The Fall 2020 Elie Wiesel Memorial Lectures theme was Finding Moses.

Hundreds of people joined us online via Zoom for a journey through three eminent traditions, Jewish midrash, early Islam, and African American literature, and learned about the many faces and facets of the great biblical prophet and lawgiver.

Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike revere Moses as a prophet or messenger of God. The Torah of Moses is the foundation of Judaism. The Ten Commandments are a widely acknowledged foundation of western civilization. And no other prophet is mentioned more frequently in the Qur’an. And yet, the man Moses has remained an elusive figure. This elusiveness allowed our traditions to portray Moses in a great variety of ways, reflecting both his greatness and his all-too-human flaws. It is this vexing image of a man who was denied entry to the Promised Land, who died by a kiss of God, and whose tomb was never found that inspired our title: Finding Moses.

Three distinguished speakers and experts guided us on this search for Moses. Avivah Zornberg, a widely published author and educator, joined us from Israel to speak on Moses in Midrash. Shari Lowin, a Stonehill College professor of religion and early Islam, talked about Moses in the Muslim tradition. Herbert Marbury, a Vanderbilt professor of biblical studies, spoke about finding Moses in the African American tradition. 

Each lecture offered a critical appreciation of these complex traditions. Each of our speakers opened unfamiliar vistas and modeled how to read carefully and think creatively by engaging with the biblical tradition and some of its adopters.

This is exactly what we hoped for when we started the Elie Wiesel Memorial Lectures—because this is what Professor Wiesel used to do in his annual lectures and in his classroom—engage the great themes and figures of the Jewish tradition creatively and with literary sophistication, while grounding himself, and us, in deeply human concerns.

If you missed a lecture or want to share it with your friends, the recordings are available on our YouTube channel.

October 14: “The Sense of an Ending: Finding Moses in Midrashic Literature” with Dr. Avivah Zornberg

A Moses who knows that his end is near and that he will be denied entry to the Promised Land was the subject of Dr. Zornberg’s lecture, during which she introduced the Moses of Hebrew Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy, reading the Hebrew text closely and viewing it through a lens sharpened by rabbinic midrash and modern literary scholarship. Dr. Zornberg offered a psychologically compelling and hermeneutically sophisticated reading of a crucial turning point in the life of Moses, when a man of “uncircumcised lips” speaks to God and the Israelites with eloquence and urgency, knowing that his own life’s trajectory will fall short of his hopes and aspirations. As in all her work, Dr. Zornberg took us on a journey of psychological depth and literary subtlety. Ultimately, Zornberg found this Moses as someone who hopes against hope that he may yet “cross over.”

About the Speaker: Dr. Zornberg lives in Jerusalem and lectures widely on biblical narrative through the prism of midrash, literature, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. She grew up in Glasgow, where her father held the position of Chief Rabbi and Head of the Rabbinical Court. Dr. Zornberg holds a BA and PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge. For the past thirty-five years, she has taught Torah in Jerusalem at MaTan, Yakar, Pardes, and the Jerusalem College for Adults. Dr. Zornberg also holds a Visiting Lectureship at the London School of Jewish Studies. She is the author of The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis (1995), which won the National Jewish Book Award, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (2001), and Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers (2015). Her most recent book, Moses: A Human Life, was published by Yale University Press in 2016.

You can read Tiffany Leigh’s reflections on Dr. Zornberg’s lecture in her blog post titled “The Sense of an Ending: What I Learned from Aviva Zornberg.” 

November 2: “Moses in the Qur’an and the early Muslim Isra’iliyyaat” with Dr. Shari Lowin

In her talk, Professor Lowin introduced us to some of the ways the greatest Prophet of the Jewish tradition appears in the Qu’ran and Hadith (stories about the Prophet and his companions). She compared stories about the birth of Moses and the role of his divinely inspired mother and stories about the birth of Prophet Muhammad and his divinely inspired parents, showing that the Hadith casts Muhammad as a new Moses. Moses and Muhammad even meet during the famous “Night Journey” to the “distant sanctuary” (see Sura 17), which culminates with the Prophet Muhammad’s ascent to the divine abode.

About the Speaker: Dr. Shari Lowin is a Professor of Religious Studies and Program Director of Middle Eastern Studies at Stonehill College. She specializes in Jewish Muslim relations in the early medieval Islamic periods, c. 800-1200 CE, with a focus on the development of Jewish and Muslim exegetical narratives. Her latest book is Arabic and Hebrew Love Poems of al-Andalus (Routledge, 2013). Dr. Lowin’s earlier work on Judaism and its relationship with Islam focused on the narratives of Abraham and on accounts of enemies of God in the midrash aggadah and in the ḥadīth, including her text The Making of a Forefather: Abraham in Islamic and Jewish Exegetical Narratives (Brill, 2006).

Read Professor Michael Zank’s reflections on Dr. Lowin’s lecture in his blog titled “Finding Moses. The Search Continues.”

November 16: “Moses in the African American Tradition” with Dr. Herbert Marbury

In his talk, Dr. Herbert Marbury looked at Moses as a transforming and transformative symbol in African American religious imagination. From the Antebellum period through the era of the Black Power Movement, Black communities summoned the Moses figure both from the Hebrew Bible and from alternative traditions—some older and some newer than the biblical Moses—to point to freedom’s next horizon. In this lecture, Dr. Marbury discussed the changing ways that African Americans ascribe meaning to the exodus story as a counter-narrative over successive eras of repression.

About the Speaker: Dr. Herbert R. Marbury is an Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Professor Marbury researches how biblical texts come to have various meanings both in the ancient world and in the contemporary worlds of modern U.S. communities. In Imperial Dominion and Priestly Genius (2012), he focuses on Ezra-Nehemiah and asks, what meaning(s) Ezra-Nehemiah held for elites in Persian-age Jerusalem? In Pillars of Cloud and Fire: The Politics of Exodus in African American Biblical Interpretation (2015), he recovers trajectories of counter-history in examples of African American biblical interpretation. Focusing on figures such as Absalom Jones, David Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Frances E. W. Harper, Adam Clayton Powell, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Albert Cleage, Marbury asks, what meaning(s) has the exodus story held for successive African American communities in the U.S. from the antebellum period through the era of the Black Power Movement.

You can read Katya Tsvirko’s reflections on Dr. Marbury’s Lecture on the EWCJS Blog page