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Defining Jewish Difference
From Antiquity to the Present

$47.99 (C)

  • Date Published: May 2014
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781107663619

$ 47.99 (C)
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About the Authors
  • This book traces the interpretive career of Leviticus 18:3, a verse that forbids Israel from imitating its neighbors. Beth A. Berkowitz shows that ancient, medieval, and modern exegesis of this verse provides an essential backdrop for today's conversations about Jewish assimilation and minority identity more generally. The story of Jewishness that this book tells may surprise many modern readers for whom religious identity revolves around ritual and worship. In Lev. 18:3's story of Jewishness, sexual practice and cultural habits instead loom large. The readings in this book are on a micro-level, but their implications are far-ranging: Berkowitz transforms both our notion of Bible-reading and our sense of how Jews have defined Jewishness.

    • Challenges assumptions that religious identity revolves around ritual and worship by showing that Jews have historically defined themselves instead through sexual practice and cultural habit
    • Shows that discourse about Jewish assimilation is not a distinctively modern phenomenon, but that it has a long and varied history within Jewish cultures starting with the Bible itself
    • Maps out an important new genre of Bible reception history: by tracing the interpretation of a verse that is loaded with identity politics, the book explores the nexus between hermeneutics and history, or interpretation and ideology, in its sharpest, most dramatic iterations
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    Reviews & endorsements

    Advance Praise: “By exploring the manifold interpretations of Leviticus 18:3 from its biblical setting to twentieth-century interpreters, Beth Berkowitz sheds fascinating light on how Jews have described their difference from other peoples. She brilliantly demonstrates the complex negotiations legal authorities have engaged in between self-segregation and adaptation. In trying to maintain their identity as a minority people, the Jews forged a flexible legal tradition that allowed for borrowings while maintain their cultural integrity.”
    David Biale, University of California, Davis

    “Defining Jewish Difference is a scholarly and intellectual tour de force. Beth Berkowitz is one of the most insightful and meticulous scholars of rabbinic literature of the younger generation. She is fully engaged with a number of current conversations in the humanities, particularly with respect to the formation and making of collective identities. With great acuity Berkowitz zeroes in on the biblical verse perhaps most central to this issue in the history of Jewish law and culture, and its exegetical history. She tells a fascinating story of the making of Jewish distinctiveness, and thereby adds an important new angle to the broader discussion about Jewish identity. The book is so persuasive and the argument so masterfully developed that one is simply left wondering why this case has not been made before. All this is done with such elegance of writing that without a doubt this book will find a wide, interdisciplinary readership it deserves.”
    Charlotte E. Fonrobert, Stanford University

    “This is a very mature, original, and wholly unique work of scholarship that should appeal to a broad range of readers, both scholarly and general, with interests in a wide range of fields, disciplines, and historical periods. The implications of Berkowitz's book regarding ever-changing conceptions and constructions of Jewish identity and difference are far-reaching with respect to the variability of Jewish (and, by implication, non-Jewish) ethnicity, culture, law, and values.”
    Steven D. Fraade, Yale University

    “A wide-ranging study that goes to the heart of an age-old question: What makes Jews different from their neighbors – and in what ways does Judaism require them to express their difference? Berkowitz focuses on a series of crucial texts, starting with the Bible itself and extending to today's rabbinical rulings. In the process she highlights a broad range of issues that have been the focus of debate, from marriage practices and communal observance to haircuts, business suits, and Thanksgiving. Detailed and fascinating scholarship.”
    James Kugel, Bar Ilan University, Israel

    “A formidable tour de force about Jewish identity, mirrored in the reception history of a single biblical verse, Leviticus 18:3.”
    Peter Schaefer, Princeton University

    “Beth Berkowitz’s book is in the top rank of works that use the history of the interpretation of a biblical text as a key to understanding broader issues in cultural and social history. Berkowitz’s magisterial readings consistently subvert our expectations, and not simply as a paradoxical effect. They maintain a steady focus on her authorities’ complex and refined negotiation with the strongly separatist demands of Leviticus 18, and in doing so force us to rethink much of what we thought we knew about Jewish identity.”
    Seth Schwartz, Columbia University

    "Berkowitz's chapters are a wellspring of information on defining Jewish identity from epochs of Jewish life, culled mainly from scriptural verses as interpreted in traditional rabbinic sources … this volume is a welcome and needed repository of classic rabbinic legal discussion, disputation, and decisions concerning keeping Judaism and maintaining Jewish survival in the proximity of adaptation and assimilation … this book, with its erudite scholarship, is a worthwhile read."
    The Catholic Biblical Quarterly

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    Product details

    • Date Published: May 2014
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781107663619
    • length: 290 pages
    • dimensions: 229 x 152 x 17 mm
    • weight: 0.43kg
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. Introduction: law, identity, and Leviticus 18:3
    2. The question of Israelite distinctiveness: paradigms of separatism in Leviticus 18:3
    3. Allegory and ambiguity: Jewish identity in Philo's De Congressu
    4. A narrative of neighbors: rethinking universalism and particularism in patristic and rabbinic writings
    5. The limits of 'their laws' in midrash halakhah
    6. A short history of the people of Israel from the patriarchs to the Messiah: constructions of Jewish difference in Leviticus rabbah
    7. Syncretism and anti-syncretism in the Babylonian Talmud
    8. The judaization of reason: the Tosafists, Nissim Gerondi, and Joseph Colon
    9. Women's wear and men's suits: Ovadiah Yosef's and Moshe Feinstein's discourses of Jewishness
    10. Conclusion: an 'upside-down people'?

  • Author

    Beth A. Berkowitz, Jewish Theological Seminary of America
    Beth A. Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literatures and Cultures at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Her first book, Execution and Invention: Death Penalty Discourse in Early Rabbinic and Christian Cultures, won the Salo Baron Prize for Outstanding First Book in Jewish Studies. She has published articles in the Journal for the American Academy of Religion, the Journal of Jewish Studies, Jewish Quarterly Review, the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, AJS Review and Biblical Interpretation. She has held postdoctoral fellowships in Yale University's Program in Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania's Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and New York University Law School's Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization. She received her BA and PhD from Columbia University and her MA from the University of Chicago.

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