Beth Am to host scholar-in-residence Sarah Wolf

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Professor Sarah Wolf
Professor Sarah Wolf (Jewish Theological Seminary)

During her scholar-in-residence weekend at Beth Am Synagogue, one topic Sarah Wolf plans to cover is the type of discourse some have termed “cancel culture.”

Wolf, an assistant professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, will be Beth Am’s scholar-in-residence during the weekend of March 25. She will teach a series of classes on insights from biblical and rabbinic texts that can be applied to modern life.

“Often, synagogues hire a scholar-in-residence in order for congregants to have an opportunity to deepen their Jewish learning for a day, or a few days, and maybe get exposed to a little bit of what’s going on in the world of Jewish scholarship and think about how big scholarly questions can actually be applicable to people’s everyday Jewish lives,” said Wolf, a resident of Manhattan.

Wolf’s connection to Beth Am goes beyond this one weekend. Her late grandfather was a member of Beth Am, while her grandmother still is. Wolf first met the synagogue’s rabbi, Daniel Cotzin Burg, when he led her grandfather’s funeral service. She later reconnected with him when he came to New York to participate in a summer program at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where Wolf was teaching. While catching up over coffee, Burg invited her to come down to Beth Am at some point to do some teaching. The pandemic put those plans on extended hold, but no longer.

While at Beth Am, Wolf will be teaching three separate classes.

The first of these will be “What’s Love Got to Do With It?: Commanding Love and Other Emotions.” Its focus, she said, will be “on the question of, when the Bible commands love, what does that even mean? … What does the Bible expect people to do when the Bible tells people ‘love God?’ Is that an internal state? Is that a set of actions?

“The goal is to provide another lens for maybe thinking more critically about what we mean when we’re talking about love in this political context, or in other contexts, as something that people are supposed to do,” Wolf added.

The second class, “Shame, the Public Square, and the Face of the Other,” will focus on how, in rabbinic texts like the Talmud and Mishnah, it is permissible to sue individuals who cause a person to feel shame. Wolf said that such litigation could only be pursued in cases involving physical assault, like spitting at someone, pulling off their clothes or a literal slap to the face. The class is intended to discuss those rabbinic laws and how they can shed light on aspects of modern life.

In particular, Wolf mentioned aspects such as what some have termed “cancel culture.” “What I think can be kind of a cycle of shaming people for causing shame to other people, and how I think rabbinic literature presents a really different paradigm,” she said.

The third class, “Emotion and Gender in Rabbinic Texts,” will discuss gender stereotypes in biblical and rabbinic texts, and how they compare to such stereotypes today. In contemporary Western culture, Wolf explained, women are often viewed as more empathic or sensitive, while men are seen as more confident and having greater issues with anger.

“In the class, we’ll see what some of the gendered paradigms of emotions are in rabbinic literature,” Wolf said. “The class will actually focus on jealousy, which interestingly — I will show in the class — is really, strongly gendered male.”

To clarify, Wolf said that the type of jealousy she referred to was the kind dealing with a person whose spouse might be unfaithful to them, rather than the kind related to coveting material possessions.

As an example, there is a repeating analogy in which God is compared to a jealous husband, while Israel or its people are portrayed as a wife that has gone astray, Wolf said.

“It’s going to explore that, and touch on a few other trends in terms of how rabbinic sources think about the connection between emotion and gender,” Wolf said. “And again, because this is my job as a scholar-in-residence, connecting it to how this can help us think about how we talk about gender and emotions now.”

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