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An Interview with Dr. Jonathan Klawans – Teacher, Scholar and Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University

March 22, 2011


Johnathan KlawansDr. Jonathan Klawans is a scholar, teacher and author whose work focuses on the period of Jewish history extending from the destruction of the First Temple to the destruction of the Second Temple. His writings have made major contributions to our understanding of this period in Jewish history, while at the same time asking intriguing questions, many of  which remain unanswered, about the nature and evolution of Jewish life during this period. In this interview, Professor Klawans touches on a wide range of topics relating to his work, including, among other things, the ways in which diverse Jewish ideas, experiences and texts inspired him to embark upon a career in Jewish studies, the importance of considering ancient texts within their own social-historical contexts and his participation in a Greek-Jewish dialogue event held last month.


NVR: For our readers who might not be familiar with your work, can you give us a brief overview of the topic areas upon which you have focused in your career as a scholar and teacher?


My research centers on Jewish religion in the Second Temple period—from, say, 586 BCE (the destruction of the first temple) to 70 CE (the destruction of the second temple). But in order to do this well, one has to know Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature too. On my best research days, I’ll be tracing some thread from the Bible to the Talmud, making as many stops in between as possible.


My first major research project resulted in my dissertation (and my first book). It looked at the relationship between impurity and sin, from the Bible through the Talmud, with chapters on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament as well. My second book covered the same sweep, but it focused on sacrifice and temple practices—trying to uncover ways in which rituals symbolically express beliefs or principles. I also tried to identify modern biases that prevent us from understanding what ancient Jews, who worshiped at the temple, believed about their animal sacrifices.


As a faculty member in Boston University’s Religion Department, I have had the good fortune to teach courses relating to my research—Dead Sea Scrolls, Rabbinic Literature, Hebrew Bible. But I’ve also been able to teach an Introduction to Western Religion (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and an advanced seminar called Theories and Methods for the Study of Religion. One semester I even taught in BU’s writing program. Next year I’ll be teaching our departmental Introduction to Judaism (a first for me). All of these experiences have forced me to stretch in new directions, and despite the extra time involved, my scholarship has always managed to benefit from what I’ve learned from teaching new material. And no matter what I’m teaching, I learn from my students as well.



NVR: What first inspired you to devote your time and energy to exploring the Second Temple Period? What keeps you inspired as you continue to work in this area?


I did decide early on to become a Jewish Studies scholar, but the Second Temple interests came later. So the first question is how I became interested in studying Judaism full-time.


I grew up in a home that valued Judaism, Israel, and Jewish history. My mother taught in our synagogue Hebrew school, and my maternal grandparents were also career Jewish educators. My father was a physician (and a Professor of Neurology) who loved history in general and Jewish history in particular. I went to public schools, but in suburban Chicago I could (and did) take Hebrew in my public High School. Still, I learned the most in informal settings. I had this coming at me from all directions: Camp Ramah, family trips to Israel, my fathers’ subscription to Biblical Archaeology Review, my mother’s pop-Israeli music cassettes, Passover Seders at my grandparents. Most of all, I developed a very special relationship with my maternal grandfather. Starting around my Bar Mitzvah, I would study with him almost every Shabbat afternoon. Mishnah, Sefer ha-Aggadah, some Talmud, and even a little Agnon and Bialik.


Becoming a professor of Jewish studies emerged naturally from all this. It was something I thought about when I was getting ready for college, and it was for that reason that I decided to go to the Joint Program (JTS and Columbia). I did think about other career possibilities—for a short while I thought I would be rabbi. And I did think about other fields too. In fact, when I first thought about academia, I thought I would focus on the Hebrew Bible. Some years later I fell in love with Talmud. Somewhere along the way I became fascinated by the New Testament and learned some Greek. I ended up landing in the middle, I guess. The Joint Program allowed me—forced me, really—to gain exposure in the full range of Jewish literature and culture. In a way, I never gave that up. You just can’t get bored with the Second Temple period: Dead Sea Scrolls, Rabbis, Jesus, Pharisees.... Even the Sadducees are fascinating.



NVR: Are there insights we can glean from the scholarly study of the Second Temple Period and the years which followed the destruction of the Temple, that can help us to think more clearly about modern Jewish practice and theology?


Yes—but let me try to answer more clearly by inverting the question. One of the issues that has driven my scholarship for much of the past decade is trying to identify ways in which scholarship on the past is influenced by ideas of the present. For instance, our ideas about ancient Jewish sacrifice are influenced today by our attitudes toward animals and violence. I would also argue that many scholarly ideas about 70 CE (when the Second Temple was destroyed) are unduly influenced by ideas about how modern Judaism has reacted to the Shoah. There’s a common myth—and it is a myth—that Jews were shocked into silence by the Shoah, and only able to grapple with the implications a generation later. This myth (which is false about the present) has been read back onto the past (where it is, I believe, equally false).


Now this is a strange way to answer your question. I’ve just argued that modern ideas can mess up our understanding of the past, and you asked how understanding the past can help us understand the present. But I believe that coming to terms with this process can help us understand both periods better. When we set aside the misleading analogy between 70 CE and 1945, we can better appreciate how ancient Jews, especially the ancient historian Josephus, rather quickly came to understand the destruction of the second temple by Rome as the reenactment of the earlier biblical drama that ended with the destruction of the first temple by Babylon. The modern history is rather different in many ways: the Shoah was much, much more catastrophic than the destruction of the second temple. But once we have come to appreciate what Jews accomplished after 70 CE, we may then be in a better position to appreciate what, in the immediate aftermath of the Shoah, Jews in America and the Yishuv did to help the survivors and foster the continuation of Judaism and Jewishness.



NVR: What are some of the most common misconceptions that you think people have about early Rabbinic Judaism?


Some people’s misconceptions reflect who they are and what they may have been taught to think. Some Christians still, unfortunately, think of the early rabbis (or their predecessors, the Pharisees) as hypocrites and legalists. Traditionalist Jews may downplay rabbinic creativity in emphasizing continuity. Liberal Jews may downplay rabbinic traditionalism in emphasizing the sages’ creativity. The fact is, we don’t really know enough about early rabbinic Judaism. We do have the Mishnah from 200 CE. But how much of it goes back to 70 CE? And how well known were its contents? What we lack in knowledge, we sometimes make up for with imagination, refashioning the rabbis of old after our own tastes. We’ll never get around the problem of not having as much information as we want. But we can try to stop projecting our present onto the past, and then see which questions we can answer and which we cannot.



NVR: You recently participated in a panel organized jointly by the American Jewish Committee and the Greek Orthodox Church in Boston, the theme of which was a discussion of the similarities and differences between the Jewish holiday of Pesach (Passover) and Greek Orthodox Pascha (Easter) – why did you feel it was important to take part in this event? What are some of the advantages and potential pitfalls of this kind of dialogue?


One of the event’s organizers was Rabbi Dan Liben, who is also my congregational rabbi. When he told me about the program, I agreed right away to participate (well, I did run the date and time by my wife too). As a Jewish scholar who works with sources written in ancient Greek (such as the New Testament and Josephus), this seemed like the natural thing to agree to do. And as someone who has written about the Last Supper and the Seder, I had already done my homework. An added plus.


Although this was my first public event of this sort, I have engaged in Jewish-Greek Orthodox dialogue before, albeit on a much smaller scale. Over the years, I have had a number of Greek Orthodox students who have come to see me to talk about religion in general or Judaism and Christianity in particular. On the one hand, Jewish-Greek Orthodox dialogue is not, on an official level, where Jewish-Catholic dialogue is. But on the other hand, as ethnic minorities with love for a traditional language and a homeland abroad, Jews and Greek Orthodox have a lot in common. We have shared experiences, and we face similar challenges.

There probably are potential pitfalls in such encounters. Perhaps the biggest risk is that a slip of the tongue could lead to misunderstandings, or even unintended offense. But when there’s thoughtful planning and plenty of good will, the likely benefits far outweigh any unlikely dangers. I enjoyed participating in this event—I hope I get invited to the next one.



NVR: One of the topics you address in your book Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism -can you say a little about this last piece of the title, “supersessionism,” and why it is something of which modern Jews should be aware, both in terms of how it has been used historically by the church, but also, perhaps, how it has also played a role in the evolution of Rabbinic Judaism, which is the Judaism that modern Jews practice today?


Normally, “supersessionism” refers to the attitude that some forms of Christianity have in relation to Judaism: that the newer, better tradition (Christianity) replaces and displaces the earlier, inferior one (Judaism). Jews of course find such arguments offensive, and thankfully many Christians have set aside their supersessionist beliefs, accepting Jews as they are and Judaism as it is. But I argue in the book that there are also forms of Jewish supersessionism as well—such as when some liberal Jews have claimed that Judaism today (without a temple cult) is morally superior to the earlier Judaism that was characterized by animal sacrifice. And we often view even Israel’s sacrificial cult as morally superior to the ostensibly amoral Canaanite religion that preceded it. There are two problems with such arguments. First of all, eliminating animal sacrifice hasn’t really made things any better for the animals; nor has it made us better people. But the real problem is that these statements are presumptuous and prejudicial: moderns make ourselves feel better by putting down those who came before us. Yes, society does evolve, and some things do improve—but modernity has brought plenty of evils too. And no, I’m not advocating that we sacrifice today (or in the future). I do, though, think we need to judge our ancestors and predecessors more fairly, especially those groups (like Canaanites) that aren’t around to defend themselves anymore. We should study the past with interest to see not only what we have gained since then, but also with an eye for what we may have lost.


Here I think modern Jews can take a page from the Catholic playbook: Just as Catholicism has really grappled with its understanding of the Jewish past, so too can modern Jews construct our histories without denigrating Priests, Sadducees, or even Canaanites. We should try at least to learn more about them. We may even be able to learn something from them.



NVR: Can you give us a little glimpse into what you might be working on right now, in terms of books or articles?


I have been on Sabbatical this year, working on a book on the Jewish historian Josephus, and what we can learn from him about ancient Jewish thought. Josephus is the one who tells us pretty much everything we know about Jewish disputes between the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes regarding immortality and resurrection, fate and free will, and divine justice. He is also our most important source regarding the Jewish response to the destruction of the temple. But I believe scholars haven’t fully appreciated all that we can learn from him about these matters. And most modern Jews know very little about Josephus at all—perhaps they know a distorted version of the Masada story that they heard from a tour guide.


What I’m working on now will become an academic monograph, not a popular book. But I hope to be able to reach out to the Jewish public in various ways and call more attention to Josephus. His is a story that more modern Jews should know. A lot of what he has to say about ancient Jews and Judaism is meaningful and helpful.



NVR: Is there anything else you would like to add?


Let me give an example of what I think we can learn from Josephus. The Sadducees suffer in scholarly works and popular understandings alike. They are discredited (unfairly) as being arrogant, priestly, literalist aristocrats. While some of this derision originates in Josephus, he also tells us other things that we should attend to. Josephus tells us that the Sadducees understood their belief in free will in relation to their effort to remove God from being implicated in evil. In other words, they seemed to believe what many moderns call “the free will defense”: God’s justice can be preserved in the wake of war, crime, or even genocide by placing the blame on the human perpetrators who have chosen to do evil with their divinely-given free will. A number of post-Holocaust thinkers have articulated such ideas, but few have given any credit to Josephus’s Sadducees for staking out this position in the ancient period. As a scholar of ancient Judaism, it’s not my job to say how we should respond to the Shoah or any other modern crisis. And if you ask me, I’m really not sure about my own theology on any of this. Nor is it my intent to delegitimize any modern approaches by identifying them with the ancient Sadducees. But I am interested in helping those who wish to understand better the diversity and richness of the Jewish past. And I hope to help us give credit where credit is due. Many modern Jews are theological Sadducees (at least regarding free will) without knowing it. I wish that more of us knew this. Then perhaps fewer of us—scholars included—would unfairly disparage these ancestors of ours.



Copyright the New Vilna Review 2011.


Welcome to the New Vilna Review

*A Note From the Publisher - February 8, 2012*


Dear readers and contributors,

The New Vilna Review has been going through some changes the past few

months, and our focus has shifted to offering an expanded selection of

poetry, fiction and arts writing. We are once again accepting submissions,

and look forward to continuing to publish some of the most interesting and

thought provoking work in the world of Jewish arts and letters.

-Daniel E. Levenson

Publisher and Editor-in-Chief

The New Vilna Review



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