2015-2016 Religion Courses
Japanese Religion and Culture
This course explores the diverse terrain of religious life in Japan, investigating as much of the amazing spectrum of Japanese beliefs, practices, and institutions as possible without actually visiting the country. To this end, it makes extensive use of audio-visual materials, as well as primary sources (Japanese texts in English translation) and secondary scholarship. The course covers all of the major religious traditions and movements found in Japan today, including Shintō, the various schools of Buddhism, and the so-called New Religions, as well as numerous elements of "folk" or "popular" religion and culture that are not readily subsumed under any of the preceding labels. The emphasis is on religion in contemporary Japan, with particular focus on religious rituals and the art and architecture that facilitate them, but a modicum of historical background will be given when necessary. Prior study or experience of things Japanese (language, literature, history, etc.) is desirable but not required.
The Holocaust raises fundamental questions about the nature of our civilization. How was it that a policy of genocide could be initiated and carried out in one of the most advanced and sophisticated countries of Europe, a country that had produced many of the greatest thinkers and artists that 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 the Jews chose to live out their last years and respond to the impending catastrophe through art, diary writing, mysticism, physical resistance, hiding, and so on. 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 will be of value only if they are informed and based on a fuller understanding of the perspectives of the various actors in this dark chapter of European history.
The Jews in Europe
How did a Jewish civilization develop throughout the triumph of Christianity in the West? This course conceives of Judaism as a counterpoint to the dominant cultures of Europe. We begin with the arrival of Jews to the Roman Empire and proceed to the insular “Ashkenazic” Jewish communities of medieval France and Germany. Next, we trace the appearance of “Sephardic” Jews in Spain, including worldly poets and philsophers, other-worldly Kabbalists, and secret Judaizing “conversos” throughout the period of Inquisition. We then follow the exiles of Spain as they begin openly practicing Judaism again in the Land of Israel and other places; trace the growth of the popular movement around the false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi; and witness the blossoming of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, with its extensive self-rule, new economic niches, and world-renowned yeshivas. In the last part of the course, we examine the dissolution of the “ghetto” during the process of emancipation, the rise of more virulent forms of anti-Semitism, modern political responses like Zionism and Socialism, and the destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust. Throughout, we will attempt to balance negative flashpoints like the Crusades, blood libels, Inquisition, pogroms, and genocide with more affirmative features of Jewish life such as economic vitality, self-government, and spiritual developments like Hasidism, Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), and Reform and Orthodox Judaism.
First-Year Studies: Jewish Spirituality and Culture
Judaism since the biblical age has defied easy categorization, oscillating between religion and ethnicity. This course provides an introduction to Judaism with an eye toward gender, sexuality, and responses to Western values of heroism and chivalry. We begin with the Bible and ancient Israel and witness the emergence of “rabbis” and their formative texts (Talmud, Midrash, Medieval Bible commentaries). We then encounter movements that challenged Judaism, including Christianity, medieval philosophy, poetry, Kabbalah, false Messianism, and Hasidism. Next, we follow attempts to create a modern-Jewish synthesis through Enlightenment (Haskalah), Zionism, Jewish Socialism, modern literature, modern philosophy, and Jewish Feminism. We then explore attempts to transform Judaism into something more akin to strictly religion (Reform, Conservative) and attempts to resist modernity through the invention of Orthodoxy. Finally, we explore Jewish responses to the Holocaust and proceed to chart the course of Jewish religion and culture in America and Israel, examining assimilation and the roots of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Throughout, we will gauge the interplay between Jewish conceptions of law, chosenness, exile, sin, redemption, sexuality, death, etc. and grapple with challenges like anti-Semitism and secularization.
Muslim Ethics and Religious Law (Shari’a)
In recent years, the concept of Shari’a has become increasingly associated with states and military groups who champion repressive rules, harsh punishments, and executions. Capitalizing on the fear and disgust that many Americans feel toward these examples of “Islamic law,” a movement called American Laws for American Courts has led to the adoption of antiforeign law legislation in some US states—legislation that the American Bar Association, among others, finds highly problematic. But the anxiety over “Shari’a creep” in the United States and Europe obscures the other ways in which Shari’a is understood and practiced by Muslims. Some Muslims see Shari’a as a social and political nightmare, abhorring its use by states and militants. Some criticize Shari’a even in less oppressive environments, portraying it as little more than dry legalism and a spiritually dead way of practicing one’s religion. On the other hand, there are many Muslims who embrace Shari’a as a path for cultivating a deep moral consciousness in their individual and communal lives. They also view it as a powerful tool to address injustices. In order to better understand these contemporary debates, we will study the classical formation of Islamic law and juridical discourse, as well as classical literary and mystical writings that reflect other ethical sensibilities that co-existed with, or sometimes contested, the juridical and pious norms of earlier time periods. The contemporary issues to be discussed will include sexual and medical ethics, freedom of speech and offense controversies, apostasy and violence, and the ideology and practices of ISIS. Previous coursework or knowledge in Islamic Studies is desirable for this course. Permission of the instructor is required.
The Qur’an and Its Interpretation
To watch a Muslim kiss the Qur’an is to recognize that this is not a “book” in the ordinary sense of the word. There is an art to reciting its verses and an art to its calligraphy. The uncovering of its meanings has been variously understood by Muslims to be a matter of common sense, diligent scholarship, or profound inspiration. In this seminar, we will begin by studying the style and content of the Qur’an. Some of the themes that may be discussed are the nature and function of humans and supernatural beings, free will and determinism, the structure of this and other worlds, God’s attributes of mercy and wrath, gender and family relations, other religions, and the legitimate use of violence. We will also look at the types of literature that developed in response to the Qur’an in texts ranging from the entertaining stories of the prophets, to scholastic theological and philosophical analyses, and to mystical insights said to be achieved by the experience of spiritual states. Contemporary writings will be included that reflect the interaction between the classical heritage of Qur’anic exegesis and new interpretations that reflect current paradigms of gender relations, social activism, and spirituality.
Muslim Thought and Cultures
Within the maelstrom of current events, caricatures and apologetics too often supply shortcuts for understanding a world largely unknown to Americans, obscuring rather than informing people of the richness and variety of the traditions of Islam and Muslim cultures. This course will provide an introduction to these rich traditions by addressing the early history of Islam, its foundational texts, and the development of Sunni, Shi‘i, and Sufi thought. In addition to studying the formative and classical periods of Islam, primarily located in the Middle East, we will look to the ways in which Islam spread throughout the world to regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, China, Europe, and the United States. Muslims in the Middle East now represent a mere 20% of Muslims worldwide; from jihadis to mystics to hip-hop artists, Muslims are not easily categorized. To address how being a Muslim is understood in specific contexts, we will study not only religious texts but also how Islam and Muslim practices are represented in autobiographies, fiction writing, films, music, and art.
Images of India: Text/Photo/Film
This seminar addresses colonial and postcolonial representations of India. For centuries, India has been imagined and imaged through encoded idioms of orientalism. In recent decades, writers and visual artists from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have been actively engaged in reinterpreting the British colonial impact on South Asia. Their work presents sensibilities of the colonized in counter narration to images previously established during the Raj. Highlighting previously unexposed impressions, such works inevitably supplement, usually challenge, and frequently undermine traditional accounts underwritten by imperialist interests. Colonial and orientalist discourses depicted peoples of the Indian subcontinent both in terms of degradation and in terms of a romance of empire, thereby rationalizing various economic, political, and psychological agendas. The external invention and deployment of the term “Indian” is emblematic of the epoch, with colonial designation presuming to reframe indigenous identity. Postcolonial writers and artists are, consequently, renegotiating identities. What does it mean to be seen as an Indian? What historical claims are implicit in allegories of ethnicity, linguistic region, and nation? How do such claims inform events taking place today, given the resurgence of Hindu fundamentalism? For this seminar on semiotics and politics of culture, sources include works by influential South Asian writers, photographers, and filmmakers.
Indian Medical Cultures: Yoga and Ayurveda
This seminar explores the psycho-physical disciplines of yoga and ayurveda. In beliefs and practices of India, these disciplines overlap fields of medicine, law, and religion. Indian interpretations of body and self form a foundation for the seminar. Hindu and Buddhist dietary ethics are considered. Hatha yoga has broad implications for physical and mental hygiene, preventive medicine, and public health. Ayurvedic medicine addresses anatomy, physiology, respiration, digestion, and endocrine function without compartmentalizing these systems. We draw on contemporary theories in the philosophy and anthropology of medicine in order to interpret techniques of the self that are embedded in ayurvedic teachings. With globalization, yoga and ayurveda increasingly serve as cultural signifiers of postcolonial identities.
South Asian Narratives and Identities
This seminar explores identity formation in cultures of the Indian subcontinent through a critical analysis of life histories. Using recent cultural theory, we examine biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs of figures from diverse communities. We study pivotal events in the lives of uncelebrated figures, along with experiences of artists and writers who are more widely known. Through such life stories, we explore issues of regional and national identities, religion and communalism, individualism within extended families, personal and collective memory, generational conflicts, and caste hierarchies. We analyze "etics" of subaltern positioning and consider "emics" of postcolonial fragmentation, alienation, and affinities. Student presentations address specific case studies. Seminar topics and theories are widely applicable to cultures beyond South Asia. How do political movements exploit religious affiliations? How do media technologies influence choices between traditional and cosmopolitan lifestyles? In what ways do personal possessions reflect aspects of identity?
Writing India: Transnational Narratives
The global visibility of South Asian writers has changed the face of contemporary English literature. Many writers from the Indian subcontinent continue to narrate tumultuous events that surrounded the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan upon independence from British imperial rule. Their writings narrate utopian imaginings and legacies of the past in light of dystopic visions and optimistic aspirations of today. This seminar addresses themes of identity, fragmentation, hybridity, memory, and alienation that link South Asian literary production to contemporary writing from settings elsewhere in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Accounts of communal violence reflect global urgencies. The cultural space of India has been repeatedly transformed and redeployed according to varied cultural projects, political interests, and economic agendas. After briefly considering representations of India in early chronicles of Chinese, Greek, and Persian travelers, we explore modern constructions of India in excerpts from Kipling, Forster, Orwell, and other writers of the British Raj. We focus on India as remembered and imagined in selected works of writers including Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. We apply interdisciplinary critical inquiry as we pursue a literature that shifts increasingly from narrating the nation to narrating its diasporic fragments in transnational contexts.