Monday, May 28, 2012

Defining Jewish Difference by Beth Berkowitz

I just noticed that Beth Berkowitz's new book, Defining Jewish Difference, is available.  The book looks at the history of interpretation of Leviticus 18:3 ("You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.  You shall not walk in their statutes."), and how that verse has been reinterpreted throughout the ages in terms of the "ways of the Gentiles" as, sort of, a trump card in exegesis.

Here is the official description:

This book traces the interpretive career of Leviticus 18:3, a verse that forbids Israel from imitating its neighbors. Beth A. Berkowitz shows that ancient, medieval, and modern exegesis of this verse provides an essential backdrop for today's conversations about Jewish assimilation and minority identity more generally. The story of Jewishness that this book tells may surprise many modern readers for whom religious identity revolves around ritual and worship. In Lev. 18:3's story of Jewishness, sexual practice and cultural habits instead loom large. The readings in this book are on a micro-level, but their implications are far-ranging: Berkowitz transforms both our notion of Bible-reading and our sense of how Jews have defined Jewishness.
This has been long in coming.  I actually took a course from Berkowitz at Jewish Theological Seminary called "The Ways of the Gentiles," which was about this research.  That was probably...six or seven years ago...  My contribution to the class was to find echoes of this in the New Testament and early Christianity (I focused on the "walking" language in the Deutero-Paulines, especially Ephesians--if you look at Lev. 18:1-5 and the Holiness Code more generally, "walking" is the typical way of speaking of one's general comport--and the passage in Ephesians 4:17-24:  "no longer live as the Gentiles do" as potential resonances, though I recall being quite conservative in my conclusions).  If it is as good as her first book, Execution and Invention, it will definitely be worth the read.  At its current price, however, it looks like a library volume.

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