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Religious Studies and Rabbinics have overlapping yet distinct interests, subject matter, and methods. Religious Studies is committed to the study of religion writ large. It develops theories and methods intended to apply across religious traditions. Rabbinics, by contrast, is dedicated to a defined set of texts produced by the rabbinic movement of late antiquity.
Religious Studies and Rabbinics represents the first sustained effort to create a conversation between these two academic fields. In one trajectory of argument, the book shows what is gained when each field sees how the other engages the same questions: When did the concept of "religion" arise? How should a scholar’s normative commitments interact with their scholarship? The book argues that if scholars from Religious Studies and Rabbinics do not realize they are addressing the same problems, they will not benefit from each other’s solutions. A second line of argument brings research methods, theoretical claims, and data associated with one field into contact with those of the other. When Religious Studies categories such as "ritual" or "the sacred" are applied to data from Rabbinics and, conversely, when text-reading strategies distinctive to Rabbinics are employed for texts from other traditions, both Religious Studies and Rabbinics enlarge their scope. The chapters range across such themes as ritual failure; rabbinic conceptions of scripture, ethics, food, time, and everyday life; problems of definition and normativity in the study of religion; J.Z. Smith’s writings; and the preaching of the African-American Christian evangelical social justice activist John Perkins.
With chapters written by world-class theorists of Religious Studies and prominent text scholars of Rabbinics, the book provides a unique opportunity to expand the conceptual reach and scholarly audience of both Religious Studies and Jewish Studies.
In Execution and Invention, Beth A. Berkowitz tells the story of modern scholarship on the ancient rabbinic death penalty and offers a fresh perspective using the approaches of ritual studies, cultural criticism, and talmudic source criticism. Against the scholarly consensus, Berkowitz argues that the early Rabbis used the rabbinic laws of the death penalty to establish their power in the wake of the destruction of the Temple. Following recent currents in historiography, Berkowitz sees the Rabbis as an embattled, almost invisible sect within second-century Judaism. The function of their death penalty laws, Berkowitz contends, was to create a complex ritual of execution under rabbinic control, thus bolstering rabbinic claims to authority in the context of Roman political and cultural domination.
Understanding rabbinic literature to be in dialogue with the Bible, with the variety of ancient Jews, and with Roman imperialism, Berkowitz shows how the Rabbis tried to create an appealing alternative to the Roman, paganized culture of Palestine's Jews. In their death penalty, the Rabbis substituted Rome's power with their own. Early Christians, on the other hand, used death penalty discourse to critique judicial power. But Berkowitz argues that the Christian critique of execution produced new claims to authority as much as the rabbinic embrace. By comparing rabbinic conversations about the death penalty with Christian ones, Berkowitz reveals death penalty discourse as a significant means of creating authority in second-century western religious cultures. Advancing the death penalty discourse as a discourse of power, Berkowitz sheds light on the central relationship between religious and political authority and the severest form of punishment.