Introducing Beth Berkowitz, Visiting Associate Professor of Religion
August 10, 2012
What is your specific area of research? What are you currently working on?
My work lies at the intersection of religious studies and Jewish studies, centering on religious authority, identity, and differences. I explore those themes primarily in classical rabbinic literature dating from the second century to the sixth and seventh, including corpora of Midrash, Mishnah, and Talmud. These texts encompass a wide range of literary genres and cultural concerns, and they come from ancient Palestine and Babylonia (present-day Israel and Iraq). They take the Hebrew Bible to be their canonical core.
My current research is in the emerging field of animal studies, which so far has had very little encounter with rabbinics. I am working on a book, tentatively titled The Clever Ox:Critical Animal Studies in Rabbinics, that will treat themes of animal intelligence, emotion, moral consciousness, and suffering in classical rabbinic literature. Also, I recently finished a translation and annotation of Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin, which will be part of a large-scale, multi-authored translation edited by Shaye Cohen and Hayim Lapin for Oxford University Press.
What are your other research/teaching interests? Any broader projects or initiatives with which you're involved?
My teaching of Jewish culture and history centers on Jewish texts, taking “Jewish” and “texts” in the broadest possible sense. I try to foster critical and close reading of the texts in order to help students consider the interpretive strategies, ideological conflicts, and ambiguities in them. In my courses, we will speculate about the forces that shaped ancient texts and the impact they had, and we will consider how and why people read these works today. As a graduate student at Columbia, I loved teaching literature humanities, and since then I’ve taught courses including “Ritual and Rabbinic Culture,” “Capital Punishment in Rabbinic Law,” “Deciphering a Rabbinic Meal,” “The Production of Jewish Difference,” and “Humans and Other Animals in Talmudic Torts.”
I’m currently co-organizing a conference with Elizabeth Shanks-Alexander at the University of Virginia called “Religious Studies and Rabbinics,” which aims to bring the discipline of religion into deeper dialogue with the field of rabbinics. I’m also co-chair of the rabbinics section for the Association of Jewish Studies. My co-chair and I have recently finished reviewing this year’s paper proposals, and it has been really interesting to get an overview of the work going on in our field.
What is most exciting to you about joining Barnard's faculty? What are you looking forward to most about being here?
Barnard’s religion faculty, as well as other faculty and administrators, have so far been amazingly friendly and welcoming, and I’m really looking forward to getting to know my colleagues. Everyone I’ve ever known that went to Barnard (including my sister!) has only the most glowing things to say about it, and I’m looking forward to catching that Barnard spirit. I’m also excited to be teaching at a women’s college and to be engaged in the project of women’s empowerment—I imagine that the Barnard setting will give me new perspectives on feminism and gender.
I was trained in religion departments, but my professional career so far has been in a Jewish studies setting. So I’m looking forward to being back in a religion department, where I’ll have the opportunity to synthesize the Jewish studies experience that I’ve gained with the approaches offered by a religion department.
What courses will you be teaching?
This fall I will be teaching “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible” and a seminar on Talmudic narrative, both of which are new courses for me. I’ve really enjoyed spending time this summer looking through some great Bible texts and scholarly works, trying to anticipate what will inspire students. Everyone thinks they know about the Bible, but I’m hoping I can shake up some assumptions and really dig into its contents with the students. This is a great time to be teaching a course on Talmudic narrative, since in recent years there has been a flourishing of scholarship. I’m looking forward to introducing students to these wonderful primary texts and to some of the new approaches that have been developed for reading them. I’ve already heard from a number of students with questions about this course—my impression is that there is a significant number of students on the Barnard/Columbia campus with great interest and, in some cases, experience in studying rabbinic literature. It will be exciting to get to know those students and I’m anticipating some great conversations about these really fascinating texts.
Outside of your academic life, any interests, hobbies, accomplishments of note?
I have two daughters, Orly, 8, and Tamar, 6, and I love spending time with them and with my husband, Josh Henkin, who is a novelist and runs the MFA program in fiction at Brooklyn College. We live in Park Slope and spend lots of time in nearby Prospect Park, biking and playing. My husband and I try to run the loop there as often as we can to get some exercise and enjoy the outdoors. I must confess that another of my favorite activities is watching movies and television—my favorite shows these days are Lena Dunham’s Girls and Louis CK’s Louie, and I can always watch reruns of Friends and Grey’s Anatomy. I’ve been religiously watching women’s gymnastics at the Olympics with my daughters, and we’re inspired by the incredible talent, commitment, sportsmanship, and nerves of steel of the gymnasts.