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Secular and Sacred in the Modern Jewish World

16Feb(Feb 16)6:00 pm15Apr(Apr 15)6:00 pmSecular and Sacred in the Modern Jewish World(February 16) 6:00 pm - (April 15) 6:00 pm(GMT+00:00)

Event Details

Secular and Sacred in the Modern Jewish World

Presented by the University of Pennsylvania in cooperation with the Yeshiva University Museum, the Center for Jewish History, and Centro Primo Levi.

Lecture Series This series addresses, probes, and challenges one of the basic assumptions of modern Jewish historians–that the modern era, beginning with the Haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment], brought about a radical transformation of Jewish culture, precipitating the decline of religious faith and authority and unleashing the powerful forces of secularism within Jewish society. In recent years historians and sociologists have challenged this basic paradigm of secular modernity in studying other cultures both in the West and the East. And this reevaluation is now taking place among those who study modern Jewish life as well. 

Talks are given by fellows at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies (University of Pennsylvania) who are engaged in the critical analysis of notions of the “secular” and “religious” in all aspects of Jewish life over the past three centuries.


Tuesday, February 16 at 6:30 pm

Between Sacred and Profane: Jews and the Modern City: Three Snapshots

David Myers, UCLA

This lecture will address the Jewish encounter with the modern city, focusing on three distinct venues: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Kiryas Joel, New York.  The modern city is often seen as a decidedly secular site, a place where Jews came to flee their traditional background.  And yet, the modern city has also been the site of intense religious innovation, experimentation, and neo-traditionalism.  The lecture will explore the city as a site of both the secular and religious in three surprising urban Jewish centers.

David Myers received his doctorate in Jewish History from Columbia University. He is Professor of Jewish History in the Department of History at UCLA and previously served as Director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. He has published widely in the fields of modern Jewish intellectual and cultural history and co-edits the journal Jewish Quarterly Review.

Thursday, March 25 at 6:30pm

Spinoza’s Jewish Children: Profiles in Jewish Secularism of the Modern Era

Daniel Schwartz, George Washington University

Was Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth-century philosopher who left Judaism without converting to another religion,  the first secular Jew?  Whatever the appropriateness of this label, it is incontestable that over time he came to be regarded as such:  by generations of freethinking Jews of various stripes, but also by a host of Jewish thinkers deeply wary of secularism and modernity, who despite recoiling from much of what they found in Spinoza—his far-reaching assault on the raison d’etre of Judaism in the Theologico-Political Treatise, his uncompromising rejection of the reality of the supernatural—could not shake the feeling of trailing in his wake.  The history of Jewish secularism and its discontents is in many respects the history of Spinoza’s Jewish children.  This lecture will spotlight a selection of modern Jewish thinkers for and against Spinoza–and often somewhere in between–who have traced their intellectual lineage back to the Amsterdam heretic.  Additionally, by addressing the rhetorical strategies used by “Spinoza’s Jewish children” to reclaim him for Jewish modernity, it will stress the persistence of “religious” frames in creating and justifying “secular” Jewish identities, complicating the great divide into traditional and modern.

Daniel Schwartz earned his doctorate in Jewish History at Columbia University. He is Assistant Professor of History at George Washington University. He has just completed his first book on the legacy of Spinoza in Modern Jewish thought and literature.

Thursday, April 15 at 6:30pm

Biblical Images and Secular Representations: The Performance of Antiquity in Contemporary Israeli Culture

Yael Zerubavel, Rutgers University

The Bible contributed to the shaping of Israeli national identity and culture during its formative years and the early decades following the foundation of the state. Biblical images, symbols and themes were reinterpreted, secularized, and transformed in Israeli official iconography, literature, art, and popular culture. Although the Bible has been politicized and its role debated within Israeli culture since the 1970s, recent cultural developments indicate a new surge of secular interest in it. The discussion of the changing attitudes toward the Bible provides a distinct lens to understanding major trends within contemporary Israeli culture.

Yael Zerubavel received her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently the Director of the Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life and Professor of Jewish Studies and History at Rutgers. She has written extensively on Jewish memory, Israeli literature and culture, war and trauma, and Israeli conceptions of space.

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