Name: Rebecca Wollenberg

Title: Assistant Professor and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows

Education: PhD in history of religions, University of Chicago; MA in Jewish Studies and religions of late antiquity, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; BA in history, University of Chicago

Upcoming Courses: Afterlives of the Bible: The Bible from Antiquity to Modernity; and Paper Trails: the Lost Books that Rewrote the Bible


FRANKELY SPEAKING: What do you hope to accomplish as a Michigan Society Fellow?

WOLLENBERG: I hope to make progress on two major projects. The first is a book manuscript based on my dissertation research entitled, The People of the Book before the Book. It explores the doubts that many classical rabbinic authorities harbored concerning the possibility that divine revelation could ever be adequately reduced to writing, and the deep ambivalence that these sages felt toward the written text of the Bible as a result.

The second project, tentatively titled Becoming a People of the Book, looks at what happened when rabbinic Judaism finally embraced the written text of the Bible at the beginning of the Middle Ages and began to think of the Hebrew Bible as a text like other texts. This second project argues that many of the genres and intellectual movements that we associate with Judaism today emerged as a response to this new medieval Jewish vision of the Hebrew Bible as a sacred monograph—that is, as a divinely authored treatise with a single, intentional meaning and a continuous rhetorical project.

The Frankel Center is a wonderful place to conduct this research because everyone wants to come here, even for a short visit. So my time at the Center will allow me to coordinate a series of scholarly gatherings that I hope will help to support new research that complicates our understanding of the Jewish relationship to the Bible and that explores the diverse ways in which Jews have been a people with, besides, and even sometimes against, the Book.

FS: What drew you to your research, and what did you find interesting or surprising about it?

WOLLENBERG: I was startled to discover a series of classical rabbinic traditions that suggested that some of the greatest rabbinic authorities in history could not sight-read the Hebrew text of the Bible any better than the average English-speaking bar or bat mitzvah student might today. Which made me wonder: what did these stories suggest about the role the Bible played in that period of Jewish history if even the intellectual elite were imagined to be barely able to decipher the written text of the Bible? And what happened later to transform rabbinic Judaism into the intensely literate movement we are familiar with today?

FS: What do you hope students will learn from your courses?

WOLLENBERG: I hope that shifting back and forth between modern discoveries and ancient history will help students appreciate how much of our understanding of what the Bible is, and what role it has played in Jewish history, has been shaped by historical contingencies—sometimes even incredibly mundane occurrences like the fact that certain ancient works survived until the modern period while others were eaten by mice.

FS: What are you most looking forward to at the University of Michigan?

WOLLENBERG: I’m eagerly anticipating the start of several of the university’s interdisciplinary workshops. The opportunities for scholarly exchange and collegiality at the Frankel Center, and the University of Michigan in general, are really unparalleled.

(Frankely Speaking, December 2015)