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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New Semester, Old Complaints

A new semester is upon us. Classes have begun, and I’m getting back into the swing of things. So, naturally, it’s time for me to gripe about the state of the academy.

A few days ago I ran into a friend’s boyfriend who is starting his undergraduate degree as an adult student. As we chatted, he lamented that he had ordered a book too late for a class, and would not have it in time for the first reading assignment. “Have you checked the library?” I asked. He looked flabbergasted. The idea, which seemed so second nature to me at this point, had simply not occurred to him- that the textbook for a class would be in the school library was completely outside of his frame of reference.

This got me thinking. I remember how lost I felt when I started grad school. I am lucky enough to be part of a department that is incredibly supportive and helpful, and it still took me at least two semesters to feel like I had the slightest inkling of what was going on.

I recall similarly feeling pretty overwhelmed when I started my undergraduate education. However, I was one of those privileged students who begins college right out of high school, so I at least wasn’t out of practice when it came to doing my homework, etc. My first year was still pretty rough (especially when you add “struggles with mental illness” to the standard adjusting to college life). I imagine it must be so much tougher to go to college as an adult.

The professor I T.A. for at UNCC spends an entire class period during the first week of her LBST (Liberal Studies) classes going over “the freshman myth” (or, the idea most incoming first year students have that college will be no different from high school, and therefore they will not have to change their study habits). She additionally teaches them how to take notes, how to listen to lectures, and how to write an argumentative essay. I have never encountered another professor who does this for any class.

To be fair, incoming freshman at UNCC have, as a whole, distinctly different backgrounds from those at UNC, where I did my undergrad. While there it could be assumed that most of them had already gone through the rite-of-passage of writing five paragraph essays, the same cannot be assumed for UNCC- which is one reason why I love this school, while at the same time am profoundly frustrated as a T.A. Many students are the first in their family to attempt higher education, and most are working and taking classes simultaneously. Plenty are coming back to school as adults.

Clearly the adjustment to college is hard. And clearly many don’t know how to ask for help, or even that they can ask. So why don’t more professors these basic introductions to academic expectations when teaching classes filled with first year college students?  

I think part of the reason is that they- we- forget what it was like when we were first starting. I know that I have to make myself remember how disoriented and lost I was when I started grad school, and that was only two years ago. Imagine how hard it must be to recall these feelings of anxiety and confusion when it has been more like fifteen, twenty, or even thirty years.

I think that I need to make more of a conscious effort to remember these feelings. Instead of getting frustrated with students for now automatically knowing how the academy works, I should try to be compassionate and patient. After all, I only barely know what I’m doing- and it wasn’t so long ago I was in their shoes.

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Revisiting the AAR

As the semester draws to a close, I wanted to revisit the inaugural post of my blog, in which I discussed some of my thoughts and impressions of the American Academy of Religion conference in Atlanta last fall.

At the time, I was highly distressed by the amount of “masculinity” that I encountered during the conference: there were substantially more men than women in attendance, and the women for the most part seemed to be performing more muted femininity.

Though not surprising for academia (especially for the Religious Studies field), I now wonder if my initial comments were a bit harsh.

I wonder if I could have seen my surroundings in a more nuanced light, rather than taking a solely condemnatory stance. Could I, for example, instead take into account concepts like disidentification, as discussed by José Esteban Muñoz?

In his book Muñoz discusses the ways in which individuals and groups who fall outside of normativity (specifically with regard to race and sexuality) must often form their identities through a failure to interpellate within the dominant public sphere. For Muñoz, for many there is no complete assimilation into the dominant culture, just as there cannot always be complete rejection.

The fiction of identity is one that is accessed with relative ease by most majoritarian subjects. Minoritarian subjects need to interface with different subcultural fields to activate their own senses of self.*

I don’t think that (mostly white) women in the academy were quite what Muñoz had in mind when formulating this concept, but I think that it can still apply.

At the time when these women were entering into the academy (and even today, to a large extent) there were not models within the academy with whom they could identify- i.e. other women. In order to “fit in” and continue their work, they had (and still have) to find a way to negotiate the awkward space of the double bind: you can’t be too feminine if you want to be taken seriously, but you have to be feminine enough so you don’t come off as cold or b*tchy (Think about all the buzz about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits over the years).

Identifying in complete opposition to their male counterparts isn’t really an option, especially if they want to succeed within the academy. And of course they can’t completely identify with these male counterparts and be taken seriously.

I want to rethink my initial reactions to the gendered expressions as I interpreted them at the AAR. After all, who wants to wear lots of glittery make-up after a long flight? And who wants to wear six inch heels to walk around a conference for four days? 


* José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 5.
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SECSOR 2016

Last week I attended the 2016 SECSOR  (Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion) Conference in Atlanta.

I presented in one of the “Women, Gender, and Religion” sections, along with four others discussing the intersections of gender and nationality.

One paper in particular that stuck with me was Pamela Ayo Yetunde’s “A New Spelling of Our Names: The Psycho-Spiritual Experiences of African-American Buddhist Lesbians”. (A link to some of her writing can be found here)

Yetunde’s approach was ethnographic (as were all of the panelists other than myself), and approached the religiosity of these women in a way that I did not expect. Her data included those who self-identified as Buddhist, but additionally looked at the ways in which the individuals described their beliefs, worldviews, and practices, labeling them as Buddhist if they fit into what could be described as Buddhist theology.

A greal of the paper seemed to be supporting the notion that a person can hold multiple religious identities, and that these do not necessarily need to be in conflict with one another. This is a notion that I think is very interesting, and one that would be worth considering in more detail as I continue my studies.

I don’t have a lot to add at this time. I was at first dismayed that all of the other panelists were addressing contemporary theological communities using anthropological and ethnographic methods, while my subject matter was rather ancient, and I took a theoretical approach. But through my brief conversation with Yetunde I saw how they could be connected. My paper dealt with the violent exclusion and othering of one group by another, and hers dealt with a way in which it seemed like certain individuals were able to bridge gaps between practices and traditions that at first seem irreconcilable.

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Kripal’s “Biological Gods”

Jeffrey Kripal, a professor at Rice University, came to speak at my university earlier this week for our annual Witherspoon Religious Studies lecture.

His lecture, “Biological Gods: Science (fiction) and Some Emergent Mythologies”, focused on three specific works by individuals who identify themselves as “Experiencers”, or those who have had alien or UFO encounters.

Kripal discussed how these kinds of experiences are socially scripted into our psyches. A contemporary tale of an alien encounter is the modern equivalent of ancient tales of divine encounters. For Kripal, this scripting doesn’t mean that the experiences are necessarily invalid (though he remains neutral, neither advocating for the objective reality of UFO sightings or alien encounters nor dismissing them as hogwash).

As I understood it, he thinks that it makes perfect sense that a culture so enmeshed with technology would perceive these supernatural experiences through a technological lens. Just as a Catholic Catholic child in, say, the 1500’s would naturally see a Marian apparition.

He finds that these seemingly radically different experiences are linked; they are an emergence of the scripted form of some sort of encounter that is inexpressible. The person sees a UFO (or Jesus’ face in a piece of toast) because they expect to, but this is the result of some sort of other-worldly touch that only has the option of emerging through the lens of something we are already familiar with.

I think Kripal’s approach is interesting. He advocates for putting the mysterious (or the divine) back into the study of religion. While I think that this can create some issues (some might immediately jump to the realm of the miraculous when attempting to explain religious phenomena), but I think it is an interesting idea.

Religious Studies is so often incredibly depressing, Kripal noted. I’m afraid I agree. Though I love the field with all my heart, sometimes I feel like it is missing an air of wonder and incredulity.

Maybe it’s just me, but at times I feel that everything is reduced to a theory or explanation, and all of the amazing “stuff” that makes up the so much of what we study is ignored or extinguished.

What would it mean to attempt to reinvigorate the study? How could this be done carefully? Could it be done at all at this point?

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Talmudic Drag

In my experience, both liturgical and academic, the phrase “the Rabbis”* is often used rather loosely. Generally speaking, this is used to refer to those scholars who studied and debated oral Torah, and whose thoughts and teachings (when considered especially relevant or profound) were occasionally written down and codified within a massive tome known as the Talmud.

Many of these people are now considered famous Jewish sages. Akiva, Judah haNasi, Rav Nachman, Rashi, Maimonides (aka Rambam), etc., are all examples of scholars from a variety of different time periods that are widely taught and studied to this day.

What interests me most is the way that the Rabbis are taught and engaged with within liturgical spaces. Though they are known to be from radically different times and spaces (for example, Akiva was around in first century Judea, Maimonides lived 1138-1204 in North Africa), they are often taught side by side.

The way that the Talmud operates allows for this easily. A typical page of Talmud will have a section in the center of the page that is devoted to the actual text that is being discussed. Surrounding it are all the commentaries, each written or uttered by a different scholar, many of which arguing with or building upon another scholar’s commentary. Each of these might have been written with decades or centuries in between. The beautiful result is a sort of cross-generational debate, with scholars engaging with their predecessors long after the earlier scholars are gone.

This brings up questions about time. The Rabbis are discussed, especially liturgically, as if they all exist simultaneously, and as if specific arguments and counter-arguments are being examined at the same time. For example, if one Rabbi is responding to a previous Rabbi, it seems as though the previous Rabbi would be able to see the response- though he is long dead.

I think it is interesting to view this as a sort of “temporal drag”, something J. Jack Halberstam discusses in “In a Queer Time and Place”. Though it is known that these individuals existed and wrote at varying periods of history, they are also seen as speaking through history. Time is reorganized and granted a position of lesser importance than it holds in normative life.

The existence of these Rabbis is only in the textual space of the Talmud. The development of what came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism is thought to have originated with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., causing many Judean people to move into exile and diasporic lands. A centralized worship site no longer existed in physical reality, so space was created through text. It could be said that (for this particular strain of Judaism) text is their home, or has been cultivated into a home in a non-normative fashion.  

* Distinct from the modern title “Rabbi”, which refers to an individual who has attended rabbinical school and earned the degree.

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