History of Judaism

In the History of Judaism Area we concentrate on Jewish thought, from antiquity to the present. Midrash and piyyut, Biblical interpretation and belles-lettres, Sufism and Kabbalah, philosophy and theology – these are the main subjects that we explore, in historical and hermeneutical context. The main focus is textual, the study of ideas as they emerge in the vast and varied literary production of the Jews throughout time. Although students are required to gain expertise in one historical period and geographical realm, they are encouraged also to acquire a sense for the development of ideas through the ages, from Biblical to Second Temple, Hellenistic and Rabbinic Judaism, into the Medieval period – in the Islamic world and Christian Europe – into Modern times, in Germany, France, Italy, Israel and America.

Faculty

Arnold I. Davidson, Michael Fishbane, Paul Mendes-Flohr, James T. Robinson

History of Judaism brief overview (pdf)

Jewish Studies has been an important field of research at The University of Chicago since the institution's founding in 1890. Among its first five full professors, two taught Judaica: William Rainey Harper and Emil Gustav Hirsch. The University's first president, Professor Harper was a renowned Biblical scholar and oversaw the beginnings of programs in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations. A few decades later, these early initiatives received a huge institutional boost with the founding of the Oriental Institute, which remains one of the pre-eminent centers for the study of ancient Near Eastern languages, civilizations, and archeology.

Professor Hirsch held a chair in rabbinical literature and Jewish philosophy. Current to his duties as the principal rabbi of Congregation Sinai, located in the neighborhood of the university, Hirsch taught until his death in 1923 a full range of courses in Talmud, Midrash, and Medieval Jewish philosophy.

The subsequent flourishing of Jewish Studies at Chicago has been sustained by appointments in a wide range of departments: Classics, Philosophy, History, Social Thought, Political Science, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Music, Germanic Studies, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Romance Languages and Literatures, to name a few. In 1994 the Divinity School established its History of Judaism program for the training of graduate students in Jewish Studies. During the decade and a half since, the School has appointed eminent scholars in the study of Hebrew Bible, Midrash, Medieval Jewish Thought, and Modern Jewish Thought. Working together, these fields and disciplines have created the most comprehensive, distinguished and interdisciplinary program in Jewish Studies available at any American university.


The History of Judaism Faculty, focused on the study of Jewish texts in their various historical, cultural, philosophical, literary, and religious contexts, includes Arnold Davidson, Michael Fishbane, Paul Mendes-Flohr, and James Robinson.

The History of Judaism doctoral program offers three different concentrations: Ancient Judaism, Medieval Judaism, Modern Judaism.

Requirements for the PhD in the History of Judaism Area are:

1. Course Work and Residency: There is a four-year scholastic residency requirement for every student in the Divinity School. With supervision by the primary academic advisor, students develop a course of study that will help them prepare for comprehensive exams and acquire necessary linguistic facility.

2. Research Languages: Each area of research has its own unique language needs. In general, PhD students in the History of Judaism will be required to master two languages related to their interests, for example Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic or Syriac; Medieval Hebrew and Arabic or Latin (or a relevant romance language); Maskilic Hebrew and Yiddish or another European language. Students with strong chronological interests can focus on the various stages of Hebrew: Biblical, Rabbinic, Medieval, and Modern.

3. Languages of Modern Scholarship: All History of Judaism PhD students are required to show competency in Modern Hebrew, French, and German. Competency is determined by a formal faculty-administered exam tailored to the student's research interests. One must pass the required language exam before taking the doctoral orals and submitting a dissertation proposal.

4. Pre-exam Colloquium: After completing the course and residency requirement and passing the relevant language exams, students participate in a colloquium with all members of the History of Judaism faculty in attendance. This colloquium will provide opportunity for intensive discussion of one substantial research paper by the student in relation to his or her larger research goals. Typically this is done at the end of the second year or the beginning of the third year of studies. 

5. Comprehensive Exams: Students in the Divinity School are required to sit four comprehensive examinations followed by an oral defense. In the History of Judaism, at least two and not more than three of the exams must be in the History of Judaism, at least one and not more than two in another area of the Divinity School. An "orals paper," related to the student's prospective dissertation research, is submitted prior to taking exams and will be discussed during the oral defense. Sample bibliographies (pdf) can be seen here: AncientMedievalModern. There is, additionally, a committee-wide exam in comparative exegesis entitled "Scripture in History, Literature, Thought and Culture."  (pdf). Sample exams from previous years can be consulted in the Dean of Students office.

6. Dissertation Proposal: Upon successful completion of the comprehensive exams, students must formulate and submit a dissertation proposal together with a dissertation committee of at least three faculty members: a primary adviser and two readers. The proposal must be submitted to the Committee on Degrees for formal approval.

7. Dissertation: The final requirement of the PhD is the dissertation, which must represent substantial and original research in the student's chosen field of expertise.

PhD Dissertations in the History of Judaism

Benjamin Sommer, 1994: “Leshon limmudim: The poetics of allusion in Isaiah 40-66”

 

Nathaniel Deutsch, 1995: “Guardians of the gate: Angelic vice regency in late antiquity”

 

Esther Menn, 1995: “Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38) in ancient Jewish exegesis: Studies in literary form and hermeneutics”

 

Elsie Stern, 1998: “From rebuke to consolation: Exegesis and theology in the liturgical anthology of the ninth of Av season”

 

Charles Vehse, 1998" “Foundations of the Reform Movement in Hamburg: German Judaism in transition during the early 19th century”

 

Natalie Dohrmann, 1999: “Law and narrative in the ‘Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael’: The problem of midrashic coherence”

 

Jonathan Schofer, 2000: “The making of a sage: The rabbinic ethics of ‘Abot de Rabbi Natan’”

 

Deborah Green, 2003: “Soothing odors: The transformation of scent in ancient Israelite and ancient Jewish literature”

 

Laura Lieber, 2003: “‘Let me sing for my beloved’: Transformations of the Song of Songs in synagogal poetry”

 

Rebecca Schorsch, 2003: “The making of a legend: Louis Ginzberg’s ‘Legends of the Jews’”

 

Jerome Copulsky, 2004: “Between exile and redemption: Political theology and the shaping of modern Jewish thought”

 

Ellen Haskell, 2005: “Metaphor and symbolic representation: The image of God as a suckling mother in thirteenth-century Kabbalah”

 

Cass Fisher, 2005: “Claiming God: Theological predication and its limits in ‘Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael’ and ‘The Star of Redemption’”

 

Steven Sacks, 2006: “‘In his hand is a sceptre of fire and a veil is spread before him’: Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer and the exposition of medieval Midrash”

 

Jane Kanarek, 2007: “Let the story remain with us: Biblical narrative and the formation of rabbinic law”

 

Benjamin Sax, 2008: “Language and Jewish renewal: Franz Rosenzweig’s hermeneutic of citation”

 

Elliot Cosgrove, 2008: “Teyku: The insoluble contradictions in the life and thought of Louis Jacobs”

 

Hillel Gray, 2009: “Foreign features in Jewish law: How Christian and secular moral discourses permeate halakhah”

 

Sarah Imhoff, 2010: “Making Jewish gender: Religion, race, sexuality, and American Jews, 1910-1924”

 

Heather Miller Rubens, 2011: “Also other: Utilizing different minority narratives in the making of Anglo-Jewish identity”

 

Dov Weiss, 2011: “Confrontational theology in post-classical rabbinic literature”

 

Eszter Fuzessy, 2011: “Dialogues between sages and outsiders to the tradition: Creation of difference as a literary method of religious polemics in rabbinic literature”

 

Shatha Almutawa, 2013: “Imaginative cultures and historic transformations: Narrative in Rasā’il Ikhwān al-Ṣafā’”

 

Ruchama Johnston-Bloom, 2013: “Muhammad, the Qur’an and German-Jewish modernities: Gustav Weil, Josef Horovitz and Muhammad Asad”

 

Samuel Brody, 2013: “This pathless hour: Messianism, Anarchism, Zionism, and Martin Buber’s political theology reconsidered”

 

Selected History of Judaism Courses

HIJD 30400 Readings in Midrash. Fishbane
HIJD 30601 Jewish Heretics and Apostates in the Middle Ages. Robinson
HIJD 30700 Introduction to Jewish Mystical Literature: The Book of Zohar. Fishbane
HIJD 31200 Dialogical Thought of Franz Rosenzweig. Mendes-Flohr
HIJD 34000 Franz Rosenzweig’s Concept of Revelation. Mendes-Flohr
HIJD 34300 Models of Jewish Spiritual Perfection and Piety: Sixteenth-Century Safed. Fishbane
HIJD 35000 Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Robinson
HIJD 35100 The Jewish Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. Robinson
HIJD 36600 East and West European Conceptions of Judaism in Modern Times. Mendes-Flohr/Brinker
HIJD 40000 Readings in Midrash: Lamentations Rabba. Fishbane
HIJD 40400 Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking. Fishbane
HIJD 40500 Modern Jewish Religious Thought. Mendes-Flohr
HIJD 41100 Animal Spirituality in the Middle Ages. Robinson
HIJD 41200 Mystical Texts: Readings in the Book of Zohar. Fishbane
HIJD 42600 Spinoza and Mendelssohn. Mendes-Flohr
HIJD 42900 The Jews in Medieval Spain. Robinson
HIJD 44900 Buber’s I and Thou. Mendes-Flohr
HIJD 45000 Studies in Legal Midrash. Fishbane
HIJD 45100 Zachor: History and Memory in Modern Jewish Thought. Mendes-Flohr
HIJD 45400 Readings in Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Robinson
HIJD 45500 Medieval Commentaries on Ecclesiastes. Robinson
HIJD 45800 Franz Rosenzweig: The New Thinking. Mendes-Flohr
HIJD 46900 Wrath of God in the Hebrew Bible. Fishbane
HIJD 46901 Modern Jewish Theology. Fishbane
HIJD 49600 Exile in Jewish Thought and Literature. Mendes-Flohr/Brinker
HIJD 50600 Soul, Intellect and Immortality in Medieval Jewish Thought. Robinson
HIJD 50900 Hermann Cohen’s Religion and Reason. Mendes-Flohr