History of Judaism

In the History of Judaism Area we concentrate on Jewish thought, from antiquity to the present. 

Faculty: Simeon Chavel, Sarah HammerschlagSheila E. Jelen, James T. Robinson

Associated Faculty: Kenneth Moss

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.

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 Simeon Chavel, Michael Fishbane, Sarah Hammerschlag, Sheila E. Jelen, and James T. 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 can be seen here: AncientMedievalModern.

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.

Sample Courses

  •  The "Science of Letters" in Judaism and Islam
  • The Bible in Arabic
  • Mystical Theology of Hasidism: The Circle of Maggid of Mezeritch
  • Poetics of Midrash
  • The Jewish Interpretation of the Bible in the Middle Ages
  • A Proto-History of Race? Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Spain and North Africa (1200-1600)
  • Messianism in Modern Jewish Thought
  • Interactions between Jewish Philosophy and Literature in the Middle Ages
  • The Book of Judges
  • Between Polemics and Encounter: "Jews" and "Christians" in Rome and Sasanian Persia
  • Jewish Sufism
  • Martin Buber's Conception of Religion and Judaism
  • Modern Jewish Religious Thought: An Introductory Survey
  • Readings in Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed
  • A Medieval Menagerie: Animal Spirituality in the Middle Ages