Art History, Middle East, Philosophy, Theology
Jews on Trial
This course begins by asking when and how law became separate from religion in the Israelite-Judaean world. It moves on to consider how we might evaluate and understand the narrative of Jesus’ trial and demise in the Gospels in light of information outside those accounts within Judaean, pagan Roman and early Jewish literature. Noting that, regardless of the details that favor or disfavor the Gospel account, many generations of Christians have accept it as unequivocally true, the book goes on with a review that is both concise and extensive of the history of Christian-Jewish relations, examining that relationship through a legal and quasi-legal lens. From medieval Blood Libels to the notorious Dreyfus Affair and from the story of Leo Frank’s trial and eventual murder to the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to Adolph Eichmann’s trial and execution–to the trial behindclosed doors and extended incarceration of Jonathan Pollard–the narrative suggests that the Jew seems always to be on trial in the courtroom of journalistic and historiographic examination, whether as the accused, the accuser, the jury or the judge.
Symbols of Faith
This course will consider the common origins and divergent and often convergent directions of the three Abraham faiths; and how those origins and directions affect their respective visual vocabularies. How have all three traditions adopted and adapted visual ideas from pagan art that predates all of them as well as from each other? How have they transformed or reinterpreted the meanings of common symbols in order to express their particularized sense of God and of the relationship between divinity and humanity? How have Judaism and Islam visually expressed God without the possibility of figurative imaging and how has Christianity gone beyond the limits of figurative expression in visually articulating God? How is the legacy of antiquity and the medieval period still palpable in the era of both modern and contemporary art?
Theological Implications of Holocaust
The Holocaust is recognized as one of the traumatic moments in human history. The uniquely systematic depths of human-human interaction it revealed, paired with daring acts of heroism which the period yielded, have raised a range of questions that challenge long-held assumptions about what humanity is, if and what God is, and how to understand the concepts of good and evil. This course has as its goal to assess the Holocaust as it has been approached by a range of thinkers, and to place it within the larger context of theology, history, art and thought. While our primary backdrop will be theological questions provoked by its narrative — from both Jewish and Christian perspectives — we will inevitably encompass the larger historical picture of Jewish-Christian, Jewish-Jewish, Christian-Christian and human-divine relations. We will also consider the importance, in the later part of the twentieth century, of visual (and other) art as a means of response — both in the expression of anger and in seeking healing — to this trauma.
Select Recent and/or Forthcoming Courses (* = will be taught Spring, 2023):
Death, the Soul, and the Afterlife in the Pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Traditions
In this course we ask some simple questions without simple answers, as we explore that aspect of the “Other” realm that is addressed in all cultures and faiths: what exists for humans after (and, perhaps, before) the lives we live? What does the Gilgamesh Epic tell us about the ancient Mesopotamian understanding of death? What does the Egyptian Book of the Dead explain about the soul and its post-mortem journey? How does the Greek perspective shift from the time of the Odyssey to the time of Plato’s Phaedo? What is the view of the eschatological view of Zoroastrianism—and how might it have influenced Judaean thinking about such matters?
We turn to the Hebrew Bible, for comparison, looking at I Samuel 28, the Apocryphal Book of Enoch, and in the New Testament, the Synoptic Gospels and the Book of Revelation. These books offer the foundation upon which the edifices of Judaism and Christianity are built. We explore medieval Jewish and Christian writings, both mainstream and mystical, to consider how ideas of the soul and an afterlife are shaped, from Augustine and Aquinas to Lurianic Kabbalah. What, in turn, does the advent of Islamic thought, in the 7th-9th centuries, contribute to the discussion—from Qur’an and hadith to the thought of Al-Ghazali and the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi?
The very brief double postscript to our investigation follows from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s On death and Dying to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
*God & The Goal Posts
One football player crossing the goal line with the ball in hand, bends on one knee, crosses himself and looks heavenward, thanking God; a second, having dropped what would have been the winning touchdown pass, tweets angrily the next day: “I praise you 24/7 and you do me this?!?!” Sports and religion repeatedly interweave each other in a range of ways. But this is not new–it goes all the way back to the Bible and the Iliad, and the interwoven relationship has cascaded down through the ages across the planet. Moreover, sports has always been a surrogate for war, and war has been dictated by politics–which has often justified itself through religion. And one way we see this clearly is in verbal and visual art–and more recently, in film–across history and geography. This course considers the dynamic and fascinating interweave between sports and religion throughout time and space, together with the more complex ways in which these two disciplines are interwoven with war, politics and art. It is an exciting ride, with plenty of twists and turns.
Greco-Roman Epic Poetry
The purpose of this course is threefold. Our first goal is to enjoy three of the more sublime works in the Western literary canon: the two surviving Greek epic poems that illuminate aspects of the Trojan War—the Iliad and the Odyssey—and the primary Roman epic poem, the Aeneid, that is modeled in large part on a combination of these Greek models. Our second goal is to use these three poems as a stepping off point for a consideration of some of the differences between Greek and Roman culture and thought: what sorts of issues, ideas, and qualities distinguished these two worlds from each other and which features were endemic to them both? Our third goal is to place the three poems in the larger context of epic (and lyric) poetry in the Western tradition with a brief exploration and discussion of other works that precede the Iliad and Odyssey, follow these poems but precede the Aeneid and follow the Aeneid—down to our own time.
*Jerusalem: City and Symbol
This course examines Jerusalem through three pairs of multiple lenses that offer a plethora of interesting questions with richly-contoured answers. How, exactly, does the city evolve as a focal point in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions? How does each of these traditions connect to Jerusalem over the course of history, spiritually, liturgically, politically, and with words, images, and even melody? We begin with a discussion of the the beginnings of Jerusalem and how the archaeological record reflects, refracts, validates, or contradicts the biblical references to the city—from the time of the Hebrew, Abraham, to the time of the Israelite King, Solomon. We trace the history of the twice-experienced building and destruction of, and exile from and return to Jerusalem—with an emphasis on its primary structures (the Temple and the royal palace and, subsequently, uppercrust tombs), that carry across a more than thousand-year period from David and Solomon (ca 100-930 BCE) to the First Revolt against the Romans (65-70 CE).
From that point we trace the evolving importance of the city, its symbolic structures and/or their remnants to Judaism and Christianity as these two faiths emerge out of a common Hebrew-Israelite-Judaean tradition. How is the importance of the city expressed in liturgy, literature, and visual art as these two contending traditions compete for legitimacy within the pagan Roman world, and how does that change and/or not change in the centuries after Christianity becomes the religion of the Empire by the end of the fourth century? Where, when, why, and how does Jerusalem acquire importance for the Muslim tradition that emerges on the stage of history in the early seventh century? How is that importance expressed in literature and art? How do politics play a role in shaping the city’s skyline in concert with religion and art? How do all three Abrahamic traditions interweave history and legend within the prose, poetry, and diverse visual art forms that they foster over the medieval period? How do these issues and ideas become transformed toward and into the modern era and how does “Jerusalem” as a symbol resonate outward in various directions within particularly the Euro-American world? When does music become part of the artistic expression devoted to the sacred city? As we arrive into the world of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, what elements of continuity and what new issues emerge, informed by the changing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds? What can one conclude about Jerusalem, given recent political events and artistic expressions, with regard to the present and the future?
Jewish Thinkers in the Post-Medieval Era: What is Modern Jewish Thought?
This course—which is really on the challenge of defining Modern Jewish Thought—explores some of the major minds and movements in Jewish thinking in the last 350 years while asking four questions: what is “modern”? what is “Jewish”? what is “thought”? and how might we understand all three terms combined as one rubric (“Modern Jewish Thought)? Stated otherwise: in considering the historical development of diverse thought patterns and issues that emerge outside and inside Jewish life during this period – Secularism, Nationalism, Marxism/Socialism, Existentialism, Psychoanalysis, Reconstructionism, Modern Orthodoxy, the Holocaust—what do the reflections of individuals diverse in background and outward expression share, by virtue of which we may group them together under such a rubric? The criss-cross of personalities and genres—philosophy and theology and work that is not typically included within either of these categories—should, in the end, begin to answer parts of our questions, while stimulating yet further questions (at least some of them ultimately unanswerable).
*Kabbalah in Its Contexts: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Mysticism
This course addresses the question of what “mysticism” is—how it differs from “normative” religious experience—and therefore how Jewish, Christian and Muslim mysticism differ from (and are rooted in) normative Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It will also address the question of how Jewish, Christian and Muslim mysticism differ from and share common ground with each other. The course will follow a two-fold path. One will be conceptual: we will be constantly asking how what we are reading, talking and thinking about is specific or not specific to what Jewish or Christian or Muslim mysticism is. The other will be historical: all three mystical traditions undergo centuries of development and part of grasping them is seeing how they change even as they remain consistently focused on the same essential issues. And those issues, not unique to mysticism or to these three “types” of mysticism, but uniquely addressed by each of them, include: why are we here? what, if anything, created us? for what purpose, if any? how can we know what It/He/She is and wants of us? how can we grasp that Other without losing hold of ourselves?—and so on…
Magic and Religion in the Greco-Roman World: The Beginnings of Judaism and Christianity
The world of the Greeks and Roman was one of endlessly multi-aspected paganism, with its consciousness of a range of gods and goddesses, daimons and spirits moving between their realm and ours. It was also one in which the Hebrew-Israelite-Judaean competed with paganism and continued to struggle to define itself—and ultimately split into what became Judaism and Christianity.
This course focuses on the times, places and literatures that reflect the interface between paganism as it has evolved within the Greco-Roman world and nascent Judaism and Christianity. It pushes toward an understanding of how Judaism and Christianity emerged out of the Hebrew-Israelite-Judaean tradition as two forms of faith each claiming to be the proper continuation of that tradition. It considers how their theological relationship—their competition regarding the Truth regarding divinity and its relationship to humanity—is not only affected by their mutual interface and their theological relationships with paganism but by the political context of the pagan Roman Imperium in which they both develop.
This is a world of meeting, divergence, convergence, synthesis, embrace and rejection of religious principles and ideas. It is a world in which verbal distinctions that we take for granted—such as those between magic and religion, myth and theology, superstition and true belief, astronomy and astrology—have not yet assumed the place to which they arrived within our vocabulary, over time. Our goal is largely to come to understand what comprise the key elements that distinguish and join these traditions, why and how this vocabulary emerges and evolves, and how the shaping of that vocabulary has affected and continues to affect our sense of what Judaism and Christianity are.
Moses to Muhammad: Judaism and Islam
The purpose of this course is two-fold: to provide an introduction to Judaism and Islam—and to Islam specifically in its theological relationship to Judaism as well as to Judaism in its theological relationship to Islam—and to follow the course of that relationship as it plays out historically, in different times and places, from the seventh century to our own time. Thus some of the questions that we will address include: What are the theological and historical circumstances in which Judaism was born? What are the theological and historical circumstances in which Islam was born? What influence, if any, did either of these faiths have on the other, given their historical interfaces? How are these influences apparent in different media, from theological and legalistic literature to symbols in art to gastronomic customs? How do putative influences change in the sweep of Islam across a wide world in which Jews are a far-flung series of diverse and even disparate communities. What are the implications of this extended past for the world in which Jews and Muslims live today and will live tomorrow?
The World of Plato
This course begins by briefly considering the birth of philosophy in the emerging Greekworld and by tracing the development of Western philosophy from Thales to Socrates. Socrates offers new ideas and new questions to Greek thought, arrived at by way of a methodology that placed heavy emphasis on dialogue. discussion and debate. He never wrote down a word of what he discussed over the decades. His pupil, Plato, ended up doing that, and Plato’s Academy–the first ivory tower–became renowned as an institution where all kinds of issues and ideas could be discussed without fear of offending those politically and socio-economically powerful enough to punish one for the offence. Thus with Plato as our guide, we will be asking three essential questions: what are these philosophers asking, how do their questions change ground over time, and what are the sorts of answers to which they arrive. We will end up at the threshold of Plato’s pre-eminent pupil, Aristotle and his competing school, the Lyceum.
The changing contexts of philosophical inquiry from the pre-Socratics to Socrates and Plato to Aristotle and the Hellenistic thinker who follow him are in part related to the changing shape of the Greek world. Thus subsidiary aspects of our discussions include the issue of the relationship of the Greek world to the worlds of Egypt and Mesopotamia; the relationship of Greek philosophy to Greek non-philosophical writing; the rise of Athens as a center among diverse centers of thought; and the legacy of Greek thought within the wider world encompassed by Alexander the Great toward the end of the 4th century BCE–a legacy inherited and carried forward by Rome and ultimately to ourselves.
*Untangling the Web of the Middle East
This course approaches the Middle East quagmire by way of a historical discussion that centers on the problem of conflicting and confusing definitions and aspirations, both for those within the region and for those outside trying to understand what is operative within. The starting point will be theological, but the endpoint will be the interweaving of religion with other issues, such as politics, ethnicity, nationalism and economics. The goal is less to presume to solve the problem than to have a clearer understanding of why it is so difficult to solve.
What is the Italian Renaissance? The Confluence of History, Art, Literature, and Music
The word “renaissance” means “rebirth” and thus the use of the term inevitably yields the question: rebirth of what? While it becomes clear, as one follows the period that has received that label, that much of classical, Greek and Roman, culture is re-achieving the center of the stage, this realization causes two further questions inevitably to present themselves: how is classical cultural redux similar to and how different from its original model? Does the re-engagement of the classics and their ideas, which are pagan, mean that the centuries’-long evolution of Christian culture and Christian ideas has dissipated? How so and how not? Further, what does the term “humanism” mean as it is used to refer to this era?
While addressing these fundamental questions from the beginning, this course also necessarily explores other questions, as well, such as what “Italy” was and is and how and why it is associated with the beginning of the Renaissance; and how and exactly when the period that goes by that name began—and ended. We consider the interface among the Italian city-states and between Italy and the larger world during those centuries. We ask where not only mainstream Christians but those considered heretical together with non-Christians (specifically, Jews and Muslims) fit into this reshaped world. We will address the legacy of the Italian Renaissance toward our own era.
These questions, issues and ideas are explored in a multi-valent manner, using historical events as a bone structure onto which we add very fleshy layers of the visual arts, literature (both prose and poetry) and music.