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America’s Interactions with Islam and Judaism in North Africa  

Lawrence A. Peskin

Encounters between Americans, Muslims, and Jews in North Africa played a foundational role in Americans’ early understanding of Islam and Judaism. At a time when the United States population had few Jews and virtually no free Muslims, North Africa was one of the places Americans were most likely to meet individuals from these groups. Initially, American sailors and diplomats encountered North African Muslims and Jews as the result of frequent ship captures by Barbary corsairs beginning in the colonial period and culminating in the 1780s and 1790s. After 1815, the sailors and diplomats were joined by missionaries journeying to the Mediterranean region to convert Jews and Muslims as well as non-Protestant Christians. These encounters prompted a good deal of literature published in the United States, including captivity narratives, novels, plays, histories, and missionary journals. These publications reinforced two dominant views of Islam. First, the early focus on Barbary corsairs capturing American “slaves” reinforced old notions of Islam as despotic and Muslims as “savages” similar to Native Americans. Missionary accounts prompted more thoughtful approaches to Muslim theology at the same time that they reinforced existing notions of Islam as a deceitful religion and revivified millenarian hopes that the declining Ottoman Empire foretold the Second Coming. As a result of the captivity crises, Americans often had to deal with the area’s small but influential group of Jewish merchants in order to get terms and credit to free their countrymen. These fraught negotiations reinforced older European stereotypes of Jews as sharpers and Shylocks. As with Islam, the missionary period brought more thoughtful consideration of Jewish theology as Americans engaged in chiliastic hopes of bringing the Jews to Jerusalem. After 1850 or so, Americans interested in Jews or Muslims looked less frequently to North Africa. Growing immigrant populations, first of Jews and then of Muslims, meant that Americans could encounter people of all three Abrahamic faiths at home. At the same time, missionary interests moved east, into the Holy Land, Syria, Turkey, and ultimately East Asia. Nevertheless, the early impact of North Africa on American thinking retained its influence, as is evident from President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech on American-Islamic relations delivered in Cairo.

Article

The Eruv as Contested Jewish Space in North America  

Myer Siemiatycki

The eruv is perhaps the most creative, confounding, and contested spatial construct in Judaism. Territorially, it demarcates the urban space within which prohibitions otherwise attached to Sabbath observance for Orthodox Jews become permitted. While virtually imperceptible to the human eye, eruvin (pl.) sanctify what would otherwise be sacrilegious. An eruv thus creates permissive religious space for Jews on Sabbath. Hundreds of cities worldwide, including urban areas across North America, are home to an eruv. Notwithstanding their prevalence and undetectable physical imprint on urban landscapes, the establishment of eruvin has unleashed intense hostility and resistance in some locales. Opposition has typically been mounted by a surprisingly mixed array of critics including non-Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, and dissenting Orthodox Jews. The eruv highlights, in compelling fashion, the spatial challenges of navigating faith, ritual, secularism, and pluralism in contemporary American cities. Seemingly ethereal religious beliefs can occasion radically different perceptions of public space.

Article

History of Ancient Israel  

H. G. M. Williamson

The history of ancient Israel is best known to most people from the narratives in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. There, however, the name “Israel” covers a wide diversity of social and political entities over the course of many centuries. The first attestation of the name outside the Bible (on the Egyptian stela of Merneptah, c. 1208 bce) seems to refer at most to some ill-defined tribal federation. It then served for at least two different monarchies and later again as a social or religious title for the people who inhabited the Achaemenid (Persian) province of Yehud. The value of the biblical written records varies considerably with regard to historical content, and this must further be evaluated on the basis of internal literary analysis and in the light of evidence that comes from archaeological research, including in particular from epigraphic sources both from Israel itself and from many near and more distant nations. How to combine these differing forms of evidence has been the topic of lively and sometimes rancorous debate, which varies in its detail from one period to another, often depending on the extent to which external sources are immediately available. Solutions are not always available, but exploration into the nature of these problems and misunderstandings in the application of appropriate methods reveal where the problems lie and, in some cases, what are plausible solutions. Until the 19th century, the history of ancient Israel was, for most people, coterminous with the familiar narrative of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. No relevant external sources were known, and there was no reason to doubt its essential historical reliability, allowance made, of course, for those who could not accept the miraculous as historically factual. Archaeological and epigraphical discoveries over the last two centuries or so, together with the introduction more recently of new and different historical methods, have led to aspects of this topic being fiercely contested in current scholarship. Taking a general familiarity with the outline “story” for granted, the following analysis will present some of the major topics on which new data have become available and on which opinion remains divided.

Article

Reception History of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament  

Dominik Markl

The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (HB/OT) is like a prism through which ancient Near Eastern traditions were transformed and transmitted to Jewish and Christian cultures. Through the Jewish diaspora and the Christian missions, it became a nomadic text that spread to all continents. It was received and transformed in diverse genres of literature, music, art, theatre, law, and politics. Interest in processes of reception has intensified since World War I, but reception history became a major field within biblical studies only at the turn of the millennium. Analyzing the history of reception of the HB/OT poses a variety of challenges: what hermeneutical expectations, attitudes, interests, and methods were applied to its texts? How were they involved in diverse fields of culture, and how did different modes of reception influence each other? What historical developments occasioned changes in interpretation? In analyzing textual reception, three basic aspects should be considered: the texts with their respective genres and themes, the hermeneutics applied to them, and the social contexts in which the reception takes place. Each of these aspects is characterized by great variation: biblical genres are as diverse as curse and love poetry, law and lament; hermeneutical approaches involve extremely different interests and results in, for example, allegorical, kabballistic and historical critical interpretation; social contexts of reception include family education, monastic lectio divina, public reading and preaching, and academic teaching. Investigating this history of reception means looking at cultural history through the lens of the HB/OT. Rather than defining itself as a field of research separate from interpretation, reception history should be seen as a constituent of the hermeneutical endeavor.

Article

The Book of Isaiah  

Jacob Stromberg

The book of Isaiah is perhaps best known through its long history of reception in descriptions of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, beginning with the New Testament. In the Hebrew Bible, the book of Isaiah begins with the latter prophets. There, it is followed by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the book of the Twelve (the minor prophets). Together, these books portray the messages and activities of the prophets of ancient Israel from the period of the late divided monarchy during the rise of the Assyrian Empire through the era of Babylonian domination and on into the Persian period, when, beginning with the rise of the Persian king Cyrus, there arose the opportunity for return to the land and a restoration of what had been lost. Standing at the head of this prophetic collection, the book of Isaiah straddles this entire history. The first half of the book portrays the fate of the northern kingdom of Israel and that of the southern kingdom of Judah in the days of Isaiah the prophet under the power of the Assyrians, whereas the second half of the book looks forward to days beyond the prophet, to restoration and renewal after the fall of Babylon at the hands of King Cyrus. Known as the latter prophets, this collection of books follows the primary history of the Hebrew Bible, a sequence there divided up into “the Torah” and “the former prophets” (Genesis–Deuteronomy and Joshua–2 Kings, respectively). Beginning with the creation of the world and the story of the garden of Eden, this primary history came to be the context within which the message of the prophet Isaiah was understood. Thus, the book of Isaiah ends with an evocation of the “messianic” hopes of Isaiah 11 alongside the expectation for a new creation and the punishment of that serpent, who was to eat dust because of his role in the fall of the first humans (Gen. 1:1; 3:14; Isa. 11:6–9; 65:17–18, 25; 66:22). In the modern era, scholarship turned its attention to reconstructing various aspects of the history behind the book of Isaiah and its place in the Hebrew Bible. Initial efforts focused on reconstructing the authentic words of the prophet himself in their genuine historical context within the cultures of the ancient Near East and the various streams of ancient Israelite tradition. In the early 21st century, this interest has been joined by robust efforts at understanding the process that saw the words of the prophet turned into a book related to the Hebrew Bible more broadly.

Article

Moderation in American Religion  

Rosemary R. Corbett

Religious moderation is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when considering the history of the United States. Would one have spoken of the Puritans as moderates? Could one characterize the many great revivals and awakenings that coursed through colonial and early republican American in such terms? And what about the impertinence of Anne Hutchison, the audacity of Jarena Lee, the bold experiment of Prohibition, or the modern political fervor that accompanied the rise of the religious right? When compared to England and many other nominally Christian European nations, the United States generally figures as an example of religious zeal. Yet moderation holds a special place in American religious thought, and not just recently. Since the Protestant Reformation, at least, the concept of religious moderation has been inescapably entangled with concerns about the form and shape of government. Just how much religious “enthusiasm” is safe for a monarchy, a democracy, or a republic? wondered English political theorists in the 1600s and 1700s. Their concerns unavoidably carried to the “New World,” contributing to the persecution or marginalization of Quakers, Shakers, and other religious practitioners deemed too immoderate in their passions and, not infrequently, their gendered practices and sexualities. With the birth of the new republic, Americans also raised questions about the political valences of religious moderation when debating which residents of the nation could fully enjoy the rights of citizenship. Appeals to moderation were used for centuries to exclude not only religious minorities but also racial and ethnic minorities and women. And yet the contours of moderation were continually contested by both those who wielded power and those subject to it. Since the late 1800s, questions of religious moderation have also been intertwined with questions of modernity and the reconfiguration of public and private spaces. This was especially true with the rise of the fundamentalist movement in the early 1900s, a movement that opposed some of the modernist interpretive measures gaining currency among many American Christians, as well as the idea (increasingly popular over the course of the 20th century—particularly after the failure of Prohibition) that most forms of religion properly belong to the private realm. While fundamentalists were no less technologically savvy or educated than their theological opponents, their positions were nevertheless cast as anti-modern and immoderate, in that fundamentalists ostensibly held more closely to revelation than to modern science. This notion of fundamentalism as the incursion of immoderate anti-modernism, traditionalism, or enthusiasm into politics and public life has continued into the 21st century. While 21st-century arguments for religious moderation are most often directed at Muslims (who, in addition to conservative Christians, are frequently depicted as prone to trampling on the rights of those with whom they disagree), American history has no shortage of incidents involving pressures, often violent, on racial and religious minorities to moderate or privatize their ostensibly uncivilized behavior for the sake of the nation or even for humanity.

Article

Film and Religion in America  

Eric Michael Mazur

Religion intersects with film not only in film content, but also in the production and experience of film. From the earliest period, religious attitudes have shaped how religious individuals and communities have approached filmmaking as way to present temptation or salvation to the masses. Individual religious communities have produced their own films or have sought to monitor those that have been mass produced. To avoid conflict, filmmakers voluntarily agreed to self-monitoring, which had the effect of strongly shaping how religious figures and issues were presented. The demise of this system of self-regulation reintroduced conflict over film content as it expanded the ways in which religious figures and issues were presented, but it also shifted attention away from the religious identity of the filmmakers. Built on a foundation of “reading” symbolism in “art” films, and drawing from various forms of myth—the savior, the end of the world, and others—audiences became more comfortable finding in films religious symbolism that was not specifically associated with a specific religious community. Shifts in American religious demographics due to immigration, combined with the advent of the videocassette and the expansion of global capitalism, broadened (and improved) the representation of non-Christian religious themes and issues, and has resulted in the narrative use of non-Christian myths. Experimentation with sound and image has broadened the religious aspect of the film experience and made it possible for the viewing of film to replicate for some a religious experience. Others have broadened the film-viewing experience into a religious system. While traditional film continues to present traditional religions in traditional ways, technology has radically individualized audio-visual production, delivery, and experience, making film, like religion, and increasingly individualized phenomenon.

Article

Primitivism in America  

Matthew Bowman

Historians most often use the term primitivism to refer to the attempt to reconstruct a religious tradition’s original theology, structure, or beliefs. Primitivists believe that the earliest expressions of the faith are the most efficacious, powerful, and valid, and hence they attempt to recapture them in as complete a form as it is possible for them to imagine. Thus, they frequently dissent from established religious traditions, believing that those constructed under the primitive impulse achieve superior purity. Of course, these attempts are normally incomplete or inaccurate, reflecting the desires or needs of the group doing the restoring more than the original version of whatever faith is involved. Primitivism has taken on a number of forms throughout American history. This essay follows a chronological approach, but uses Richard Hughes’s designations of “ethical,” “ecclesiastical,” and “experiential” primitivism to distinguish among various movements and provide some order to the narrative. These are common impulses in American religion, particularly in the years immediately following the American Revolution commonly called the Second Great Awakening. The language of primitivism has provided Americans with the weight of historical authority, often invoked to overturn established hierarchies and replace them with forms of religious practice deemed, alternately, more democratic, more biblical, more conducive to religious experience, or more ethically demanding. Whatever the case, primitivism has spoken to the American impulse toward reform, resistance to institution, and individual capacity.

Article

The Judeo-Christian and Abrahamic Traditions in America  

K. Healan Gaston

The terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” are collective religious descriptors that identify points of theological, historical, and ethical commonality between the world’s largest monotheistic religious traditions. “Judeo-Christian” refers to the ground shared by Judaism and Christianity; “Abrahamic” designates elements common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These terms have most often appeared in three contexts. First, scholars of religion have used them for technical, descriptive purposes, to denote the aforementioned religious traditions and the commitments they share. Second, interfaith advocates have employed the terms to identify the particular ecumenical task of cultivating harmonious relations between these three traditions. Finally, in wider public discourses, they have served as descriptors of the religious character of American culture, democracy, and/or national identity. Over time, the terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” have each become important ways of talking about the contributions of the world’s largest monotheistic religions to politics and culture in the United States. However, in American public discourse, “Judeo-Christian” formulations have thus far demonstrated greater reach than “Abrahamic” ones. Between roughly World War II and the mid-1970s, when the United States rose to superpower status and assumed the helm of the Western civilizational project, the idea of America as, in various senses, a Judeo-Christian nation became commonplace. But unlike “Judeo-Christian,” which maps onto a discrete geographical region and a long-standing cultural project, “Abrahamic” tends to be used more narrowly to indicate a set of historically meaningful but geographically diffuse relationships that have become the subject of scholarly and ecumenical concern. Moreover, “Judeo-Christian” emerged in the wake of a massive influx of Jewish and Catholic immigrants between 1880 and 1920 that reshaped the American religious landscape. “Abrahamic” has likewise become more widespread since the immigration reforms of the mid-1960s, which began to bring greater numbers of Muslim immigrants to America’s shores. But the growing embrace of multiculturalism has largely militated against the widespread use of “Abrahamic” as a descriptor of American identity. Proponents and opponents of these terms have vigorously debated their strengths and weaknesses, their uses and abuses. Yet, despite the controversies over their meaning and relevance, “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” remain important ways of describing aspects of the American landscape in a multireligious age.

Article

Martin Luther, Jews, and Judaism  

Dorothea Wendebourg

Martin Luther was engaged with the topic “Jews and Judaism” all his life, from his earliest works until his last. The main context for his preoccupation with this topic was interpretation of Holy Scripture, particularly in his many and ample lectures on books of the Old Testament, starting with the “Dictata supra Psalterium,” his first lecture on the Psalms (1513‒1515), down to his “Lecture on the Book of Genesis” (1535‒1545). In addition, he wrote several treatises on the question of how Christian society should relate to the Jews living in its midst, most important, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” (1523) and “On the Jews and Their Lies” (1543). These writings were, however, to a large extent also exegetical works. Altogether Luther’s attitude toward the Jews and Judaism is characterized simultaneously by continuity and by radical change: (1) continuity is obvious in his theological statements on Judaism which were based on a certain hermeneutics of the Old Testament centered in the Messiahship of Jesus Christ; and (2) change in his demands regarding the treatment of contemporary Jews which in earlier years followed his conception of the Two Kingdoms whereas in later times he came back to the traditional ideal of corpus Christianum. This change led to contradictory receptions of his statements on the topic in the course of history. All this is reflected in the research on the subject since the beginning of modern historical scholarship.

Article

Muslim-Jewish Relations  

Reuven Firestone

Muslim-Jewish relations began with the emergence of Islam in 7th-century Arabia, but contacts between pre-Jewish Israelites and pre-Muslim Arabs had been common for nearly two millennia previously. These interactions inform the earliest relations between Muslims and Jews and serve as precursors to the social, cultural, religious, political, and institutional relations between Muslims and Jews from the 7th century to the present. Areas and periods of particular importance are 7th-century Arabia with first contacts between Jews and the earliest Muslims, 8th–9th-century Middle East with the establishment of legal and social status of Jews in Islam, the 9th to 14th centuries in many parts of the Muslim world with the development of great Jewish intellectual advances under Islamic influence, the subsequent decline of the Muslim world and its negative impact on Jews and other minorities, the period under colonial powers with the rise of national movements and the subsequent transition to independent nation-states that includes the rise of both Jewish and Palestinian nationalisms, and the current status of Muslim-Jewish relations today. Common issues include language production; cultural production including literature, hermeneutics, and systematic thinking; legal developments, political relations, religious commonalities and differences, and economic relations and partnerships.

Article

Jewish Liturgy  

Ruth Langer

Jewish liturgy is a complex phenomenon, manifesting change over time and place as well as some significant diversity today. Today’s prayers emerged from the rituals of the rabbis of the early centuries of the Common Era, compensating for the loss of the Jewish ritual center, the Jerusalem Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 ce. Little is known for certain about how rabbinic prayers spread and became universally normative, but by the High Middle Ages, they were. The received rabbinic worship is highly structured and scripted. There are three services every day, with a fourth on festive days. The key structural elements combined in these services are the recitation of shema῾ and its blessings, the multi-blessing ῾amidah, and the reading of Torah. To these, other elements have aggregated, like introductory prayers, Psalms, and supplicatory prayers. Meals also require short blessings before eating and a longer grace afterwards. The Passover seder extends this meal ritual with narrative, Psalms, and songs. Variation among medieval regional rites and their modern heirs manifests itself within this structure not only in small differences of wording, but also in more significant dissimilarities in modes of performance. In modernity, liberal movements abbreviated, translated, and otherwise rewrote many prayers. The messages of Jewish liturgy are embedded within this structure as well as in the themes of the liturgical year, expressed primarily through scripture readings. The annual Torah cycle tells the Jewish story from creation up to the Israelites’ entry into their land. The primary festival cycle and the blessings surrounding the shema῾ highlight the key elements of this narrative: God’s work of creation, redemption, and revelation. Permeating the liturgy, though, is the expectation of future messianic redemption.