281 – Modern Jewish Thought

Ken Koltun-Fromm
Haverford College
Gest 201, Office hours: Monday, 1-2:30
610-896-1026 (office), 610-645-8324 (home)

Spring, 2013
Monday and Wednesday 11:30-1
Gest 103

Course Blog


This course will interrogate the question, what and where is “Jewish” in modern Jewish thought? We will read various thinkers who offer accounts of Jewish ritual, ethics, aesthetics, space, and thought, and we want to problematize assumptions about what is Jewish in all this, and where that Jewishness might be located—in the self, in history, in practice, in peoplehood, in tradition, or in some other place, or nowhere. Students will produce a final research paper that explores how to critically assess and challenge modern Jewish thought as a category of analysis.


  • Two five-page double-spaced papers, the first due Friday, February 21 at 5 pm and the second due Friday, April 4 at 5 pm. Each paper will offer a close reading and analysis of  texts read and discussed in class, and will include critical assessment. Each paper may be revised and submitted for a grade, but the first one must be revised.
  • Weekly postings on our course blog. Each student must either begin a discussion thread or take part in a discussion thread every week about the class readings. Your blogging comments may include analysis, questions, extensions of critique, relevance for contemporary issues, or other reflections about the course material. 
  • 10-15 minute presentations to begin class discussions. Individual students will open discussion by focusing on a particular issue, problem, or concern in the class readings.
  • A final 15-20 page paper. This may be an extension of one of your five-page papers, and will be due at the end of final examinations (Saturday May 10 at 5 pm for seniors; Friday May 16 at noon for the rest), but a major draft (ungraded) will be due Monday, April 28.


Your final grade will be based on your engagement in class and blog discussions, your two five-page paper assignments, and the quality and cogency of your final paper. I do not evaluate each task with percentage accuracy (your final paper is not worth, say, 30% of your grade, for example), but instead I examine all your work as a piece. I seek to provide a grade that fairly expresses the work and attention rendered to the class assignments, your peers in class, and your class participation.

Students who think they may need accommodations in this course because of the impact of a disability are encouraged to meet with me privately early in the semester. Students should also contact Rick Webb, Coordinator, Office of Disabilities Services (rwebb@haverford.edu, 610-896-1290) to verify their eligibility for reasonable accommodations as soon as possible. Early contact will help to avoid unnecessary inconvenience and delays.

Texts for Purchase

Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion
Buber, I and Thou
Heschel, The Sabbath


Introduction to Class

Wednesday, January 22
What is Jewish Thought?

What is Jewish?

Monday, January 27
Isaac Deutscher, “The Non-Jewish Jew,” 25-41 (Moodle)
Arnold Eisen, “Constructing the Usable Past: The Idea of ‘Tradition’ in Twentieth-Century American Judaism,” 429-461 (Moodle)

Wednesday, January 29
Haym Soloveitchik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” 64-103 (Moodle)

Jewish Religion

Monday, February 3
Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion, Introduction, chapters one and two
Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, 84-139 (Moodle)

Wednesday, February 5
Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 1-27 (Moodle)
Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion, chapters three and four

Monday, February 10
Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion, chapters five and six
Fackenheim, To Mend the World, 294-313 (Moodle)

Wednesday, February 12
Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion, chapters eight, nine and conclusion
Ahad Ha’am, “Priest and Prophet,” 125-138 (Moodle)
Leo  Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 22-37 (Moodle)

Jewish Ritual

Monday, February 17
Seligman, et al., Ritual and its Consequences, 3-42 (Moodle)
Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization, 182-83 (Moodle)

Wednesday, February 19
Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization, 173-224, 385-397 (Moodle)

Friday, February 21 – Five page paper due at 5 pm (rubrics of evaluation)
I want you to offer a close textual analysis of a portion of one of the texts we have read in class. You want to pick a page, or a 
paragraph or series of paragraphs, or even a sentence and phrase and move me to understand the rhetorical force of that selection. You can make an argument about how this passage relates to larger thematic issues in the work, or how this phrase raises significant issues in understanding what counts as “Jewish”; but your main concern is to offer a compelling reading of that passage, and to provide a clear, coherent, and creative interpretation. A close reading means you are paying careful attention to textual nuance, argument, and structure, and you are trying make me a better reader of this text.

Monday, February 24

Soloveitchik, Halachic Man, 3-48 (Moodle)

Wednesday, February 26
Adler, Engendering Judaism, 169-207 (Moodle)

Jewish Texts

Monday, March 3
Buber, Moses, 13-19, 39-59; Israel and the World, 89-102 (Moodle)

Wednesday, March 5
Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai, 1-36, 52-74 (Moodle)

Monday, March 10 – Spring Break

Wednesday, March 12 – Spring Break

Monday, March 17 (away for conference in Oxford) Naomi Koltun-Fromm
David Stern, Midrash and Jewish Interpretation (Moodle)
Midrash Rabbah to Genesis (Moodle)

Wednesday, March 19 (away for conference in Oxford) Naomi Koltun-Fromm
Rachel Neis, The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture, 41-81 (Moodle)

Jewish Ethics

Monday, March 24
Buber, I and Thou, 53-95

Wednesday, March 26
Buber, I and Thou, 123-168

Monday, March 31
Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, 12-50 (Moodle)

Wednesday, April 2
Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, 161-197 (Moodle)

Friday, April 4 – Five page paper due at 5 pm
You have three options for this paper: 1) a comparative paper in which you explore a particular issue through two thinkers (suggested pairings are Buber/Soloveitchik, Buber/Levinas, and Adler/Plaskow); 2) a comparative paper that furthers the issue discussed in your first paper; or 3) a continuation of your first paper topic but with a focus on one of the thinkers discussed since the writing of that piece. In all cases, I want you to expand your thinking either through a comparative approach or by exploring your first paper topic through the lens of one or more writers. This should not be a he said, she said type of paper, nor should it be a research paper that includes other sources, but a critical analysis in which we learn something important about an issue or topic by analyzing it through two different approaches or thinkers.

Jewish Space

Monday, April 7
Heschel, The Sabbath (entire book)

Wednesday, April 9
Leibowitz, Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, 106-122, 158-173, 214-220 (Moodle)

Monday, April 14
Roth, “Eli, the Fanatic,” 247-298 (Moodle)

Wednesday, April 16 (no class – Passover)


Monday, April 21
Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith, 1-39, xiii-xxi (Moodle)

Wednesday, April 23
Freud, “The Moses of Michelangelo,” 80-106 (Moodle)
Yezierska, “Wings,” 1-34 (Moodle)

Monday, April 28
Final Paper Presentations (Workshop)

Wednesday, April 30
Final Paper Presentations (Workshop)