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Confronting Vulnerability

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.


“Engaging, clear, and fun to read, Confronting Vulnerability is an exciting book with that goes well beyond its specialist contribution. Because it engages with issues of fundamental human importance—how we confront our bodily nature, its weaknesses and its aging—it has something to offer to anyone who is interested in those questions. Furthermore, Schofer is an articulate and careful scholar with interesting observations about how to do comparative ethics.”

Martha C. Nussbaum, University of Chicago

“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.”

Elizabeth Alexander, University of Virginia

“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.”


“Schofer has written a compelling work that focuses attention on issues that are often difficult to reflect upon. The texts examined are well-chosen, and he is clearly in command of both the primary rabbinic literature and the larger comparative ethical materials….book that not only adds to our knowledge of character formation in rabbinic texts but also provides scholars with another model for how to use a specialized academic discourse to engage questions of perennial importance.”   

Phillip Sherman

Table of Contents


ONE / Aging and Death
TWO / Elimination
THREE / Early Death
FOUR / Drought
FIVE / Life Cycles


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