(Conference) Make Talmud New (Bard College)




“Make it New” New Possibilities for Classical Jewish Texts in Scholarship and Culture

Bard College, April 26, 2017

Sponsored by Bard Jewish Studies, Religion, Hebrew, Anthropology, Historical Studies, Literature, Theater and Written Arts Programs, with the generous support of the World Union of Jewish Studies

New Connections: The Talmud and the Contemporary Humanities  – a Workshop I

 Location: Bertlesmann Campus Center, Yellow Room 1:15pm-2:45

Chair: David Nelson

Shai Secunda: “Opening Remarks: Talmud and the Liberal Arts”

Sarit Kattan Gribetz, “What Does Religion Sound Like? An Exploration of Rabbinic Sources.” In a dialogue with Tehseen Thaver; student response: Katherine Buonanno.

Yair Lipshitz, “Urban Performance in Times of Crisis: Rabbinic Acts, Contemporary Reactivations.” In dialogue with Miriam Felton-Dansky; student response: Emmet Dotan.

James Adam Redfield, “The Ethnographic Present of Early Rabbinic Law.” In dialogue with Jonah Rubin.


New Connections: The Talmud and the Contemporary Humanities  – a Workshop II

 Location: Bertlesmann Campus Center, Yellow Room 3:00-4:15pm

Chair: Zachary Braiterman

 Beth Berkowitz, “The Clever Ox, The Escaping Elephant, and Other Rabbinic Animalities: Critical Animal Studies and the Talmud.” In dialogue with Yuka Suzuki; student response: Zoe Morgan-Weinman.

Moulie Vidas, “The More Humane Letters: Talmud, Non-scripture, and Scholarly Culture.” In dialogue with Dominique Townsend; student response: Rajdeep Dosanjh.


“Make it New”: Classical Jewish Texts and Artistic Imagination

 Location: Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Center for Science and Computation Auditorium


Chair: Ruby Namdar, Novelist, author of Ruined House (Hebrew, 2015)

Nicole Krauss, Novelist, author of The History of Love (2005) and Great House (2010), “Creating the World: Reflections of a Novelist.”

Adam Kirsch, Poet and critic; most recently author of The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature (2017), “Swimming Against the Current in the Ocean of Talmud.”

Galit Hasan-Rokem, Scholar of folklore and Hebrew literature, poet, and translator, “Moments and Hours in Research, Suspended between Imagination and Learning.”

Discussant: Shai Secunda (Bard, Religion)

Jewish Studies and the Liberal Arts: Institutional Possibilities

 Location: Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Center for Science and Computation Auditorium


Chair: Cecile Kuznitz (Bard, History)

Leon Botstein, (President of Bard College), “Jewish Thought and the Undergraduate Curriculum in the 21st Century.”

Bruce Chilton, (Bard, Religion) “Counter-cultural Theology: Twenty Years at Bard College.”

Alan Avery-Peck, (College of the Holy Cross), “Teaching Talmud to Secular Christians: A Report from a Small, Jesuit, Liberal Arts College.”



Alan Avery-Peck is the Kraft-Hiatt Professor in Judaic Studies at College of the Holy Cross.

Beth Berkowitz is Ingeborg Rennert Associate Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religion at Barnard College.

Leon Botstein is President of Bard College.

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University.

Bruce Chilton is Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Bard and director of Bard’s Institute of Advanced Theology. Miriam Felton-Dansky is Assistant Professor of Theater & Performance at Bard College.

Sarit Kattan Gribetz is Assistant Professor in the Theology Department at Fordham University.

Galit Hasan-Rokem is a poet, translator, and Max and Margarethe Grunwald Professor of Folklore and Professor of Hebrew Literature (emerita), The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic.

Nicole Krauss is a novelist and author of Man Walks Into a Room (2002),

The History of Love (2005), and Great House (2010)

Cecile Kuznitz is Associate Professor of Jewish History and Director of Jewish Studies at Bard College.

Yair Lipshitz is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Theatre Arts in Tel

Ruby Namdar is a novelist and author of Ruined House (Hebrew; 2015). David Nelson is Campus Rabbi and Visiting Associate Professor of Religion at Bard College.

James Adam Redfield is a Mellon Fellow at the Stanford Humanities

Center (2016-17).

Jonah Rubin is Visiting Assistant Professor in Anthropology at Bard College.

Shai Secunda is Jacob Neusner Associate Professor in the History and Theology of Judaism at Bard College.

Yuka Suzuki is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Bard College.

Tehseen Thaver is Assistant Professor of Religion/Islam at Bard College. Dominique Townsend is Assistant Professor of Religion/Buddhism at Bard College.

Moulie Vidas is Assistant Professor of Religion and the Program in Judaic Studies at Princeton University.

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Talmud & Philosophy Grad Conference (Yale)


Kudos to the conference organizers and participants including the graphic design genius who put The Thinker inside the gates of the now-iconic frontispiece of the Babylonian Talmud.

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Post Industrial Salt Marsh (Richard W. DeKorte Park)


Went on an ex-urban hike through the ecological ruins alongside the northern parts of the New Jersey Turnpike. What remains a sublimely wasted industrial, post-industrial landscape is now complemented by a group of parks and trails forming a wet-green lung. Plans for the Meadowlands are to create a vast park system, about which you can read here. The work goes back to the creation of the former New Jersey Meadowlands Commission,  about which you can read here.  The website explains that the commission “was set up by an Act of the State Legislature in 1968 (N.J.S.A. 13:17-1 et seq) and tasked with a three-fold mandate: to provide for orderly development of the region, to provide facilities for the sanitary disposal of solid waste, and to protect the delicate balance of nature.” A part of that ecological infrastructure is Richard W. DeKorte Park. Trails thread through wetlands, over old dikes and service roads that have since been re-purposed for the park. No dead-zone, the area is full of aquatic and avian life nestled comfortably alongside the New Jersey Turnpike with views of the Pulaski Skyway and New York City out in the distance.

There’s nothing inevitable about ecological apocalypse, but it takes work, money, and organization to get fix the world. A regressive thinker, Heidegger would not have understood a place like this composed of variable velocities, some fast and some slow, where the views alternate seamlessly between the natural and the industrial. This is a Deleuzian landscape, or something out of Bruno Latour. Trucks, cars, trees, bridges, electric pylons, birds, crabs, a church in the distance, grasses, roads, reeds, concrete, watery confluence, the big city, and so much more all hold together. Parts of the park were built on a re-purposed landfill. A place like this is the hard work of restoration.

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(Memory and Lonely Mood) Maine Landscapes (Marsden Hartley)


After long sojourns away from the place of his birth, Marsden Hartley returned to Maine in the last six or seven years of his life. Now on view at the Met Breuer, the exhibition Marsden Hartley’s Maine touches upon internationalism and regionalism, the meeting up of European modernism and American Transcendentalism in early to mid twentieth century American art. Over the whole thing broods the darkening confluence of landscape, memory, and mood. What adds to that distant auratic moodiness is the temporal stratification between today looking back towards an origin point of the American modernist tradition. Does that temporal divide improve upon the quality of the work? I’m including below in the slideshow the pictures that caught my eye. In his review, Holland Carter makes a mild complaint that the focus on Maine is too narrow a prism with which to view Hartley’s work. But I think that narrow focus on this singular place captures the dimming-light effect that carries through the work and its exhibition. American, the entire milieu in Maine is isolate and lonely. I’m citing Carter for his sense of the mood. You can read the complete review here:

“We return to our childhood home at our peril. The familiarity may be comforting; the contact with ghosts, consoling. But the inevitable, entropic pull back into old patterns of thinking and feeling we spend a lifetime trying to undo can touch off anxiety and despair. Many of Hartley’s late Maine paintings ride these mood swings. Their subjects may be “scenic,” but their atmosphere is fraught.

The tumbling woodland cascade in “Smelt Brook Falls” looks like a knot of twisted bedsheets. The floating cut tree trunks in “Logjam (Backwaters Up Millinocket Way No. 3)” could be a funeral pyre. The steeple in “Church at Corea” tilts as if about to fall. Waves breaking on rocks in “Evening Storm, Schoodic, Maine” rise like monsters from the deep. This is a Maine of fevers, fears and decrepitude, a place where all that is solid is fated to go away.”

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(Conference) Expanding Jewish Political Thought (Penn)


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(Pasolini) Hardscrabble Religious Image (The Gospel According to St. Mathew)

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I think one could reasonably argue that in modern art, including cinema, including cinema that touches upon “the spiritual in art,” the background frames are more important than the figures operating on the foreground. The ones that grabbed me most in Pasolini’s classic black and white The Gospel According to St. Matthew are the dark, hardscrabble shots. These are the flinty landscapes, Herod’s rough and buff young man-soldiers at the massacre of the innocents, stony Jerusalem cityscapes, tough priests and imposing headgear, and the death of Judas by suicide. We could organize these under the rubrics “landscape,” “cityscape,” and “anthro-scape.” Drawn from southern Italy, the created environment is inhospitable to life. In this piece of Vitalist visual thinking, the rough material and cruel social substrate appears as if dead in order to highlight the mysterious, life-sustaining miracle of the revelation. Reflecting no doubt a Jewish prejudice of my own construction, I was less drawn to the shots of Jesus and his companions. Just too pretty, Jesus and Mary were unable to match the raw topographical, urban, and human brutality of the background. To do that, they would have needed to be as nasty, brute, and “ugly.”

More so than the figure of Jesus himself and the gospel words, it was the soundtrack that carried for this viewer the strong sense of “spirit.” There was Bach (Mass in B Minor) along with Odetta’s “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” the thundering “Gloria” from the Congolese Missa Luba, and a quiet Kol Nidre. All of these were complemented by the haunting sound of “wind” insinuating itself over the landscape, the literal form of spirit as ruaḥ.

About sound in relation to topography I’m grabbing a piece from Deleuze in Cinema 2. He’s not writing here about Pasolini per se, but he makes good sense of the point I’m trying to make. That point concerns how in film the “aesthetic of the visual image …takes on a new character: its pictorial or sculptural qualities depend on a geological, tectonic power as in Cezanne’s mountains…The visual image reveals its geological strata or foundations, whilst the act of speech and also of music becomes for its part founder [sic], ethereal (Cinema 2, p.246). (The use of that term “ethereal” gives Deleuze away; it appears, he had an eye and an ear for “the spiritual in art.”)

In avant-garde films like the Gospel According to St. Matthew, what should be most clear is that narrative-linguistic content is subordinate to images, understood as poetic. This seems especially necessary in movies that handle religious or spiritual material in which “content” threatens to overwhelm and flatten the aesthetic sensation that shapes the shape of the content. The opposition between poetry and prose is one of the basic points in Pasolini’s well-known essay “The Cinema of Poetry” (1965). There he develops the idea of the irreducibly irrational, oneiric essence of cinema as being more like poetry than prose. While I would reject much of Pasolini’s thinking as too binary in structure, the structure gives one a good idea regarding what to look for in his larger body of work, this film included. Simply put, the landscape in the background, I would argue, is more irascible than the primary figures. In much the same way, Derrida privileged the picture frame over the picture in his unjustly neglected Truth in Painting.

You can read all of “The Cinema of Poetry” here. While it is not Pasolini’s intention in this essay to write about religion and art, I want to focus on how his analysis  highlights the brute irrational as the most “significant” component in “the spiritual in art.” Again I want to direct attention to environmental features such as a landscape, cityscape, and anthro-scape. Pasolini writes, “Here, we must immediately make a marginal observation: whereas the instruments of poetic or philosophical communication are already extremely perfected, truly form a historically complex system which has reached its maturity, those of the visual communication which is at the basis of cinematic language are altogether brute, instinctive. Indeed, gestures, the surrounding reality, as much as dreams and the mechanisms of memory, are of a virtually pre-human order, or at least at the limit of humanity in any case pre-grammatical and even premorphological (dreams are unconscious phenomena, as are mnemonic mechanisms; the gesture is an altogether elementary sign, etc.).”

Setting aside the semiotic terms of Pasolini’s analysis, about the imagistic quality of the shots that I selected above, see this 1965 interview, in which the filmmaker underscores again the brute, mystical and irrational, which in The Gospel According to St. Matthew are best evoked by non-human and inhumane features.  Pasolini explains, “Although St. Matthew wrote without metrics, he would have the rhythm of epic and lyric production. And for this reason, I have renounced in the film any kind of realistic and naturalistic reconstruction. I completely abandoned any kind of archaeology and philology, which nevertheless interest me in themselves. I didn’t want to make an historical reconstruction. I preferred to leave things in their religious state, that is, their mythical state. Epic-mythic. Not desiring to reconstruct settings that were not philosophically exact—reconstructed on a sound stage by scene designers and technicians—and furthermore not wanting to reconstruct the ancient Jews, I was obliged to find everything—the characters and the ambiance—in reality.”

What is of interest here in the analogical method is the collapse of time into a single image that belong neither entirely to the past nor entirely to the present. The Gospel According to St. Matthew was intentionally made in such a way as to not resemble conventional biblical epics built on a logic of “representation.” The register is not historical, but nor is it ahistorical. Building on top of temporal strata (Scripture, Catholic tradition, and Italian art), the film is supra-historical in structure, the brute milieu being non-specific to the text and the time of its origins. The landscapes are what below we will see Deleuze refer to as “any-place-whatever.” In Pasolini’s film, the place of the film is southern Italy, not Roman Judea. The “jews” are Italian. Relating to what Deleuze called a “time-image,” I want to mean by this term simply the way the sense of the past and the sense of the present are crystalized into a single image. The image includes biblical gospel compressed alongside ongoing realities of poverty and revolutionary struggle, caught best in long shots devoid of either a human presence or sympathetic visage.

The reality has been made strange by film, and that too was deliberate. On shooting the film piece by piece, Pasolini describes his own working method as a filmmaker. “My work is facilitated by the fact that I never shoot entire scenes. Being a ‘non-professional’ director I’ve always had to ‘invent’ a technique that consists of shooting only a very brief bit at one time. Always in little bits—I never shoot a scene continuously. And so even if I’m using a non-actor lacking the technique of an actor, he’s able to sustain the part—the illusion—because the takes are so brief.” This then is the trick in relation to the shots framing my own analysis. On one hand, the sense of strangeness depends upon long and extended shots, the camera lingering in sharp, mosaic segments, on the other hand.

The roughness that is characteristic of the raggedy film-segment conveys something that Elizabeth Castelli observes in her introduction to her translation of St. Paul, the screenplay of an uncompleted project just published by Verso. Against what Pasolini dismissed as the modern “bourgeoisentropy,” Castelli notes his claim that modern consumerism “would overwhelm modern society and render the peasant and the worker invisible. Such entropy would, in his view, make unsentimental expressions of authenticity increasingly difficult, not to say completely impossible.” “Translating Pasolini Translating Paul” in St. Paul, Verso, 2017, p.28)

What I am picking up from Castelli is not the filmmaker’s otherwise unremarkable Marxist-Christian critique of modern capitalism. What matters more to the analysis offered here is how she flags Pasolini’s critique of sentimentality, which is a feature so often an infelicitous part of the warp and woof of religion and film. Pasolini’s shots of landscapes, cityscapes, and anthro-scapes are powerful as “religious” or “spiritual” only to the degree that they are, on the whole, the most unwarm quality of his film on Matthew.

This lack of sentiment glosses those silent moments and spaces, figures of alienation which are haunting as wordless and without world. About long topographical shots in Pasolini and in other works of postwar cinema, Deleuze is keen to show how the movement-image (i.e. the image of action, which, like language, works according to a cause-effect chronological sequence of an extended shot) is suspended in the compressed form of the time-image.

I can conclude this post no better than by citing Deleuze, who writes, “The break in the sensory-motor link does not only affect the speech-act turning in on itself and hollowing itself out, and in which the voice now refers only to itself and to other voices. It also affects the visual image, which now reveals the any-space-whatevers, empty or disconnected spaces characteristic of modern cinema. It is as if, speech having withdrawn from the image to become founding act, the image, for its part, raised the foundations of space, the ‘strata’, those silent powers of before or after speech, before or after man. The visual image becomes archaeological, stratigraphic, tectonic. Not that we are taken back to prehistory (there is an archaeology of the present), but to the deserted layers of our time which bury our own phantoms; to the lacunary layers which we juxtaposed according to variable orientations and connections. These are the deserts in German cities. These are the deserts of Pasolini, which make prehistory the abstract poetic element, the ‘essence’ co-present with our history, the archaean base which reveals an interminable history beneath our own” (Cinema 2 pp.243-4).

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(Courses) Syracuse Department of Religion (Fall 2017)



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