Faculty Spotlight: Professor A.J. Berkovitz, Ph.D.

Professor A.J. Berkovitz, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Ancient Judaism
HUC/New York

BerkovitzPlease tell us about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC.
My Jewish journey tracks through the tension between tradition and innovation as they pertain to Judaism, and Jewish history in particular. I grew up in a religious context that largely viewed Judaism’s foundational texts — the Bible and Talmud — as timeless traditions that traverse time without change. At the same time, my budding sense of history told me that everything changes. Ancient Judaism, too, must have a history. As a maturing young adult, I constantly pondered: How does this Judaism maintain the balance between fealty to tradition and necessary innovation? This intellectual-religious-emotional line of thought still impels me today. I transformed my interest in early Jewish History into a career, studying its core texts as an undergraduate and then completing a Ph.D. in Religion at Princeton University. In fact, what particularly inspires me about HUC is its long tradition of serious scholarship. Many of its founders belonged to Wissenschaft des Judentums, the intellectual school of thought responsible for the birth of contemporary academic Jewish Studies. They viewed religion and academia as deeply entwined and sought to enrich Jewish thought, life, and culture using the best and most rigorous scholarly tools available.

Please tell us about your current research and expertise.
My research focuses on Jewish life and culture from the time that Alexander the Great conquered the world (ca. 332 BCE) until the rise of Islam (ca. 622 CE). In particular, I work on the ways in which Jews and Christians in the ancient world used authoritative texts to create meaning. We usually think about the encounter with the Bible through acts of interpretation. I sit, read a text, and then talk about what it means. But in the ancient (and modern) world this is really not the case. My first book, A Life of Psalms in Jewish Late Antiquity, explores scripture in magic, liturgy, piety, and materiality by focusing on the reception of the biblical book of Psalms. A new project that I’m starting focuses on another modality of Jewish piety: Jewish scriptural translation. What can acts and theories of translation tell us about ancient Judaism in its multilingual and multicultural contexts? In some ways, this project was inspired by the conversations with our students, who do a lot of translating — whether for themselves or for their congregants. We tend to be wrapped up by this protestant notion of translation, thinking that it needs to be literal and perfectly match the biblical text word for word. But that’s really not how Jewish translation functioned in the ancient world. Targum, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Bible, was pedagogical rather than literal. It didn’t merely reproduce the biblical text, but clarified it, added onto it, and reshaped it. Might we study Targum in its ancient context and reclaim its legacy in a modern setting?

The theme of this month’s newsletter is gratitude. What are you most grateful for this year?
Community. Covid has shown me that I’m grateful for not just the people I encounter on a regular basis on campus, but also for the larger HUC community. I’ve never been in closer contact with my colleagues across our campuses, and I’m exceedingly grateful to be able to cement intellectual ties with the entire One HUC community.

Please tell us about your CRINT essay and prize.
The essay builds on my larger work, which tries to understand the use of psalms in the ancient world. It focuses on the tensions between Jews and Christians as to what biblical texts can and should mean. Christians largely reinterpreted the Hebrew Bible as a way to prefigure Jesus and the events depicted in the New Testament. With Psalms, one way they did that was to claim that each psalm was actually a hidden prophecy about Jesus. My essay argues that rabbinic Jews knew full well what Christians were doing and, in turn, they reacted and responded. I argue that when Christians read Psalm 45 as a prophecy about Jesus, rabbis from the Land of Israel retorted that all the facts that Christians think are about Jesus are actually about Abraham. What we witness in this heated exchange is the birth of a tradition of reading, one that developed initially as a polemic. What is even cooler is that this innovation eventually itself becomes tradition. I show that over time other rabbis began to treat Psalm 45 as if it were obviously about Abraham. These other rabbis were not interested in polemic, but rather in placing their own innovations unto an already established tradition. In short, the essay shows how innovation becomes tradition, which in turn sets the stage for additional tradition-bound innovation.

How would you describe HUC in one word?

What do you like to do in your free time?
I enjoy cooking and reading.