Glenn Dynner

BA, Brandeis University. MA, McGill University. PhD, Brandeis University. Scholar of East European Jewry, with a focus on the social history of Hasidism and the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). Author of Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society, which received a Koret Publication Award and was a National Jewish Book Awards finalist. Received textual training in several Israeli yeshivas and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Additional interests include Polish-Jewish relations, Jewish economic history, and popular religion. Recipient of the Fulbright Award. Member (2010-11), Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University. SLC, 2004–

Undergraduate Courses 2020-2021

Religion

Jewish Mysticism From Antiquity to the Present

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course traces the path of Jewish mystical study, practice, and wisdom. Beginning with the Hebrew Bible, we proceed through early Jewish mystical magic, divination, and ascents. We then delve into the erotically-charged Kabbalah, focusing on The Zohar (Book of Splendor) and proceeding to the 16th-century Safed (Tzefat) mystical schools and the mass messianic eruption around Shabbetai Tzvi. Next, we explore varied manifestations of East European Jewish popular Kabbalah, Golem literature, and Hasidism. We conclude with contemporary manifestations of Kabbalah and Hasidism in America and Israel. Throughout the course, we will reflect on issues like gender, sexuality, messianism, magic, and resistance rituals.

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The Hasidic Movement

Open , Seminar—Fall

Hasidism, a popular mystical movement founded in Eastern Europe that continues to flourish in centers in both Israel and America, has been romanticized as revolution and reviled as reaction. This class begins with the transformative ideas of Hasidism’s founder, Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (1700-60), a kabbalistic healer who reconceived the entire Jewish mystical tradition in a way that sanctified daily life and revitalized ritual. We trace the crystallization of Hasidic wisdom in tales and mystical discourses, observe the rise of its charismatic leaders (rebbes), and analyze burgeoning dynasties like Lubavitch, Bratslav, Ruzhyn, Ger, and Satmar. Throughout the course, we confront the movement’s controversial stances toward gender, sexuality, humanism, and secular education; however, we also attempt to understand Hasidism’s emergence as a culture of joyful resistance in the face of “civilizing” initiatives of empires and nation-states, collective violence and genocide, and Zionist and American conformist agendas. We conclude with a look at the way Hasidic communities of today are responding to contemporary challenges like the coronavirus pandemic.

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First-Year Studies: Judaism, From Religion to Radicalism

Open , FYS—Year

Judaism since the biblical age has defied easy categorization, oscillating between religion and ethnicity and taking on political aspects. Our understanding of Judaism is complicated by the very nature of diasporic existence, which involves resisting or appropriating features of the dominant culture. We begin with the Bible and the Talmud and proceed through texts produced by traditionalist movements that challenged and, at times, displaced normative Jewish practice, including Kabbalah, messianism, and Hasidism. We proceed to movements that were more “modern” in their orientation, like Haskalah, Reform Judaism, Hebrew and Yiddish literature, and Zionism; and we will discuss the pioneering Jewish role in phenomena like psychoanalysis, musical theatre, and Hollywood. We conclude with manifestations of Jewish radicalism like socialism, communism, anarchism, and American counterculture.

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Previous Courses

The Holocaust

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

The Holocaust raises fundamental questions about the nature of our civilization. How was it that a policy of genocide could be planned, initiated, and carried out against Jews, Roma (Gypsies), leftists, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other groups by Germany, a country that had produced many of the greatest thinkers and artists the world has seen? In this course, we will attempt to explain how these events took place, beginning with the evolution of anti-Semitic ideology and violence. At the same time, we will look at how victims, especially Jews, chose to live out their last years and respond through art, diary-writing, spiritual practices, physical resistance, evasion, and more. Finally, we will attempt to come to grips with the crucial but neglected phenomenon of bystanders—non-Jews who stood by while their neighbors were methodically annihilated. We shall inevitably be compelled to make moral judgments; but these judgments will be of value only if they are based on an understanding of the various actors’ perspectives during this dark chapter of European history.

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Related Disciplines

Jewish Autobiography

Open , Seminar—Spring

Autobiography is among the most contentious literary/historical genres, compromised by the fallibility of memory and the human tendency towards self-fashioning yet unique in its insights into history as a lived experience. This course employs personal narratives as windows onto the Jewish transition to modernity. We begin with narratives by “traditional” Jewish men and women, including the mystic Hayyim Vital and the successful businesswoman Gluckel of Hameln. We then proceed to the wrenching accounts of early detractors from tradition—like Solomon Maimon, Ezekiel Kotik, and Pauline Wengeroff—and writings by Jewish leaders of modern political movements such as Zionism, Jewish socialism, communism, orthodoxy, and ultra-orthodoxy. We conclude with individual perspectives on the Holocaust through the eyes of victims, bystanders, and perpetrators; insights into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from each side; and American Jewish feminist, queer, and transgender self-narratives.

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Related Disciplines

Modern Jewish Literature

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

As Jews were emancipated in Europe, many began to grapple with the challenges of modernity through literary genres like poetry, autobiography, and fiction. Writers like Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, Primo Levi, S. Y. Agnon, Sholem Aleichem (whose works formed the basis of Fiddler on the Roof), Grace Paley, and Cynthia Ozick achieved universal acclaim. But the path of the modern Jewish writer nearly always entailed alienation, rebellion, nostalgia, and a need to grapple with increasingly virulent forms of anti-Semitism—culminating in the Holocaust. In new centers in America and Israel, the Jews’ improved status yielded new kinds of alienation, witnessed especially in works by authors like Philip Roth, Amos Oz, and David Grossman. Despite the tension and occasional anguish that runs through modern Jewish literature, we will discover works of beauty, poignancy, and illumination. The Jewish writer's “pariah” status seems to have offered a unique perspective on the world and profound insights into the modern condition.

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Related Disciplines

The Jews of Europe

Open , Lecture—Fall

This course conceives European Jewry as forming a dynamic counterpoint to dominant non-Jewish European societies down to today. First, we examine the Talmud-centered, insular “Ashkenazic” Jewish communities of medieval France and Germany. Then we proceed to the more worldly “Sephardic” Jews in Muslim and Christian Spain, encountering poets, philosophers, Kabbalists, and secret Judaizing “Conversos.” We follow the exiles of Spain as they return to open Jewish practice and examine the widespread embrace of a messianic pretender named Shabbetai Tzvi. We then turn to the blossoming Jewish life in Eastern Europe, with its extensive self-government, economic niches, world-renowned yeshivas, and popular mysticism (Hasidism). In the last part of the course, we examine the dissolution of the “ghetto” throughout Europe, the rise of religious innovations like Reform Judaism and Orthodoxy, the simultaneous rise of racial anti-Semitism, and Jewish political responses like Zionism, Socialism, and radicalism down to the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. Throughout, we attempt to balance negative flashpoints like Crusades, blood libels, the Inquisition, pogroms, and genocide with European Jewry’s major economic, intellectual, and spiritual innovations.

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Related Disciplines

First-Year Studies: Judaism, From Religion to Radicalism

Open , FYS—Year

Judaism, since the biblical age, has defied easy categorization—oscillating between religion and ethnicity, law and spirituality, tradition and rupture. This dynamism is further complicated by the very nature of the diasporic experience, which has involved both resisting and appropriating aspects of the dominant culture (e.g., gender, magic, mysticism, and martyrdom). This course provides an introduction to Jewish spirituality and culture by looking at the interplay between its texts and contexts. We begin with formative works like the Bible, the Talmud, classics of Jewish philosophy, and Kabbalah. We then engage with texts produced by modern movements that challenged, displaced, or reinforced normative Jewish practice, such as messianism, Hasidism, nationalism (e.g., Zionism), Freudian psychoanalysis, and revolutionary Marxism. The desired outcome is an awareness of how the Jews’ outsider status has helped produce bold, varied conceptions of the world that, in turn, challenge our own.

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Related Disciplines

Jewish Mysticism From Antiquity to the Present

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

This course examines a vibrant countertrend within Judaism known as mysticism. We begin with the biblical and ancient “Chariot” mysticism, proceed to ascetic medieval German pietism, and dwell at length on the erotically-charged “Kabbalah” that emerged in medieval Spain and Southern France—observing its unique conceptions of God, evil, demonology, sin, death, sexuality, and magic. We then follow the emergence of circles of mystics in 16th-century Safed (Land of Israel) that eventually sparked a mass messianic movement around the figure of Shabbetai Tzvi. In the second semester, we delve into the most popular and enduring Jewish mystical movement, Hasidism. Founded on the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov (The Besht) in 18th-century Eastern Europe, Hasidism was forged into a mass movement by charismatic miracle-workers called “tzaddikim” and spread by means of oral and written tales. We follow the emergence of Hasidic dynasties, gauge Hasidic responses to modern phenomena like Zionism and the Holocaust, and follow the movement’s continued flourishing today in tight-knit communities from Brooklyn to Jerusalem. Finally, we will examine popular contemporary neo-Kabbalah. Throughout, we strive to appreciate different manifestations of Jewish mysticism within their changing historical contexts.

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Related Disciplines