Textual and Emotional Complexities for a (formerly-Orthodox) Jewish Medievalist

This past weekend, I attended and participated in the wonder that is ICMS Kalamazoo. Thousands of medievalists descended on the campus of Western Michigan University for our annual session of conviviality of all kinds, including intellectual, social, emotional, and nonsensical.

I presented twice this year: Once on a traditional panel of 20-minute presentations, and once on a roundtable, semi-informal talks on a particular question followed by general discussion among the presenters and the audience. The roundtable was an amazing experience, centering the identities of the speakers and audience members as we talked about what we do. I loved how the session ended: with an affirmation that the “default” identity of scholars has for so long been “Christian white male,” and that our acknowledgement of biases (based on religion, cultural identity, gender, sexuality, etc.) does not mean we’re more biased than the “default” Christian white male – just that we’re aware of our biases in a way he isn’t. And calling out the inherent bias in the “default,” traditional mode of scholarship is a large part of why we assert our own identities so much.

That session wasn’t live-tweeted, at the request of the presenters, because of the sensitive and personal nature of the talks. It was hard enough making ourselves vulnerable to the people in the room! But I do want to share my remarks, so I’m posting them here, lightly edited.


In a tweet that got a lot of attention a while ago, a medievalist joked that people who grew up religious have a leg up as medievalists. My reply: “depends which religion.” The tweet referred to Catholic terms, for sacraments or other practices, that show up in medieval literature that isn’t explicitly religious. Growing up with ultra-Orthodox Jewish religion did not give me a leg up in understanding Catholic terms. But the religion I grew up with does sometimes give me a leg up in my studies. It also adds a lot of complexity and complications to my study, in both textual and emotional spheres.

So first, here’s a few examples of when it helped me:

In a class on animal studies and Middle English literature, we talked about the way insects can be viewed as a category separate from “animals.” Having grown up with the idea that eating a bug is a sin with such severity that it would give me the equivalence of seven other sins, I was at least primed to consider bugs as “not-animals.” Not only that, I was able to draw on halachic discussions, conversations about Jewish law, that I had grown up with. When I was a teenager, someone discovered that the New York reservoir doesn’t filter out all organisms – it allows a non-harmful number of organisms to remain in the water. But some of the organisms are non-kosher “bugs,” and an argument raged in haredi communities about whether microscopic bugs can even be considered non-kosher. So in this seminar on medieval ideas about bugs and fleas, I explained the halachic concept of “able to be seen by the naked eye,” and I recounted the way people in my community sat staring at glasses of water to try and see these bugs – because if they didn’t see the “bugs,” they could drink the water.

In that same class, I mentioned that we would always check figs before eating them, opening them up and spreading them out to see if there were any bugs inside the fig. Someone did a quick search and found information about wasps that die inside figs and then decompose, fertilizing the fig. That added to a great discussion about the connections and interactions between humans, non-human animals, and plants.

The thing is, bringing these things up in class was emotionally complicated for me. I have bitter associations with these concepts. They were stringencies that made my life unnecessarily complicated – for example, I couldn’t refill my water bottle from the college’s water fountains, because they weren’t filtered according to rabbinic stringency. The knowledge that my Jewish upbringing gave me, the knowledge I was able to bring to class to enrich discussions, was always emotionally loaded.

We also talked a lot about decomposing bodies in this class. At one point, we talked about how people in the Middle Ages thought that uncorrupted bodies were signs that the people were holy and sainted in life. I joked (bitterly, to myself) – Christians in medieval Europe, and Jews in twenty-first-century Brooklyn believe the same thing… There are stories still told and fully believed today, about great rabbis whose graves were desecrated, and the bodies were intact years after burial – interpreted as signs of their greatness. This wasn’t solely an academic discussion for me – it was viscerally connected to things I had grown up with, and things I had consciously left and distanced myself from.

Before I left that whole world, I encountered emotional complexities involuntarily as well. When I started grad school, I was still religious and living with my parents in Boro Park, Brooklyn. I moved out and left religion that January, after my first semester was over. In my Old English class that first semester, when I was still visibly religious, I was once assigned a passage from Aelfric’s Preface to Genesis. I translated it as usual. It happened to be arguing that the Old Testament book of Genesis proves the Trinity, because God says, “let us make man in our likeness” – plural “us,” singular “likeness.” I had fun with the translation, as I always do – I love the puzzle of grammar and translation, and the fact that this one was focused on a bit of grammar itself was added fun! This kind of exegesis is also very familiar to me – Rashi, an eleventh-century Jewish commentator on the Torah and Talmud, often uses grammar to make a theological point. The moment it became not-so-fun for me was when I read the lines aloud in class and my professor’s immediate comment was, “I’m sorry for making you read heresy.” I hadn’t cared about the “blasphemous” content of the text – it was an academic exercise for me. And while I appreciate his thoughtfulness in trying to spare my religious sensibilities, it lifted me out of the academic dissociation (which had been a good thing!) and forced my Jewish identity back into the room, where I didn’t want it.

During that semester, I also became painfully aware of how little my deep and broad knowledge of Torah and Judaism would help in the sphere of mainstream medieval studies, centered as it is on Christianity. We were reading the Old English Judith, and the class turned to me, as a Jewish person who has extensive Jewish education, to clarify where in the Torah the book of Judith appears. I said, with great certainty, that Judith and Maccabees are books that do not exist in Hebrew – they exist only in the Christian Bible and as oral Jewish history. I was half-right. These books are not part of the Hebrew Torah (there are 24 books which I can still recite by heart). But they do exist in written Hebrew versions. They just weren’t accepted as canon in the Jewish Torah.

Being surrounded by medievalists means that I find out more about my own heritage. I grew up in ultra-Orthodox Boro Park and attended a Bais Yaakov all-girls school, where I often did not get a historically-accurate account of Jewish history or theology. In an attempt to portray haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism as the one true version of Judaism that has its roots at Mt Sinai, the community often flattens out the many twists and turns that Jewish theology and Jewish law took through the ages (this is something I discuss in my dissertation about haredi children’s literature).

Bais Yaakov schools also often bowdlerize Torah and commentaries to avoid uncomfortable discussions about sex (among other things). So when I was in twelfth grade, I learned “Adam yadah es Chavah,” Adam knew Eve, as “Adam married Eve” – no mention of sex. I knew enough by that point to recognize that this “knew” referred to “carnal knowledge” (I read books from the public library against my school’s rules…) But I wasn’t always so aware and sophisticated… So I often retain wrong knowledge of Torah and commentaries.

Recently, I discovered another verse in Genesis that had been censored in Bais Yaakov. Rashi has a controversial explanation for Adam’s request for a mate. As we had learned it, Adam saw that every other animal had a mate, and he felt lonely and asked God for one of his own. But according to Rashi, Adam tried to have sex with every single animal, realized that none was compatible, and only then asked God for a mate. We usually read Rashi’s commentary on every word in every verse – we only skipped the comments where he translated words into “la’az,” the French vernacular. But we had apparently skipped this comment of Rashi’s, where he talks about Adam’s bestiality (or, possibly, the haredi-published edition of Torah we used in school leaves out this comment). I found this out because I read medievalist blogs – this one in particular was on Karl Steel’s blog, where he was writing about medieval posthumanism and the various ways in which medieval people wrote about human-animal interactions.

Again, while this is a “cool” moment of discovery for many people, for me as a formerly-ultra-Orthodox Jew it’s tinged with bitterness – this is my own heritage (I mean, not just that I’m Jewish, but according to my uncle, who traced our genealogy, I’m actually a direct descendant of Rashi), but that heritage was stolen from me by omissions from the text we supposedly knew very well. It’s being given back to me by medievalists – and by my own studies in medieval literature. In a more direct incident, my paper for a class on “Medieval Conversions” with Steve Kruger focused on Hebrew chronicles and liturgical poetry of the Crusades. I recognized some of the poetry from the times I went to services on Tisha b’Av, when the Book of Lamentations is read along with liturgical poems commemorating Jewish tragedies throughout the centuries.

My dissertation is no longer medieval (I’m writing about contemporary haredi children’s literature). But I’m working on an article I hope will be ready for submission this summer, an extension of that seminar paper examining twelfth-century Hebrew chronicles and poetry about the Crusades, when many Jews in Europe were slaughtered by Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem. It’s a difficult process for me – these atrocities happened to my ancestors, and I often break down in sorrow as I read the texts.

But the rhetoric in these texts, about the martyrs who gave their lives rather than convert to the “horrible impure” Christianity, is far too similar to what my parents and grandmother said to me, when they told me not to associate with goyim, and when they told me that I owe my faith to my ancestors who suffered to hold onto their own faith. But at the same time, studying these texts gives me release – I can reclaim my heritage through academic study. I also finally have that “leg up” because Biblical references are embedded throughout the texts, often unexplained, and I can recognize them – I can recite many verses of Torah and Talmud because of my twelve+ years of school, and I grew up with many of them as part of my everyday language.

So being a Jewish medievalist, especially an ex-Orthodox medievalist, is emotionally very difficult. But davka because of the very things that make it difficult, it’s also emotionally great.

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