Dean of The Divinity School and the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Distinguished Service Professor, Committee on Social Thought, Department of History, The Divinity School, the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Center for Jewish Studies, and the College
PhD (Princeton University)
Much of David Nirenberg's work has focused on the ways in which Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures constitute themselves by interrelating with or thinking about each other. His first book, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, studied social interaction between the three groups within the context of Spain and France in order to understand the role of violence in shaping the possibilities for coexistence. In later projects he took a less social and more hermeneutical approach, exploring the work that "Judaism," "Christianity," and "Islam" do as figures in each other's thought about the nature of language and the world. One product of that approach, focused on art history, was (jointly with Herb Kessler) Judaism and Christian Art: Aesthetic Anxieties from the Catacombs to Colonialism (2011). In Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (2013), Nirenberg attempted to apply the methodology to a very longue durée, studying the work done by pagan, Christian, Muslim, and secular thinking about Jews and Judaism in the history of ideas. More recently, in Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism Medieval and Modern (2014), he brought the social into conversation with the hermeneutic, in order to show how, in multireligious societies (with focus, as it often is, on Spain), lived experiences of interreligious contact interact with conceptual categories and habits of thought, and how this interaction shapes how adherents of all three religions perceive themselves and each other.
Nirenberg's work on these three religious traditions ranges across literary, artistic, historiographic, and philosophical genres. But even more generally, his interest seems to be in the history of how the possibilities and limits of community and communication have been imagined. That was the goal of his most recent book, Aesthetic Theology and Its Enemies: Judaism in Christian Painting, Poetry, and Politics (2015). And it has also been the goal of his engagement in contemporary debates about how the possibility of overcoming those limits has been fantasized in contemporary politics and philosophy, such as in his essays in the New Republic on the encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI, or pieces in Critical Inquiry ("Politics of Love and Its Enemies" and "Badiou's Number: a Critique of Mathematics as Ontology," the latter with Ricardo Nirenberg). In order to explore these more general questions Nirenberg is engaged in two long-term thematic projects: the first, a history of love's central place in a number of ancient, medieval, and modern idealizations of communication and exchange, and the second, a parallel study of poison as a representation of communication's dangers. And finally, as is a tradition here at the University of Chicago, Nirenberg is also interested in exploring the grounds of possibility for knowledge. To that end he is collaborating with a mathematician (Ricardo Nirenberg) on a book exploring the various types of sameness that underpin the relative claims of different forms of knowledge, in the hope of discovering new ways of understanding both the powers and the limits of the sciences and the humanities.
—Appointed Executive Vice Provost
—Quoted in an Atlantic article on Charlottesville and anti-Semitism
—Awarded 2017 Historikerpreis der Stadt Münsters for his body of work
—Delivers the University of Chicago 527th Convocation Address [video, 12 minutes]
—Awarded Doctor of Philosophy, Honoris Causa, University of Haifa, 2016
—Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences