Marjorie Lehman, associate professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary, is known for the quality of her scholarship and for her dynamic teaching, both within and beyond the walls of 3080 Broadway. Dr. Lehman is the author of The En Yaaqov: Ibn Habib's Search for Faith in the Talmudic Corpus (forthcoming, Wayne State University Press, 2011), and is currently at work on a commentary on Tractate Yoma for the landmark series A Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud. She has also done research on the study of women and festival observance in the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmudim, approaching the rabbinic material from the perspective of gender and ritual theory. Dr. Lehman is continuously self-reflective about her pedagogy and has collaborated with other members of the JTS faculty in writing on cognitive developmental theories as a lens for analyzing Talmudic sugyot in order to enhance scholarly understanding of the role of dialogue in the sugyot of the Babylonian Talmud.
Dr. Lehman, please tell us a little about your current research and academic interests.
My research interests in the field of Talmud and Rabbinics encompass three areas of study: Talmudic Aggadah through a study of the En Yaaqov, a study of gender and the Talmud, and Talmudic pedagogy.
Your work in gender and Talmud will focus on Massekhet Yoma and will be part of an international series—A Feminist Commentary on Babylonian Talmud, which is the first such commentary of its kind, and which will include a volume on each Babylonian tractate.
The series is being spearheaded by Professor Tal Ilan of Freie Universitat in Berlin. It's part of the first flowering of gender and Jewish Studies that we're seeing in Germany post–World War II. It is also the first series of its kind in the field of Talmud. It is exciting to be part of this growth in Jewish Studies in Germany and to be part of a project that brings scholars from all over the world together to discuss different methodological approaches to the study of gender in the Talmud.
In addition to the book you have coming out this year and the book on Tractate Yoma, you're also addressing the larger, emerging question of the future of the Jewish book in general.
I am also part of a group of scholars who meet regularly at the Center for Jewish History and who are examining the history of the Jewish book. This is a particularly relevant subject today as we consider the loss of the book resulting from advances in today's technology. There is a scholarly desire to take hold of and understand the way in which the book formed and continues to form Jewish identity. The history of the Jewish book is becoming an integral part of the field of Jewish Studies as we think about what books tell us about the communities that produced them both on the level of their textuality and on the level of their materiality. My own research on the En Yaaqov, a 16th-century collection of Talmudic aggadah, has drawn me to consider what it contributes to our understanding of the history of the Jewish book.
That collection is the subject of your new book, The En Yaaqov: Ibn Habib's Search for Faith in the Talmudic Corpus (forthcoming, Wayne State University Press, 2011). One of the things that makes the En Yaaqov so fascinating is that we're accustomed to thinking of books as becoming stable, finalized, once they're printed, especially if we can identify the person who wrote or compiled the book, but that isn't the case with the En Yaaqov.
You might presume that printing results in the standardization of a community's sacred texts. For example, the printing of the Talmud yields a more stable text. But in the case of the En Yaaqov the text remained fluid throughout its 500-year history. The preservation or transmission of a body of material does not necessarily require standardization. Transmission may in fact be accomplished through the maintenance of the flexibility of a collection. Indeed, different communities studied it in different ways. I am interested in what happens to the En Yaaqov over time and what its printed collections look like over the centuries. It was actually printed anew in almost every city that had a printing press, with editions from Salonika, Cracow, Amsterdam, Vilna, Jerusalem, and New York. New editions continue to surface even today.
The En Yaaqov has long been studied outside the more formal Jewish academy, and you've often taught it yourself in less formal settings.
When I teach the En Yaaqov I often have people approaching me with stories about studying it. Several claim to have inherited copies from parents and grandparents but are not really sure what the collection is. Interestingly, many women approach me who say that they were barred from studying Talmud, but not from the En Yaaqov. This collection provided their only exposure to the world of Talmud study. Indeed, the collection was studied outside the confines of the Jewish academy and in the homes of Jews for generations.
My book tells the history of the origins of the En Yaaqov and I hope that it will be a source of interest to many of these people who either studied it with a parent, grandparent, or rabbi, or who simply wish to begin to study its contents. Like its compiler, Jacob ibn Habib, I would like for people to have an increased interest in the nonlegal sections of the Talmud so that they will think of the Talmud as more than a legal document. Jacob ibn Habib was also a teacher interested in uncovering and communicating what he believed were the Talmud's spiritual messages. I too think about Jacob ibn Habib's mission when I consider what it means to train teachers and rabbis at JTS. Like ibn Habib, I want them to think about why a Talmudic text matters at all and, more importantly, why it matters to them.
I know that education itself is an important part of your work both as an area of research and of practice.
In many ways the art of teaching is very distinct from the art of being a scholar. While they overlap in many ways, and certainly my scholarship enhances my ability to teach well, the strategies and methods that make texts learnable, absorbable, and usable are entirely different. In much the same way that I explore rabbinic texts and contribute to my discipline in a scholarly way, I continuously investigate what happens in my classroom. I am always asking: what contributes to excellent teaching? I believe we cannot ignore that the acquisition of knowledge is historically a core component of Jewish identity and that, as such, Jews have continuously cultivated methods of teaching and learning. Our texts, our books serve as models for me as I think about my own teaching.
It is also true that as an academic you can be moved by a particular text simply because it exposes something about a time period, a community, or an idea. But I also enjoy the daily challenge of thinking about how to translate texts in order to make them meaningful to others. In many respects at JTS we are training students to be what we are, which is teachers with rich content-knowledge who can think deeply about how these texts inform the way we think about Judaism and ourselves today. Therefore, we need to be constantly engaged in thinking about who we are and why we do what we have chosen to do. I'm one among many at JTS who is thinking about what our students need to become good teachers.
I also mold the classes that I teach with the understanding that learning is only one component. Learning has to serve the goal of training leaders who are passionate about their futures. Whether I am in the undergraduate classroom or in a graduate seminar I am balancing my desire to build reading, writing and research skills and to impart knowledge about my subject matter with the sense that learning has to have a purpose.
JTS is a place that gives me the opportunity to excel at both my scholarship and my teaching and to think about how my scholarship can be applied beyond the book or article I am writing.