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Challenging the Normative Stance of Aniconism in the Study of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

In a co-edited volume, Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Contested Desires, Birgit Meyer and Terje Stordalen bring together innovative perspectives on the prevalence of images in religious traditions often described as harboring aniconistic tendencies. Should we really see these traditions as “anti-image”? This episode charts some of the major moves taking place in the volume, especially the presumption of the normative stance of aniconism in the study of these traditions. What if we turn instead to the aesthetic regimes of the religious traditions in question by  considering their shared habitus or the methods of “seeing”used by their members? Such a shift reveals the political nature of debates over images, and the power of iconoclasm. Referring to specific case studies from the volume, the conversation offers ideas about re-imagining and challenging the assumption by scholars that practitioners of religious traditions such as Islam, Judaism, or Christianity hold a contemptuous view of images. Perhaps an increased focus on aesthetic regimes rather than images can provide a superior way to analyze and select data for this area of religious studies.

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Challenging the Normative Stance of Aniconism in the Study of Christianity, Judaism and Islam

Podcast with Birgit Meyer and Terje Stordalen

Interviewed by Candace Mixon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/challenging-the-normative-stance-of-aniconism-in-christianity-judaism-and-islam/

 

Candace Mixon (CM): I am Candace Mixon and I am here with Terje Stordalen and Birgit Meyer. Good morning from me, and good afternoon to you all!

Terje Stordalen (TS): Hello.

Birgit Meyer (BM): Hello, Candace!

CM: Yes, and welcome. I’m so excited to be talking with these fine scholars on the topic of aniconism and we’ll learn all about what that is, and the kind-of theories behind it, and how it matters for the study of religion. I will just note that my interest in this as an interviewer is also invested in my own academic interest. I’m an Islamic studies scholar who works on contemporary visual and material culture related to Shia Islam, and especially regarding Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammed, and how she is conceptualised, visually and materially, in Iran. So I’ve travelled there, and seen images there of the family of the prophet kind-of all together in the fabric of contemporary Iranian society. And then some of those images are lessening a bit now, and that’s due to all kinds of different pressures and reasons. But certainly the visual culture is there, the images are there. The spirit of all of that is there. So I’m so excited to talk with you all about your research in this field.

TS: Well I’m excited too, Candace!

CM: Wonderful. So part of the rationale for getting you all together is that you did co-edit a book together called Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So I was wondering if each of you could just mention a bit about your own research, and maybe what connected you with wanting to publish and collect the articles in Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

TS: Ok. Do you want to go first, Birgit?

BM: Ok, I can do that. Ok, I am Birgit Meyer. I have been trained as an anthropologist and scholar in Religious Studies. And I have been conducting research on Christianity in Africa for a long time. And in this research I also focused on mission societies, mission societies from Germany, active on the West African coast who, of course, in trying to convert local populations, in a way produce ideas about idolatry, fetish worship and all this. So indigenous worship was recast as being idolatrous and strongly materially focussed, whereas missionary Protestantism was profiled as religiosity that was devoted to the interior, devoted to book reading and all that. And I had long wondered how to come to terms with this clash about indigenous objects and the denigration of indigenous religious traditions as idolatry. I noticed with my move into Religious Studies that there is some kind-of dearth with regard to taking seriously the material dimension of religion which, with Talal Asad, I would attribute to a post-Enlightenment Protestant bias. And I have been struggling, not only empirically but also conceptually, to create more room for material objects and other material media in the study of religion. And it was in this context that I met Terje at a conference, in fact on Media and Mediation, at Oslo University. And there we noticed that although he comes from a different background – he will soon talk about that – we had a number of shared concerns. And so this ultimately led us to delve in this project together. Maybe, Terje, you can first say more about your background?

TS: Yes. Well, I’m Terje Stordalen and I’ll start by saying I’m very happy to be part of this podcast. I was trained as a classical scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Old Testament literature and Ancient Near Eastern Religion. So there is a lot of language issues and literature issues of course. But, for a decade or so, I have been headed out of the – you could say – disciplinary silo that they live in down there in Hebrew Bible Studies, and looking more at the wider landscape around. And I headed a few international cross-disciplinary enterprises, one of them was Religion in Pluralist Societies, which was the host for the conference that Birgit mentioned before (5:00). And really it’s been an eye-opener for me to come to Religious Studies, to come to anthropology in particular, and see it’s possible to reflect outside of the scholarly tradition and see new aspects. And I think that’s what we’re doing in this volume. We have a lot of disciplinary traditions meet and converse. And what emerges is somewhat surprising for all of us, I think. A somewhat surprising view of the topic that we had at hand. Of course, down in the disciplinary silo, aniconism is a given. That is just something that everybody thinks is a fact in the old ancient Hebrew Bible religion. But it turns out it’s much more complicated than that.

CM: Well we can think about how pervasive it is. I don’t know what kinds of courses you all teach, but I’m in a Religious Studies program or Religious Studies department. And I often teach “Introduction to Islam”. Or something very introductory and wide-ranging related to Islamic studies. And almost always, the first thing that my students say, if I start talking about Muhammed, or images, or something like that, they say, “Well that’s not allowed, right?” And I don’t know if that’s been your experience also in the classroom, and not just your research there?

TS: Well, very much in the classroom. And not just the classroom. Outside the classroom this perception is very pervasive, as well. Everybody talking about ancient Judaism or Islam thinks that this is the case. Evidently it’s not. It’s not that simple.

BM: Yes, and like, speaking from Calvinist Holland, where I’m teaching, we have also one of the very strong much-reproduced evidences of the iconoclasm of Calvinism that was unleashed in the late sixteenth century – and totally smashed alter images. So often this is taken as proof that truly, from a Calvinist perspective, there’s no right for Christian to use images. But, of course, all these standpoints are far too simplistic and, of course, one concern of our volume is to show very simply and empirically this is not the case. And though we do notice, of course, some reservations with regard to images and visual representation in three Abrahamic traditions, at the same time we encounter a lot of image-making practices, and images that may give rise to all kinds of debates. But nonetheless, there is a whole stock of visual materials that is there, concerning Islam. In our volume we also feature an article by Christiane Gruber, who also has been writing extensively about the situation of images of Mohammed in the Islamic world. You may be familiar with her work?

CM: Oh yes. Definitely. I definitely sort-of work with, and have been in conversation with her about some of these images. So, yes, it was great to see that representation in the volume. But yes, just going back to these issues . . . so we’ve started to dance around the idea of some Protestant biases and some sort-of shaking up of the image question across these three traditions. But I wondered if one or both of you could talk to us a little bit more about what you’ve seen, or how you’ve pitched in the volume, which is as a normative belief. Because that’s something that we always, in Religious Studies, we want to interrogate, what are these normative or – quote unquote – “orthodox” beliefs that seem to take precedence? And maybe just conceptualise that idea for me, that aniconism has become a normative practice in both the academy and in the very specific subfield. Anything more you could say on that?

TS: Well, you know, aniconism is a very ambiguous concept to start with. So in my disciplinary fields it’s used to denote two very different kinds of practices. One is what is called the de facto aniconism, which should name the non-use of figural or symbolic objects – simply the non-use, or the absence of them (10:00). The other is the militant aniconism, which is associated with iconoclasm and the destroying of cultic objects – almost all kinds of cultic objects, but certainly objects that are thought to represent a deity. And already this is a distinction that is lost on many people. They always think of aniconism as the latter, which, in the historical record, evidently is not the case. But then you have some normative concepts on top of that. And usually in Christian and, I think, Islamic tradition, very often this goes to the idea that figurative media are inferior to words. So there is more value in representing the other side – or the “unseen” as we call it in the volume – by words. And that seems to be a perception that caught on with scholars as well. I mean it resonates with modernist philosophy which, for instance, Yvonne Sherwood documents very well in our book. But it doesn’t really make sense when you go back and look at the material. I think my greatest surprise was when, having done the research, I realised that aniconism is just another aesthetic regime. You’re still using material media and certain constellations to convey specific things. And it’s not all that different from a more iconic-oriented cult.

BM: And that’s, of course, interesting. So even if you notice certain aniconic strands in Christian or Judaic and Islamic traditions, this would not apply to uplift this aniconism into a more general scholarly stance. And what motivated us very much to do this book is on the one hand, to document attitudes towards images, different visual regimes at different times and places in these religious traditions. But we also wanted to, in a way, challenge the study of religion to move beyond a kind-of presumed normative idea that is tied to these religious traditions, that somehow images would matter less. And you can find even a kind-of normative resuscitation of the second commandment in critical works that Bruno Latour and WT Mitchell – scholars whose work I value very strongly but I also find somewhat limited, perhaps due to some distance from theology or knowledge about the Old Testament. So in my own article, in the first part, I also addressed Latour’s famous introduction to the Iconclash volume, in which he writes about the second commandment and its interpretation. And the second commandment, in his view, stating that humans are not allowed to make any representations. And obviously, this is not at all how this commandment would have been understood across time by most of the people who were trying to obey it. So the irony is that, even in secular theory formation that deals in interesting ways with images, we find remnants of normative ideas about the interdiction to use images. And we decided, in this volume, to work through these things, and work towards an approach to visual regimes in which images function by, for example, getting some more information from art history. Which is I think a very fertile cross-disciplinary encounter that stimulated a lot of the scholars in this book.

CM: Yes. So these are wonderful points. And something that Terje mentioned was that these inclinations to either distrust the image, or put it on a lower pedestal, are also represented of course in the academy as well – so, how we produce knowledge. And, as Birgit also mentioned, in sort-of secular theory, all of these systems reproduce the idea of logos as being the primary method through which we prove that we have knowledge. So dissertations are written in text, and visual means, or video, or other sorts of things might be an accessory, or an appendix, or some sort-of additional thing (15:00). But even within the academy the way that we have our knowledge structured is also centred on the written language as the primary and authoritative means. And that’s something that I often work through with my students considering, when we talk about early Islamic history, and we think about, of course, oral traditions and spoken word. And I know that you have some chapters related to sound in Islam, for example. But thinking about the sort-of prevalence that our students and our publics see in the trust that they give the written word over any other means of representation I think is really striking and kind-of just shows how pervasive this normative idea of aniconism, in various ways, has become.

TS: I think you’re right. I think you’re right. And I think, actually, it relates to our understanding of concepts. Because we tend to identify words as concepts. We don’t see the fact that words are media too. So there is an underlying sense, in our culture, that if you can just grasp the concept you have grasped reality. Whereas material media have more distance, and they’re more fixed, so they’re not so flexible and so forth. So there is a very fundamental philosophical perception underlying all of this. And that needs to be challenged properly, I think.

BM: Yes. And for me, in a way, to point out that the way in which we have configured research in religion, in privileging textual and word-centric approaches. And figuring out how these approaches are tied, in fact, to perhaps quite hidden normative claims that are grounded in the religious traditions we are then studying. And pointing that out. It is important to see that we need to move beyond this lingering aniconism and develop alternative concepts, but also methods. I’m very much interested in developing a new ways of studying religion. I have been working for quite some time in mediation approach. And I would say that, in a way, religions develop different kinds of media and text as well as images, as well as buildings, as well as even food. And, as scholars, we need to be able to analyse these kinds of media – also, of course, by engaging with scholars who have a lot of knowledge about them. And in this volume, our attempt was very much to unpack, in a way, visual media and processes of figuration and imagination, in conversation with scholars in art history. And, in particular, with a particular German strand in art history which is called bildwissenschaft. It’s developed by such scholars as Hans Belting, Christiane Kruse – who also has an article in our volume – Gottfreid Boehm and others.

TS: And you might add to all that also an interest which is brought on by you, Birgit, a focus on the sensation, the use of the human sensorium, here. And in order to get a grasp of what religion does to people, or what people do with religion, you need to see all the senses playing together and all the different media form a sort-of totality. And that’s what we should see, as scholars of religion, when we approach these phenomena. Not just the concepts that the religious elites or scholarly elites would condense from all that.

BM: Exactly. And I think that is how we try to broaden, here, thoughts, figurations and sensations of the unseen. And it is these two strands. So the figuration of the unseen, the mediation of the unseen – which is, of course, projected through these figurations and becomes tangible through them. And the ways in which this process of making tangible an unseen also calls on particular kinds of sensations. And we argue that different religious traditions may well be compared and distinguished by looking at the ways in which they offer figurations of an unseen, and represent mediated different sensorial profiles that are engaged in doing so. And I think this is a kind-of programme that adjoins the different chapters in this volume (20:00).

CM: Yes, that’s really wonderful. I was thinking both about the sort-of insistence on media as mediation. And I know that’s a very obvious sort-of connection for the word to make. But I think saying it like that, so saying “media as mediation”, I think really helps us draw that point home: that it is some sort-of communication. And whether that image is between trying to figure out how to represent god, a god, some sort-of deity, or some other expression of a religious practice, feeling etc., that that media is the communicative work there. So I just really like that sort-of repeating that, and thinking through that word. So with that I wondered, I mean, Terje – I know, in your chapter, you mention the challenges of a logo-centric ideology and the distrust of a medium to be able to represent, or perhaps mediate a deity. So I wondered if, in your specific example, if you could tell us a little bit more about the idea of distrusting a media to be able to work enough to represent a deity or some other religious idea.

TS: OK. I can do that. I will need to get a little specific, then, and chart some of the presumptions that I work on.

CM: Yes. It would just be nice to have a little bit more of, maybe, a detailed case study that we can think through, as we get these more generic and broader sweeps that we’ve made, or that you all made in the volume. So that’d be wonderful.

TS: OK. Well it’s an accepted view among scholars that there are different strata, different strands of Biblical Hebrew literature. And they’re not all equally strange to figurative representations of the deity. So I decided that I’ll take the most restrictive strand: the Deuteronomistic strand, as we call it. And they’re the ones that give these bans on images that have become so normative in scholarship. They have edited a long line of literature, which we call the Deuteronomistic history. And in this work you have early sources. So you can, in that work, see how they interacted with less iconoclastically-minded ideologies. I thought that might be a good case study. So I took a narrative on the building of the Temple of Solomon. I’m not saying that temple ever existed, but it’s very easy to imagine that temple from the account given in the Biblical record. In fact it has been imagined time and over, and still is around the world. So you would expect, if these people really were as aniconic as we think they should be, they would make sure to present for us an image of a temple where imagery and symbolisations played no role at all. Almost like a Calvinistic chapel or something like that. But the fact is, their accounts in 1Kings Chapter 6-8 is full of figurations. There are palms, there a lions, there are carobs, there are pomegranates – and, moreover, there is a very clear architectural symbolism. So you have one stage, then they go onto the second stage, and then they go onto the third stage. So I mean it’s full of non-verbal media. The presence of the deity in this imagined temple is not verbal at all. Because when you get to the inner sanctuary it is a complete silence. Right? There is no image. There is no word. So I came to see this as a sort-of expression of a conviction that you simply cannot grasp this deity, and words do not grasp this deity either. And I thought this was, to me, a very instructional view into something that I thought I already knew all about.

CM: Interesting.

BM: But the interesting thing, Terje, is that you do not take this as proof of aniconism, but that you develop this case to show the importance of all kinds of figural representations in evoking a sense of an unseen that is withdrawn. And I found that very interesting. That is, of course, a theme that we find in other articles in the book as well (25:00). For example in the Heike Behrend’s piece on the aesthetics of withdrawal, which I find very interesting. So she makes a point that she works on the Swahili coast, where of course there are certain restrictions among Muslims, with regard to the use of images. But, at the same time, images that themselves are being used in order to conceal certain things. So the image itself maybe employed as a medium for concealment. And I think these are the more fine-tuned aspects in the way of working with images that we try to focus on in our book. We really want to get away from all too simplistic question of “yes” or “no” images are allowed, so as to look at the working with images. And I very much learned a lot from Terje’s piece in particular. Because, Terje, you show the importance of the iconic in reproducing a sense of something that is withdrawn from view, right?

TS: Yes, I think through my piece, but even more through Heike Behrend’s piece, we arrive at the view of aniconism as a regime, as an aesthetic regime. And it makes use of all the media and all the opportunities that you have in other regimes. But it just has a particular profile. So that means that we should go back and look at all these different solutions, and different traditions, and see them more or less on a par, and describe how they actually employ the media and the sensations in different ways.

CM: Yes. Thanks you so much for that detailed look at your case study there, and sort-of rethinking something that sounds familiar. And that’s always the task. How can I interrogate again something that I’m taking for granted? And again that’s the whole point of rethinking the normativity of aniconism. So thank you for sharing that. And another point that I made, as I was reviewing some of these things and thinking through this, is you were mentioning the shared habitus: of means of seeing, or sound, or sort-of the shared communities that make certain regimes of sensation possible in religious traditions. So I wonder if you can mention anything, or offer any examples of a shared habitus of seeing, sensation, in any of the religious traditions you’re working with – especially related to media or images.

BM: Well, I think what was very interesting to look, even across the Christian tradition on which I’m working quite a lot. We have a very interesting piece by Sonja Luehrmann, a splendid anthropologist who unfortunately passed away last August, just after our book had come out. She was an expert on orthodox Christianity and has offered a fantastic piece about the importance of the icon in these orthodox traditions. And what I found fascinating here is that the icon is important, in a way, so as to prevent the human mind, the individual mind, in going astray, and depicting God in all kinds of ways. It is especially the two-dimensional icon that is, in a way, to control, to check the human imagination and frame it in a particular way. So the icon, in this sense, is definitely part of an aesthetic regime that teaches people to imagine the unseen in a particular synchronised manner, which evolves around the figure of the icon. And I thought that this is a really very interesting example here.

TS: We didn’t write this, but I’ve been thinking of it afterwards. Maybe Birgit would want to comment on this. But my impression is that these regimes are all designed in order to intensify certain chosen experiences, and even bodily experiences. So you have, for instance, the one that Øyvind Norderval describes in ancient Rome using the Baroque technique of contemplation and you know, looking at the very Baroque themes that are there. It’s all about approaching a centre, and then releasing the tension at the centre (30:00). And that seems to me to be the point. Whether you use images, or you use them in a restricted sense, or you don’t use them at all, it’s all about heightening the experience when you get to what is perceived to be the central point.

BM: Yes. And I think that is something that I tried even to thematise in my preceding work, when I developed the notion of the sensational forms: the sensational forms that are developed within religious traditions to do exactly the job as you have just described it, Terje. And I would say that in the visual regimes they operate in the context of particular sensational forms that develop, make tangible the transcendent in certain ways, and organise the access to it in particular ways. And I think that one can very well make comparison between religious traditions by focussing in on the different sensational forms and the sensorial regimes within which they function. So, for me, our volume was also one way of playing out in a way or focusing on a particular sensational form that evolves around visuality.

TS: Yes.

CM: Awesome. So with that I was just thinking about learning to see, or learning to experience religion in certain ways through your own . . . through the different traditions. So, I work on contemporary Shia Islam and I know that there’s some pieces in this volume that relate somewhat to that work. But basically thinking about the idea that certain Shia Muslims would have the ability to see particular images and respond, and know that that’s who they are, or who they’re representing, based on just on the common knowledge, and the reinforcing of particular regimes, and aesthetic regimes that make those intelligible; that make an image of Husayn, holding the slain commander general Qasem Soleimani in his arms, as an understandable image that can convey something specific to that audience, where it might not make as much sense to someone who’s outside of that audience. And I think that that shared language of images and of media, especially within religious traditions, is so amazing to think through.

BM: Yes, and indeed we have a piece by Pedram Khosronejad who deals with that. And Gruber’s piece also deals with this kind-of tradition, in part. Perhaps it’s also important to emphasise that in moving, in a way, beyond the idea of a bilderverbot – an interdiction of images – we really focus on the use of images in very different contexts. So it is not necessarily the case – as is, of course, behind the fear of the image being mistaken for the divine – that all uses of images are intended as representations, as figural representations of God. Usually, if one looks more closely, one sees that there are constant deliberations about the potential of images to allude to the unseen. Actually the whole charge even of idolatry, of the mistaking of an image for the deity, is usually a figment of accusation and by no means shared by those making use of these kinds of images. So once one looks more closely, one comes . . . one is able to access much more sophisticated uses of images and image theologies that move far out of this simplistic charge of idolatry, as we find it from conversations and pleasures in the Christian tradition, also within the Islamic tradition, and vis-a-vis for example indigenous traditions in an African context. We barely came across, or I think we never came across anything like idolatry per se, even if there was a profuse use of images made.

TS: I think your point, Candace, is very interesting from another perspective as well. So these regimes tend to develop certain semiotics, so sign systems that will convey certain views and certain values to the spectators. And you need to learn the semiotic in order to understand what is going on (35:00). Now this is, of course, the same also in the European painting and in European Christianity at large. And that brings us to a point which is also important in this book: religious imagery and heritage, cultural heritage. Because it becomes part of a shared cultural property. And people may use it and re-use it in different ways. And there is one piece in our book studying the opera, Salome, and just documenting how many of these original semiotic signs are still there, but in very subversive ways. So that also helps us understand what’s going on with religion and the religious heritage, today. And, Birgit, this is something that you’re very into, for the time being, so maybe you want to comment?

BM: Well, I’m interested in the way that the decline, perhaps, of Christianity as a living tradition across European in all this . . . we should not overlook the fact that Christian images . . . . All kinds of tropes, of course, survive in secular forms. And we believe that with this volume, it builds, in a way, on practices of figuration and sensation within living religious traditions. We are also able to identify the afterlives of these images in secular contexts. So we have indeed Ulrike Brunotte’s piece on Salome, we have Christiane Kruse who works around Michel Houellebecq’s, Soumission, we have Else Marie Bukdahl who also works on modern abstract art, and all that. So that is, in fact, the last part of this volume, where these afterlives of Christian visual regimes are being addressed.

CM: Great. So thank you so much for that too, and again the details . . . thinking through the cultural heritage and yes, these images being part-and-parcel of how, also, outsiders see and visualise these religious traditions. I mean there’s a reason, when people go to Florence or different museums in Italy, they absorb and take in all the beautiful Christian art forms without necessarily understanding the contexts that sort-of brought those particular art forms to light, that would have made a lot of sense for the communities in which they were born into. So on the one hand, we can appreciate the art and the beauty of them, but for people within that community they take on a different meaning.

BM: Exactly and Christiane Kruse, for example, in an earlier work (German title) unfortunately only in German, she offered a really interesting analysis, in a way, of the ways in which theology and art move together – but also, to some degree of course, expand and extend into each other. So she discusses, indeed, all kinds of restrictions with regard to the depiction of the divine with deliberations by artists, who say “Well, the condition for the evocation of the unseen, of the divine, is it’s mediation via the image.” So you see already, in the medieval times, in the Baroque . . . all kinds of attempts at mobilising images in order to make an invisible visible, in the framework of the image, and at the same time seeking to circumvent charges of idolatry which would claim that this would amount to representing the divine as such. So there is a lot of deliberation about the work of mediation that images as media can do, in alluding to a kind-of unseen without ever fully rendering it present as such. And I hope that, perhaps, reading our volume may also alert people that when they watch these masterpieces of art they embed it in broader debates within the Christian realm in this case.

CM: Yes. Exactly. Great. So we’ve gone a little bit more specific. And then I wonder if we can sort-of get closer to wrapping up by thinking, again, more broadly. So, back to the points that I brought up at the beginning of the interview (40:00). Back to this issue – and I think Terje mentioned it a few times – but aniconism is just absence, and anti-iconism, or iconoclasm as “No” – and destruction of images. So I wonder if we can sort-of just think through again that tension or that conflation. And then final approaches to what we can learn from that, for going forward in the field of Religious Studies: how you hope that people will take this scholarship and either apply it, or rethink their own research materials. So perhaps just suggestions or, again, detail about this aniconism conflation with anti-iconism . . . wherever you’d like to go from there.

TS: If I may have some first thoughts. From my perspective, there isn’t all that much difference between the one and the other. The difference is more in politics than in the use of images. But, obviously, setting out to destroy someone else’s material basis for religion is a very powerful political move. And setting out to destroy someone for destroying one’s own material basis is another political move. And it has created opportunities for religious agents around the world to use the image or non-image question for their political religious purposes. But I think, when you look at the practices, it’s very difficult to see substantial differences between these. Now that’s the religious experts. They would like us to see those distinctions and I think demounting the distinctions is maybe one of the services that we can provide with this volume.

BM: Yes, I think I would endorse this. And say that as scholars we have to be very much aware of the epistemic regimes that have been guiding our research. And we have to be aware to what extent they have been guided, in fact, by normative assumptions rooted in religious traditions themselves. And we suggest, in fact, with this volume, to move beyond the issue of the image question per se, to move beyond the issue of aniconism or anti-iconism versus iconodule attitudes, towards a broader approach that would look at practices of decoration, at visual regimes in which images may take very, very different roles. And of course bilderverbot – the interdiction of images – may be one, but there may be many, many other options. And we should, as scholars, be prepared to see all these options as, yes – on the conceptual level – definitely equal. I think that this is very important also in relation to debates about images and religion in our contemporary society. There is some kind-of irony that, nowadays, often Muslims are told that Christians have no problems with depicting images, with depictions of the divine, anything goes. But it’s only Muslims are not able to see this. Now this is definitely false, of course. And I hope that through our comparative approach, or by taking, in a way, the Abrahamic traditions – and I know that the term also comes with its own problems – but by taking these three traditions together, we can get beyond these very simplistic ideas as we encounter them now, through which post-Christian secular people distinguish themselves from Muslims who are told to also now be able to become iconoclasts. All these are very cheap and simplistic rhetoric, I think, that ask for being further unpacked. And in fact the Figurations and Sensations volume has a sister volume, which is a volume called Taking Offence which I co-edited with two colleagues, Anna-Marie Korte and Christiane Kruse, in which we look at images . . . wars and contestations around offensive images in the contemporary world. So it may be nice to see the volumes together. So in addressing, in a way, image questions conceptually we just have to broaden our scope, I would say.

TS: Yes.

CM: Wonderful. Yes, Terje thank you so much for bringing in the politics of the utilisation of when we get to have that power over the images (45:00). Obviously the Buddhas of Bamyan are often the most iconic example of that, of the destruction of those Buddhas by the Taliban and thinking about, then, the power of trying to provoke, also. So that sort-of Taking Offence volume you mentioned is really interesting there: of having images of Mohammed contests out there, to try to provoke some sort-of response that would then . . . I don’t know, prove something . . . prove all kinds of offensiveness being taken. So the political-ness of when to apply aniconism, anti-iconism or iconoclasm are also prescient, especially right now. And thinking about how relevant images are for communicating larger political goal, not just religious ones. So thank you so much for that. Any final words you’ve got for us? I mean this has been really awesome, and I’ve loved talking to you. And it just makes me more excited to dive in deeper to this book and also the Taking Offence book. But anything other, that you’d like to mention before we wrap up?

BM: Maybe just a small footnote about what I try to emphasise in my chapter and also my work is of course the tremendous iconoclastic attacks with regard to indigenous traditions that have been launched by both Protestant and Catholic mission societies, leading also to the collection of lots of items from Africa, and other parts of the world, that are now located in mission and ethnographic museums. And of course the point that this iconoclastic attack is in fact still going on and launched by many Pentecostal churches. I’m addressing this to some extent, also, in my chapter in the book. And I think this should also be remembered when talking about IS, or the Banyan examples. Otherwise I’m just very happy about this conversation. I’m also very happy about this collaboration with Terje, and the other scholars, and I hope very much that, yes, this work will trigger debates, will trigger more works. So in many ways I’m must say I’m not yet done with this anti-image question! I really hope that, with this, we will be able to offer some incentives to broaden the study of religion conceptually, and methodologically, to indeed research on processes of figuration and the imagination, beyond rather simplistic views. And, of course, there is some good work out there: Sally Promey, David Morgan, we mentioned people in the field of material religion for example, but I do think that this is really a strand that’s ready to have some more attention, in our very heavily media-saturated and image-full world. So we live just in the world with so many images and we don’t know their provenance. We are not so much aware about of the provenance of our stances with regard to images, our preparedness to believe in them or not, and all that. And I think Religious Studies has much to say and unpack here.

CM: Wonderful. Anything other you’d like to note Terje, before we . . . ?

TS: No, I think you’ve covered most of it now.

CM: Yes. That was a great summation. Well, thank you all again. And the book that they’ve been kind-of mentioning, and we’ve been dancing through, is called Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam and is thankfully open access, which is amazing! So people can access it, regardless of institutional affiliation, and library access. So it’s very accessible. And we do thank you for making that book so accessible. So, on behalf of the Religious Studies Project, thank you all.

TS: Thank you for having us.

BM: Thank you.

 

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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

In the popular imaginary, Israel/Palestine is – and has always been – a contested territory, associated with sacred sites, the ‘Abrahamic’ religions, religion-related conflicts, and a volatile political climate. However, this unnuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground, particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast, a large group of around 860,000 ‘secular’ millennials, who have come of age during a phase of national conflict when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilized religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide.

In this podcast, Chris Cotter is joined by Dr Stacey Gutkowski to discuss what it means to be a ‘secular Jewish Israeli millennial’. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? How do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, and to Palestine? And much more…

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

Podcast with Stacey Gutowski (9 December 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/secular-jewish-millennials-in-israel-palestine/

Christopher Cotter (CC): In the popular imaginary Israel/ Palestine is, and has always been, a contested territory associated with secret sites, the Abrahamic religions, religion-related conflicts and a volatile political climate. However, this un-nuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground – particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast: a large group of around 860,000 secular millennials who have come of age during a phase of national conflict where some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilised religio-ethnic symbols and have mobilised religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide. Today I am joined, in Edinburgh, by Dr Stacey Gutowski to discuss what it means to be a secular Jewish Israeli millennial. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? And how do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, to Palestine and hopefully much more. Dr Gutowski is a senior lecturer in Conflict Studies and a Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Divided Societies at King’s College London. She’s the author of Secular War: Myths of Politics and Violence, published in 2012 and has been co-director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, where I know her from, since 2008. And today’s interview touches on themes developed in her forthcoming book Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s’ Post Oslo Generation which will be published with the Manchester University Press in 2020. So first-off, Stacey, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Stacey Gutowski (SG): Thanks, Chris! Really happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

CC: Not at all. It’s just wonderful that you’re passing through Edinburgh. I couldn’t not speak to you! So, first-off . . . I know a bit about your research journey. But if you could just tell us about your academic background: your interests, and how you have ended up conducting this study on Secular Jewish Israeli millennials.

SG: Absolutely. Thank you very much. Well, nowadays I describe myself more as a political sociologist. My academic background is in Philosophy, Peace Studies and International Relations. And my main area for research has been broadly in the area of religion, and conflict, and peace building. Specifically, I’ve been interested in the relationship between violence and the secular. My first book, which you introduced, took a Western case study looking at British foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in the book I introduced some theoretical questions that I thought I would then go on to explore over a series of decades. And this was the next step on that journey. And my particular interest in this book is to understand what it’s like to be a person who’s deeply embedded in religious tradition, but someone who distances themselves – or claims to distance themselves from the religious tradition. What is it like to live through violence? And Jewish Israeli- young secular Jewish Israeli millennials were an interesting case, because they have lived through a sort-of intensive series of wars since they’ve become young adults. But also it’s a hard case, because they’re not secular in a Western sense. So it was really to provide myself with a hard case to push the theory further.

CC: Excellent. Yeah. And as Listeners . . . regular listeners to the RSP probably know, in the study of secularity more broadly, everything tends to be quite Western European or North American. So work in the Israel/Palestine context is really excellent. So hopefully this interview will add to that. So you’ve already hinted a little bit about who are these secular Jewish millennials, and why they’re interesting. But maybe if you just tell us . . . . You hinted at some of their life experiences and why they might be interesting, but if you just tell us a bit about their demographics and what makes them a group. I mean “millennials” even might seem an obvious term to some, but if you can just get right down to the basics of what we’re . . . .

SG: Yes. Of course. So I take the Pew definition of millennials: born between 1980 and 1995. And then, in terms of this population – not just millennials but in the Israeli population overall (5:00) – they are about forty percent of the population. And there are fuzzy boundaries in the kinds of Jewish practices they engage in in Israel, between these hiloni secular Jews and masortim, the traditional Jews in Israel. Because Jewish popular culture is pervasive. So unlike someone who identifies as maybe an agnostic, or an atheist, or secular in the UK, these are people who are more deeply embedded in tradition. And, as Yaacov Yadgar has argued, can’t avoid it. As a group they’re largely urban and middle class. Sixty-six percent are descended from European migrants and thirty-two percent approximately are from Jews who are descendants of migrants from the Arab world, and from the Middle East. That is this group. And interestingly, there are continuities between older generations but there are some important distinctions as well.

CC: Which we’ll be hearing about now. This seems to be an appropriate point to throw a perhaps quite a difficult question at you. We opened up the interview to our Listeners and Louis Frankenthaler came in with . . . it’s basically about the whole notion of, I guess, “secular Jew”. I mean, it’s quite a common turn of phrase, yet we don’t really seem to say “secular Christian” so much, or “secular Muslim”, “Secular Buddhist” and so on. So I’ll just sort-of run through a little bit. He says that all too often people ask if you can be Jewish and not believe in a god or God. That is, be an atheist Jew or a secular Jew. And he says that he thinks this is a misdirected question. And wonders what your take on a more substantial query that asks (not) “Can you be Jewish and not believe in deity?”, but “Can you be Jewish and not do Judaism?” That is, God is not the only issue. And many would claim that God does not care if a Jew believes in God, but only that you do what it is that this God supposedly claims that Jews do. So basically, not whether a secular Jew is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but do you still have to practice something to be considered a Jew? Or is there something more inherent in that?

SG: Yes. No it’s a great question, and thank you very much to Louis for asking it. I mean, this is an essential question that’s really pre-occupying Jews in Israel and in the diaspora. I guess as a good social scientist, the first thing I would say is: people can be whatever they want to be, and we take it seriously as analysts. So certainly you see, in Israel and elsewhere, people who reject a strict or even partial observance of Jewish law, the Halakha, who do it, but actually engage in certain practices or something in between. And then you have scenarios, for example in Israel, with people who are migrants from the former Soviet Union, who have become orthodox Jews but who are not considered as Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel. Because they don’t have a Jewish mother and they haven’t had an orthodox conversion. So it’s a complicated picture. In terms of analytically, in Israel it’s a different place form the diaspora, because it is a context in which Judaism is woven into the fabric of public law and state life. And, as Liebman says, in popular culture. And also in Israel it’s a politicised identity. And Yadgar talks about how the early founders of the state couldn’t find another way to sort-of mark citizenship, Israeli citizenship, other than through Jewish religious identity. And this particular way in which the orthodox rabbinate decides who is Jewish, and who is not. But then it creates, you know . . . . When we think about it practically, in people’s everyday lives, we can say, “Yes, people who are determined to be Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel are embedded in Jewish popular culture.”  (10:00) But so is everybody else who comes into Israel, and ends up observing or having the Shabbat as a weekend because that’s the weekend in Israel! But I think, maybe, what Louis is asking about more is that it overlooks – not the question itself – but I think it’s easy to overlook that while Judaism is the centre of gravity for people, in public life and private, in Israel, it’s not the only source of existential culture, of ideas about philosophical ideas about life and its meaning. And that there are other things that people borrow from. Some of these are more perhaps well-known, such as Buddhism or New Age practices. But other things, like western philosophy, are I think somewhat overlooked in the literature, as these are all ways in which people make meaning in their lives. And some of those forms of meaning come from Judaism, and some of them come from other things. Now it’s a different case for the diaspora, where Jewish identity in contradistinction to other forms of identity – particularly Arab identity – is not enforced by the context, by the state context. And then again I would say, going back to the social science observations, that it matters what people do and how they identify.

CC: And how they are identified, again, as well.

SG: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And the terminology of secular Jewish in English perhaps raises these analytical questions. But when we look at what people actually do, it’s perhaps more clear.

CC: Absolutely. I know I teed that up with things like “we don’t really say ‘secular Christian’” and that sort of thing. But thinking about Abby Day and her work on not Christian nominalism, and the sort-of ethnic and familial aspects to that. Thinking of my own Northern Irish context, where everything is . . . You know, so I’m from a Protestant background. Even if I converted to Catholicism I would still be considered a Protestant, and that sort of thing. There’s all this. And, yes, being a secular Catholic or a secular Protestant probably does make a lot of sense in a Northern Irish context, in a way in which it mightn’t make discursive sense in other places. OK. So thanks for attempting that potential curve ball there! So just jumping straight into the book . . . and again, you’ve already hinted at some of your research questions. What were you hoping to probe by engaging with this large constituency?

SG: Well, there were two main research questions that animated the book that ended up working together and highlighting new things about each other, and the way the question was set out as I went along. So I would say I had two working research questions which were a starting point. And the first was, I guess, more empirical: as a young “secular” Jew – secular in, I suppose, scare quotes – what has it felt like coming of age during a phase of national conflict, when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, not just sort-of fringe figures, have used religio-ethnic symbols divisively? So looking at that phenomenologically. What is it like to be a person coming of age when religion has taken on new forms of mattering, politically? Even though it has been . . . it has mattered politically since before the founding of the state of Israel, and particularly after the 1967 war. So that was one question. And then the second set of questions, or the second question, as I said earlier, was to use Israel as a hard case to think theoretically. And that question was: what do violent political conflicts look and, most importantly, feel like to people who claim to distance themselves from the majority religious tradition in their given context – and yet are fundamentally embedded within it?

CC: And although we don’t want to spend too much time on the methods, we will want to know how you went about it as well (15:00). Unless the methods are really so exciting that you want to spend the rest of the interview talking about them, of course!

SG: No we can go through it quickly. So the project took a phenomenological approach. It’s an interpretivist approach. I did fifty interviews with self-identified hiloni millennials. For people who know the case, the point about self-identified-. . . I also took into account that some people appear to . . . but then began to speak about their religious practices and identities and turned out to be masorti some days and hiloni some days. So some days they’re traditional, some days they’re secular. So I took that into account in the analysis, and tried to take seriously what they say. Then I did . . . I also did twenty interviews with the transitional generation who are just older than them. These are people who were in their early twenties in the 1990s. And then I interviewed millennials who are traditionally Jewish or orthodox and then members of civil society. Some of them are also millennial. There was a survey of over ninety millennials surveyed – an in-depth survey. And then, for triangulation, it was participant observation and field notes, public opinion polls, various public reports, testimonies, media reviews . . . .

CC: So, not much then! (Laughs)

SG: No it was a very, very quick project – as you can tell! (Laughs)

CC: Excellent. So based on that large body of data and what we assume was your thorough analysis . . . . Well, let’s just dive in to some of your . . . . What did you find?

SG: OK.

CC: What’s going on?

SG: Just a few things. (Laughs) I guess, maybe I’ll talk a little bit first about what I found for this generation in terms of hiloni-masorti as a religio-class. Because I think of them not as just a religious sector, but as an elite middle class group – which also has this dimension of religious identity and practice. One of the things that’s interesting about this group is that they came of age during what scholars have called the religionisation of Jewish Israeli society. Now scholars have defined this in different ways. And some talk about this as the religionisation of politics: that orthodox and traditional views of, for example, the land and what the state of Israel should look like as the Jewish state, that these things have become more prominent over a secular socialist version of Zionism. And while that is the case, also thinking in terms of hadata – the sort-of intensification of Jewish practice – that people would begin to maybe just practice little bit more, so a little bit more, marginally, than they relatively would, in terms for example of holiday celebrations with family. So this is something that they have come of age in the middle of. They’ve also come of age in the middle of a sort-of revival of people thinking about what it is to be secular Jew, or secular Jews becoming orthodox, and of different forms of Judaism – conservative Judaism, Reform, revisionist Judaism – becoming marginally more popular with North American migration to Israel. So they come of age in the middle of this. But in terms of identity, there are no sort-of marked differences, as far as I could tell, with the transitional generation. In terms of practice, what’s interesting is that millennials don’t see this as an intensification. Because they’ve come of age in the middle of it. So you don’t see it, because you’re in it. So they think it’s unremarkable. And people who are a bit older, you know, talk about this massive shift in Jewish Israeli public life since the 1980s (20:00). In terms of the class aspect of this, what was quite noteworthy is that the presence of mizrahi middle class millennials who would identify with the term hiloni –and not simply because of this Zionist binary creation between secular and religious Jews. But actually because the term means something to them – either in terms of politics, or economics, or class aspirations. So this class looks somewhat different than it did. Because you have this group, you have new entrants, the migrants from the former Soviet Union, and these have changed what the class looks like.

CC: Obviously – I mean I’m just following your lead here – but this group is a major element in Israel/Palestine. There’s obviously Palestine and Palestinians, and so what about Israeli millennials and their relation to and their constructions of Palestine, and Palestinians, and the whole conflict issue . . . ?

SG: Absolutely. So they’re not politically unique, in that they stand out from the rest of the population. Their political opinions on the Palestinians, and on occupation, have sort-of followed the general trends along with the Jewish Israeli population. But there are two things that, politically, are distinctive in terms of their experience with Palestinians. One is, separation policy – following the end of the second Intifada, with the building of the separation barrier in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It’s not as though previous generations of this group had necessarily lived in close contact with Palestinians. But scholars have found that this has had an impact, socially and psychologically, on being able to imagine the other. The other thing that’s distinctive about this generation, in terms of the Palestinians, is the sheer number of wars and repeated wars. So for this group – the exceptions being the oldest and the youngest – but we can think of the core of this group as having served in the disengagement, withdrawing Israeli settlements from Gaza, then serving in 2006, 2008, 2011-12 and 2014. Not to mention the 2006 war in Lebanon. So the sort-of level of violent contact is quite distinct. And then a couple of other things that are distinct have been electoral success of centre-right political parties, including religious parties. And then, also, debates between 2011 and 2018 about the basic law, the constitutional arrangements of the State of Israel, and the ethnic framing of the state. So these are things that have . . . . Well, the religious experiences are somewhat different. The political experience is quite different from people who were in their twenties during the Oslo Peace Process. Because this is the constituency that was the backbone of the peace movement, supportive of the Oslo process. So there’s been a gradual shift, politically, to the centre, relatively to the right, among this group. In a recent election we see sort-of potentially, potentially another shift, at least in terms political government leadership. So this is . . . they’re quite different from the transitional generation.

CC: And we’re already at 25 minutes here which is time . . . I mean, we can run on a little bit of course, but we can . . . . One of the main arguments in your book is this concept that you call “neo-romanticism”: this sort-of characterising feature for the hilonis (25:00). What’s going on there? What do you mean by neo-romanticism?

SG: Absolutely. I mean this came out of a grounded approach of needing to look at what was happening across quite a diverse group of people. I interviewed politically diverse – from right, centre, to left – geographically diverse in terms of gender and other characteristics. And when I was looking at the material and trying to draw out: “Ok. What united this group?” There were a couple of things that really united them. And one of them was this emphasis on personal experience. Now certainly in the media, and in public life, there’s a lot of discussion that Jewish Israeli millennials are maybe a bit individualistic, selfish and that this is a product of the shift to a capitalist economy in Israel in the 1980s. And yes, I saw that. But there seemed to be something going on as well about the idea of emotion and personal experience being very important. And that was something that people referred to repeatedly, about using their personal experience to navigate the world. And another feature that came out that was important was there was – yes there was individualism, but then there was also a great deal of sort-of attachment, not to the state per se, as a political entity, but to Jewish people and not . . . . You know, they referenced this sort-of Zionist discourse about the Jewish people, but for them it was specifically the Jewish people they know: their friends, their family. So there’s a kind-of dialectic between individual and collective. And I needed to account for this political diversity. Why was it that the emotional ecology, and the way people talked about themselves, talked about the conflict, the occupation, the Palestinians, politics, life in general – why was there something . . . ? There was a thread that underpinned all of that. Why? And so I started to think a bit more about Talal Asad’s use of Stefan Collini’s idea of romanticism. And what Assad has to say about romanticism as a secular, but also a spiritual, movement. Now of course romanticism was a feature of the European Jewish experience during the Haskalah – (audio unclear) book on this is very interesting – and also nineteenth century romanticism informed political Zionism. I’m not saying that . . . I’m not trying to draw these direct historical connections. I’m more kind-of inspired by Assad’s use of this. And so I talk about . . . that as the hiloni habitus developed from the nineteenth century onwards, that it always had these different strands to it. One romantic and one rationalist. And that this romantic strand is really important. And it’s not obvious, because when you speak to people they will tell you that they’re heavily rationalist. And then you probe further, and they’re heavily emotional. And so I like this idea of romanticism. And I called it neo-romanticism to set it apart, to say that I’m not drawing a clear line with the nineteenth century. To talk about this emphasis on personal experience, Collini says that for the nineteenth century romantics, individual and collective didn’t contradict one another. And he also says that nineteenth century romanticism was neither explicitly politically conservative nor progressive. It made possible different kinds of politics. And this, I thought, was a good way of talking about what’s happening among this group. That lived experience is important, that there is something happening in terms of the role of emotion and also religious and spiritual and philosophical effervescence. These things are in motion in Israel, not just with New Ageism and secular renewal and the impact of Mizrahi renaissance on popular culture. But there is something there. So these narratives about being reasonable and being rational need to be unpicked. And I thought it accounted for this sort-of tension between the individual and the collective. And what I say is neo-romanticism is a kind of neo-republican citizenship. So what’s talked about in the literature, and in the Jewish Israeli media, is that with liberalism and Zionist republicanism, care for the state is somehow juxtaposed (30:00). And like, no – these things are working together. Yes there may be . . . absolutely, there are people who are very, very liberal and individualistic and leave the state, but it would be a mistake to miss the ways in which they are sort-of bound to the state as well.

CC: So I’m going to ask you two more questions. One is going to be the “Why does this matter?” So, this scene you’ve just painted there, this sort-of neo-romantic thread that’s uniting this seemingly potentially disparate group. I think, in the book, you draw some of the implications of this politically. And then I’m also interested in why should we care about it in Religious Studies, really. What difference does it make to me? (Laughs).

SG: OK. Two very, very big questions. Let me start with the first one. Why does this matter politically? There are a lot of reasons why the state of the political situation between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis is what it is at the moment, having to do with violence, with the election of particular leaders on both sides, by strategic decisions made not to continue with negotiation after 2014. And what I’m saying is that, in the context of what critical geographers call the “national atmosphere”, that it’s also important to look at what’s happening in terms of lived habitus, and how people think about themselves. And what I found was that people, regardless of where they were on the political spectrum, were united in thinking of themselves as what I’d call “fulcrum citizens”, balancing out extremes – both extremes on the right and extremes on the left – Jewish Israeli extremes, Palestinian extremes. What they see as extremist, internationally, in Europe. That they see themselves as balancing people. And that they see this related to their hiloni needs, their religious class habitus, but that they’re also shaped by their – for this generation – a Jewish-centric experience, after the failure of Oslo. So I say that this is part of the mix in understanding the ongoing conflict and continuing occupation. It’s one of many different factors, but I don’t think it’s yet been particularly brought to the fore. So that’s what I want to say about that.

CC: Excellent. And how about, for someone not in the study of Israel /Palestine, perhaps not even in the study of the secular and that sort of thing. What do you think is the sort-of import . . . ?

SG: The big takeaway for Religious Studies? When I got to the end of the book, and I revisited these questions, the one thing that stood out for me was the importance of studying the individual level and of studying gradations of emotional attachment to religious identities, symbols, spaces. In Brubaker’s work, in 2015, he points to this about the importance of studying the individual level. But I don’t think that we yet, in the field, are particularly good at doing that. And yet we claim to study ethno-religious conflict, or religio-ethnic conflict, and the intersection of the two. And it’s not simply, you know, insert identity and everyone’s going to feel the same way. And we know that. That’s kind-of something we know, practically. But I thought that this was an area that could be further advanced. And I talk about it a bit at the end of the book, about where I think we could go. In particular, thinking about studying political conflict within ethno-religious dimension beyond identity (35:00). So that was one thing I wanted to do in the book was . . . . There’s chapter on space, and there’s a chapter on epistemology, to try to move into new directions.

CC: Begging the forgiveness of Helen, who’ll be transcribing this (Granted) I did say, if we had time, I’d mention another theme like sacred space, and how that came up in the book. So what would you have wanted to say – in, like, thirty seconds – that you haven’t got to say?

SG: That’s ok. It’s attached to the other thing. I mean, again, this is related to the point about how the literature, I think, needs to not presume emotional attachment to sacred space, but needs to drill down into people’s individual feelings about sacred space. Because just because people have an ethno-religious identity, they may not particularly care about place. But at the same time, just because they claim they don’t care, does not mean that they actually do not.

CC: Exactly.

SG: And so it makes ideas around compromising and sharing sacred space complicated. And I looked at the Haram al Sharif, Temple Mountain, and attitudes to that in the book.

CC: So, Listeners, if you want to find out more about that – when in 2020 are we expecting this? Or do we not want to say a month yet?

SG: Hopefully, soon.

CC: Hopefully, soon! So that book is going to be Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s Post-Oslo generation. Stacey Gutowski, we hope our Listeners will read that book and shout widely about it. But if they don’t, they’ve heard an excellent interview today! Thank you so much.

SG: Thank you so much.

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two women, rabbis, and a man holding a guitar

When the Word is a Sound: Toward a Sensory Scholarship of Religion

  • A response to the podcast “Melodies of Change: Music and Progressive Judaism”
  • By Judah Cohen, PhD, Indiana University Bloomington
  • I began writing this response on the day before Thanksgiving, and the day after the conclusion of the American Academy of Religion (AAR)’s 2018 meeting in Denver. My colleagues Monique Ingalls, Alisha L. Jones, and Zöe Sherinian all attended AAR, jetting over from the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM)’s more intimate (c. 1000 attendees) annual meeting the day before. I did not. The last time I attended AAR, in 2006, I felt overwhelmed by bigness, unsure how to go beyond my small disciplinary circle in a scholarly sea of logocentrism. While I sought out like-minded colleagues, I found, like Illman, a significant center of scholarship oriented around the arts as an adornment to worship, rather than as a core part of it. In the exhibit hall, meanwhile, music seemed to be the domain of media companies presenting their latest (typically Christian) worship technologies. Finding a place for music in the already huge conference felt particularly fraught to me. 
  • How much has changed by 2018? A quick perusal of the AAR/SBL program shows four sessions on music out of about twelve hundred organized events. I admire my ethnomusicology colleagues’ initiative and energy—in their own Society they have successfully organized a thriving Section on Music, Religion and Sound; and Jonathan Dueck and Suzel Reily’s recently published Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities received recognition as an outstanding collection of essays. Yet connecting this approach to the core concerns of Religious Studies remains a daunting affair.
  • So thank you, Ruth Illman. 

Above, Obadiah the Proselyte (early 12th century): manuscript for the liturgical poem “Mi Al Har Morev.” 
  • The book that inspired Dr. Illman’s podcast offers a meaningful model for bridging Ethnomusicology and Religion as mature scholarly disciplines. Citing Rosalind I. J. Hackett, and channeling assertions by Isaac Weiner and others, Illman seeks to restore to Religious Studies the soundtrack that has long made worship and liturgy viable, both publicly and (sometimes) privately:
“We need to realize that music, and the arts in general, are not just ornaments or illustrations of something more profoundly important to religion, but they are aspects of religious engagement in their own right that we need actively to give serious scholarly attention.”
  • Illman’s assertion can sound like a challenge to a field where text’s inherent physicality gives it a privileged place: where the very act of reading, writing or printing not only preserves a record, but can sacralize a ritual. Text conveniently symbolizes the multisensory experience of spirituality and tradition, which we describe and ritualize in the process of projecting a broader experience of the numinous. But what happens if we enter the experience directly through music—in a sense turning music into the center of focus, with text as an auxiliary? It’s more than a thought experiment: as Illman points out, drawing on decades of work in ethnomusicology to support her, people regularly give sound more weight than text as a determinant of religious tradition and authenticity. The view holds in different ways across faith traditions. Liberal populations might at first seem the most likely to observe here, due to (often biased) perceptions that they interpret core religious texts less literally than more “orthodox” groups. Yet music can also be a powerful lens of authenticity even in those populations: in Judaism, for example, we can see such issues in the nigunim (melodies) of Hasidic populations, the Lernensteiger melodies used to teach rabbinic texts (as studied by Lionel Wohlberger), and the universal dilemmas of melody choice, timbre, and sound production that pervade many forms of worship.
  • Indeed, public prayer frequently shifts into musical primacy, as anyone who has attempted to decipher the words of a polyphonic Mass in a cathedral (including Church officials!) might recognize. Music forcefully reminds us of religion’s timebound nature and holds  its own systems of rhythm and inflection—as I tell my students, you cannot skim music the way you can cram a text. And the more closely we look into the topic, the more deeply we can notice how congregants bring to a complex and sophisticated palette of descriptors and tastes to the music they experience in their spiritual lives. We hear these descriptors regularly, as Illman shows in her larger study, and as Jeffrey Summit has explored in his book The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land. Liturgical music jobs are won and lost by them. And the “worship wars”—disputes between the music of “high” and “low” culture­—show how crucial they are to the worship experience (as illustrated by several selections in Routledge’s recent Congregational Music Studies Series). 
< p style=”text-align: center;”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcTneBjgaA8

Above, a Friday evening service during Chanukah 2014 at B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue in New York City, known for at least 25 years now for its musical services. 

  • Entering scholarly discussions of religion through music can thus open new perspectives for understanding communal spiritual dynamics and normalize the idea that populations can be spiritually articulate even when they identify only loosely (or symbolically) with core texts —allowing us to move beyond moralistic critiques of “losing touch” with tradition that pervade both scholarship and practice.
  • Illman’s description of authenticity as described through her contemporary interlocutors’ musical experiences can also extend to broader discourses of authority, including debates over the performance of sacred text and the role of music (and by extension other arts) in conferring spiritual authority. Whether through Quran recitation contests, the training of Jewish cantors, mantra chanting, or the long parallel development of music and text in various Christian denominations, music and text depend on each other for their continued vitality. In my own research on both contemporary liturgies and the American Jewish nineteenth century, I found music to be more than just a liturgical enhancement: it made sacred text viable, connecting the often obtuse and generalized words with congregants’ personal needs and cultural norms.
  • When it comes to music, then, Illman’s study offers an excellent opportunity to see how ethno/musicologists can bring greater depth to the study of religion—and particularly how their/our methods can enhance historical debates around the status of text. David Stern, among a growing number of scholars, now highlights physical and textual mutability as a central part of what we consider textual “tradition.” What greater depth we can find, then, when we restore sound to the experience and think of text as a contributor to a crowded and rich sensory view of the numinous—while seeing other modes of expression as equally rich doors into our intellectual discussions.

 

Suggested Reading (at least as a start):

  • Judah M. Cohen, Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth Century America: Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming April 2019).
  • Jonathan Dueck and Suzel Ana Reily, The Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  • Rosalind I. J. Hackett, “Sound, Music, and the Study of Religion.” Temenos 48, 1 (2012), 11-27.
  • Monique Ingalls, Singing in the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
  • Deborah R. Justice, “The Curious Longevity of the Traditional–Contemporary Divide: Mainline Musical Choices in Post–Worship War America,” Liturgy 32, 1 (2017), 16-23.
  • Mark L. Kligman, Maqām and Liturgy : Ritual, Music, and Aesthetics of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009). 
  • Ellen Koskoff, Music in Libavitcher Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).
  • Anna Nekola and Tom Wagner, eds. Congregational Music Making and Community in a Mediated Age. (New York: Routledge, 2015).
  • Zoe Sherinian, Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Liberation Theology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).
  • David Stern, The Jewish Bible: A Material History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).
  • Jeffrey Summit, The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: Music and Identity in Contemporary Jewish Worship (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • Jeffrey Summit, Singing God’s Words: The Performance of Bible Chant in Contemporary Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  • Isaac Weiner, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sounds, Public Space, and American Pluralism (New York: NYU Press, 2014).
  • Lionel Wolberger, “The Music of Holy Argument: The Ethnomusicology of a Talmud Study Session,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry IX (1993), 110-138.

Melodies of Change: Music and Progressive Judaism

In his work Auf De Hohe, Jewish poet and author Berthold Auerbach famously wrote “music is a universal language, and needs not be translated. With it soul speaks to soul.” (1865). Music plays a numerous roles in many religious traditions, Judaism being no exception. From piyyutim to zemirot to Yeshiva acapella groups in the United States, the use of music in the Jewish faith is numerous and varied. In this interview, Breann Fallon of the Sydney Jewish Museum chats to Dr Ruth Illman of Åbo Akademi University and Uppsala Universityi about her research on the role of music as an agent of change within the progressive Jewish community in London that appears in her most recent monograph Music and Religious Change among Progressive Jews in London: Being Liberal and Doing Traditional. In particular, Dr Illman discusses the power of music to fuse the traditional and the liberal in a forward movement of progressive Judaism. Additionally, the connection of this movement to particular locations and other potential issues such as gender provide a stimulating discussion around this innovative display of both religion and creativity.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Melodies of Change: Music and Progressive Judaism

Podcast with Ruth Illman (25 February 2019).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Illman_-_Melodies_of_Change_1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): Today I have with me Dr Ruth Illman. She is Docent (associate professor) of Comparative Religion at Åbo Akademi University. And she’s also Professor of History of Religions at Uppsala University. She is currently director of the Donner Institute for Religious and Cultural History in Turku in Finland. Together with Dr Karin Hedner Zetterholm she is the editor of the open access, peer reviewed Journal of Scandinavian Jewish Studies. Dr Illman has published more than 30 peer reviewed articles in journals such as Contemporary Jewry, The Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion, and Journal of Contemporary Religion, as well as monographs and edited volumes with Routledge, Brill and Equinox. Her most recent work is Music and Religious Change among Progressive Jews in London: Being Liberal and Doing Traditional. So, thank you very much for joining us today.

Ruth Illman (RI): Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

BF: Great. I thought we’d just start off by talking about your most recent monograph: Music and Religious Change among Progressive Jews in London. It looks at religious change in relation to music in the context of contemporary progressive Judaism. I thought we could begin with just talking about music in Judaism. I thought you could maybe give us a bit of an insight into what role music plays in the Jewish faith, and is there any sort of difference between progressive or orthodox denominations amongst the Jewish community?

RI: Well, thank you. That’s a very huge question. I’ll try to answer it the best I can from my point of view. Now I’m not an expert on all forms on all forms of Judaism in all times and all over the world, so to say. So I’ll mostly speak now from the context that I have been researching and try to make some parallels from there. But as a scholar of religion and especially contemporary religion I could say that I think that music in general is relevant to religiosity, not just within Judaism but all over. And I think we can see, especially today, that for many people who seek forms of religious engagement today, that they can somehow side with and feel comfortable with music . . . it’s playing a more and more important role, so to say. Because music somehow seems to capture many of the dimensions that people seek in a religious engagement today. Which is that it’s not just an intellectual way of engaging with a religious faith, it also has emotional and embodied sides to it. It can be very individual and very sort of personal – but also something you do, tied to community. And music is not always as words . . . as clearly fixed to structures and to interpretation. But it’s more open for everybody. But still it is meaningfully grounded in a tradition, just like the Jewish traditions I have been researching. So it’s creative but it’s also very constitutive of certain traditions. So it gives you freedom to form your own religious engagement. But it still ties you to a community and to a history. So that’s the first point I’d like to say, is that music is more relevant to Religious Studies all over than we maybe think. Because I think, in our research fields we’re always so preoccupied with the words and with the texts. And sort-of looking at music as a secondary aspect to it. But I wanted to produce it in the centre, here. And if we’re thinking about music within Judaism, of course this is an immense topic. And the first question, of course, is what do we count as music in a religious Jewish setting? Is it just the liturgical singing? Is it the nusah? The cantillation modes? Is it the traditional chants? Is it, maybe, the cantorially-led music that we have in some congregations? In some places we have a choir – we might even have communal singing in the more progressive denominations. So it is a great variety and it is a great mix today. But I think as I have been focussing on these progressive denominations in a British context, I think what more and more of them are saying, in the interviews I have made, is that they feel that music and musical engagements, singing and music overall has been lacking from their tradition. They feel that it’s been impoverished as so much has been focused on the spoken word (5:00). And on the benefit of taking away these elements that were seen maybe to be obscure and old fashioned and mystical – not in a positive sense. So I think, here, this also proves the fact that different kinds of music are more and more appreciated all over the line. And also when we speak about Jewish music in this context, which I think shows very well in my interviews, is that I think as researchers there’s some . . . we don’t have the possibly to really, any longer, to try to define this kind of grand narrative of Jewish music: so what is Jewish music? What is not Jewish music? And what music belongs to which part of the Jewish world? And so on. We cannot draw these clear boundaries any more. But Jewish music instead, I think we have to look at the context that we are researching. So it’s a question of how we interpret the music; what associations are made; in what context it’s presented; what intentions are tied to it? And there we can sort of try to circle in on what we mean with Jewish music. This was a very broad answer to your question!

BF: That’s ok. Maybe we should hone in a bit now – as you say, circle in – on your particular group you’ve been looking at which is progressive Judaism. My first sort of question, when you were talking there, is you talked a little bit about the revival of music in progressive Judaism. What sort of timeline are we looking at in terms of this revival? Is it a relatively recent phenomenon that we’re seeing?

RI: Well, both yes and no. I have made my interviews between 2014 and 2016. So, of course, that’s very recent. And the persons I have been talking to, they have rather broad age spans. So they’re born between the 1940s and the 1990s. So I have both rather young, and people who have grown up and come of age in the sixties. And what most of them, who use this historical language, say is that this process of change has a lot of roots in Jewish revival movement, which of course was tied, was a phenomenon of the sixties. And especially in the United States where the whole idea of reviving Judaism, of finding a more spiritually engaging way of practising Judaism arose – along with a lot of other New Age movements and the hippy movement and the whole counter-cultural milieu that we find in the late Sixties. So many would say that we saw it already here, in certain forms, these more embodied and engaging musical practices within Judaism. But I would say that, in my material, most people would talk about the change in a much shorter perspective – maybe talking about the twenty-first century, more. But I think we can see relevant ties to a process that began already in the sixties.

BF: And what sort of function is this music having as part of this revival? What role was it playing?

RI: I think . . . the subtitle of my book is Being Liberal and Doing Traditional. And I think this captures it quite well, the role of music here. Because, for the people I have interviewed, they would not be interested in trying out and exploring a more orthodox or traditional theology. They are very comfortable in their liberal progressive theological values which are very inclusive and very, sort-of, very open to liberal values. But what they want is a more traditional way of doing the Jewish stuff. I mean, how you go about the way of expressing your Jewish tradition, and what kind of things . . . in manifest ways you become Jewish. And here I think that music plays a pivotal role. Because somehow it’s through the music that you can try to connect to more traditional ways of  . . . especially more traditional ways of singing. Bringing in the cantillations to the services for example, not just reading the text, but chanting them in traditional Jewish ways. And then also bringing in more Hebrew besides the vernacular languages which are very broadly used in the progressive services in Britain (10:00). Trying out the sacred language, the Hebrew language, and sort of bringing all the dimensions that it can bring. My special interest was in a musical practice called nigunim which is means melody in Hebrew, or tune. Which is actually a tradition that derives from the Hasidic tradition where instead of singing with words you just skip the words and use onomatopoetic syllables like “lai-lai”. So that the singing itself becomes the prayer, not the words that are spoken. And this is explored in many different kind of progressive settings today. And this would not mean that the persons who are interested in adapting nigunim to liberal services, that they would be interested in Hasidic theology at all. But more the way of expressing these . . . the way of expressing and the way of using music to build a more comprehensive relationship to the liturgy. So here I think we can see the role of music as something that gives you an open space to combine and connect to tradition, but still hold on to the theological values that you want to preserve – the liberal values. So I would say that the role of music is rather big here, in this situation. It’s somehow a tool that is . . . well it’s not just a tool but it’s a context and it’s a way of being and doing Jewish that is available and useful in combining liberal values with traditional ways of practising.

BF: It really sounds like it’s trying to bridge that gap between, I suppose you phrase it as the old and the new. Which I think is quite a bit of a hot topic in Religious Studies at the moment. This sort of difference between very traditional streams of faith practice and more liberal and open, if you want to put it that way. This music seems to be a way that those two things are combined in modern Jewish practice.

RI: Absolutely. And I think it’s also a way of acknowledging that religion is not a static thing. And that it’s always changing. I mean what we would call traditional today is of course always also something that is adapting and changing, with the context and with the time. And when I say that liberal Jews in London sing nigunim they are, of course, adapting it to their own needs and practices. We have the whole issue of men and women for example, singing together at all: kol isha is that the voice of the woman shouldn’t be heard at all. And I would also say that many of them, most very consciously are not saying that they are reviving something that they’re going back, you know, to tradition. It’s not a move backwards. It’s a move forwards. But it’s a creative and free way of using tradition as a well to find inspiration in. But then to develop it to something that goes along with your own practice and your own values, and your own ethical standpoints. So it’s very much not going back to tradition. And I think it’s very much going forward but with inspiration from the past. But I think that’s what you were also saying about here, and which I think is very relevant: where we end up is as researchers we have to question the idea of institutional engagement at this sort of . . . .That it’s a very clear line where we have, for example, orthodox and traditional in one end of the scale, and then we have the liberals at the other end of the scale. And then we have a clear line here of development and you can place people somewhere on this continuum. Because what these creative new combinations show is that you can actually combine a theological position which is very liberal with practices that are very traditional. And what you get is personal outlooks on how to be and do Jewish that do not fit these models that we try to squeeze people into.

BF: I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about this sort-of specific community that you looked at. This sort of community in London. Is there anything specific about the reason why it has popped up in London? Is this happening in other places? What’s interesting about that specific landscape?

RI: Yes, thank you I think this is a very important question. Now, as you mentioned in your introduction, I’m based in Finland, and I lead a research institute in Finland. And well, first of all the practical reason: the number of Jews in Finland is so small (15:00), it’s . . . well, officially we have 1500 persons in Finland who belong to Jewish communities. So this kind of research would not have been possible to do in Finland. But I wanted very much to do research that would focus on European Jewry, because I feel that much of the research on Judaism we have today is focussed very much on the large centres of Jewish population, so North America, and Israel. And much of what is going on in Europe or in Australia for that matter is not given as much focus as it could be. So I wanted to focus on European Jewry. And I also wanted explicitly to do research on progressive and liberal Judaism today, because also I think much of the research that we do on Judaism today is either focussed on the history, or then it is very sort of orthodox communities – of course, because they offer the most sort of controversial and specific contexts. So I wanted to focus on the liberal side. The reason that I ended up doing my research at Leo Baeck College well, it was first of all a practical reason that I had connections there. But I wanted very much to focus on a college community. It’s quite a special congregation we have there, because among my interviews are students who are studying to become rabbis, both in the liberal and in the reform movements in Britain, but more largely in Europe. So I have the students, and I have the teachers, and the alumni, and other people who are connected to the college. And of course the college is quite a dynamic place. It’s during your studies that you try out different ways of leading Jewish services, for example. When these people will move out into the congregations in Britain, and then as congregational rabbis, maybe, they will need more to adapt to the traditions of the specific community where they work, and all these things. But during your studies you are still quite open to try out lots of different visions that you have for how to use music in your Jewish life. So the college was really a marvellous place to do this research. And even though this Leo Baeck college, physically it’s in North London and most of the students and teachers that I talked to were British in origin, some of them had been liberal Jews for four generations. Some of them had converted from Christianity. Others had an orthodox background, for example. And they also had their roots in lots of different countries: Germany, Russia, Romania, France, Canada, United States, Israel, just to mention it. So it was a very cosmopolitan and very dynamic and very interesting milieu. But still the college somehow is the connecting context for all of them. So that’s how I ended up doing the research at Leo Baeck.

BF: And what do you think was . . . . Was there anything specific about London itself, apart from that college environment?

RI: Well, of course, London is one of the most international and multicultural places on the earth. So in that sense it was very interesting to see how these developments take place in this extremely sort-of multicultural milieu. But I still think, also, that Britain can function – and London especially now can function – as this very specified prism through which we can see developments and have a perspective, also, on different developments that we see. I think it’s a good reflection of what is maybe coming to the Nordic countries, where the Jewish communities are rather small and have quite unified backgrounds. We can also . . . . We have in Europe, of course, the other large centre of Jewry is France where we have a different development going on. But then, also, the British development is very closely tied of course to what is going on in North America. But still I think many of the British Jews also had a very conscious wish to form their own interpretation of the lines of development that come from the United States. So in that sense, I think it’s a good mirror for different kind of development we see in other parts of the Jewish world.

BF: So do you think that this sort of movement could happen in perhaps less progressive areas? Perhaps somewhere like Israel? (20:00)

RI: Well there are, of course, in Israel these kind of developments going on. I haven’t specifically been studying in the Israeli context, but there are a lot of very progressive and very innovative small communities in Israel that work along these same lines. And many of the cantors and the rabbinic students that I’ve talked to also find great inspiration with different small communities in Israel. So I would say that it’s also very central there. Yes, in different ways, I think that this is a movement that you can see all over the spectrum, so to say. And I think it was very interesting with the focus especially on the role of music here, and what it enables and how it speaks to people today. And I think that that goes over the line. But of course it has very different parameters and different enablers when you move to more traditional communities – especially when it comes to gender issues, and issues of inclusion, and so on.

BF: I think I would like to just briefly touch on this concept of gender. Because I think what I’ve taken from this interview so far, is that your research is really helping to break down a lot of sort-of categories that may traditionally have been part of Religious Studies. It’s breaking down the idea of orthodox and traditional, it’s breaking down the idea of even more orthodox spaces and places, you know, and we can see the sort of liberal movements popping up throughout the world. It’s not as though it has to be in a particular space or place. And this idea of the boundaries of gender is something that I think is particularly interesting. Is this music helping break down that barrier? Is that a role that it’s taking? Or is that a separate idea altogether?

BF: Well, yes and no, I would answer to this. At the first glance I think you might get the feeling that music is a very inclusive space where the role of gender is sort-of toned down, or being given less of divisive role. But on the other hand, in my interviews I can also clearly see that there is still a gender difference. For example, if you are a male rabbinic student you have much greater possibilities to just enter any Jewish space that you want to, and take part of very orthodox rituals if you want to. As a woman you still cannot do that. And especially my interviews with the women who were a bit older, who were born in the forties and the fifties: for them, many of them felt that they had to leave an orthodox Jewish background behind if they wanted to be part of . . . have an active role in the liturgy, for example. Because women were not allowed those kind of positions. But then if they . . . then they moved from an orthodox congregation to a reform congregation, they would feel very much at a loss with the whole of the liturgy and the ceremony because it was so different. And they could even today tell about how they longed for the music, and the recitation, and the liturgical form that they wanted to have, which they could not be included in the orthodox settings, because they were women. And, of course, all the chances for this is much greater today and women are being included more and more. But still I think we shouldn’t . . . women are not free to experiment with their spirituality. And not all these interesting aspects of the tradition are open to them in the same way as the male students. And I think one of the teachers said that she also felt a bit of a caution against students who very actively experiment with very orthodox practices. Because somehow, when they are rooted in a theology that is non-inclusive, when it comes to women or converts or people of other kind of minority positions within the community, it’s somehow hard to divorce the music from the background where it comes from. So you always need to be aware, also, that you do not import theological positions that you wouldn’t like to defend when you try out the music (25:00). So, both yes and no, I would say. We might think that music is very useful in this discussion, but it’s not without its problems either.

BF: Your research seems to highlight a lot of different areas of Religious Studies that perhaps we need to maybe tweak, or look at more broadly. We’ve looked at the idea of different categories, orthodox or liberal, in this interview as well as the idea of space and place, and the idea of music more generally. When you wrote this monograph, did you have sort-of an idea of the broader impact of your work on Religious Studies as a field?

RI: Yes. I mean my background in Religious Studies, I have done . . . most of my research has dealt with issues of interreligious dialogue and cultural encounters. And also of contemporary religiosity in sort of ethnographic research on religiosity today. And then the arts has been a central focus of my research. I’ve done a lot of research on art as an arena for both for religious identity formation but also for encounters and so on. And what I wanted to show – and which I think has a broader bearing not just on Jewish studies but on Religious Studies more generally – is the fact of what role we can allot to other dimensions of the religious engagement than just the texts, and the intellectual dogmas, and this part of the religious engagement. Rosalind Hackett, Professor Rosalind Hackett, in the United States, she had called for a more “sonically aware” Religious Studies and I think that’s a brilliant way of putting it. And that’s what I hope I can also contribute with this study. That we need to realise that music, and the arts in general, are not just ornaments or illustrations of something more profoundly important to religion. But that they are aspects of the religious engagement in their own right that we need to give serious scholarly attention. So I think that we need to take it not to say that we need to have more emotional and embodied Religious Studies, which we do, but we should see this as an opposite. Not that you have an intellectual engagement which is sort of more sincere, with the tradition, and then you have all this nice music and arts that come as ornaments to make it more interesting. But to really see that these are, can be, put on the same level and they both speak about religion in ways that we as scholars also need to be able to take seriously and listen to. So it’s not an anti-intellectual stance, it’s more like a call for a more nuanced study, that is not just falling into these black and white boxes. And to see how we can sort-of have a more nuanced and plural idea of what religion and religiosity mean, by taking these aspects of the religious engagement more seriously.

BF: Just before we finish up, I have a bit of a left-field question for you. I don’t how familiar you are with the world of sort of Jewish pop music on YouTube, but there are some very fun I suppose you would put it, sort of YouTube clips of sort of Jewish cover bands sort-of covering pop music and sort of changing the lyrics. I just wondered if you have any thoughts on these sort-of very popular interpretations of music amongst Jewish communities.

RI: I know some of them especially with the chabad outreach that have this really great hits of boy bands which they make into sort of information music about different Jewish holidays and so on. I think it’s great fun. And, of course, music is a creative tool and I think we’re wrong to say that something is more authentic than something else. Or that some way of using music is wrong and something else is right. I think it just illustrates very well what a powerful tool music is, and how much it speaks to people. And also, from my own material, if I think about this nigunim singing and just singing lai-lai, (30:00) so most people say, “Well this is just like using a Buddhist mantra.” And or “the Taizé tunes we have in Christianity”, which is the same idea that you sing short syllables to repetitive music in meditative way. But still, the fact is that you can point to it that it has a connection to the Jewish tradition. That the nigunim and lai-lai singing, it comes from part of the Jewish world. It somehow ties these traditions closer to the heart of the people, and makes them more meaningful. And I think that’s just what you can see in this pop music, too. That sort of referencing to and alluding to the sources, the tradition, to something that is felt to be very authentically Jewish. It’s a very powerful tool. So I would say it’s just a good illustration of the power of music.

BF: Well thank you very much for joining us today, Dr Illman. I think this discussion of music has just opened my eyes to the amount of sort of creative energy that is out there in terms of religious practice, particularly in terms of you know, the sort of bridging the boundaries between the different worlds, different traditions maybe. And I urge everyone to go check out the world of Jewish music on YouTube!

RI: Well, thank you very much for this interesting discussion.

BF: Great. Thank you so much.


Citation Info: Illman, Ruth and Breann Fallon. 2019. “Melodies of Change: Music and Progressive Judaism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 February 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 February 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/melodies-of-change-music-and -progressive-judaism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 November 2016

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Calls for papers

Anthology: Religion and Ethics in Contemporary Speculative Fiction

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July 11–13, 2017

University of Hull, UK

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Religious Studies as a Discipline

Aaron Hughes (University of Rochester) has been a vocal critic of some of the theories and methods used by religious studies scholars working on Islam. In this podcast, he discusses his critique of the discipline and practice of religious studies he has made through works such as Situating Islam (Equinox, 2008), Theorizing Islam (Equinox, 2012), Abrahamic Religions (Oxford, 2012), The Study of Judaism (SUNY, 2013), and, most recently, Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity (Equinox, 2015).

This sustained focus on the field of religious studies is not only a concern with identity–the political boundaries of the field as established by its scholars and professional organizations–but also with method. What should be the critical orientation of our field? Which methods are more or less suited for religious studies when it the discipline is viewed as a critical endeavor? When and how should we critique the way our field is responding to the context of the 21st Century? Are area studies especially vulnerable to these criticisms? What happens when identity politics begins to mix with scholarship?

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion as Sui Generis, The Relationship between Theology and Religious Studies, Teaching and Learning in Contemporary Religious Studies, The Critical Study of Religion, and Biblical Studies and Religious Studies. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, storage boxes, tiny shoes and more.

“Unruly Angels”: An Interview with Ingvild Gilhus

What is an angel, and why have they exerted such a fascination on the public imagination since antiquity up to the present day? In this interview with David Robertson (our 100th “official” podcast!), Ingvild Gilhus, a historian of religion with considerable experience in dealing with popular religion in both the ancient and modern worlds, discusses where the concept of angels comes from and how they have been variously constructed, from the white-suited messengers of the New Testament to the embodiment of the “higher self” in New Age accounts.

In particular, she explains that angels seem always to break boundaries. Neither human nor god, male nor female, whether Christian or otherwise, angels seem always to have functioned as representatives of an unruly popular religious impulse which seems to sit just below the elite constructions with which the study of religion has traditionally concerned itself.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Oh, and stay tuned at the end for two special guest appearances!

Podcasts

Challenging the Normative Stance of Aniconism in the Study of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

In a co-edited volume, Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Contested Desires, Birgit Meyer and Terje Stordalen bring together innovative perspectives on the prevalence of images in religious traditions often described as harboring aniconistic tendencies. Should we really see these traditions as “anti-image”? This episode charts some of the major moves taking place in the volume, especially the presumption of the normative stance of aniconism in the study of these traditions. What if we turn instead to the aesthetic regimes of the religious traditions in question by  considering their shared habitus or the methods of “seeing”used by their members? Such a shift reveals the political nature of debates over images, and the power of iconoclasm. Referring to specific case studies from the volume, the conversation offers ideas about re-imagining and challenging the assumption by scholars that practitioners of religious traditions such as Islam, Judaism, or Christianity hold a contemptuous view of images. Perhaps an increased focus on aesthetic regimes rather than images can provide a superior way to analyze and select data for this area of religious studies.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Challenging the Normative Stance of Aniconism in the Study of Christianity, Judaism and Islam

Podcast with Birgit Meyer and Terje Stordalen

Interviewed by Candace Mixon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/challenging-the-normative-stance-of-aniconism-in-christianity-judaism-and-islam/

 

Candace Mixon (CM): I am Candace Mixon and I am here with Terje Stordalen and Birgit Meyer. Good morning from me, and good afternoon to you all!

Terje Stordalen (TS): Hello.

Birgit Meyer (BM): Hello, Candace!

CM: Yes, and welcome. I’m so excited to be talking with these fine scholars on the topic of aniconism and we’ll learn all about what that is, and the kind-of theories behind it, and how it matters for the study of religion. I will just note that my interest in this as an interviewer is also invested in my own academic interest. I’m an Islamic studies scholar who works on contemporary visual and material culture related to Shia Islam, and especially regarding Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammed, and how she is conceptualised, visually and materially, in Iran. So I’ve travelled there, and seen images there of the family of the prophet kind-of all together in the fabric of contemporary Iranian society. And then some of those images are lessening a bit now, and that’s due to all kinds of different pressures and reasons. But certainly the visual culture is there, the images are there. The spirit of all of that is there. So I’m so excited to talk with you all about your research in this field.

TS: Well I’m excited too, Candace!

CM: Wonderful. So part of the rationale for getting you all together is that you did co-edit a book together called Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So I was wondering if each of you could just mention a bit about your own research, and maybe what connected you with wanting to publish and collect the articles in Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

TS: Ok. Do you want to go first, Birgit?

BM: Ok, I can do that. Ok, I am Birgit Meyer. I have been trained as an anthropologist and scholar in Religious Studies. And I have been conducting research on Christianity in Africa for a long time. And in this research I also focused on mission societies, mission societies from Germany, active on the West African coast who, of course, in trying to convert local populations, in a way produce ideas about idolatry, fetish worship and all this. So indigenous worship was recast as being idolatrous and strongly materially focussed, whereas missionary Protestantism was profiled as religiosity that was devoted to the interior, devoted to book reading and all that. And I had long wondered how to come to terms with this clash about indigenous objects and the denigration of indigenous religious traditions as idolatry. I noticed with my move into Religious Studies that there is some kind-of dearth with regard to taking seriously the material dimension of religion which, with Talal Asad, I would attribute to a post-Enlightenment Protestant bias. And I have been struggling, not only empirically but also conceptually, to create more room for material objects and other material media in the study of religion. And it was in this context that I met Terje at a conference, in fact on Media and Mediation, at Oslo University. And there we noticed that although he comes from a different background – he will soon talk about that – we had a number of shared concerns. And so this ultimately led us to delve in this project together. Maybe, Terje, you can first say more about your background?

TS: Yes. Well, I’m Terje Stordalen and I’ll start by saying I’m very happy to be part of this podcast. I was trained as a classical scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Old Testament literature and Ancient Near Eastern Religion. So there is a lot of language issues and literature issues of course. But, for a decade or so, I have been headed out of the – you could say – disciplinary silo that they live in down there in Hebrew Bible Studies, and looking more at the wider landscape around. And I headed a few international cross-disciplinary enterprises, one of them was Religion in Pluralist Societies, which was the host for the conference that Birgit mentioned before (5:00). And really it’s been an eye-opener for me to come to Religious Studies, to come to anthropology in particular, and see it’s possible to reflect outside of the scholarly tradition and see new aspects. And I think that’s what we’re doing in this volume. We have a lot of disciplinary traditions meet and converse. And what emerges is somewhat surprising for all of us, I think. A somewhat surprising view of the topic that we had at hand. Of course, down in the disciplinary silo, aniconism is a given. That is just something that everybody thinks is a fact in the old ancient Hebrew Bible religion. But it turns out it’s much more complicated than that.

CM: Well we can think about how pervasive it is. I don’t know what kinds of courses you all teach, but I’m in a Religious Studies program or Religious Studies department. And I often teach “Introduction to Islam”. Or something very introductory and wide-ranging related to Islamic studies. And almost always, the first thing that my students say, if I start talking about Muhammed, or images, or something like that, they say, “Well that’s not allowed, right?” And I don’t know if that’s been your experience also in the classroom, and not just your research there?

TS: Well, very much in the classroom. And not just the classroom. Outside the classroom this perception is very pervasive, as well. Everybody talking about ancient Judaism or Islam thinks that this is the case. Evidently it’s not. It’s not that simple.

BM: Yes, and like, speaking from Calvinist Holland, where I’m teaching, we have also one of the very strong much-reproduced evidences of the iconoclasm of Calvinism that was unleashed in the late sixteenth century – and totally smashed alter images. So often this is taken as proof that truly, from a Calvinist perspective, there’s no right for Christian to use images. But, of course, all these standpoints are far too simplistic and, of course, one concern of our volume is to show very simply and empirically this is not the case. And though we do notice, of course, some reservations with regard to images and visual representation in three Abrahamic traditions, at the same time we encounter a lot of image-making practices, and images that may give rise to all kinds of debates. But nonetheless, there is a whole stock of visual materials that is there, concerning Islam. In our volume we also feature an article by Christiane Gruber, who also has been writing extensively about the situation of images of Mohammed in the Islamic world. You may be familiar with her work?

CM: Oh yes. Definitely. I definitely sort-of work with, and have been in conversation with her about some of these images. So, yes, it was great to see that representation in the volume. But yes, just going back to these issues . . . so we’ve started to dance around the idea of some Protestant biases and some sort-of shaking up of the image question across these three traditions. But I wondered if one or both of you could talk to us a little bit more about what you’ve seen, or how you’ve pitched in the volume, which is as a normative belief. Because that’s something that we always, in Religious Studies, we want to interrogate, what are these normative or – quote unquote – “orthodox” beliefs that seem to take precedence? And maybe just conceptualise that idea for me, that aniconism has become a normative practice in both the academy and in the very specific subfield. Anything more you could say on that?

TS: Well, you know, aniconism is a very ambiguous concept to start with. So in my disciplinary fields it’s used to denote two very different kinds of practices. One is what is called the de facto aniconism, which should name the non-use of figural or symbolic objects – simply the non-use, or the absence of them (10:00). The other is the militant aniconism, which is associated with iconoclasm and the destroying of cultic objects – almost all kinds of cultic objects, but certainly objects that are thought to represent a deity. And already this is a distinction that is lost on many people. They always think of aniconism as the latter, which, in the historical record, evidently is not the case. But then you have some normative concepts on top of that. And usually in Christian and, I think, Islamic tradition, very often this goes to the idea that figurative media are inferior to words. So there is more value in representing the other side – or the “unseen” as we call it in the volume – by words. And that seems to be a perception that caught on with scholars as well. I mean it resonates with modernist philosophy which, for instance, Yvonne Sherwood documents very well in our book. But it doesn’t really make sense when you go back and look at the material. I think my greatest surprise was when, having done the research, I realised that aniconism is just another aesthetic regime. You’re still using material media and certain constellations to convey specific things. And it’s not all that different from a more iconic-oriented cult.

BM: And that’s, of course, interesting. So even if you notice certain aniconic strands in Christian or Judaic and Islamic traditions, this would not apply to uplift this aniconism into a more general scholarly stance. And what motivated us very much to do this book is on the one hand, to document attitudes towards images, different visual regimes at different times and places in these religious traditions. But we also wanted to, in a way, challenge the study of religion to move beyond a kind-of presumed normative idea that is tied to these religious traditions, that somehow images would matter less. And you can find even a kind-of normative resuscitation of the second commandment in critical works that Bruno Latour and WT Mitchell – scholars whose work I value very strongly but I also find somewhat limited, perhaps due to some distance from theology or knowledge about the Old Testament. So in my own article, in the first part, I also addressed Latour’s famous introduction to the Iconclash volume, in which he writes about the second commandment and its interpretation. And the second commandment, in his view, stating that humans are not allowed to make any representations. And obviously, this is not at all how this commandment would have been understood across time by most of the people who were trying to obey it. So the irony is that, even in secular theory formation that deals in interesting ways with images, we find remnants of normative ideas about the interdiction to use images. And we decided, in this volume, to work through these things, and work towards an approach to visual regimes in which images function by, for example, getting some more information from art history. Which is I think a very fertile cross-disciplinary encounter that stimulated a lot of the scholars in this book.

CM: Yes. So these are wonderful points. And something that Terje mentioned was that these inclinations to either distrust the image, or put it on a lower pedestal, are also represented of course in the academy as well – so, how we produce knowledge. And, as Birgit also mentioned, in sort-of secular theory, all of these systems reproduce the idea of logos as being the primary method through which we prove that we have knowledge. So dissertations are written in text, and visual means, or video, or other sorts of things might be an accessory, or an appendix, or some sort-of additional thing (15:00). But even within the academy the way that we have our knowledge structured is also centred on the written language as the primary and authoritative means. And that’s something that I often work through with my students considering, when we talk about early Islamic history, and we think about, of course, oral traditions and spoken word. And I know that you have some chapters related to sound in Islam, for example. But thinking about the sort-of prevalence that our students and our publics see in the trust that they give the written word over any other means of representation I think is really striking and kind-of just shows how pervasive this normative idea of aniconism, in various ways, has become.

TS: I think you’re right. I think you’re right. And I think, actually, it relates to our understanding of concepts. Because we tend to identify words as concepts. We don’t see the fact that words are media too. So there is an underlying sense, in our culture, that if you can just grasp the concept you have grasped reality. Whereas material media have more distance, and they’re more fixed, so they’re not so flexible and so forth. So there is a very fundamental philosophical perception underlying all of this. And that needs to be challenged properly, I think.

BM: Yes. And for me, in a way, to point out that the way in which we have configured research in religion, in privileging textual and word-centric approaches. And figuring out how these approaches are tied, in fact, to perhaps quite hidden normative claims that are grounded in the religious traditions we are then studying. And pointing that out. It is important to see that we need to move beyond this lingering aniconism and develop alternative concepts, but also methods. I’m very much interested in developing a new ways of studying religion. I have been working for quite some time in mediation approach. And I would say that, in a way, religions develop different kinds of media and text as well as images, as well as buildings, as well as even food. And, as scholars, we need to be able to analyse these kinds of media – also, of course, by engaging with scholars who have a lot of knowledge about them. And in this volume, our attempt was very much to unpack, in a way, visual media and processes of figuration and imagination, in conversation with scholars in art history. And, in particular, with a particular German strand in art history which is called bildwissenschaft. It’s developed by such scholars as Hans Belting, Christiane Kruse – who also has an article in our volume – Gottfreid Boehm and others.

TS: And you might add to all that also an interest which is brought on by you, Birgit, a focus on the sensation, the use of the human sensorium, here. And in order to get a grasp of what religion does to people, or what people do with religion, you need to see all the senses playing together and all the different media form a sort-of totality. And that’s what we should see, as scholars of religion, when we approach these phenomena. Not just the concepts that the religious elites or scholarly elites would condense from all that.

BM: Exactly. And I think that is how we try to broaden, here, thoughts, figurations and sensations of the unseen. And it is these two strands. So the figuration of the unseen, the mediation of the unseen – which is, of course, projected through these figurations and becomes tangible through them. And the ways in which this process of making tangible an unseen also calls on particular kinds of sensations. And we argue that different religious traditions may well be compared and distinguished by looking at the ways in which they offer figurations of an unseen, and represent mediated different sensorial profiles that are engaged in doing so. And I think this is a kind-of programme that adjoins the different chapters in this volume (20:00).

CM: Yes, that’s really wonderful. I was thinking both about the sort-of insistence on media as mediation. And I know that’s a very obvious sort-of connection for the word to make. But I think saying it like that, so saying “media as mediation”, I think really helps us draw that point home: that it is some sort-of communication. And whether that image is between trying to figure out how to represent god, a god, some sort-of deity, or some other expression of a religious practice, feeling etc., that that media is the communicative work there. So I just really like that sort-of repeating that, and thinking through that word. So with that I wondered, I mean, Terje – I know, in your chapter, you mention the challenges of a logo-centric ideology and the distrust of a medium to be able to represent, or perhaps mediate a deity. So I wondered if, in your specific example, if you could tell us a little bit more about the idea of distrusting a media to be able to work enough to represent a deity or some other religious idea.

TS: OK. I can do that. I will need to get a little specific, then, and chart some of the presumptions that I work on.

CM: Yes. It would just be nice to have a little bit more of, maybe, a detailed case study that we can think through, as we get these more generic and broader sweeps that we’ve made, or that you all made in the volume. So that’d be wonderful.

TS: OK. Well it’s an accepted view among scholars that there are different strata, different strands of Biblical Hebrew literature. And they’re not all equally strange to figurative representations of the deity. So I decided that I’ll take the most restrictive strand: the Deuteronomistic strand, as we call it. And they’re the ones that give these bans on images that have become so normative in scholarship. They have edited a long line of literature, which we call the Deuteronomistic history. And in this work you have early sources. So you can, in that work, see how they interacted with less iconoclastically-minded ideologies. I thought that might be a good case study. So I took a narrative on the building of the Temple of Solomon. I’m not saying that temple ever existed, but it’s very easy to imagine that temple from the account given in the Biblical record. In fact it has been imagined time and over, and still is around the world. So you would expect, if these people really were as aniconic as we think they should be, they would make sure to present for us an image of a temple where imagery and symbolisations played no role at all. Almost like a Calvinistic chapel or something like that. But the fact is, their accounts in 1Kings Chapter 6-8 is full of figurations. There are palms, there a lions, there are carobs, there are pomegranates – and, moreover, there is a very clear architectural symbolism. So you have one stage, then they go onto the second stage, and then they go onto the third stage. So I mean it’s full of non-verbal media. The presence of the deity in this imagined temple is not verbal at all. Because when you get to the inner sanctuary it is a complete silence. Right? There is no image. There is no word. So I came to see this as a sort-of expression of a conviction that you simply cannot grasp this deity, and words do not grasp this deity either. And I thought this was, to me, a very instructional view into something that I thought I already knew all about.

CM: Interesting.

BM: But the interesting thing, Terje, is that you do not take this as proof of aniconism, but that you develop this case to show the importance of all kinds of figural representations in evoking a sense of an unseen that is withdrawn. And I found that very interesting. That is, of course, a theme that we find in other articles in the book as well (25:00). For example in the Heike Behrend’s piece on the aesthetics of withdrawal, which I find very interesting. So she makes a point that she works on the Swahili coast, where of course there are certain restrictions among Muslims, with regard to the use of images. But, at the same time, images that themselves are being used in order to conceal certain things. So the image itself maybe employed as a medium for concealment. And I think these are the more fine-tuned aspects in the way of working with images that we try to focus on in our book. We really want to get away from all too simplistic question of “yes” or “no” images are allowed, so as to look at the working with images. And I very much learned a lot from Terje’s piece in particular. Because, Terje, you show the importance of the iconic in reproducing a sense of something that is withdrawn from view, right?

TS: Yes, I think through my piece, but even more through Heike Behrend’s piece, we arrive at the view of aniconism as a regime, as an aesthetic regime. And it makes use of all the media and all the opportunities that you have in other regimes. But it just has a particular profile. So that means that we should go back and look at all these different solutions, and different traditions, and see them more or less on a par, and describe how they actually employ the media and the sensations in different ways.

CM: Yes. Thanks you so much for that detailed look at your case study there, and sort-of rethinking something that sounds familiar. And that’s always the task. How can I interrogate again something that I’m taking for granted? And again that’s the whole point of rethinking the normativity of aniconism. So thank you for sharing that. And another point that I made, as I was reviewing some of these things and thinking through this, is you were mentioning the shared habitus: of means of seeing, or sound, or sort-of the shared communities that make certain regimes of sensation possible in religious traditions. So I wonder if you can mention anything, or offer any examples of a shared habitus of seeing, sensation, in any of the religious traditions you’re working with – especially related to media or images.

BM: Well, I think what was very interesting to look, even across the Christian tradition on which I’m working quite a lot. We have a very interesting piece by Sonja Luehrmann, a splendid anthropologist who unfortunately passed away last August, just after our book had come out. She was an expert on orthodox Christianity and has offered a fantastic piece about the importance of the icon in these orthodox traditions. And what I found fascinating here is that the icon is important, in a way, so as to prevent the human mind, the individual mind, in going astray, and depicting God in all kinds of ways. It is especially the two-dimensional icon that is, in a way, to control, to check the human imagination and frame it in a particular way. So the icon, in this sense, is definitely part of an aesthetic regime that teaches people to imagine the unseen in a particular synchronised manner, which evolves around the figure of the icon. And I thought that this is a really very interesting example here.

TS: We didn’t write this, but I’ve been thinking of it afterwards. Maybe Birgit would want to comment on this. But my impression is that these regimes are all designed in order to intensify certain chosen experiences, and even bodily experiences. So you have, for instance, the one that Øyvind Norderval describes in ancient Rome using the Baroque technique of contemplation and you know, looking at the very Baroque themes that are there. It’s all about approaching a centre, and then releasing the tension at the centre (30:00). And that seems to me to be the point. Whether you use images, or you use them in a restricted sense, or you don’t use them at all, it’s all about heightening the experience when you get to what is perceived to be the central point.

BM: Yes. And I think that is something that I tried even to thematise in my preceding work, when I developed the notion of the sensational forms: the sensational forms that are developed within religious traditions to do exactly the job as you have just described it, Terje. And I would say that in the visual regimes they operate in the context of particular sensational forms that develop, make tangible the transcendent in certain ways, and organise the access to it in particular ways. And I think that one can very well make comparison between religious traditions by focussing in on the different sensational forms and the sensorial regimes within which they function. So, for me, our volume was also one way of playing out in a way or focusing on a particular sensational form that evolves around visuality.

TS: Yes.

CM: Awesome. So with that I was just thinking about learning to see, or learning to experience religion in certain ways through your own . . . through the different traditions. So, I work on contemporary Shia Islam and I know that there’s some pieces in this volume that relate somewhat to that work. But basically thinking about the idea that certain Shia Muslims would have the ability to see particular images and respond, and know that that’s who they are, or who they’re representing, based on just on the common knowledge, and the reinforcing of particular regimes, and aesthetic regimes that make those intelligible; that make an image of Husayn, holding the slain commander general Qasem Soleimani in his arms, as an understandable image that can convey something specific to that audience, where it might not make as much sense to someone who’s outside of that audience. And I think that that shared language of images and of media, especially within religious traditions, is so amazing to think through.

BM: Yes, and indeed we have a piece by Pedram Khosronejad who deals with that. And Gruber’s piece also deals with this kind-of tradition, in part. Perhaps it’s also important to emphasise that in moving, in a way, beyond the idea of a bilderverbot – an interdiction of images – we really focus on the use of images in very different contexts. So it is not necessarily the case – as is, of course, behind the fear of the image being mistaken for the divine – that all uses of images are intended as representations, as figural representations of God. Usually, if one looks more closely, one sees that there are constant deliberations about the potential of images to allude to the unseen. Actually the whole charge even of idolatry, of the mistaking of an image for the deity, is usually a figment of accusation and by no means shared by those making use of these kinds of images. So once one looks more closely, one comes . . . one is able to access much more sophisticated uses of images and image theologies that move far out of this simplistic charge of idolatry, as we find it from conversations and pleasures in the Christian tradition, also within the Islamic tradition, and vis-a-vis for example indigenous traditions in an African context. We barely came across, or I think we never came across anything like idolatry per se, even if there was a profuse use of images made.

TS: I think your point, Candace, is very interesting from another perspective as well. So these regimes tend to develop certain semiotics, so sign systems that will convey certain views and certain values to the spectators. And you need to learn the semiotic in order to understand what is going on (35:00). Now this is, of course, the same also in the European painting and in European Christianity at large. And that brings us to a point which is also important in this book: religious imagery and heritage, cultural heritage. Because it becomes part of a shared cultural property. And people may use it and re-use it in different ways. And there is one piece in our book studying the opera, Salome, and just documenting how many of these original semiotic signs are still there, but in very subversive ways. So that also helps us understand what’s going on with religion and the religious heritage, today. And, Birgit, this is something that you’re very into, for the time being, so maybe you want to comment?

BM: Well, I’m interested in the way that the decline, perhaps, of Christianity as a living tradition across European in all this . . . we should not overlook the fact that Christian images . . . . All kinds of tropes, of course, survive in secular forms. And we believe that with this volume, it builds, in a way, on practices of figuration and sensation within living religious traditions. We are also able to identify the afterlives of these images in secular contexts. So we have indeed Ulrike Brunotte’s piece on Salome, we have Christiane Kruse who works around Michel Houellebecq’s, Soumission, we have Else Marie Bukdahl who also works on modern abstract art, and all that. So that is, in fact, the last part of this volume, where these afterlives of Christian visual regimes are being addressed.

CM: Great. So thank you so much for that too, and again the details . . . thinking through the cultural heritage and yes, these images being part-and-parcel of how, also, outsiders see and visualise these religious traditions. I mean there’s a reason, when people go to Florence or different museums in Italy, they absorb and take in all the beautiful Christian art forms without necessarily understanding the contexts that sort-of brought those particular art forms to light, that would have made a lot of sense for the communities in which they were born into. So on the one hand, we can appreciate the art and the beauty of them, but for people within that community they take on a different meaning.

BM: Exactly and Christiane Kruse, for example, in an earlier work (German title) unfortunately only in German, she offered a really interesting analysis, in a way, of the ways in which theology and art move together – but also, to some degree of course, expand and extend into each other. So she discusses, indeed, all kinds of restrictions with regard to the depiction of the divine with deliberations by artists, who say “Well, the condition for the evocation of the unseen, of the divine, is it’s mediation via the image.” So you see already, in the medieval times, in the Baroque . . . all kinds of attempts at mobilising images in order to make an invisible visible, in the framework of the image, and at the same time seeking to circumvent charges of idolatry which would claim that this would amount to representing the divine as such. So there is a lot of deliberation about the work of mediation that images as media can do, in alluding to a kind-of unseen without ever fully rendering it present as such. And I hope that, perhaps, reading our volume may also alert people that when they watch these masterpieces of art they embed it in broader debates within the Christian realm in this case.

CM: Yes. Exactly. Great. So we’ve gone a little bit more specific. And then I wonder if we can sort-of get closer to wrapping up by thinking, again, more broadly. So, back to the points that I brought up at the beginning of the interview (40:00). Back to this issue – and I think Terje mentioned it a few times – but aniconism is just absence, and anti-iconism, or iconoclasm as “No” – and destruction of images. So I wonder if we can sort-of just think through again that tension or that conflation. And then final approaches to what we can learn from that, for going forward in the field of Religious Studies: how you hope that people will take this scholarship and either apply it, or rethink their own research materials. So perhaps just suggestions or, again, detail about this aniconism conflation with anti-iconism . . . wherever you’d like to go from there.

TS: If I may have some first thoughts. From my perspective, there isn’t all that much difference between the one and the other. The difference is more in politics than in the use of images. But, obviously, setting out to destroy someone else’s material basis for religion is a very powerful political move. And setting out to destroy someone for destroying one’s own material basis is another political move. And it has created opportunities for religious agents around the world to use the image or non-image question for their political religious purposes. But I think, when you look at the practices, it’s very difficult to see substantial differences between these. Now that’s the religious experts. They would like us to see those distinctions and I think demounting the distinctions is maybe one of the services that we can provide with this volume.

BM: Yes, I think I would endorse this. And say that as scholars we have to be very much aware of the epistemic regimes that have been guiding our research. And we have to be aware to what extent they have been guided, in fact, by normative assumptions rooted in religious traditions themselves. And we suggest, in fact, with this volume, to move beyond the issue of the image question per se, to move beyond the issue of aniconism or anti-iconism versus iconodule attitudes, towards a broader approach that would look at practices of decoration, at visual regimes in which images may take very, very different roles. And of course bilderverbot – the interdiction of images – may be one, but there may be many, many other options. And we should, as scholars, be prepared to see all these options as, yes – on the conceptual level – definitely equal. I think that this is very important also in relation to debates about images and religion in our contemporary society. There is some kind-of irony that, nowadays, often Muslims are told that Christians have no problems with depicting images, with depictions of the divine, anything goes. But it’s only Muslims are not able to see this. Now this is definitely false, of course. And I hope that through our comparative approach, or by taking, in a way, the Abrahamic traditions – and I know that the term also comes with its own problems – but by taking these three traditions together, we can get beyond these very simplistic ideas as we encounter them now, through which post-Christian secular people distinguish themselves from Muslims who are told to also now be able to become iconoclasts. All these are very cheap and simplistic rhetoric, I think, that ask for being further unpacked. And in fact the Figurations and Sensations volume has a sister volume, which is a volume called Taking Offence which I co-edited with two colleagues, Anna-Marie Korte and Christiane Kruse, in which we look at images . . . wars and contestations around offensive images in the contemporary world. So it may be nice to see the volumes together. So in addressing, in a way, image questions conceptually we just have to broaden our scope, I would say.

TS: Yes.

CM: Wonderful. Yes, Terje thank you so much for bringing in the politics of the utilisation of when we get to have that power over the images (45:00). Obviously the Buddhas of Bamyan are often the most iconic example of that, of the destruction of those Buddhas by the Taliban and thinking about, then, the power of trying to provoke, also. So that sort-of Taking Offence volume you mentioned is really interesting there: of having images of Mohammed contests out there, to try to provoke some sort-of response that would then . . . I don’t know, prove something . . . prove all kinds of offensiveness being taken. So the political-ness of when to apply aniconism, anti-iconism or iconoclasm are also prescient, especially right now. And thinking about how relevant images are for communicating larger political goal, not just religious ones. So thank you so much for that. Any final words you’ve got for us? I mean this has been really awesome, and I’ve loved talking to you. And it just makes me more excited to dive in deeper to this book and also the Taking Offence book. But anything other, that you’d like to mention before we wrap up?

BM: Maybe just a small footnote about what I try to emphasise in my chapter and also my work is of course the tremendous iconoclastic attacks with regard to indigenous traditions that have been launched by both Protestant and Catholic mission societies, leading also to the collection of lots of items from Africa, and other parts of the world, that are now located in mission and ethnographic museums. And of course the point that this iconoclastic attack is in fact still going on and launched by many Pentecostal churches. I’m addressing this to some extent, also, in my chapter in the book. And I think this should also be remembered when talking about IS, or the Banyan examples. Otherwise I’m just very happy about this conversation. I’m also very happy about this collaboration with Terje, and the other scholars, and I hope very much that, yes, this work will trigger debates, will trigger more works. So in many ways I’m must say I’m not yet done with this anti-image question! I really hope that, with this, we will be able to offer some incentives to broaden the study of religion conceptually, and methodologically, to indeed research on processes of figuration and the imagination, beyond rather simplistic views. And, of course, there is some good work out there: Sally Promey, David Morgan, we mentioned people in the field of material religion for example, but I do think that this is really a strand that’s ready to have some more attention, in our very heavily media-saturated and image-full world. So we live just in the world with so many images and we don’t know their provenance. We are not so much aware about of the provenance of our stances with regard to images, our preparedness to believe in them or not, and all that. And I think Religious Studies has much to say and unpack here.

CM: Wonderful. Anything other you’d like to note Terje, before we . . . ?

TS: No, I think you’ve covered most of it now.

CM: Yes. That was a great summation. Well, thank you all again. And the book that they’ve been kind-of mentioning, and we’ve been dancing through, is called Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam and is thankfully open access, which is amazing! So people can access it, regardless of institutional affiliation, and library access. So it’s very accessible. And we do thank you for making that book so accessible. So, on behalf of the Religious Studies Project, thank you all.

TS: Thank you for having us.

BM: Thank you.

 

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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

In the popular imaginary, Israel/Palestine is – and has always been – a contested territory, associated with sacred sites, the ‘Abrahamic’ religions, religion-related conflicts, and a volatile political climate. However, this unnuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground, particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast, a large group of around 860,000 ‘secular’ millennials, who have come of age during a phase of national conflict when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilized religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide.

In this podcast, Chris Cotter is joined by Dr Stacey Gutkowski to discuss what it means to be a ‘secular Jewish Israeli millennial’. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? How do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, and to Palestine? And much more…

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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

Podcast with Stacey Gutowski (9 December 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/secular-jewish-millennials-in-israel-palestine/

Christopher Cotter (CC): In the popular imaginary Israel/ Palestine is, and has always been, a contested territory associated with secret sites, the Abrahamic religions, religion-related conflicts and a volatile political climate. However, this un-nuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground – particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast: a large group of around 860,000 secular millennials who have come of age during a phase of national conflict where some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilised religio-ethnic symbols and have mobilised religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide. Today I am joined, in Edinburgh, by Dr Stacey Gutowski to discuss what it means to be a secular Jewish Israeli millennial. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? And how do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, to Palestine and hopefully much more. Dr Gutowski is a senior lecturer in Conflict Studies and a Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Divided Societies at King’s College London. She’s the author of Secular War: Myths of Politics and Violence, published in 2012 and has been co-director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, where I know her from, since 2008. And today’s interview touches on themes developed in her forthcoming book Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s’ Post Oslo Generation which will be published with the Manchester University Press in 2020. So first-off, Stacey, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Stacey Gutowski (SG): Thanks, Chris! Really happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

CC: Not at all. It’s just wonderful that you’re passing through Edinburgh. I couldn’t not speak to you! So, first-off . . . I know a bit about your research journey. But if you could just tell us about your academic background: your interests, and how you have ended up conducting this study on Secular Jewish Israeli millennials.

SG: Absolutely. Thank you very much. Well, nowadays I describe myself more as a political sociologist. My academic background is in Philosophy, Peace Studies and International Relations. And my main area for research has been broadly in the area of religion, and conflict, and peace building. Specifically, I’ve been interested in the relationship between violence and the secular. My first book, which you introduced, took a Western case study looking at British foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in the book I introduced some theoretical questions that I thought I would then go on to explore over a series of decades. And this was the next step on that journey. And my particular interest in this book is to understand what it’s like to be a person who’s deeply embedded in religious tradition, but someone who distances themselves – or claims to distance themselves from the religious tradition. What is it like to live through violence? And Jewish Israeli- young secular Jewish Israeli millennials were an interesting case, because they have lived through a sort-of intensive series of wars since they’ve become young adults. But also it’s a hard case, because they’re not secular in a Western sense. So it was really to provide myself with a hard case to push the theory further.

CC: Excellent. Yeah. And as Listeners . . . regular listeners to the RSP probably know, in the study of secularity more broadly, everything tends to be quite Western European or North American. So work in the Israel/Palestine context is really excellent. So hopefully this interview will add to that. So you’ve already hinted a little bit about who are these secular Jewish millennials, and why they’re interesting. But maybe if you just tell us . . . . You hinted at some of their life experiences and why they might be interesting, but if you just tell us a bit about their demographics and what makes them a group. I mean “millennials” even might seem an obvious term to some, but if you can just get right down to the basics of what we’re . . . .

SG: Yes. Of course. So I take the Pew definition of millennials: born between 1980 and 1995. And then, in terms of this population – not just millennials but in the Israeli population overall (5:00) – they are about forty percent of the population. And there are fuzzy boundaries in the kinds of Jewish practices they engage in in Israel, between these hiloni secular Jews and masortim, the traditional Jews in Israel. Because Jewish popular culture is pervasive. So unlike someone who identifies as maybe an agnostic, or an atheist, or secular in the UK, these are people who are more deeply embedded in tradition. And, as Yaacov Yadgar has argued, can’t avoid it. As a group they’re largely urban and middle class. Sixty-six percent are descended from European migrants and thirty-two percent approximately are from Jews who are descendants of migrants from the Arab world, and from the Middle East. That is this group. And interestingly, there are continuities between older generations but there are some important distinctions as well.

CC: Which we’ll be hearing about now. This seems to be an appropriate point to throw a perhaps quite a difficult question at you. We opened up the interview to our Listeners and Louis Frankenthaler came in with . . . it’s basically about the whole notion of, I guess, “secular Jew”. I mean, it’s quite a common turn of phrase, yet we don’t really seem to say “secular Christian” so much, or “secular Muslim”, “Secular Buddhist” and so on. So I’ll just sort-of run through a little bit. He says that all too often people ask if you can be Jewish and not believe in a god or God. That is, be an atheist Jew or a secular Jew. And he says that he thinks this is a misdirected question. And wonders what your take on a more substantial query that asks (not) “Can you be Jewish and not believe in deity?”, but “Can you be Jewish and not do Judaism?” That is, God is not the only issue. And many would claim that God does not care if a Jew believes in God, but only that you do what it is that this God supposedly claims that Jews do. So basically, not whether a secular Jew is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but do you still have to practice something to be considered a Jew? Or is there something more inherent in that?

SG: Yes. No it’s a great question, and thank you very much to Louis for asking it. I mean, this is an essential question that’s really pre-occupying Jews in Israel and in the diaspora. I guess as a good social scientist, the first thing I would say is: people can be whatever they want to be, and we take it seriously as analysts. So certainly you see, in Israel and elsewhere, people who reject a strict or even partial observance of Jewish law, the Halakha, who do it, but actually engage in certain practices or something in between. And then you have scenarios, for example in Israel, with people who are migrants from the former Soviet Union, who have become orthodox Jews but who are not considered as Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel. Because they don’t have a Jewish mother and they haven’t had an orthodox conversion. So it’s a complicated picture. In terms of analytically, in Israel it’s a different place form the diaspora, because it is a context in which Judaism is woven into the fabric of public law and state life. And, as Liebman says, in popular culture. And also in Israel it’s a politicised identity. And Yadgar talks about how the early founders of the state couldn’t find another way to sort-of mark citizenship, Israeli citizenship, other than through Jewish religious identity. And this particular way in which the orthodox rabbinate decides who is Jewish, and who is not. But then it creates, you know . . . . When we think about it practically, in people’s everyday lives, we can say, “Yes, people who are determined to be Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel are embedded in Jewish popular culture.”  (10:00) But so is everybody else who comes into Israel, and ends up observing or having the Shabbat as a weekend because that’s the weekend in Israel! But I think, maybe, what Louis is asking about more is that it overlooks – not the question itself – but I think it’s easy to overlook that while Judaism is the centre of gravity for people, in public life and private, in Israel, it’s not the only source of existential culture, of ideas about philosophical ideas about life and its meaning. And that there are other things that people borrow from. Some of these are more perhaps well-known, such as Buddhism or New Age practices. But other things, like western philosophy, are I think somewhat overlooked in the literature, as these are all ways in which people make meaning in their lives. And some of those forms of meaning come from Judaism, and some of them come from other things. Now it’s a different case for the diaspora, where Jewish identity in contradistinction to other forms of identity – particularly Arab identity – is not enforced by the context, by the state context. And then again I would say, going back to the social science observations, that it matters what people do and how they identify.

CC: And how they are identified, again, as well.

SG: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And the terminology of secular Jewish in English perhaps raises these analytical questions. But when we look at what people actually do, it’s perhaps more clear.

CC: Absolutely. I know I teed that up with things like “we don’t really say ‘secular Christian’” and that sort of thing. But thinking about Abby Day and her work on not Christian nominalism, and the sort-of ethnic and familial aspects to that. Thinking of my own Northern Irish context, where everything is . . . You know, so I’m from a Protestant background. Even if I converted to Catholicism I would still be considered a Protestant, and that sort of thing. There’s all this. And, yes, being a secular Catholic or a secular Protestant probably does make a lot of sense in a Northern Irish context, in a way in which it mightn’t make discursive sense in other places. OK. So thanks for attempting that potential curve ball there! So just jumping straight into the book . . . and again, you’ve already hinted at some of your research questions. What were you hoping to probe by engaging with this large constituency?

SG: Well, there were two main research questions that animated the book that ended up working together and highlighting new things about each other, and the way the question was set out as I went along. So I would say I had two working research questions which were a starting point. And the first was, I guess, more empirical: as a young “secular” Jew – secular in, I suppose, scare quotes – what has it felt like coming of age during a phase of national conflict, when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, not just sort-of fringe figures, have used religio-ethnic symbols divisively? So looking at that phenomenologically. What is it like to be a person coming of age when religion has taken on new forms of mattering, politically? Even though it has been . . . it has mattered politically since before the founding of the state of Israel, and particularly after the 1967 war. So that was one question. And then the second set of questions, or the second question, as I said earlier, was to use Israel as a hard case to think theoretically. And that question was: what do violent political conflicts look and, most importantly, feel like to people who claim to distance themselves from the majority religious tradition in their given context – and yet are fundamentally embedded within it?

CC: And although we don’t want to spend too much time on the methods, we will want to know how you went about it as well (15:00). Unless the methods are really so exciting that you want to spend the rest of the interview talking about them, of course!

SG: No we can go through it quickly. So the project took a phenomenological approach. It’s an interpretivist approach. I did fifty interviews with self-identified hiloni millennials. For people who know the case, the point about self-identified-. . . I also took into account that some people appear to . . . but then began to speak about their religious practices and identities and turned out to be masorti some days and hiloni some days. So some days they’re traditional, some days they’re secular. So I took that into account in the analysis, and tried to take seriously what they say. Then I did . . . I also did twenty interviews with the transitional generation who are just older than them. These are people who were in their early twenties in the 1990s. And then I interviewed millennials who are traditionally Jewish or orthodox and then members of civil society. Some of them are also millennial. There was a survey of over ninety millennials surveyed – an in-depth survey. And then, for triangulation, it was participant observation and field notes, public opinion polls, various public reports, testimonies, media reviews . . . .

CC: So, not much then! (Laughs)

SG: No it was a very, very quick project – as you can tell! (Laughs)

CC: Excellent. So based on that large body of data and what we assume was your thorough analysis . . . . Well, let’s just dive in to some of your . . . . What did you find?

SG: OK.

CC: What’s going on?

SG: Just a few things. (Laughs) I guess, maybe I’ll talk a little bit first about what I found for this generation in terms of hiloni-masorti as a religio-class. Because I think of them not as just a religious sector, but as an elite middle class group – which also has this dimension of religious identity and practice. One of the things that’s interesting about this group is that they came of age during what scholars have called the religionisation of Jewish Israeli society. Now scholars have defined this in different ways. And some talk about this as the religionisation of politics: that orthodox and traditional views of, for example, the land and what the state of Israel should look like as the Jewish state, that these things have become more prominent over a secular socialist version of Zionism. And while that is the case, also thinking in terms of hadata – the sort-of intensification of Jewish practice – that people would begin to maybe just practice little bit more, so a little bit more, marginally, than they relatively would, in terms for example of holiday celebrations with family. So this is something that they have come of age in the middle of. They’ve also come of age in the middle of a sort-of revival of people thinking about what it is to be secular Jew, or secular Jews becoming orthodox, and of different forms of Judaism – conservative Judaism, Reform, revisionist Judaism – becoming marginally more popular with North American migration to Israel. So they come of age in the middle of this. But in terms of identity, there are no sort-of marked differences, as far as I could tell, with the transitional generation. In terms of practice, what’s interesting is that millennials don’t see this as an intensification. Because they’ve come of age in the middle of it. So you don’t see it, because you’re in it. So they think it’s unremarkable. And people who are a bit older, you know, talk about this massive shift in Jewish Israeli public life since the 1980s (20:00). In terms of the class aspect of this, what was quite noteworthy is that the presence of mizrahi middle class millennials who would identify with the term hiloni –and not simply because of this Zionist binary creation between secular and religious Jews. But actually because the term means something to them – either in terms of politics, or economics, or class aspirations. So this class looks somewhat different than it did. Because you have this group, you have new entrants, the migrants from the former Soviet Union, and these have changed what the class looks like.

CC: Obviously – I mean I’m just following your lead here – but this group is a major element in Israel/Palestine. There’s obviously Palestine and Palestinians, and so what about Israeli millennials and their relation to and their constructions of Palestine, and Palestinians, and the whole conflict issue . . . ?

SG: Absolutely. So they’re not politically unique, in that they stand out from the rest of the population. Their political opinions on the Palestinians, and on occupation, have sort-of followed the general trends along with the Jewish Israeli population. But there are two things that, politically, are distinctive in terms of their experience with Palestinians. One is, separation policy – following the end of the second Intifada, with the building of the separation barrier in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It’s not as though previous generations of this group had necessarily lived in close contact with Palestinians. But scholars have found that this has had an impact, socially and psychologically, on being able to imagine the other. The other thing that’s distinctive about this generation, in terms of the Palestinians, is the sheer number of wars and repeated wars. So for this group – the exceptions being the oldest and the youngest – but we can think of the core of this group as having served in the disengagement, withdrawing Israeli settlements from Gaza, then serving in 2006, 2008, 2011-12 and 2014. Not to mention the 2006 war in Lebanon. So the sort-of level of violent contact is quite distinct. And then a couple of other things that are distinct have been electoral success of centre-right political parties, including religious parties. And then, also, debates between 2011 and 2018 about the basic law, the constitutional arrangements of the State of Israel, and the ethnic framing of the state. So these are things that have . . . . Well, the religious experiences are somewhat different. The political experience is quite different from people who were in their twenties during the Oslo Peace Process. Because this is the constituency that was the backbone of the peace movement, supportive of the Oslo process. So there’s been a gradual shift, politically, to the centre, relatively to the right, among this group. In a recent election we see sort-of potentially, potentially another shift, at least in terms political government leadership. So this is . . . they’re quite different from the transitional generation.

CC: And we’re already at 25 minutes here which is time . . . I mean, we can run on a little bit of course, but we can . . . . One of the main arguments in your book is this concept that you call “neo-romanticism”: this sort-of characterising feature for the hilonis (25:00). What’s going on there? What do you mean by neo-romanticism?

SG: Absolutely. I mean this came out of a grounded approach of needing to look at what was happening across quite a diverse group of people. I interviewed politically diverse – from right, centre, to left – geographically diverse in terms of gender and other characteristics. And when I was looking at the material and trying to draw out: “Ok. What united this group?” There were a couple of things that really united them. And one of them was this emphasis on personal experience. Now certainly in the media, and in public life, there’s a lot of discussion that Jewish Israeli millennials are maybe a bit individualistic, selfish and that this is a product of the shift to a capitalist economy in Israel in the 1980s. And yes, I saw that. But there seemed to be something going on as well about the idea of emotion and personal experience being very important. And that was something that people referred to repeatedly, about using their personal experience to navigate the world. And another feature that came out that was important was there was – yes there was individualism, but then there was also a great deal of sort-of attachment, not to the state per se, as a political entity, but to Jewish people and not . . . . You know, they referenced this sort-of Zionist discourse about the Jewish people, but for them it was specifically the Jewish people they know: their friends, their family. So there’s a kind-of dialectic between individual and collective. And I needed to account for this political diversity. Why was it that the emotional ecology, and the way people talked about themselves, talked about the conflict, the occupation, the Palestinians, politics, life in general – why was there something . . . ? There was a thread that underpinned all of that. Why? And so I started to think a bit more about Talal Asad’s use of Stefan Collini’s idea of romanticism. And what Assad has to say about romanticism as a secular, but also a spiritual, movement. Now of course romanticism was a feature of the European Jewish experience during the Haskalah – (audio unclear) book on this is very interesting – and also nineteenth century romanticism informed political Zionism. I’m not saying that . . . I’m not trying to draw these direct historical connections. I’m more kind-of inspired by Assad’s use of this. And so I talk about . . . that as the hiloni habitus developed from the nineteenth century onwards, that it always had these different strands to it. One romantic and one rationalist. And that this romantic strand is really important. And it’s not obvious, because when you speak to people they will tell you that they’re heavily rationalist. And then you probe further, and they’re heavily emotional. And so I like this idea of romanticism. And I called it neo-romanticism to set it apart, to say that I’m not drawing a clear line with the nineteenth century. To talk about this emphasis on personal experience, Collini says that for the nineteenth century romantics, individual and collective didn’t contradict one another. And he also says that nineteenth century romanticism was neither explicitly politically conservative nor progressive. It made possible different kinds of politics. And this, I thought, was a good way of talking about what’s happening among this group. That lived experience is important, that there is something happening in terms of the role of emotion and also religious and spiritual and philosophical effervescence. These things are in motion in Israel, not just with New Ageism and secular renewal and the impact of Mizrahi renaissance on popular culture. But there is something there. So these narratives about being reasonable and being rational need to be unpicked. And I thought it accounted for this sort-of tension between the individual and the collective. And what I say is neo-romanticism is a kind of neo-republican citizenship. So what’s talked about in the literature, and in the Jewish Israeli media, is that with liberalism and Zionist republicanism, care for the state is somehow juxtaposed (30:00). And like, no – these things are working together. Yes there may be . . . absolutely, there are people who are very, very liberal and individualistic and leave the state, but it would be a mistake to miss the ways in which they are sort-of bound to the state as well.

CC: So I’m going to ask you two more questions. One is going to be the “Why does this matter?” So, this scene you’ve just painted there, this sort-of neo-romantic thread that’s uniting this seemingly potentially disparate group. I think, in the book, you draw some of the implications of this politically. And then I’m also interested in why should we care about it in Religious Studies, really. What difference does it make to me? (Laughs).

SG: OK. Two very, very big questions. Let me start with the first one. Why does this matter politically? There are a lot of reasons why the state of the political situation between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis is what it is at the moment, having to do with violence, with the election of particular leaders on both sides, by strategic decisions made not to continue with negotiation after 2014. And what I’m saying is that, in the context of what critical geographers call the “national atmosphere”, that it’s also important to look at what’s happening in terms of lived habitus, and how people think about themselves. And what I found was that people, regardless of where they were on the political spectrum, were united in thinking of themselves as what I’d call “fulcrum citizens”, balancing out extremes – both extremes on the right and extremes on the left – Jewish Israeli extremes, Palestinian extremes. What they see as extremist, internationally, in Europe. That they see themselves as balancing people. And that they see this related to their hiloni needs, their religious class habitus, but that they’re also shaped by their – for this generation – a Jewish-centric experience, after the failure of Oslo. So I say that this is part of the mix in understanding the ongoing conflict and continuing occupation. It’s one of many different factors, but I don’t think it’s yet been particularly brought to the fore. So that’s what I want to say about that.

CC: Excellent. And how about, for someone not in the study of Israel /Palestine, perhaps not even in the study of the secular and that sort of thing. What do you think is the sort-of import . . . ?

SG: The big takeaway for Religious Studies? When I got to the end of the book, and I revisited these questions, the one thing that stood out for me was the importance of studying the individual level and of studying gradations of emotional attachment to religious identities, symbols, spaces. In Brubaker’s work, in 2015, he points to this about the importance of studying the individual level. But I don’t think that we yet, in the field, are particularly good at doing that. And yet we claim to study ethno-religious conflict, or religio-ethnic conflict, and the intersection of the two. And it’s not simply, you know, insert identity and everyone’s going to feel the same way. And we know that. That’s kind-of something we know, practically. But I thought that this was an area that could be further advanced. And I talk about it a bit at the end of the book, about where I think we could go. In particular, thinking about studying political conflict within ethno-religious dimension beyond identity (35:00). So that was one thing I wanted to do in the book was . . . . There’s chapter on space, and there’s a chapter on epistemology, to try to move into new directions.

CC: Begging the forgiveness of Helen, who’ll be transcribing this (Granted) I did say, if we had time, I’d mention another theme like sacred space, and how that came up in the book. So what would you have wanted to say – in, like, thirty seconds – that you haven’t got to say?

SG: That’s ok. It’s attached to the other thing. I mean, again, this is related to the point about how the literature, I think, needs to not presume emotional attachment to sacred space, but needs to drill down into people’s individual feelings about sacred space. Because just because people have an ethno-religious identity, they may not particularly care about place. But at the same time, just because they claim they don’t care, does not mean that they actually do not.

CC: Exactly.

SG: And so it makes ideas around compromising and sharing sacred space complicated. And I looked at the Haram al Sharif, Temple Mountain, and attitudes to that in the book.

CC: So, Listeners, if you want to find out more about that – when in 2020 are we expecting this? Or do we not want to say a month yet?

SG: Hopefully, soon.

CC: Hopefully, soon! So that book is going to be Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s Post-Oslo generation. Stacey Gutowski, we hope our Listeners will read that book and shout widely about it. But if they don’t, they’ve heard an excellent interview today! Thank you so much.

SG: Thank you so much.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

two women, rabbis, and a man holding a guitar

When the Word is a Sound: Toward a Sensory Scholarship of Religion

  • A response to the podcast “Melodies of Change: Music and Progressive Judaism”
  • By Judah Cohen, PhD, Indiana University Bloomington
  • I began writing this response on the day before Thanksgiving, and the day after the conclusion of the American Academy of Religion (AAR)’s 2018 meeting in Denver. My colleagues Monique Ingalls, Alisha L. Jones, and Zöe Sherinian all attended AAR, jetting over from the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM)’s more intimate (c. 1000 attendees) annual meeting the day before. I did not. The last time I attended AAR, in 2006, I felt overwhelmed by bigness, unsure how to go beyond my small disciplinary circle in a scholarly sea of logocentrism. While I sought out like-minded colleagues, I found, like Illman, a significant center of scholarship oriented around the arts as an adornment to worship, rather than as a core part of it. In the exhibit hall, meanwhile, music seemed to be the domain of media companies presenting their latest (typically Christian) worship technologies. Finding a place for music in the already huge conference felt particularly fraught to me. 
  • How much has changed by 2018? A quick perusal of the AAR/SBL program shows four sessions on music out of about twelve hundred organized events. I admire my ethnomusicology colleagues’ initiative and energy—in their own Society they have successfully organized a thriving Section on Music, Religion and Sound; and Jonathan Dueck and Suzel Reily’s recently published Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities received recognition as an outstanding collection of essays. Yet connecting this approach to the core concerns of Religious Studies remains a daunting affair.
  • So thank you, Ruth Illman. 

Above, Obadiah the Proselyte (early 12th century): manuscript for the liturgical poem “Mi Al Har Morev.” 
  • The book that inspired Dr. Illman’s podcast offers a meaningful model for bridging Ethnomusicology and Religion as mature scholarly disciplines. Citing Rosalind I. J. Hackett, and channeling assertions by Isaac Weiner and others, Illman seeks to restore to Religious Studies the soundtrack that has long made worship and liturgy viable, both publicly and (sometimes) privately:
“We need to realize that music, and the arts in general, are not just ornaments or illustrations of something more profoundly important to religion, but they are aspects of religious engagement in their own right that we need actively to give serious scholarly attention.”
  • Illman’s assertion can sound like a challenge to a field where text’s inherent physicality gives it a privileged place: where the very act of reading, writing or printing not only preserves a record, but can sacralize a ritual. Text conveniently symbolizes the multisensory experience of spirituality and tradition, which we describe and ritualize in the process of projecting a broader experience of the numinous. But what happens if we enter the experience directly through music—in a sense turning music into the center of focus, with text as an auxiliary? It’s more than a thought experiment: as Illman points out, drawing on decades of work in ethnomusicology to support her, people regularly give sound more weight than text as a determinant of religious tradition and authenticity. The view holds in different ways across faith traditions. Liberal populations might at first seem the most likely to observe here, due to (often biased) perceptions that they interpret core religious texts less literally than more “orthodox” groups. Yet music can also be a powerful lens of authenticity even in those populations: in Judaism, for example, we can see such issues in the nigunim (melodies) of Hasidic populations, the Lernensteiger melodies used to teach rabbinic texts (as studied by Lionel Wohlberger), and the universal dilemmas of melody choice, timbre, and sound production that pervade many forms of worship.
  • Indeed, public prayer frequently shifts into musical primacy, as anyone who has attempted to decipher the words of a polyphonic Mass in a cathedral (including Church officials!) might recognize. Music forcefully reminds us of religion’s timebound nature and holds  its own systems of rhythm and inflection—as I tell my students, you cannot skim music the way you can cram a text. And the more closely we look into the topic, the more deeply we can notice how congregants bring to a complex and sophisticated palette of descriptors and tastes to the music they experience in their spiritual lives. We hear these descriptors regularly, as Illman shows in her larger study, and as Jeffrey Summit has explored in his book The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land. Liturgical music jobs are won and lost by them. And the “worship wars”—disputes between the music of “high” and “low” culture­—show how crucial they are to the worship experience (as illustrated by several selections in Routledge’s recent Congregational Music Studies Series). 
< p style=”text-align: center;”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcTneBjgaA8

Above, a Friday evening service during Chanukah 2014 at B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue in New York City, known for at least 25 years now for its musical services. 

  • Entering scholarly discussions of religion through music can thus open new perspectives for understanding communal spiritual dynamics and normalize the idea that populations can be spiritually articulate even when they identify only loosely (or symbolically) with core texts —allowing us to move beyond moralistic critiques of “losing touch” with tradition that pervade both scholarship and practice.
  • Illman’s description of authenticity as described through her contemporary interlocutors’ musical experiences can also extend to broader discourses of authority, including debates over the performance of sacred text and the role of music (and by extension other arts) in conferring spiritual authority. Whether through Quran recitation contests, the training of Jewish cantors, mantra chanting, or the long parallel development of music and text in various Christian denominations, music and text depend on each other for their continued vitality. In my own research on both contemporary liturgies and the American Jewish nineteenth century, I found music to be more than just a liturgical enhancement: it made sacred text viable, connecting the often obtuse and generalized words with congregants’ personal needs and cultural norms.
  • When it comes to music, then, Illman’s study offers an excellent opportunity to see how ethno/musicologists can bring greater depth to the study of religion—and particularly how their/our methods can enhance historical debates around the status of text. David Stern, among a growing number of scholars, now highlights physical and textual mutability as a central part of what we consider textual “tradition.” What greater depth we can find, then, when we restore sound to the experience and think of text as a contributor to a crowded and rich sensory view of the numinous—while seeing other modes of expression as equally rich doors into our intellectual discussions.

 

Suggested Reading (at least as a start):

  • Judah M. Cohen, Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth Century America: Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming April 2019).
  • Jonathan Dueck and Suzel Ana Reily, The Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  • Rosalind I. J. Hackett, “Sound, Music, and the Study of Religion.” Temenos 48, 1 (2012), 11-27.
  • Monique Ingalls, Singing in the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
  • Deborah R. Justice, “The Curious Longevity of the Traditional–Contemporary Divide: Mainline Musical Choices in Post–Worship War America,” Liturgy 32, 1 (2017), 16-23.
  • Mark L. Kligman, Maqām and Liturgy : Ritual, Music, and Aesthetics of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009). 
  • Ellen Koskoff, Music in Libavitcher Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).
  • Anna Nekola and Tom Wagner, eds. Congregational Music Making and Community in a Mediated Age. (New York: Routledge, 2015).
  • Zoe Sherinian, Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Liberation Theology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).
  • David Stern, The Jewish Bible: A Material History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017).
  • Jeffrey Summit, The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: Music and Identity in Contemporary Jewish Worship (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • Jeffrey Summit, Singing God’s Words: The Performance of Bible Chant in Contemporary Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  • Isaac Weiner, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sounds, Public Space, and American Pluralism (New York: NYU Press, 2014).
  • Lionel Wolberger, “The Music of Holy Argument: The Ethnomusicology of a Talmud Study Session,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry IX (1993), 110-138.

Melodies of Change: Music and Progressive Judaism

In his work Auf De Hohe, Jewish poet and author Berthold Auerbach famously wrote “music is a universal language, and needs not be translated. With it soul speaks to soul.” (1865). Music plays a numerous roles in many religious traditions, Judaism being no exception. From piyyutim to zemirot to Yeshiva acapella groups in the United States, the use of music in the Jewish faith is numerous and varied. In this interview, Breann Fallon of the Sydney Jewish Museum chats to Dr Ruth Illman of Åbo Akademi University and Uppsala Universityi about her research on the role of music as an agent of change within the progressive Jewish community in London that appears in her most recent monograph Music and Religious Change among Progressive Jews in London: Being Liberal and Doing Traditional. In particular, Dr Illman discusses the power of music to fuse the traditional and the liberal in a forward movement of progressive Judaism. Additionally, the connection of this movement to particular locations and other potential issues such as gender provide a stimulating discussion around this innovative display of both religion and creativity.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Melodies of Change: Music and Progressive Judaism

Podcast with Ruth Illman (25 February 2019).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Illman_-_Melodies_of_Change_1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): Today I have with me Dr Ruth Illman. She is Docent (associate professor) of Comparative Religion at Åbo Akademi University. And she’s also Professor of History of Religions at Uppsala University. She is currently director of the Donner Institute for Religious and Cultural History in Turku in Finland. Together with Dr Karin Hedner Zetterholm she is the editor of the open access, peer reviewed Journal of Scandinavian Jewish Studies. Dr Illman has published more than 30 peer reviewed articles in journals such as Contemporary Jewry, The Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion, and Journal of Contemporary Religion, as well as monographs and edited volumes with Routledge, Brill and Equinox. Her most recent work is Music and Religious Change among Progressive Jews in London: Being Liberal and Doing Traditional. So, thank you very much for joining us today.

Ruth Illman (RI): Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

BF: Great. I thought we’d just start off by talking about your most recent monograph: Music and Religious Change among Progressive Jews in London. It looks at religious change in relation to music in the context of contemporary progressive Judaism. I thought we could begin with just talking about music in Judaism. I thought you could maybe give us a bit of an insight into what role music plays in the Jewish faith, and is there any sort of difference between progressive or orthodox denominations amongst the Jewish community?

RI: Well, thank you. That’s a very huge question. I’ll try to answer it the best I can from my point of view. Now I’m not an expert on all forms on all forms of Judaism in all times and all over the world, so to say. So I’ll mostly speak now from the context that I have been researching and try to make some parallels from there. But as a scholar of religion and especially contemporary religion I could say that I think that music in general is relevant to religiosity, not just within Judaism but all over. And I think we can see, especially today, that for many people who seek forms of religious engagement today, that they can somehow side with and feel comfortable with music . . . it’s playing a more and more important role, so to say. Because music somehow seems to capture many of the dimensions that people seek in a religious engagement today. Which is that it’s not just an intellectual way of engaging with a religious faith, it also has emotional and embodied sides to it. It can be very individual and very sort of personal – but also something you do, tied to community. And music is not always as words . . . as clearly fixed to structures and to interpretation. But it’s more open for everybody. But still it is meaningfully grounded in a tradition, just like the Jewish traditions I have been researching. So it’s creative but it’s also very constitutive of certain traditions. So it gives you freedom to form your own religious engagement. But it still ties you to a community and to a history. So that’s the first point I’d like to say, is that music is more relevant to Religious Studies all over than we maybe think. Because I think, in our research fields we’re always so preoccupied with the words and with the texts. And sort-of looking at music as a secondary aspect to it. But I wanted to produce it in the centre, here. And if we’re thinking about music within Judaism, of course this is an immense topic. And the first question, of course, is what do we count as music in a religious Jewish setting? Is it just the liturgical singing? Is it the nusah? The cantillation modes? Is it the traditional chants? Is it, maybe, the cantorially-led music that we have in some congregations? In some places we have a choir – we might even have communal singing in the more progressive denominations. So it is a great variety and it is a great mix today. But I think as I have been focussing on these progressive denominations in a British context, I think what more and more of them are saying, in the interviews I have made, is that they feel that music and musical engagements, singing and music overall has been lacking from their tradition. They feel that it’s been impoverished as so much has been focused on the spoken word (5:00). And on the benefit of taking away these elements that were seen maybe to be obscure and old fashioned and mystical – not in a positive sense. So I think, here, this also proves the fact that different kinds of music are more and more appreciated all over the line. And also when we speak about Jewish music in this context, which I think shows very well in my interviews, is that I think as researchers there’s some . . . we don’t have the possibly to really, any longer, to try to define this kind of grand narrative of Jewish music: so what is Jewish music? What is not Jewish music? And what music belongs to which part of the Jewish world? And so on. We cannot draw these clear boundaries any more. But Jewish music instead, I think we have to look at the context that we are researching. So it’s a question of how we interpret the music; what associations are made; in what context it’s presented; what intentions are tied to it? And there we can sort of try to circle in on what we mean with Jewish music. This was a very broad answer to your question!

BF: That’s ok. Maybe we should hone in a bit now – as you say, circle in – on your particular group you’ve been looking at which is progressive Judaism. My first sort of question, when you were talking there, is you talked a little bit about the revival of music in progressive Judaism. What sort of timeline are we looking at in terms of this revival? Is it a relatively recent phenomenon that we’re seeing?

RI: Well, both yes and no. I have made my interviews between 2014 and 2016. So, of course, that’s very recent. And the persons I have been talking to, they have rather broad age spans. So they’re born between the 1940s and the 1990s. So I have both rather young, and people who have grown up and come of age in the sixties. And what most of them, who use this historical language, say is that this process of change has a lot of roots in Jewish revival movement, which of course was tied, was a phenomenon of the sixties. And especially in the United States where the whole idea of reviving Judaism, of finding a more spiritually engaging way of practising Judaism arose – along with a lot of other New Age movements and the hippy movement and the whole counter-cultural milieu that we find in the late Sixties. So many would say that we saw it already here, in certain forms, these more embodied and engaging musical practices within Judaism. But I would say that, in my material, most people would talk about the change in a much shorter perspective – maybe talking about the twenty-first century, more. But I think we can see relevant ties to a process that began already in the sixties.

BF: And what sort of function is this music having as part of this revival? What role was it playing?

RI: I think . . . the subtitle of my book is Being Liberal and Doing Traditional. And I think this captures it quite well, the role of music here. Because, for the people I have interviewed, they would not be interested in trying out and exploring a more orthodox or traditional theology. They are very comfortable in their liberal progressive theological values which are very inclusive and very, sort-of, very open to liberal values. But what they want is a more traditional way of doing the Jewish stuff. I mean, how you go about the way of expressing your Jewish tradition, and what kind of things . . . in manifest ways you become Jewish. And here I think that music plays a pivotal role. Because somehow it’s through the music that you can try to connect to more traditional ways of  . . . especially more traditional ways of singing. Bringing in the cantillations to the services for example, not just reading the text, but chanting them in traditional Jewish ways. And then also bringing in more Hebrew besides the vernacular languages which are very broadly used in the progressive services in Britain (10:00). Trying out the sacred language, the Hebrew language, and sort of bringing all the dimensions that it can bring. My special interest was in a musical practice called nigunim which is means melody in Hebrew, or tune. Which is actually a tradition that derives from the Hasidic tradition where instead of singing with words you just skip the words and use onomatopoetic syllables like “lai-lai”. So that the singing itself becomes the prayer, not the words that are spoken. And this is explored in many different kind of progressive settings today. And this would not mean that the persons who are interested in adapting nigunim to liberal services, that they would be interested in Hasidic theology at all. But more the way of expressing these . . . the way of expressing and the way of using music to build a more comprehensive relationship to the liturgy. So here I think we can see the role of music as something that gives you an open space to combine and connect to tradition, but still hold on to the theological values that you want to preserve – the liberal values. So I would say that the role of music is rather big here, in this situation. It’s somehow a tool that is . . . well it’s not just a tool but it’s a context and it’s a way of being and doing Jewish that is available and useful in combining liberal values with traditional ways of practising.

BF: It really sounds like it’s trying to bridge that gap between, I suppose you phrase it as the old and the new. Which I think is quite a bit of a hot topic in Religious Studies at the moment. This sort of difference between very traditional streams of faith practice and more liberal and open, if you want to put it that way. This music seems to be a way that those two things are combined in modern Jewish practice.

RI: Absolutely. And I think it’s also a way of acknowledging that religion is not a static thing. And that it’s always changing. I mean what we would call traditional today is of course always also something that is adapting and changing, with the context and with the time. And when I say that liberal Jews in London sing nigunim they are, of course, adapting it to their own needs and practices. We have the whole issue of men and women for example, singing together at all: kol isha is that the voice of the woman shouldn’t be heard at all. And I would also say that many of them, most very consciously are not saying that they are reviving something that they’re going back, you know, to tradition. It’s not a move backwards. It’s a move forwards. But it’s a creative and free way of using tradition as a well to find inspiration in. But then to develop it to something that goes along with your own practice and your own values, and your own ethical standpoints. So it’s very much not going back to tradition. And I think it’s very much going forward but with inspiration from the past. But I think that’s what you were also saying about here, and which I think is very relevant: where we end up is as researchers we have to question the idea of institutional engagement at this sort of . . . .That it’s a very clear line where we have, for example, orthodox and traditional in one end of the scale, and then we have the liberals at the other end of the scale. And then we have a clear line here of development and you can place people somewhere on this continuum. Because what these creative new combinations show is that you can actually combine a theological position which is very liberal with practices that are very traditional. And what you get is personal outlooks on how to be and do Jewish that do not fit these models that we try to squeeze people into.

BF: I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about this sort-of specific community that you looked at. This sort of community in London. Is there anything specific about the reason why it has popped up in London? Is this happening in other places? What’s interesting about that specific landscape?

RI: Yes, thank you I think this is a very important question. Now, as you mentioned in your introduction, I’m based in Finland, and I lead a research institute in Finland. And well, first of all the practical reason: the number of Jews in Finland is so small (15:00), it’s . . . well, officially we have 1500 persons in Finland who belong to Jewish communities. So this kind of research would not have been possible to do in Finland. But I wanted very much to do research that would focus on European Jewry, because I feel that much of the research on Judaism we have today is focussed very much on the large centres of Jewish population, so North America, and Israel. And much of what is going on in Europe or in Australia for that matter is not given as much focus as it could be. So I wanted to focus on European Jewry. And I also wanted explicitly to do research on progressive and liberal Judaism today, because also I think much of the research that we do on Judaism today is either focussed on the history, or then it is very sort of orthodox communities – of course, because they offer the most sort of controversial and specific contexts. So I wanted to focus on the liberal side. The reason that I ended up doing my research at Leo Baeck College well, it was first of all a practical reason that I had connections there. But I wanted very much to focus on a college community. It’s quite a special congregation we have there, because among my interviews are students who are studying to become rabbis, both in the liberal and in the reform movements in Britain, but more largely in Europe. So I have the students, and I have the teachers, and the alumni, and other people who are connected to the college. And of course the college is quite a dynamic place. It’s during your studies that you try out different ways of leading Jewish services, for example. When these people will move out into the congregations in Britain, and then as congregational rabbis, maybe, they will need more to adapt to the traditions of the specific community where they work, and all these things. But during your studies you are still quite open to try out lots of different visions that you have for how to use music in your Jewish life. So the college was really a marvellous place to do this research. And even though this Leo Baeck college, physically it’s in North London and most of the students and teachers that I talked to were British in origin, some of them had been liberal Jews for four generations. Some of them had converted from Christianity. Others had an orthodox background, for example. And they also had their roots in lots of different countries: Germany, Russia, Romania, France, Canada, United States, Israel, just to mention it. So it was a very cosmopolitan and very dynamic and very interesting milieu. But still the college somehow is the connecting context for all of them. So that’s how I ended up doing the research at Leo Baeck.

BF: And what do you think was . . . . Was there anything specific about London itself, apart from that college environment?

RI: Well, of course, London is one of the most international and multicultural places on the earth. So in that sense it was very interesting to see how these developments take place in this extremely sort-of multicultural milieu. But I still think, also, that Britain can function – and London especially now can function – as this very specified prism through which we can see developments and have a perspective, also, on different developments that we see. I think it’s a good reflection of what is maybe coming to the Nordic countries, where the Jewish communities are rather small and have quite unified backgrounds. We can also . . . . We have in Europe, of course, the other large centre of Jewry is France where we have a different development going on. But then, also, the British development is very closely tied of course to what is going on in North America. But still I think many of the British Jews also had a very conscious wish to form their own interpretation of the lines of development that come from the United States. So in that sense, I think it’s a good mirror for different kind of development we see in other parts of the Jewish world.

BF: So do you think that this sort of movement could happen in perhaps less progressive areas? Perhaps somewhere like Israel? (20:00)

RI: Well there are, of course, in Israel these kind of developments going on. I haven’t specifically been studying in the Israeli context, but there are a lot of very progressive and very innovative small communities in Israel that work along these same lines. And many of the cantors and the rabbinic students that I’ve talked to also find great inspiration with different small communities in Israel. So I would say that it’s also very central there. Yes, in different ways, I think that this is a movement that you can see all over the spectrum, so to say. And I think it was very interesting with the focus especially on the role of music here, and what it enables and how it speaks to people today. And I think that that goes over the line. But of course it has very different parameters and different enablers when you move to more traditional communities – especially when it comes to gender issues, and issues of inclusion, and so on.

BF: I think I would like to just briefly touch on this concept of gender. Because I think what I’ve taken from this interview so far, is that your research is really helping to break down a lot of sort-of categories that may traditionally have been part of Religious Studies. It’s breaking down the idea of orthodox and traditional, it’s breaking down the idea of even more orthodox spaces and places, you know, and we can see the sort of liberal movements popping up throughout the world. It’s not as though it has to be in a particular space or place. And this idea of the boundaries of gender is something that I think is particularly interesting. Is this music helping break down that barrier? Is that a role that it’s taking? Or is that a separate idea altogether?

BF: Well, yes and no, I would answer to this. At the first glance I think you might get the feeling that music is a very inclusive space where the role of gender is sort-of toned down, or being given less of divisive role. But on the other hand, in my interviews I can also clearly see that there is still a gender difference. For example, if you are a male rabbinic student you have much greater possibilities to just enter any Jewish space that you want to, and take part of very orthodox rituals if you want to. As a woman you still cannot do that. And especially my interviews with the women who were a bit older, who were born in the forties and the fifties: for them, many of them felt that they had to leave an orthodox Jewish background behind if they wanted to be part of . . . have an active role in the liturgy, for example. Because women were not allowed those kind of positions. But then if they . . . then they moved from an orthodox congregation to a reform congregation, they would feel very much at a loss with the whole of the liturgy and the ceremony because it was so different. And they could even today tell about how they longed for the music, and the recitation, and the liturgical form that they wanted to have, which they could not be included in the orthodox settings, because they were women. And, of course, all the chances for this is much greater today and women are being included more and more. But still I think we shouldn’t . . . women are not free to experiment with their spirituality. And not all these interesting aspects of the tradition are open to them in the same way as the male students. And I think one of the teachers said that she also felt a bit of a caution against students who very actively experiment with very orthodox practices. Because somehow, when they are rooted in a theology that is non-inclusive, when it comes to women or converts or people of other kind of minority positions within the community, it’s somehow hard to divorce the music from the background where it comes from. So you always need to be aware, also, that you do not import theological positions that you wouldn’t like to defend when you try out the music (25:00). So, both yes and no, I would say. We might think that music is very useful in this discussion, but it’s not without its problems either.

BF: Your research seems to highlight a lot of different areas of Religious Studies that perhaps we need to maybe tweak, or look at more broadly. We’ve looked at the idea of different categories, orthodox or liberal, in this interview as well as the idea of space and place, and the idea of music more generally. When you wrote this monograph, did you have sort-of an idea of the broader impact of your work on Religious Studies as a field?

RI: Yes. I mean my background in Religious Studies, I have done . . . most of my research has dealt with issues of interreligious dialogue and cultural encounters. And also of contemporary religiosity in sort of ethnographic research on religiosity today. And then the arts has been a central focus of my research. I’ve done a lot of research on art as an arena for both for religious identity formation but also for encounters and so on. And what I wanted to show – and which I think has a broader bearing not just on Jewish studies but on Religious Studies more generally – is the fact of what role we can allot to other dimensions of the religious engagement than just the texts, and the intellectual dogmas, and this part of the religious engagement. Rosalind Hackett, Professor Rosalind Hackett, in the United States, she had called for a more “sonically aware” Religious Studies and I think that’s a brilliant way of putting it. And that’s what I hope I can also contribute with this study. That we need to realise that music, and the arts in general, are not just ornaments or illustrations of something more profoundly important to religion. But that they are aspects of the religious engagement in their own right that we need to give serious scholarly attention. So I think that we need to take it not to say that we need to have more emotional and embodied Religious Studies, which we do, but we should see this as an opposite. Not that you have an intellectual engagement which is sort of more sincere, with the tradition, and then you have all this nice music and arts that come as ornaments to make it more interesting. But to really see that these are, can be, put on the same level and they both speak about religion in ways that we as scholars also need to be able to take seriously and listen to. So it’s not an anti-intellectual stance, it’s more like a call for a more nuanced study, that is not just falling into these black and white boxes. And to see how we can sort-of have a more nuanced and plural idea of what religion and religiosity mean, by taking these aspects of the religious engagement more seriously.

BF: Just before we finish up, I have a bit of a left-field question for you. I don’t how familiar you are with the world of sort of Jewish pop music on YouTube, but there are some very fun I suppose you would put it, sort of YouTube clips of sort of Jewish cover bands sort-of covering pop music and sort of changing the lyrics. I just wondered if you have any thoughts on these sort-of very popular interpretations of music amongst Jewish communities.

RI: I know some of them especially with the chabad outreach that have this really great hits of boy bands which they make into sort of information music about different Jewish holidays and so on. I think it’s great fun. And, of course, music is a creative tool and I think we’re wrong to say that something is more authentic than something else. Or that some way of using music is wrong and something else is right. I think it just illustrates very well what a powerful tool music is, and how much it speaks to people. And also, from my own material, if I think about this nigunim singing and just singing lai-lai, (30:00) so most people say, “Well this is just like using a Buddhist mantra.” And or “the Taizé tunes we have in Christianity”, which is the same idea that you sing short syllables to repetitive music in meditative way. But still, the fact is that you can point to it that it has a connection to the Jewish tradition. That the nigunim and lai-lai singing, it comes from part of the Jewish world. It somehow ties these traditions closer to the heart of the people, and makes them more meaningful. And I think that’s just what you can see in this pop music, too. That sort of referencing to and alluding to the sources, the tradition, to something that is felt to be very authentically Jewish. It’s a very powerful tool. So I would say it’s just a good illustration of the power of music.

BF: Well thank you very much for joining us today, Dr Illman. I think this discussion of music has just opened my eyes to the amount of sort of creative energy that is out there in terms of religious practice, particularly in terms of you know, the sort of bridging the boundaries between the different worlds, different traditions maybe. And I urge everyone to go check out the world of Jewish music on YouTube!

RI: Well, thank you very much for this interesting discussion.

BF: Great. Thank you so much.


Citation Info: Illman, Ruth and Breann Fallon. 2019. “Melodies of Change: Music and Progressive Judaism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 February 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 February 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/melodies-of-change-music-and -progressive-judaism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 November 2016

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Calls for papers

Anthology: Religion and Ethics in Contemporary Speculative Fiction

Deadline: January 1, 2017

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Conference: Old Norse Myth and Völkisch Ideology

September 6–8, 2017

Basel, Switzerland

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Conference: Apocalypse and Authenticity

July 11–13, 2017

University of Hull, UK

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July 12–14, 2017

University of Leeds, UK

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Conference: British Association for Islamic Studies

April 11–13, 2017

University of Chester, UK

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Conference: SISR/ISSR: Religion, Cooperation, and Conflict in Diverse Societies

4–7 July 2017

Lausanne, Switzerland

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Journal: American Psychological Association

Special issue: American Atheism, Agnosticism, and Non-Religious Worldviews: Theoretical Models and Psychological Measurement

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Special issue: Religion and the Rise of Populism: Migration, Radicalism and New Nationalisms

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Special issue: Religion and Genocide

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Summer School: Prophétologies musulmanes: discours et représentations

June 29 – July 5, 2017

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Bedford, UK

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Universität Bremen, Germany

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London, UK

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Religious Studies as a Discipline

Aaron Hughes (University of Rochester) has been a vocal critic of some of the theories and methods used by religious studies scholars working on Islam. In this podcast, he discusses his critique of the discipline and practice of religious studies he has made through works such as Situating Islam (Equinox, 2008), Theorizing Islam (Equinox, 2012), Abrahamic Religions (Oxford, 2012), The Study of Judaism (SUNY, 2013), and, most recently, Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity (Equinox, 2015).

This sustained focus on the field of religious studies is not only a concern with identity–the political boundaries of the field as established by its scholars and professional organizations–but also with method. What should be the critical orientation of our field? Which methods are more or less suited for religious studies when it the discipline is viewed as a critical endeavor? When and how should we critique the way our field is responding to the context of the 21st Century? Are area studies especially vulnerable to these criticisms? What happens when identity politics begins to mix with scholarship?

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion as Sui Generis, The Relationship between Theology and Religious Studies, Teaching and Learning in Contemporary Religious Studies, The Critical Study of Religion, and Biblical Studies and Religious Studies. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, storage boxes, tiny shoes and more.

“Unruly Angels”: An Interview with Ingvild Gilhus

What is an angel, and why have they exerted such a fascination on the public imagination since antiquity up to the present day? In this interview with David Robertson (our 100th “official” podcast!), Ingvild Gilhus, a historian of religion with considerable experience in dealing with popular religion in both the ancient and modern worlds, discusses where the concept of angels comes from and how they have been variously constructed, from the white-suited messengers of the New Testament to the embodiment of the “higher self” in New Age accounts.

In particular, she explains that angels seem always to break boundaries. Neither human nor god, male nor female, whether Christian or otherwise, angels seem always to have functioned as representatives of an unruly popular religious impulse which seems to sit just below the elite constructions with which the study of religion has traditionally concerned itself.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Oh, and stay tuned at the end for two special guest appearances!