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  Monday, December 17, 2018

Same-sex Intercourse and the Formation of Muslim Discourse

Sara Omar, Lecturer in Modern Middle East Studies, Yale University
Olin, Room 102  4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
Current discourses within Muslim communities over same-sex intercourse suggest that Islamic law, because Divine, is fixed and immutable. They do not, however, take into account the process of human, and therefore fallible, interpretive reasoning that went into the historical development of legal doctrines. Indeed, Islamic law did not exist in a vacuum but was rather part of an evolving, vibrant discursive tradition. This talk surveys some of the discourses surrounding same-sex intercourse across an array of historical genres. It follows texts, their writers, ideas, and discourses across time, space, disciplines, and occasionally across religious traditions. It seeks to illustrate the ways in which early Muslims’ constructions and suggested punishments for same-sex intercourse were not simply based on self-evident scriptural passages but involved a number of extrapolations and interpretations by early exegetes and jurists. It makes a more general theoretical assertion about the relation between scriptural texts and authoritative religious interpretations, and the ways in which the latter inevitably go beyond the former in a number of historically specific ways.
Sponsored by: Dean of the College; Religion Program
Contact: Richard Davis  845-758-7364
  Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Empire through Language: Al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf and the Power of Oratory in Early Islam

Pamela Klasova, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Arabic, Bowdoin College
Olin, Room 102  4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
In our modern world, public speech can change the course of history. Public speech was even more powerful in the ancient world when modern multimedia such as the internet, television, radio, and newspaper did not exist and when people relied more on face-to-face communication with their audience to inform, praise, and persuade. Most famously, the Greeks and Romans practiced and systematized the art of public speaking. Like the ancient Greek and Romans, the Arabs after them took immense pride in their oratory. Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages boasted about Arabs’ natural rhetorical abilities and believed that there was something special about Arabic itself. They concluded that because the Qur’an is God’s masterpiece and transcends human imitation, Arabic was a sacred language, the chosen language of God.

What did Arabic public speaking mean before these later opinions of Arabic appeared? In this talk I analyze the role, nature, and effect of Arabic oral performance in the early Islamic period (622–750 CE), when Islamic civilization was beginning to take shape. I specifically engage the Umayyad governor, named al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf (d. 714), who was one of the most salient figures of early Islam and directly controlled a large territory from Iraq to India around the year 700. He is remembered both as a notorious tyrant and as an eloquent orator, which creates an interesting paradox. I will solve this paradox and use his figure and speeches to explore the power of oratory in early Islam before Arabic acquired its later “nationalistic” and religious dimensions. I will explain why early Islamic oratory has been neglected in modern scholarship, argue for its recovery as a
field of study, and point to the key ideological role of public speech in al-Hajjaj’s imperial project. Al-Hajjaj’s case, furthermore, points to the symbolic, ritualistic, and magical impact of speech in his time, which helps us reimagine the role of Arabic oratory in the building of the newborn Islamic Empire.
Sponsored by: Dean of the College; Religion Program
Contact: Richard Davis  845-758-7364
Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A Poetic Mythology for an Age of Anger?
The Furious Construction of Subjectivity in 13th-Century Kabbalah

Dr. Nathaniel Berman
Rahel Varnhagen Professor of International Affairs, Law, and Modern Culture, Brown University

Olin, Room 102  4:45 pm – 6:15 pm
In the face of our current “Age of Anger,” Nathaniel Berman turns to the poetic mythology of the Jewish esoteric tradition – replete with tales of the crucial role of fury in the formation of divine, demonic, and human subjectivity.  The Zohar, kabbalah’s central text, declares, “there is anger – and – there is anger”:  foregrounding anger’s often ambivalent role, both igniting destructive hatred and impelling demands for social justice.  Examining Zoharic mythology from rhetorical and psychoanalytic perspectives, Berman shows how it provides a productive language for perennial features of the human condition. 
Dr. Samantha Hill (Political Studies, Hannah Arendt Center) will be responding to the paper.
Sponsored by: Hannah Arendt Center; Jewish Studies Program; Religion Program
Contact: Dr. Shai Secunda  845-758-7389
Tuesday, November 13, 2018

‘Yearning to See You’: Friendship and Alliances between Iranian and Indian Zoroastrians

Dr. Daniel Sheffield, Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University
Olin, Room 203  4:45 pm – 6:15 pm
In 1478, an Indian Zoroastrian named Nariman Hoshang arrived in the village of Turkabad in central Iran, reconnecting the previously isolated Indian and Iranian Zoroastrian communities with one another. Over the course of the next three hundred years, dozens of letters were exchanged between the communities of Gujarat and Iran, along with gifts, ritual materials, and religious manuscripts. In this talk, I will examine the affective dimensions of friendship expressed through letters in constructing a Zoroastrian community. By situating the trade partnerships and networks of patronage that formed between Indian and Iranian Zoroastrians within the framework of friendship, I will try to sketch out new approaches to the formation of transregional communal identity in the pre-colonial period of Indian Ocean history. Finally, the talk will briefly discuss transformations in the connected ideas of friendship and sovereignty that ensued among Zoroastrian intellectuals of the early nineteenth century.
Sponsored by: Asian Studies Program; Middle Eastern Studies Program; Religion Program
Contact: Shai Secunda  845-758-7389
Monday, October 22, 2018

Buddhist Spirituality and the Contemplation of Nature in Poetry

Charles Hallisey, Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures, Harvard Divinity School
Olin, Room 205  5:30 pm – 7:00 pm
Sponsored by: Religion Program
Contact: Dominique Townsend  845-758-7389
Monday, October 15, 2018

Space and Spirit: Mapping the Geography of Hasidism

Marcin Wodziński, University of Wrocław, Poland
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium  5:30 pm – 7:00 pm
Hasidism began as a radical mystical movement whose rapid growth has puzzled scholars until this day. Recent research has used new tools including GIS to explore questions about the origins, spread, and post-Holocaust resurgence of this most important socioreligious movement in modern Judaism. Is it true that Hasidism dominated most of East European Jewry by the end of the 18th century? What were the borders of Hasidic influence and how did they change? Which Hasidic dynasties were strongest and why? How did Hasidism resurrect in the post-Holocaust world and how strong is it today?

Marcin Wodziński is professor of Jewish history and literature at the University of Wrocław, Poland. His books include Hebrew Inscriptions in Silesia, 13th–18th Century (1996), Haskalah and Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland (2005), and Hasidism and Politics: The Kingdom of Poland, 1815–1864 (2013). He is the author of three new works on Hasidism: Hasidism: A New History (contributor; 2018), Historical Atlas of Hasidism (2018), and Hasidism: Key Questions (2018).
Sponsored by: Experimental Humanities Program; Jewish Studies Program; Religion Program; Russian/Eurasian Studies Program
Contact: Cecile Kuznitz  845-758-7543
  Monday, April 16, 2018

An Undefined Line Between Celebration and Mourning in Post-Revolutionary Iran

Dr. Candance Mixon
Olin, Room 204  5:30 pm – 6:30 pm
Using some key concepts in Bruce Lincoln's Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11 (Chicago, 2003), this talk will examine commemorations of violent events in modern Iranian and sacred Shi’a history (such as the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Iran-Iraq War, and martyrdom of the family of the Prophet Muhammad). It reviews both Iranian and American reporting of holidays marked in the Islamic Republic of Iran to ask how the presentation of commemorations (especially in calendars, media, rituals) uses careful rhetoric and historical contextualization to walk the fine line between celebration and mourning or blur the line between nationalism and religious practice.
Sponsored by: Middle Eastern Studies Program; Religion Program
Contact: Shai Secunda  845-758-6822
Monday, April 2, 2018

Buddhism and Symbolic Violence

Professor Bernard Faure
Columbia University

Olin, Room 203  5:30 pm
The recent tragedy of the Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar has arguably attracted more attention from the media than the long civil war between Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka, and it has led many people to question the traditional image of Buddhist nonviolence. Usually Buddhist violence has been discussed from a sociopolitical or doctrinal viewpoint. Here I would like to address its presence in visual representations and in the Buddhist imagination. If compassion is well expressed by serene images of meditating buddhas, the angry gods of Tantric Buddhism partake, conversely, in a puzzling symbolic violence. I would like to examine the role of such representations in the historical development of Buddhism. 

Cosponsored by the Religion Program, Asian Studies, and Art History.
Sponsored by: Warren Mills Hutcheson Memorial Lecture in Buddhist Studies
Contact: Dominique Townsend  845-758-6822
  Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Limits of Tibetan Cyberspace

Riga Shakya, Columbia University

TBD  11:50 am
The proliferation of social media platforms in China has transformed the way in which Tibetans communicate with each other and their Han Chinese neighbors. The first part of the presentation is an introduction to Tibetan cyberspace through an examination of the diverse and innovative ways in which Tibetans, across the TAR and China proper, engage with social media. The Internet has become the predominant site of cultural production and contestation for Tibetan intellectuals, and the second part of the presentation looks at the conversations and debates that contemporary Tibetan artists, directors, and writers participate in online.
Sponsored by: Experimental Humanities Program; Religion Program
Contact: Dominique Townsend  845-758-6822
  Monday, March 12, 2018

The Crusades in the Abrahamic Spiral of Violence

Professor Bruce Chilton

Olin, Room 204  5:30 pm – 6:30 pm

You can have prosperity, victory against the odds, and the enjoyment of a complete life.
All you have to do is sacrifice your child.
Those are the terms of reference set out in the biblical story of the command God gives Abraham, to offer his son on a ritual altar.  Genesis 22, known as the Aqedah, or “Binding” of Isaac, since Abraham bound his son in order to slay him, has a rich and often dark history. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have armed themselves over time with the conviction that an innocent victim – Isaac or Christ of Isma’il – models God’s desire for how his people should sacrifice themselves for him.
In the Crusades, those three religions deployed their unique versions of Abraham’s offering as they inflicted violence on one another and suffered violence at one another’s hands.
Our discussion is designed to show how the Aqedah focused violence during the period of the Crusades, and how resources of interpretation within each tradition could lead them out of their mutual confrontation.
Sponsored by: Religion Program
Contact: Shai Secunda  845-758-6822
Monday, February 19, 2018

Taking the Kingdom by Force: A History of Violence in Christian Video Games

Dr. Vincent Gonzalez

Olin, Room 204  5:30 pm – 6:30 pm
Since the early 1980s Christians have created their own video games and game review sites, as well as distinctly Christian ways to play secular games. Like other gamer cultures, these Christians are creatively engaged in an ongoing conversation on the meaning and stakes of video game “violence.” This presentation will offer a history of Christian interventions in the game violence debates, complete with playable encounters with some representative Christian games.

Vincent Gonzalez received his doctorate in religious studies from UNC - Chapel Hill. His research on religion and digital culture can be found at as well as @religiousgames on Twitter.
Sponsored by: Religion Program
Contact: Shai Secunda  845-758-6822
Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Strange Stories of Yiddishland: What the Yiddish Press Reveals about the Jews

Dr. Eddy Portnoy in conversation with Prof. Luc Sante

Olin, Room 102  4:45 pm

An underground history of downwardly mobile Jews, Eddy Portnoy's new book Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press mines century-old Yiddish newspapers to expose the seamy underbelly of pre-WWII New York and Warsaw, the two major centers of Yiddish culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One part Isaac Bashevis Singer, one part Jerry Springer, this irreverent, unvarnished, and frequently hilarious compendium of stories provides a window into an unknown Yiddish world that was. 

Eddy Portnoy received his Ph.D. from the Jewish Theological Seminary. A specialist in Jewish popular culture, he has taught at Rutgers University and currently serves as academic adviser for the Max Weinreich Center and exhibition curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Luc Sante, the author of several award-wining books, is visiting professor of writing and photography at Bard College.
Sponsored by: Jewish Studies Program; Religion Program
Contact: Cecile Kuznitz  845-758-7543