Images like this, of a settler in the standard Israeli dati-le'umi (religious nationalist) garb that many would identify as "traditional" and reasoning in baldly unethical and immoral ways, raise a larger longstanding question: are there any limits to Jewish tradition? 1/?
Most widely-discussed cases today are of inclusion: are female Rabbis or non-Orthodox Jews "really" part of Jewish tradition? In the big picture this is a trivial one since Orthodoxy itself is a modern construct: most Jews, not just now but through history, weren't Orthodox. 2/?
Surprisingly, a more difficult case was that of Israel itself. As Hebrew U Prof Aviezer Ravitzky shows, until the mid-20th-century the majority (Orthodox, even!) Rabbinic opinion was that it is forbidden to settle in Israel until the Messiah returns.… 3/?
The settlement of Palestine was originally mainly a project of secular European nationalists; modern Israel arguably only became central to Jewish tradition over the third quarter of the 20th c by combination of historical horror, colonial force and people sensing opportunity. 4/
But already at an early period in Jewish thought, Rabbinic writers were concerned that many of the most important laws (e.g. of the Sabbath) and modes of reasoning they inherited may not be founded in their own traditions, as Jay Harris documents… 5/?
I've argued that claiming something to be authentic Midrash or "biblical exegesis" has sometimes been a way of redrawing boundaries to include the thing in question within "native tradition", even when historically it is not plausibly exegetical.… 6/?
To take more recent examples, the stunning but troubling "Kaddish" by the troubled Alan Ginsberg certainly stakes a claim within Jewish tradition, and Yerushalmi put in valiant efforts to claim the atheist Freud as truly part of Jewish tradition.… 7/?
But these were loudly staked claims--more truly troubling is how after her ordination and service in literally the worst circumstances the Jewish people have encountered in modern history, Regina Jonas--the first female Rabbi--was erased by her mentors.… 8/
You could do a history or a sort of Benjamin-style fragment-based *definition* of Judaism this way e.g. as Hoffman asks ("Censoring In and Censoring Out: A Function of Liturgical Language") how did Merkavah mysticism come to be both forbidden and included in Shabbat prayer? 9/?
Let me conclude with the work of Rabbi Tamar Manasseh, who is on the one hand a most obvious carrier of our prophetic mantle in the pursuit of justice, but also points to an impasse that the narrowing of much American Judaism has reached 10/11
Rabbi Manasseh is doing her work at a time when much experience of "tradition" has shifted from liturgy, food, art, or Mitzvot to more historically shallow identity signifiers (Holocaust, Ashkenazic traits); as such, reflecting on it is a chance to connect with our roots. 11/12
As a scholar of the human sciences, every serious boundary question about Judaism from settler violence to what qualifies as a Kaddish is interesting to me. But such a history also offers both dire warnings and visionary inspirations and models for those of us within it. 12/12
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More from @SethLSanders

1 May
"So we looked at the 4 nations most commonly recognized in Toronto Land Acknowledgments and then went to communities where those people actually live. We chatted to the people there about the practice and there was a huge disconnect for them...."
"A lot of people in the communities said they didn’t like Land Acknowledgments. It felt like a eulogy: We were there, now we’re not, and now it’s yours."
"Yet Land Acknowledgements smell like condescending bullshit to me. Here's why: Attaching an Indigenous identity to the Land Acknowledgement deters the conversation from what we can all do together and instead to the commiseration of a lost culture. We are not lost."
Read 4 tweets
24 Feb
Theses on Biblical Translation:
1. At root, translation is no big deal. Many if not most people in human history lived in linguistically diverse environments; they were either multilingual or had regular contact with speakers of different varieties. People translated every day.. their own heads to express a thought to a family member, to say hello to their neighbor, to offer food to a visitor, to tell a story to a customer. It was only about as profound and problematic as putting on your shoes.
2. How did translation become a profound, soul-searching quest? Two forces are key in making high culture out of our words: religion and monumentality. Wirtz's brilliant 2005 article shows how in religious language, being "untranslatable" is often tied to being otherworldly..
Read 16 tweets
19 Feb
@WillKynes To be fair it's from a much broader article: "The Use(s) of Genre in Mesopotamian Literature" Archív Orientální 67:703–17.
@WillKynes Digging further into this, it looks like a typical move to say there are no clear criteria for wisdom literature then to just keep talking about it. From the excellent survey by Beaulieu, it seems as if the Gilgamesh epic, the Mesopotamian flood stories, and even Adapa qualify:
@WillKynes "The son of Shuruppak, Ziusudra, was the Mesopotamian Noah according to the Sumerian Flood Story.. Ziusudra appears again as teacher of wisdom in the Death of Gilgamesh" which "tells us that Gilgamesh, having... reached the abode of Ziusudra..."
Read 4 tweets
16 Feb
Just started reading the new Yale report on the future of its humanities grad programs. Its recommendations might freak people out but from my POV having run a small grad program look like a really helpful response to a bad situation both in R1 universities and overall. 1/
It names a problem that (even!) Yale shares with humanities graduate ed everywhere: "Fewer than half of the humanities doctoral students who matriculate
at Yale obtain tenure-track jobs." It implies that students can be neglected, stultified, or even driven out of programs. 2/
In response it recommends that Yale "evaluate doctoral programs in relation to three major elements: the innovation and inclusion in each doctoral program, the amount of late attrition in a program, and the employment outcomes of a program’s students." 3/
Read 13 tweets
2 Sep 20
Tradition or Memory: What is the Bible made of? Reflecting back on the past century or so of debate I think the stakes here could be higher than they appear.
The biggest arguments in e.g. Pentateuchal studies are over what the building blocks of the Torah were, and how and why they were put together. Similarly in the past couple of decades people have started talking about these building blocks as "collective memories."
In an earlier phase these building blocks were called "traditions" and the early all-but-invisible process of composition, "history of traditions." But in both cases it was treated mainly as referential content, abstracted away from human agency, a quick but shaky solution.
Read 14 tweets
12 Apr 20
In 2020 what are the main issues of a small religious studies grad program? Here are things I thought about while running one. Really only one: given the data, you're doing it against the odds, so every significant decision needs to help set you apart and justify your existence.
This is because in humanities and social sciences the most prestigious programs are typically overwhelmingly more successful than others and tend to hire from each other.… 1/10
Here are the relevant studies on narrowness of hiring in history, comp sci, and business:…
And same phenom in political science… 1b/10
Read 16 tweets

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