my students live in an alternate universe

So, it’s the time in the semester when everyone’s mental state begins to crumble, at least a little bit.

I, for one, am certainly no exception to this rule.

The students in the class for which I am a T.A. also do not seem immune.

Recently, we have been talking about medieval European conceptions of Jewishness and sorcery. The professor and I decided that having them read a novel that does a decent historical portrayal of that time (while still being an entertaining read) would be a nice way for them to get a solid grasp on the time period, while not having to struggle through depressing primary source texts.

The novel follows several residents of early 17th century Prague, utilizing many of the examples we have been discussing in class (such as the blood libel, the myth of host desecration, and legends surrounding the creation of golems).

I don’t know about everyone else, but generally speaking I assume novels are fictional. Maybe they don’t teach you this kind of thing in elementary schools anymore, so perhaps I need to stop taking this for granted as common knowledge.

Twice in the past week students have asked me if people can actually make golems. A few weeks ago, a different student asked if rabbis could still make calves (referring to a part of a Talmud passage (b. Sanh. 65b, to be exact, which describes two rabbis studying the Sefer Yetzirah and creating a “thrice grown calf”).

In each of these instances I have been at a slight loss for words, and only barely managed to make a reasonable recovery and save face.

Do they think that we, as Jews, can create living beings out of nothing? Do the very medieval conceptions we are trying to teach them about really still run so deep in our thinking that they assume my professor and I could do these impossible acts?

Do they have so little a grasp on what is physically and humanly possible that they really think it is possible to create life?

I am trying to think of this in a positive light. Maybe they have such a sense of wonder that they want to believe these things are possible.

Or, maybe they have such reverence for us as instructors that anything we say must be unarguably true. Maybe they think we have access to powers they can only dream about.

Because this happened multiple times, and I am also a bit at the end of my ropes as it is, I am starting to doubt myself. What do they know that I don’t know? Maybe it is possible to create a calf, or even a human. After all, I’ve never tried, so I couldn’t say for sure that I can’t do it.

Any maybe I’ve got them all wrong. Maybe they feel a little bit like the Jews from Europe in the 16th through 18th centuries. Maybe they are feeling the effects of a toxic political climate. Maybe they are worried for their friends and family. It might be tempting to give into the idea of being able to create some larger-than-life being who will be able to defend them and the ones they care about. Seeing this as a possibility might make them feel as though they have some semblance of control over their futures and over the world around them.

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Abusing the Past

A few weeks ago, biblical archaeologist Carol Meyers came to UNCC for the 20th annual Tate lecture. Her talk was entitled “Holy Land Archaeology: Where the Past Meets the Present.”

I have some familiarity with Meyers’ scholarly work, and I expected her to speak about the religious culture of ancient Israelite women, as she does in a number of her books.

Instead, she spoke about a variety of archaeological sites in Israel/Palestine, and how the push to excavate some of these is greatly influenced by politics in the region- a topic I found no less fascinating.

For example, the site at Beit Alpha, a secular kibbutz founded in the 1920’s, included an ancient, elaborate mosaic floor depicting a menorah. The group who had founded the kibbutz wanted to cover it right back up- to them it smelled way too much like religion. Other groups, however, saw something that would lend support to zionist goals: if there was proof of an ancient Jewish presence in the land, it would theoretically support a modern Jewish return.

To someone with little experience with archaeology, I was somewhat surprised at how much certain political agendas influence what is considered academically important. I suppose this shouldn’t have been news to me, given how much of academia is political no matter the field.

Still, the scholar in me was sickened when Meyers spoke about the site at Sepphoris. Known as the “city of peace” for refusing to go to war against the Romans in 67-68 C.E., the remains of the area demonstrate multiple cultures cohabiting in relative harmony.

The artistic depictions of Jewish, Pagan, and Christian images blended together could serve as proof that there have been places and times in our history when we not solely focused on converting or killing one another. However, it seems as though those responsible for the preservation of the site have a different agenda.

According to Meyers, there has been a massive disregard of a 12th century crusader church that stands on the edge of the site. There were attempts by Meyers and some others to have this area included as part of the preserved historical site, but these attempts were not successful.

This does not seem like a move to preserve history so that we and our descendants can learn and explore these beautiful and ancient buildings. It seems to depend on “whose history” a certain building or artifact is associated with in order to be deemed worthy of protection.

On some level, I can understand a bit of hesitation, especially with regard to this church. There has been so much violence done by Christians against Jews in the past that I suppose it could feel wrong to give this church the same protection, especially if the goal is to establish the land as unquestionably Jewish.

This is where the problem is. A nationalist agenda is masquerading in the guise of preserving important historical sites and artifacts. I think that this is an abuse. The past is not passive or static, and we all choose how we want to interpret (or alter) the past. As Carol Meyers said, archaeology does things. Unfortunately, archaeology often does not get any input into what these things are. Far too often scholars either decide what it is they want to do with given research, or are forced to emphasize certain facets over others based on who is giving them funding.

What is the most depressing is I don’t see this stopping any time soon. Our research (and our livelihood) is too reliant upon the support and funding we receive from our institutions and grants. Academic freedom can only go so far when your work is only partially your own.  

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