by Leonard Greenspoon, Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization, Creighton University
Dining on Leviathan. Discoursing with Socrates. Debating the nature of existence in the afterlife. These are some of the many topics that presenters will address at the 28th Annual Symposium on Jewish Civilization, This World and the World to Come in Jewish Tradition and Practice. This year’s Symposium takes place on Sunday, Oct. 25, and Monday, Oct. 26.
With more venues than ever — UNO on Sunday morning, the Omaha JCC on Sunday afternoon and evening, Creighton University on Monday morning, and UNL on Monday evening — there are many opportunities for members of the Jewish community to hear and interact with scholars from throughout the world. (A complete program of Symposium activities will appear as an insert in next week’s Jewish Press.)
Several of the presentations relate to eating and drinking: Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, Wheaton College (MA), What’s for Dinner in Olam Ha-ba [The World to Come]? Why Do We Care in Olam Ha-zeh [This World]?; Jonathan D. Rosenblum, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dining In(to) The World to Come; and Vadim Putzu, Missouri State University, Tasting Heaven: Wine and the World to Come from the Talmud to Safed.
As Brumberg-Kraus observes, rabbinic traditions about meals in the World to Come are contradictory. On the one hand, there is the dictum that there is no eating and drinking in the afterlife; on the other, the righteous are promised a banquet of Leviathan and Behemoth, among other delicacies. Brumberg-Kraus also discerns the function of imagining menus for the next world while eating meals in the here-and-now.
Like Brumberg-Kraus, Rosenblum also describes meals in the World to Come that feature smorgasbords that would put the fanciest Las Vegas buffets to shame. Along the way, Rosenblum examines the reasons why Jews, who are prohibited from eating non-kosher foods in This World, are able to do so in the World to Come.
Putzu contrasts rabbinic views on winemaking in This World, which requires toil and restraint, with similar processes in the World to Come, where the liquid is easy to make and never leads to sinful drunkenness. Kabbalists further contributed to this discussion by elaborating on the role of wine-drinking in the present in order to earn a place in the hereafter.
Both Dereck Daschke, Truman State University, and Nicolae Roddy, Creighton University, take the opportunity to analyze Jewish literature from the period of the Second Temple. Daschke’s presentation is titled ‘The End of the World and the World to Come’: What Apocalyptic Literature Says about the Time After the Endtime. Apocalyptic narratives over six hundred years (from roughly 400 BCE to the second century CE) regularly portray different kinds of existence that may follow the here-and-now. Some of these works reveal the places of cosmic reward and punishment that await the good and evil respectively after death; an individual’s fealty to Torah serves to redeem humans and restore the earth.
Roddy will talk about Warriors, Wives, and Wisdom: olam ha-zeh v’olam ha-ba in the (so-called) Apocrypha. The Apocrypha consists of works written by Jews for Jews, which were later largely abandoned by Jews. They provide unique insight into the minds of Second Temple Jews regarding the world in which they lived — and whatever world awaited them after death.
Another two speakers will also feature Jewish literature in their presentations. Here the emphasis is on the rabbis: Dov Weiss, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Olam Ha-ba as an Ethical Hermeneutic in Rabbinic Literature; and Naftali Rothenberg, The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Rabbi Akiva and Socrates: On Life, Death, and Life after Life.
Weiss observes that rabbis sometimes expressed their moral discomfort with a biblical idea or received tradition by declaring it inoperative for the “future world.” Although a troubling law or theology — for example, the concept of the evil inclination or the doctrine of inherited punishment — might not be eradicated in this world, it could be branded as such in the next. This minimizes the moral problem, even if it does not solve it.
The focus of Rothenberg’s presentation will be a comparison of the exchanges between Rabbi Akiva and his students during his execution and Socrates and his friends as the time approached for him to drink a cup of hemlock — in connection with the immortality of the soul. Akiva focuses entirely on moral/practical argument, while Socrates presents theological/metaphysical arguments to prove the immortality of the soul. Rothenberg concludes that for Socrates, immortality of the soul is the source of meaning; for Akiva, there exists only the moral dimension.
Three Symposium presenters look at the period from the end of the Middle Ages to the contemporary world. The first of these is Katia Vehlow, University of South Carolina, whose presentation is titled Mothers of the Messiah: Harbingers of Hope in the Last Days. As she notes, in some expressions of Judaism the mother of the messiah is an exception to the rule that women generally play a marginal role in eschatological events. Vehlow introduces us to Juana, the daughter of Blanca Enriquez, who was destined, in the belief of crypto-Jews in Mexico, to give birth to the messiah. Vehlow explores the relationships between these beliefs and imagery widely used by Christians in the veneration of Mary, mother of Jesus.
Elias Sacks, University of Colorado at Boulder, will speak on Worlds to Come Between East and West: Immortality and the Rise of Modern Jewish Thought. Sacks constructs his presentation as a comparison between the Eastern European philosopher Nachman Krochmal and the German-Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn. For these influential thinkers, olam ha-ba becomes a crucial terrain for formulating — and contesting — theories of Jewish existence.
Federico Dal Bo, ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, has titled his presentation, ‘Emmanuel Levinas’ Ethical Religon: The Philosophical Treatment of the ‘This World’ – ‘The World to Come’ Dichotomy. In it, Dal Bo will address how Levinas, a highly influential twentieth century Jewish philosopher, read some pages from the Babylonian Talmud so as to amplify the contrast between This World and the World to Come. In so doing, Levinas characterizes “religion” not as a belief in a deity, but rather as a form of ethical-moral association between human beings.
Three other visiting scholars adopt varying approaches in their investigations of This World and the World to Come: Zev Garber, Los Angeles Valley College, ‘Emet’: The Paradox of Death and Afterlife; Morris M. Faierstein, University of Maryland, Trapped between This World and the Next World: The Mystical Origins of the Dibbuk and Its Historical Significance; and David Shyovitz, ‘TEVEL and Its Inhabitants’: Maps, Monsters, and the Medieval Jewish Imagination.
In Garber’s understanding, the Jewish laws of mourning require the mourner to behave as if he or she is dead. The mourner is touched by the anti-life, and his/her activities reflect this. By observing the absence of life, the mourner is thus sensitized to the value and quality of life. Garber proposes that the psychology of death and mourning in Judaism are rooted in the philosophy of emet.
In Faierstein’s analysis, the concept of the Dibbuk had its origins in medieval Kabbalah and its first appearance as a phenomenon among the late sixteenth-century Kabbalists of Safed. This concept is rooted in a belief in transmigration, which was expanded in the Zohar but rejected by the medieval Jewish philosophical tradition.
Shyovitz identifies Jewish midrashic and visionary texts that charted numerous intermediary strata that served as buffers between this world and the next. One such otherworldly realm is Tevel, an alternate universe of sorts populated by monstrous creatures. Tevel was thought to be distant from — but accessible to — the human inhabitants of “this world.” Shyovitz will examine why this motif resonated for medieval European Jewish authors and audiences.
The keynote speaker for this year’s event is Christine Hayes, Yale University, who will talk about Heaven on Earth: The World to Come and its (Dis)locations. Her presentation, which begins at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 25, is in the Omaha Jewish Community Center.
In addition to the presentations mentioned earlier in this article, all of which are scheduled for Omaha, three of the presenters will continue their discussions at UNL on Monday evening: Naftali Rothenberg, “Rabbi Akiva and Socrates: On life, Death, and Life after Life; Zev Garber, Torah for Christians; and Christine Hayes, What’s Divine about Divine Law?
The co-hosts of the annual Symposium on Jewish Civilization are the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University, the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University, the Harris Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the Schwalb Center for Israel & Jewish Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Along with them are Creighton’s Committee on Lectures, Films and Concerts, and the Jewish Federation of Omaha. From within the Jewish community, the Ike and Roz Friedman Foundation, the Riekes Family, the Center for Jewish Life, the Henry Monsky Lodge of B’nai B’rith, Gary and Karen Javitch, and the Drs. Bernard H. and Bruce S. Bloom Memorial Endowment are among those who also provide generous support.