Jewish Studies Program revives subversive literature

At a recent lecture, Maggid Books editor and Talmud teacher Gila Fine discussed the Jewish story of Heruta and its relation to societal views of women and morality. Courtesy of Marc Epstein

Learning and sharing the stories of various cultural traditions is integral to the formation of a community. The Jewish Studies Program pursued this vision by inviting Maggid Books editor and Talmud teacher Gila Fine to speak at Vassar on Nov. 17, when she discussed the ancient dichotomy between good and bad women in the story of Heruta.

Anticipating concerns about the contemporary relevance of a literary commentary on the story of Heruta, Fine began, “I teach Haggadah or Talmudic narrative. And one of the reasons why I particularly love Haggadah is that Haggadah is quite often surprising—it’s surprisingly relevant. The issues and concerns of the stories of the Talmud have remained pertinent to our day. It’s also surprisingly unorthodox in places. Scholars will claim that while in Halakhah, the legal passages of the Talmud, the rabbis have to be very unequivocal and authoritative because they are laying down the law, in the stories they go wild. They can afford to be playful. And so you often have stories that are quite unorthodox, so as to say subversive.”

The story describes Rabbi R. Hiyya b. Ashi’s troubled marital relations with his wife. They are unable to consummate until the wife masquerades herself as the prostitute Heruta and meets the rabbi in a garden on the outskirts of Babylon. Professor of Religion Ágnes Vetö explained, “The text we read together taught us that sexuality is one of the strongest, most basic human drives. In the story, we encountered an unhappy relationship, communication issues, repressed sexuality, a proactive woman and issues of depression and suicide. The unhappy ending certainly spells out one message very clearly: if we repress sexuality, it can devour us.”

The study of Haggadah points to a literature that campus discussions frequently overlook and ignore. Professor of Religion Marc Epstein suggested, “Within the humanities, student interest has been shrinking to a presentist focus: students are almost exclusively interested in what is hap- pening to them, now. Under such circumstances, it can be difficult to explain to students why they should care about texts written by Jews in what is now Iraq in the 6th century C.E.” Epstein argued for the importance of deep historical perspective, continuing, “I think the lecture demonstrated how Jews—as a diasporic, multi-ethnic, demographic minority that has been sometimes despised, occasionally persecuted, often misunderstood–have been grappling for thousands of years with questions of identity, race, gender, difference and oppression that are of concern to students today, and articulated in the platforms of movements like Black Lives Matter.”

Vetö agreed that the story will resonate with students, saying, “The [Jewish Studies] Program invited Fine because her interpretation of Talmudic texts resonates with the interests of our student body, and her presentation style invites her audience—whether students, faculty or community members—to accompany her on her quest of deciphering stories that turn out to have relevance for their lives—in spite of their antiquity. Everyone who came to listen to her had the satisfaction of becoming interpreters themselves.” Considering the issue of interpretation, Jewish studies major Olivia Zane ’19 corroborated, “My best friend is a physics major and often asks why I enjoy dissecting texts from thousands of years ago. I typically reply that I enjoy studying them because they are brand new. The Torah and other Jewish texts are living documents being reinterpreted and argued over everyday. Like all living documents, they have a profound effect on contemporary issues. We must read these texts closely to understand why communities affected by them behave the way they do. Currently, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities still subscribe to more traditional gender roles due to their readings of the text.”

The story ends when the rabbi returns home and the wife reveals to him that she had disguised herself as the prostitute Heruta by showing him a pomegranate from the garden. The rabbi punishes himself for attempting to commit adultery by sitting in a burning oven until he dies.

Over the course of the lecture, Fine discussed three different interpretations of the story of Heruta endorsed by scholars in the past. While classical commentators argued that the story described the renewal of sexual desire in elderly people, other scholars suggested that the story in its literary context represented the corruption of an illustrious man by a seductive woman. A third scholarly interpretation held that the story in its historical context reflected the hostility of Talmud writers to the rising popularity of Christian doctrine. Fine focused on the dichotomy between good and bad women—often referred to as the Madonna-whore paradigm—and encouraged audience members to think for themselves . Zane considered this range of interpretations, continuing, “I think communities and academic scholars have a duty to study these texts and derive more liberal and in this case feminist readings to challenge older elucidations that promote the kyriarchy. Only by opposing interpretations made by more conservative rabbis can more progressive ideas penetrate and affect Jewish communities and result in social and political change.”

Epstein appreciated Fine’s open, dialogical approach to discussing the text. He added, “Classical and formative Jewish texts and traditions are, as the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss put it, ‘good to think with’ about many matters of concern to Vassar students today.” An example of a contemporary topic that engages students is the treatment of queer lives in different countries around the world, including China. Wenxuan Guo ’20 reflected, “My worldview is constantly changing because the discussion of queer religions, sex, sexuality and gender was something very new to me as I’m from a very conservative background where there are so many social taboos. I’m sure in my country many old people never heard of the term ‘homosexuality’ throughout their lifetime because gender binary is well ingrained and cannot be challenged in any way. Therefore, I’m just extremely grateful and happy to be in this supportive community at Vassar which embraces diversity so much and helps me open my mind.”

Another discussion sparked by Fine’s lecture centered on the role that identity groups and identity studies play in students’ lives. Zane elaborated, “Coming from the South where there is a tiny Jewish population and attending Vassar, which is consistently voted one of the least religious schools in the country, it is really great to come together with other students who view Judaism and their Jewish identity as an important part of their life. I love the community and having spaces to discuss Jewish texts and wider culture.” Zane continued, “I would love to see more lectures like Gila Fine’s on campus that incorporate progressiveness and ancient texts. I think the Jewish Studies Program and the Vassar Jewish Union are doing a great job at showing that being religious does not equal being backwards.”

Vetö summarized, “This talk made me feel some hope that if we can demonstrate what we do in Jewish Studies, how we deal with Judaism’s formative and classical texts and traditions, students will realize what a fascinating microcosm this world is, and how, in so many ways, it reflects their own. There is certainly value in studying the contemporary world around us. But there is more than one entry point to understanding that world.” Describing Haggadah as a text that can spark thoughtful discussions, Vetö concluded, “There’s a reason that these stories have survived so long and are so important for the Jews. It is because the Jews are a part of humanity, and these stories are, more broadly, humanity’s stories.”


  1. I feel so lucky to have gone to Vassar and have studied with Professor Epstein. He brought ancient texts to life, and in doing to helped me develop a nuanced understanding of my own place in history. This perspective is critical as I navigate myself in the ever changing cultural landscape. Even with his amazing tutelage, it still took me many years to understand what a truly progressive education I received at Vassar; many years later realizing I could speak with complexity about social and cultural changes that were brand-new to many around me, help me learn what the work ‘progressive’ really means. Thank you Prof. Epstein for your bravery and insistence on getting to know the ancient texts, and thank you Vassar.

  2. Professor Marc Epstein taught a class on the exegesis of Exodus in an oak paneled room in Blodgett Hall in 2007. I had equivocated between taking a large lecture series on architecture, about which I knew very little but had some interest in, or whether I should take a course with Marc on a subject about which I had though I knew much and had little interest in. I ultimately chose the latter and am grateful for the decision.

    Over the course of 3 years at Vassar (not including one year spent studying abroad), I was able to take courses in 18 different departments. Vassar’s original appeal to me as an applicant was its ability to create an environment where I could learn what I wished and develop close relationships with those who learned with me as both students and professors. Throughout my time on campus I learned to enroll in courses less and less on my interest in the specific subject matter and more and more on who taught the courses and what sort of students would likely enroll in the courses.

    This article is concerned with presenting a justification for a perpetuation of the instruction of Jewish Studies at Vassar, arguing that ancient texts remain relevant and continue to add value to students in the 21st century. It has been my experience that a Vassar education is concerned with immersing students in the entire breadth of the human experience. This includes our encounters with the physical earth and our quest to understand how and why things work as they do through the sciences, to our eternal existential quest for meaning and fulfillment in our lives. Art, religion, philosophy, economics, and all other subjects concern themselves with Man’s presence in, exploration of, and grappling with existence.

    A robust Jewish Studies program presents perhaps the longest running, uninterrupted intellectual tradition to have survived in this world. For 5,700 years Jews have been attempting to reconcile themselves to life, death, and everything else real and perceived that flits through the mind and heart of Men. There are few other homes more suitable to inherit and explore this noble and human tradition than the bastion of the humanities that Vassar has come to represent. The question perhaps might not be whether Jewish Studies ought to be on campus, but rather whether Vassar could remain Vassar without it?

    As a final note I’ll add that I remain personally close to Professor Epstein and a handful of other Vassar (and Hopkins) professors to this day as a testament to the beautiful cauldron of the humanities that is our alma mater.

  3. One of my fondest memories from Vassar is from Spring 2005, when I took a class about the Jews of Vienna, Prague and Budapest with Marc Epstein. Mr. Epstein brought to life hundreds of years of Jewish history that went beyond the overly-simplistic and oft-repeated narrative of unrelenting persecution that most American Jews, including myself, grow up with.

    For me, this was a major value of studying classical Jewish texts. By learning about one of the world’s oldest and richest intellectual traditions, I came away with a better appreciation of how centuries-old Jewish thought sheds invaluable light on the basic human condition, of how Jewish identity and culture is more than the narrow contemporary focus on Zionism, Israel, the Holocaust.

  4. I am thrilled to see talks like these happening at Vassar. As an Art major (’09) my impulse was always to create work about the ways in which history and memory interact with contemporary experience – an intellectual framework I continue to employ in my graduate work today. Explicating religious texts can offer this kind of dialogue about how we embody history in the present and, sometimes, renegotiate the currents of history by responding to what’s written as it relates to what’s experienced and lived.

  5. I graduated ten years ago this May, and oh, my goodness gracious- the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    It’s refreshing to see that even in 2016, by far the worst year on record, Vassar is still churning out wily young cynics– and that Professors Epstein and Veto remain as deeply involved (culpable?) as ever.

    When I switched my major in Jewish Studies in -presumably- 2005, I was twenty years old and chiefly concerned with my grades, which were consistently higher in Jewish Studies courses than anywhere else. Young, certainly. Cynical, too– but not wily, not yet.

    Over the next few years, however, Professor Epstein inculcated me with a subtle and sophisticated appreciation of Jewish culture, literature, theology, and philosophy- in a word, Yiddishkeit. His elliptical yet incisive instruction made me a better student and a deeper thinker.

    I remain indebted to him and to Vassar’s Jewish Studies Department as a whole.

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