Joel Swanson

Undergraduate Discipline


BA, Swarthmore College. MA, PhD, The University of Chicago. A scholar of modern Jewish intellectual history, with a focus on both philosophical and literary sources, Swanson is particularly interested in questions of trauma and Jewish collective memory; racialization, gender identity, and the Jewish body; tensions between religious, ethnic, and national understandings of Jewish identity; and how the history of the Jewish people complicates and challenges the structures of philosophical universalism and the modern nation-state. He is currently working on adapting his dissertation into a book that examines an array of little-studied francophone Jewish writers and philosophers in the prewar period, suggesting that those figures' marginal and ambivalent relationships to Jewish memory and identity formation complicates our understanding of the relationship between Jewish and Christian thought during the period. Swanson has received extensive textual training in Jewish traditional sources in both Hebrew and Aramaic and is also well-versed in queer theory, gender studies, disability studies, and postcolonial studies. He has taught both Jewish history and continental philosophy of religions at The University of Chicago and University of Illinois Chicago and has spoken at an array of conferences and universities across three continents. An active member of the Association for Jewish Studies, he has published articles on topics as diverse as Jewish contributions to French deconstruction and psychoanalytic debates; competing Zionist and diasporist politics of memory; German Jewish philosophy; and Yiddish poetry. In addition to his academic writing, Swanson is a widely-published commentator on Jewish political issues in publications such as Haaretz, The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and The Forward. He has served as a researcher for the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalem and helped develop resources for a national curriculum on antisemitism education for the Anti-Defamation League. SLC, 2024–

Undergraduate Courses 2024-2025


Gender, Sexuality, and the Body in Judaism

Open, Seminar—Fall

RLGN 3144

In recent years, scholarship in Jewish studies has recognized that much of recorded Jewish history and writing has centered the male, heterosexual, cisgender Jew as the normative Jewish figure and has failed to reckon sufficiently with the perspectives of Jewish women, queer Jews, trans Jews, and other Jews holding marginalized gender and sexual identities. At the same time, scholars have noted that Jewish literature and rabbinic sources contain fascinating resources to interrogate gender norms and, in particular, to explore how the ambiguity of gender roles contained within rabbinic sources does or does not map onto contemporary gender binaries. Building from this perspective, this class aims to explore the evolution of debates about gender and sexuality in Judaism, focusing both on textual sources and on the lived experiences of Jewish people. Topics to be covered include: the status of women under halakhah (Jewish law); gender in the Talmud and Jewish religious texts; constructions of masculinity and femininity; debates over the proper role of the body and the gendered nature of religious practice and religious authority; the role of women in Jewish emancipation and the changing nature of Jewish gender norms in the modern era; the relationship of women and queer Jews to nationalisms and citizenship; Zionist discourses on the relationship between land, rootedness, and gender; and the gendered politics of Jewish identity in both Europe and the Middle East. Throughout the course, we will read both primary and secondary sources; the primary sources will include Jewish religious texts, as well as fiction and autobiography produced by Jewish women and queer Jews. We will ask the questions: Who claims the right to speak for a tradition, and what does it mean to say that certain Jewish bodies are and are not normative? In so doing, we will also review some of the key debates surrounding gender studies and queer studies in the field of religious studies more broadly, and students will gain a basic understanding of some of the key methodological and theoretical debates in contemporary queer theory.


Jewish History I: The People of the Book

Open, Lecture—Fall

RLGN 2302

This course will provide a survey of the history of the Jewish people, beginning with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and ending with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 CE—an event which some scholars have argued represented the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern world. The class will be focused on two central questions: Firstly, what does it mean when a community that was once oriented around the Temple and the Holy Land went into exile and had to reconstitute itself as a community grounded in the text and the book? Secondly, what does it mean for the Jews to be a people; and how does the idea of peoplehood relate to emergent concepts of nationhood, religion, race, and ethnicity? The class will focus heavily on the emergence of the form of rabbinic literary interpretation known as midrash and the diverse modes of reading Jewish texts that emerged after the destruction of the Temple; the place of Jews under both Christian and Muslim rule; and the forms of Jewish philosophy, literature, and mystical thought that flourished in these differing cultural contexts. We will discuss the historical development of Jewish law (halakhah), how it emerged through contested interpretations of Jewish texts, and how legal concepts had to evolve to respond to the changing sociopolitical conditions under which Jews lived. Though the class will discuss anti-Jewish persecution and violence across the centuries, we will also focus on moments of cultural interchange and cooperation. Students will read both primary sources, including rabbinic texts and Jewish philosophical and mystical treatises, as well as selected secondary source materials. This course is designed to be taken as part of a two-semester sequence with Jewish History II in the spring semester, but students are permitted to enroll in only one semester or the other, based on interest.


Jewish History II: What Does it Mean to be Modern?

Open, Lecture—Spring

RLGN 2802

This course will provide a survey of the modern history of the Jewish people, beginning with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and continuing until the present day. In so doing, we will focus heavily on the question of what modernity itself means and how modern concepts—such as nationalism and the nation-state, race and ethnicity, religious liberty, and individualism and collectivism—were, in many senses, defined in relation to the Jewish people, with Jewish minority communities serving as test cases for questions of what it means to be a modern human. The class will focus extensively on the process of Jewish emancipation and citizenship and on the philosophical and cultural changes underpinning this process. Yet, we will not focus merely on Jews as passive observers of these historical processes but, rather, as active agents shaping their own histories and their own struggles for rights. We will examine ways in which Jewish law had to be adapted to fit into emergent concepts of civil law and how Jews responded to and contested some of those changes. The class will delve into the relationship of Jews to Enlightenment philosophy, the emergence of distinctively Jewish political ideologies such as Zionism and Bundism, and the relationship of Jews to both European and Middle Eastern nationalisms. We will discuss the Holocaust, but we will situate it in relation to broader historical processes of nationalism and violence; and we will discuss the relationship of Jews in Europe to Jews in the Middle East and North Africa. Though not primarily a class on contemporary Israeli politics, we will discuss the formation of the modern state of Israel and the way in which the founding of the Jewish state shapes the identity of Jews who have chosen in remain in diaspora. Throughout the semester, we will continually ask these central questions: What does it mean to be a modern human, and how does the concept of modernity necessarily construct itself in relation to the Jewish people? This course is designed to be taken as part of a two-semester sequence with Jewish History I in the fall semester, but students are permitted to enroll in only one semester or the other, based on interest.


The Holocaust in Cultural Memory

Open, Seminar—Spring

RLGN 3722

The Holocaust is one of the most widely discussed and studied events of the 20th century, raising vital and challenging political and philosophical questions about nationalism, the nature of the modern nation-state, the human propensity for mass violence, and the possibility of minority integration. As a result, the Holocaust has become a sort of canvas upon which a huge array of postwar and contemporary political, philosophical, and cultural figures and voices have projected their own thoughts and messages. This course will examine the way in which the Holocaust has become a symbol of human evil and destruction in contemporary cultural memory and will ask difficult questions about the use of the Holocaust as a political symbol by both Jewish and non-Jewish voices. Questions to be examined in the course include: How has the construction of World War II as the “good war” shaped contemporary American cultural identity? How do American Jews relate to the destruction of European Jewry? How has Germany reckoned with its own historical guilt through the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“coping with the past”)? How have Central and Eastern European nations confronted or denied their own collaboration and complicity with the extermination of their Jewish populations? How are countries such as Poland attempting to criminalize discussions of their potential historical complicity in the Holocaust? We will discuss Zionist and anti-Zionist mobilizations of Holocaust memory in political debates, the spread of Holocaust denial, and why political movements such as protestors against COVID restrictions have compared themselves to Jews under Nazism. We will also think about how Holocaust memory has shaped contemporary Jewish identity, as well as the fraught question of what it means to live as a Jewish person after more than one-third of the Jews on Earth were exterminated. The class will include both philosophical and literary sources, as well as select films. Students will also gain a basic introduction to some key texts in memory studies and trauma studies. We will inevitably confront moral questions about guilt, culpability, and the obligation to remember; but we will only pass moral judgment after attempting to understand the diverse perspectives animating the Holocaust as a symbol of cultural memory. Though the class will begin with a brief overview of the history of the Holocaust itself, it is not primarily a course about Holocaust history but, rather, about postwar cultural constructions of Holocaust memory. As a result, some familiarity with Holocaust history will be helpful for the course, though it is not required.