JS 117 – Reading the Narratives of the Hebrew Bible

The first half of the Hebrew Bible–the books of Genesis through Kings–is a central text of Western culture. But how are these texts to be read? As history, myth, religious program, foundation of Judaism, foundation of Christianity? Using the tools of comparative ancient Near eastern languages and cultures, the history of religion, literary analysis, and folklore, we will explore the Bible’s many faces, and try to show how the answer to the question is close to “all of the above.” We will also view the texts through the window of later interpretation among Jews and Christians, and see how many generations came to view themselves and their own story through the ones presented in the Bible.

JS 118 – Introduction to the Hebrew Bible II: Prophecy and Poetry

A close reading (in English) of the poetic portions of the Hebrew Bible, from Isaiah through the Writings. The prophetic revolution in Israel is evaluated: its roots, as well as its impact on its own society and later social and cultural criticism in the West. The artistry of biblical poetry is analyzed, along with the thematics of piety, despair, resignation and eroticism that are found in such books as the Psalms and the Song of Songs. Finally, books of a more philosophical bent (Ecclesiastes, Job), which question the earlier assumptions of biblical faith, are read. As in JS 117, emphasis is placed in the influence of the Bible on later thinking in the West.

JS 123 – The Midrashic Tradition

An English-language study of Midrashic literature, the primary Jewish literary expression after the Bible. Written down mainly during the Roman period, the texts comprise independent legends about supernatural beings; writings about biblical characters (filling in gaps in the biblical stories); traditions about the lives of the ancient rabbis; and wide-ranging statements about worldly wisdom, ethical values and political reality. Sources are ready with an eye toward what they reveal about ancient Jewish society and in the light of recent work in folklore studies. A final unit considers later forms of Midrash, such as Hasidic and contemporary variations.

JS 125 – Changing Images of King David

The biblical David is one of those figures like King Arthur, Faust, and Don Juan, whose persona has fascinated people through the ages. In turn, he has been transformed by their portrayals of him. In this course, we will first do a close reading of the gripping book of Samuel and other biblical texts, using historical and literary tools to gauge David’s complex personality as presented in the Bible. Then, utilizing post-biblical legend (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim), medieval and Renaissance art, and more recent literature and film, we will see how later generations came to shape him in their own image, embodying the problems of political power, the depths of inner religious life, and the universal hopes for a transformed world.

JS 130 – Suffering and Evil in Jewish Tradition

A central problem in Western religious thought is theodicy: how to explain the existence of suffering and evil in a world ruled by a supposedly benevolent God. We will examine a variety of Jewish sources on the problem, which propose a wide variety of answers. Central are the biblical book of Job and its interpretations through the centuries; at the other end of history, responses to the Holocaust will be discussed. Excerpts from general world literature and philosophy will also be considered.

JS 174 – The Jewish Experience

Surveys the history of the Jewish community and the development of Judaism from the era of the Israelite monarchy (10th century B.C.E.) to the present. Examines the major political, religious, social and economic trends of each period as they affected the Jewish community and the development of Judaism. Emphasizes elements of change and continuity, as well as the interaction of the Jewish community with the larger culture and community. Central to the course will be the development of Jewish identity from ancient Near eastern roots through the varying vicissitudes of history.