The Heretical Jew

RN 336 / RN 636 / XL 356 / STH TX 812
Fall 2011
Prof. Abigail Gillman, Modern Languages and Comparative Literature
Prof. Adam B. Seligman, Department of Religion/ CURA

In 1656, the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam Jewish decided to “expel, curse and damn” Baruch de Spinoza for his critical views of Jewish tradition and authority. In America in 1945, the Orthodox Jewish rabbinate excommunicated Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan for publishing a new prayer book in which liturgy had been altered; the prayer book was also burned. In Israel in 2010, a woman was arrested for holding a Torah Scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Who is a heretic? And who decides?

This course explores famous instances of heresy in Jewish history; it also studies episodes of deviant or anti-normative behavior in the broader sense. We begin by exploring theoretical treatments of the topic both from a general and Jewish standpoint, after which we turn to biblical characters who posed challenges to authority, and to two extended counternarratives within the Hebrew Bible itself. We then look at the first Jewish designations of heresy with the Talmudic categories of min, mumar, apikores, and herem, and at the Rabbinic legends about the famous heretic referred to simply as “Acher” (Other). After a unit on Saint Paul and Christianity, we go on to explore famous medieval examples of heresy (Spinoza, Jacob Frank, and Sabbateanism). We close our survey of the pre-modern period with an analysis of the image of Shylock as a powerful example of the Jew himself as arch-heretic to the Christian ideals of love and mercy. In the modern period, we study four of the most controversial and influential Jewish writers— Mendelssohn, Buber, Freud and Kafka—to raise the question of what conceptions of heresy and of heretical behavior might mean in modern societies and in (what with time would become) secular public cultures. Turning to the later twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, we examine the challenges to the Jewish establishment by political and social activists, theologians, feminists, and gay and lesbian Jews.

At each stage, we will consider whether the term heresy is in fact applicable to the particular Jewish religious, cultural, political and social experience, and whether indeed it is the appropriate term to categorize the outsider and or deviant within the Jewish civilizational frame of meanings. We evaluate to what extent the condemnation of the heretic, or the identification of an “other,” stems from cultic concerns or originates in political or spiritual concerns with identity and otherness.

While chronological in structure, this course is designed to help us to understand how the past shapes the present. How, for example are the historical responses and initiatives of Jewish history relevant to the cultural, religious, educational, political, social challenges facing us today? Are traditional categories and concern still viable options? How does the past inform the present and, indeed, how does the present inform our understanding of the past? Lastly, can the modern Jewish experience of, and response to, something that may be called ‘heresy,’ be used as a paradigm for other groups struggling with questions of secularism, difference, integration and meaning?