The Body and the Divine in Rabbinic Ethics
While imparting their ethical lessons, rabbinic texts often employ vivid images of death, aging, hunger, defecation, persecution, and drought. In Confronting Vulnerability, Jonathan Wyn Schofer carefully examines these texts to find out why their creators thought that human vulnerability was such a crucial tool for instructing students in the development of exemplary behavior.
These rabbinic texts uphold virtues such as wisdom and compassion, propound ideal ways of responding to others in need, and describe the details of etiquette. Schofer demonstrates that these pedagogical goals were achieved through reminders that one’s time on earth is limited and that God is the ultimate master of the world. Consciousness of death and of divine accounting guide students to live better lives in the present. Schofer’s analysis teaches us much about rabbinic pedagogy in late antiquity and also provides inspiration for students of contemporary ethics. Despite their cultural distance, these rabbinic texts challenge us to develop theories and practices that properly address our frailties rather than denying them.
“It is a rare scholarly book that is moving, but Confronting Vulnerability is. Jonathan Schofer elegantly synthesizes two different kinds of writing that might seem to be incompatible. On one hand, he provides rigorous, historically grounded, philologically sound, and imaginative textual analysis. At the same time, he coaxes the reader towards subjective personal reflection. This remarkable book makes an important contribution to the study of rabbinic culture by examining how rabbinic texts shaped an ethic for the historical adherents of the rabbinic movement. But more importantly, this is a book that is humanly compelling, asking us to contemplate the implications of having life framed by bodily fragility on one hand and divine judgment on the other. Confronting Vulnerability articulates poignantly, but without sentimentality, a unique perspective on the human condition.”
“This volume is an outstanding exploration—not only for its insight but also for its ability to make rabbinic ethics and insights accessible to those who lack facility in reading rabbinic sources in Hebrew. It is a major contribution to the religious ethics literature.”