History of Judaism

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


Arnold I. Davidson, Michael Fishbane, Sarah HammerschlagJames T. Robinson

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 Arnold Davidson, Michael Fishbane, Sarah Hammerschlag, 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.

Complete area guidelines, including examination bibliographies

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”
  • Chaim Neria, 2015, "It Cannot be Valued with the Gold of Ophir (Job 28:16): Rabbi Joseph B. Shem-Tob's Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Sources and Analysis."
  • Jessica Hope Andruss, 2015, “Exegesis, Homily, and Historical Reflection in the Arabic Commentary on Lamentations by Salmon ben Yerūḥīm, Tenth-Century Karaite of Jerusalem” 
  • Alexandra Zirkle, 2016, “Modeling the Temple: The Politics of German-Jewish Biblical Hermeneutics”
  • Raphael Dascalu, 2016, “Philology, Philosophy, and Sufism: Towards an Understanding of Tanḥum Ha-Yerushalmi’s Exegesis and Thought, with a Focus on His Commentaries on Jonah, The Song of Songs, and Qohelet” 
History of Judaism class sampling

This list is a sample of courses offered in this area and is for informational purposes only. For current and upcoming courses, visit http://divinity.uchicago.edu/courses

  • The Study of Modern Jewish Thought: Theory and Method. Paul Mendes-Flohr
  • Jewish Liturgical Poetry. Michael Fishbane
  •  The "Science of Letters" in Judaism and Islam. James T. Robinson
  • Job and Theology: Between Biblical Hermeneutics and Philosophical Theology. Michael Fishbane
  • Philosophy, Talmudic Culture, and Religious Experience: Soloveitchik. Arnold I. Davidson
  • Spinoza and Mendelssohn. Paul Mendes-Flohr
  • The Bible in Arabic. James T. Robinson
  • Franz Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption Part I and  II.Paul Mendes-Floh
  • Maimonides on the Problem of Evil. James T. Robinson
  • Poetics of Midrash. Michael Fishbane
  • The Jewish Interpretation of the Bible in the Middle Ages. James T. Robinson
  • Advanced Readings in Midrash. Michael Fishbane
  • Maimonides as Mystic. James T. Robinson
  • The Citation in Jewish Religious Culture. Michael Fishbane
  • Studies in Rabbinic Midrash: Pesikta de-Rav Kahana. Michael Fishbane
  • Philosophy and Theology of Judaism. Arnold I. Davidson
  • Martin Buber’s Philosophy of Religion. Paul Mendes-Flohr
  • Brauer Seminar: Jewish and Christian Responses to Biblical Criticism. Jeffrey Stackert, Paul Mendes-Flohr
  • Jewish Writings of Hannah Arendt. Paul Mendes-Flohr
  • Levinas and Talmud. Michael Fishbane
  • Messianism in Modernity. Sarah Hammerschlag
  • Readings in Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed. James T. Robinson
  • Gershom Scholem: The Theologian and Social Critic. Paul Mendes-Flohr
  • Jewish Responses to Continental Philosophers: Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Paul Mendes-Flohr
  • The Other and the “Exotic” in Postwar Jewish Writing. Sarah Hammerschlag
  • Animal Spirituality in the Middle Ages. James T. Robinson
  • Topics in the Philosophy of Religion: Challenge of Suffering from Job to Primo Levi. Arnold Davidson
  • Medieval Commentaries on Ecclesiastes. James T. Robinson, Michael Fishbane
  • Readings in Arabic Religious Texts. James T. Robinson, Michael Sells
  • The Other and the “Exotic” in Postwar Jewish Writing. Sarah Hammerschlag