1. Tell us a bit about the project you are working on at UCHI.
My new book project, From Temple to Home to Community: The Survival and Transformation of Ancient Jewish Life in the Wake of Catastrophe, will present an entirely fresh perspective on the state of Jewish life and society in the centuries following the two insurrections against the Romans, the “First Revolt” in 66–70 C.E., which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, and the rebellion led by Bar Kokhba in 132–135 C.E. which further resulted in the decimation of Jewish life and property in Judaea. Earlier treatments of the Jews of Roman Palestine tended to emphasize political and historical developments and were largely dependent upon literary sources. My approach will offer a new reconstruction that is based upon a rigorous analysis of literary texts and archaeological finds, one that does not prejudice one or the other and that confronts the hermeneutical issues that each source poses before the two can be brought into conversation. What has not been sufficiently addressed in the past are the various intellectual and social dynamics prevalent in Hellenistic, Roman, and Late Antique Palestine, or as the Jews preferred, “the Land of Israel,” that allowed the Jews to navigate, first, a Roman pagan environment and then an emerging Christian “Holy Land,” and that spawned the rabbis and their movement.
2. What drew you to this topic and what exciting developments are you anticipating?
Undoubtedly, my earlier work, all of which struggles with methodological issues pertaining to the use of literary sources (especially Talmudic writings) that do not purport to be historical writing as well as my personal experience working alongside archaeologists at the site of ancient Sepphoris, led me to my present interests. My earliest work on Sepphoris, which was once the administrative center of Roman Galilee and home to a significant and diverse population of Jews who included some of the earliest rabbis, as well as Romans, and, eventually Christians, was pivotal to the direction of my subsequent research. After addressing the question of how the information found in rabbinic sources could and could not be utilized for reconstructing the history of ancient Sepphoris, I turned to the composition of the rabbinic movement and especially the “commoners,” i.e., the majority of Jews who in all likelihood were not followers of the rabbis, among whom the sages lived. My most recent book turned to popular piety, specifically ritual purity rites that many scholars contend were left by the wayside following the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Here I argued for the persistence, for centuries following the Destruction, of some of these rites, particularly ritual immersion, which regulated sexuality and consumption of food for many Jews. I am convinced that a biblically-derived “Judaism” that was largely passed on mimetically through the home helped shape and transform the focus of Jewish life, which now moved more decidedly away from a priestly-centered Temple religion to one that focused on domestic rites and, with the increasing emphasis on the synagogue as an institution, the community. The scholasticism of the rabbis thrived precisely because of these developments and was not the impetus for them, as is commonly thought.
3. What are you looking forward to in regard to this year at UCHI?
I am very excited about the opportunity to devote the academic year to my project and especially to working within such an intellectually stimulating setting provided and fostered by the Humanities Institute. I especially look forward to learning from the other fellows, whose projects and disciplines are quite diverse and whose expertises and approaches allow them to bring different types of questions and methods for addressing them to the table. I anticipate some rather dynamic academic exchanges, which, along with our shared devotion to the humanities, will undoubtedly enrich and enhance our individual efforts.
4. Many people wonder what value the humanities and humanities research has in today’s world. What are your thoughts on what humanities scholarship “brings to table?”
My knee-jerk reaction to this question is “What don’t they bring to the table?!”
While our individual research topics may seem rather arcane and detached from the real world and from real life situations, they undoubtedly will lead to some rather pertinent observations about present day predicaments that inform and, therefore, enrich our culture. My topic, for one, addresses questions of adaptation and survival of the values, rites, and perspectives of a traditional society, questions that should lead to a greater appreciation of how such groups and peoples preserve their identity, particularly when faced either with catastrophe or threats to their way of life. The contemporary digital “textuality” and emphasis on globalization is in many ways a challenge to the survival of traditional cultures and communities, which undoubtedly can be unsettling to those who belong to them. My contention is that the shared beliefs, aspirations, experiences, and, ultimately, existential predicament of individuals within any traditional society will continue to allow it to adapt and will shape and determine what survives of its identity. That, I think, is something worth studying and learning about – and is totally relevant in a real world that still consists of diverse cultures!