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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News February 2004

February 23, 2004


The list of publications received by the Foundation during the academic year 2002-2003 is part of the Foundation's ongoing program of supporting the publication of books. The Foundation has since its inception assisted in the publication of close to 4,000 volumes, covering all aspects of Jewish culture, broadly defined.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Memorial Foundation this summer, it is worthwhile to highlight more fully this aspect of our work. Essentially, what the Foundation has engaged in since 1964-65 has been the creation, dissemination, and intensification of Jewish culture in Jewish communities all around the world after the Shoah.

Intensification of Jewish culture refers specifically to our work of cultural reconstruction and renewal, particularly in the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, that were culturally decimated in the second World War and during the Communist era, as well as in dispersed Jewish communities in other parts of the globe — communities far removed from the nucleus of Jewish life, geographically, socially and culturally. Dissemination entails the training of cultural leaders and the publication of books that transmit extant Jewish culture through schools, universities, and other educational and cultural bodies to the Jewish people. These aspects of the Foundation's work have been very visible among the Foundation's programs in recent years.

But the Foundation has been equally and very successfully also involved in the creation of Jewish Culture, most notably in Jewish scholarship. Through our doctoral, fellowship and institutional programs, we have supported individuals and universities in promoting original research and publications in the widest range of Jewish scholarly activity. We have played a very unique and special role in this area on the international scene; as such support is often scarce and not always a high priority in Jewish communities.


Women Scholars

The two volumes which I will be highlighting in this report reflect the highest level of Jewish scholarship. Remarkably, both were written by women, and deal with rabbinical studies and mysticism, areas of hard-core Judaica. What I should like to emphasize here is the growing role of Jewish women scholars in serious scholarly research, and the role of the Foundation in supporting these women scholars. When I came to the Foundation several decades ago, few women were recipients of Foundation grants. Today about half the grantees in our doctoral and special doctoral fellowship programs are women.

Megillat Ta'anit: Versions, Interpretations, History, by Dr. Vered Noam is based on her doctorate, which she received with distinction from Hebrew University. Prof. Noam is at the beginning of her academic career and currently serves as professor of Talmud at Tel Aviv University. Dr. Noam was awarded a Memorial Foundation Ephraim Urbach postdoctoral fellowship to help publish this new critical edition of Megillat Ta'anit.

Megillat Ta'anit is a fascinating and esoteric work in Aramaic from the Second Temple period. The historical importance of the text, often cited in the Talmud, is because it is the only extant manuscript from the Pharisaic period of the Second Temple, with the exception of the Qumran works.

The title "Megillat Ta'anit" ("Scroll of Fasting") is misleading. It is not a list of fasts, but of days when fasting was forbidden, compiled by the sages at the end of the Second Temple period.

The historical events recorded here are scattered broadly over 500 years, from the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the builders of the walls of Jerusalem in the fifty century B.C.E., to the destruction of the Temple. Many of the historical events alluded to in Megillat Ta'anit are shrouded in mist. Some are enigmatic and indecipherable; others are the source of scholarly debate. Gaps in our historical knowledge, the use of Aramaic and the terse style — all these contribute to the mystery.

In the book, Prof. Noam brings all the versions and variations of the text itself and the scholium (rabbinic commentary appended to the text). Prof. Noam's work, especially her efforts to untangle the mystery of the dates, is solidly grounded in the relevant literature — rabbinic lore, writings from the Second Temple period and later, academic scholarship and more.

Prof. Noam has helped to rescue Megillat Ta'anit from oblivion. Not that people have not known about it or studied it. But like other such works, parts of the text have become garbled over the centuries. There is no longer a clear line between the composition as it was originally handed down, and material added in the course of transcription.

According to a scholarly reviewer in Haaretz, " Those who sit down and give this stunning volume its due will see how successful she has been."

(May I note that Prof. Noam is also the mother of six children.)

The second book, Temple and Chariot, Priests and Angels, Sanctuary and Heavenly Sanctuaries in Early Jewish Mysticism, was authored by Rachel Elior, the John and Golda Cohen Prof. of Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University. Prof. Elior received several fellowships from the Foundation, one of which was for the preparation of this book, as well as two doctoral scholarships to assist her in completing her doctoral studies at Hebrew University. Prof. Elior, a prolific scholar and author, has published a whole series of works on Jewish mysticism, including most recently Heikalot Literature and Merkavah Tradition: Ancient Jewish Mysticism and its Sources; The Three Temples: On the Emergence of Jewish Mysticism; and Studies in the Mystical Foundations of Hasidism.

The central idea in Elior's work is her perception of the early history of Jewish mysticism. Professor Gershom Shalom's studies of Shabtai Zvi and his movement and its source in Kabbalah played a historic role in introducing mysticism into the field of Jewish history. Since his pioneering work, it has been difficult to separate the history of Kabbalah from the history of the Jewish as a whole. Mysticism has become one of the dominant elements of historical research.

Until now, however, the study of ancient Jewish mysticism has been conducted separately from the historical reality of the Jewish people. Elior's work challenges that premise and links early Jewish mysticism to the history of the sects in Israel and the relations between the priests and the Pharisees.

Her work is also devoted to contrasting two varieties of religious experience, one that relies on direct Divine revelation, which is dominant in Second Temple literature, and the religious outlook that relies on the study and discussion of the Written and Oral Law, represented in the Mishna and in the traditions of the Sages, the pillars of Judaism as it has been known since then.

Best wishes for a joyous Purim.

Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President