in the rivers, and city dwellers were choking on smog. China’s earlier policy to “pollute first and clean up later” allowed for economic prosperity; but the cost was becoming too high. In combatting pollution, the Chinese Government turned to the Confucian tradition for inspiration—making the vision of an ecological society a political goal. Speaking in ideological terms, Pan Yue, Vice Minister of Environmental Protection, wrote in 2011 that “for the past century, China has studied the west and followed the western path of industrialization,” but that now “it should take time re-examine… its own cultural traditions.” As he continues: “One of the core principles of traditional Chinese culture is that of harmony between humans and nature.  Different philosophies all emphasize the political wisdom of a balanced environment.  Whether it is the Confucian idea of humans and nature becoming one, the Daoist view of the Dao reflecting nature, or the Buddhist belief that all living things are equal, Chinese philosophy has helped our culture to survive for thousands of years.  It can be a powerful weapon in preventing an environmental crisis and building a harmonious society.” (Pan Yue, “Ecological Wisdom of the Ages,” 2011

Gardner cited sources for this from the Chinese classics. The ancient adage “Heaven and humankind are one” (tian ren he yi) was explained in the Confucian tradition to mean that human beings and all of nature must exist in harmony. As the 16th century Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming explained: “The great man regards heaven and earth and the myriad things as one body… when we see plants broken and destroyed, we cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that our humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are livings things as we are.” The 11th century Neo-Confucian mystically-oriented philosopher wrote: “Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Therefore, that which fills the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.”

Wang’s words resonate with the aforementioned Jewish notion that “man is a tree of the field” and the identity between humanity and nature it implies. As Peng pointed out, the Chinese concept of heaven (tian) has been compared to the Judeo-Christian notion of God, and the Bible likewise says that man was formed in God’s image. Moreover, the Bible speaks of human beings metaphorically as “children” of God (Deuteronomy 14:1). And so, the Chinese notion that humanity and heaven are one has much in common with Jewish thought—and the vision of the ecological society emanates from both traditions.

Peng asked, however: “Did Confucius say it? Did Confucius mean it?” Can the modern value of environmental protection truly be traced to the classical Chinese sources? To this Gardner offered a twofold answer. He admitted, first of all, that he’s not sure if the modern concerns can be read into the ancient philosophical texts as their true intention. However, he went on to say that just like any religious tradition, the Confucian traditions must be re-interpreted to address the challenges of a modern world, and this gives the ancient texts new relevance. Professor Gardner’s own research into neo-Confucianism is a prime example. Much as Saadia Gaon and Maimonides interpreted the ancient Jewish texts philosophically in their Muslim cultural-intellectual context, Chinese scholars of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) reinterpreted the traditional Confucian texts in light of the metaphysical concerns of their time, spurred by the competing philosophies of Daoism and Buddhism. In a 1998 article, Gardner himself offered a comparison between Midrash and the modes of interpretation attested in the Confucian tradition. Both, he argues, respond to similar stimuli: to address new cultural and intellectual pressures and reaffirm the traditions of the past. As he writes: “Any threat to the hegemony of the… [sacred literary] canon and to the lived tradition that takes that canon as its inspiration incites commentarial activity and response.” (See Daniel Gardner, “Confucian Commentary and Chinese Intellectual History,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 57, 2 (1998): 397–422.)

After the event, many in the audience noted that the evening brought out the ideals of Torah U-Madda in exciting new ways. As one observer remarked, “This interface of ideas and cultures is what a university is about! Comparisons between Jewish and Confucian interpretations; mix of the ancient and modern; shmitta and environmental protection; modern Israeli, song, art and literature illustrating the Chinese idea that man and heaven are one.”


The event was recorded and is on the Revel and CJC YouTube channel:

Shmitta by Mordechai Cohen

“Man is a tree in the field” by Rachel Ofer

“Imagining an Ecological Society” by Daniel K. Gardner, interviewed by Elena Peng


Photo and video credits: Imagination Creations