Rodney Caruthers II
Research Fellow, Frankel Institute for Judaic Studies (University of Michigan)
What will you be researching while a fellow at the Frankel Institute and how does it relate to your work overall?
My research at the Frankel Institute focuses on what forms of Jewish customs and traditions were known in Ethiopia or practiced by Ethiopians during the Second Temple Period. The project consults a variety of ancient Jewish and Classical sources, along with the Tanakh, including Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, Tacitus, and Josephus. The work is particularly exciting because it investigates not only ancient sources, but it also engages later works like the Ethiopian Kebra Nagast (Glory of the Kings) and modern halakha for Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) to reconstruct what “Judaism” may have entailed during the time.
This project is part of my ongoing interest in understanding how ancient literature intersects with and informs everyday life scenarios. Reading Tacitus’ remark on how some thought Jews were Ethiopians that fled during Cepheus’ reign, made me wonder, what was happening in Ethiopia in antiquity that would make people think they were of Jewish heritage? Reading the Tanakh and seeing how Ethiopians and Ethiopia are described (in positive and negative terms) raises questions about their interaction with and knowledge of Jewish culture. biblical and extrabiblical traditions about Moses and Ethiopians, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and of course the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles, prompts inquiry into how “Judaism” was understood at the time.
What is the most common misconception about this area of research?
One misconception is that Jewish and Ethiopian cultures are entirely dissociated from one another. The close proximity of the two in antiquity through geography, culture, and literature (especially in the Tanakh) are significant. Jewish and Ethiopian literary accounts in antiquity are intriguing because of the insight they provide about cultural practices and exchange. Elaborations on Jewish and Ethiopian interactions in extrabiblical versions also adds to the relevance for understanding Jewish diversity during the Second Temple Period.
What has been your greatest success in academic/teaching, research, etc.?
I am at a relatively early stage of my professional academic career, so I would have to say my successes are related to teaching and the opportunity for publication. I was excited and proud to design and inaugurate a New Testament course at Gustavus Adolphus College. Creating a course that students benefited from and enjoyed was certainly a highlight in addition to working with wonderful colleagues. I am also in the midst of editing my first monograph, and it was quite satisfying to have a publisher (Brill) interested in my research and collaborating with me to make the book available.
What do you hope to gain from this experience? How has your time at the University of Michigan impacted your research so far?
I hoped to expand and improve my expertise as a professional scholar while here at the Frankel Institute. The experience has been exactly what I needed and more. I especially want to dedicate time to work on my research project. The support of the faculty, staff, and administration have been tremendous in supplying the space and resources to ensure a productive time.
I have learned a great deal by interacting with the other fellows as colleagues. Whether during our weekly sessions, meetings with senior faculty, or participating in other events associated with the Frankel Institute, my knowledge has been greatly expanded. The weekly sessions particularly have been enlightening as I have gained valuable new insights into research techniques, writing habits, publishing, and general concerns to consider as scholars. Hearing other fellows’ experiences, interests, and methodologies has made me a more intentional and conscious scholar.
The professionalism and collegial atmosphere of the Frankel Institute (particularly its administration led by Scott, Gabriele, Cheri, Mary, and Jillian) has made this a tremendously fruitful experience. The immersion into research and dialogue has been invigorating, while positioning me to generate more technically nuanced questions for my research interests.
Register for Jewish Re-imaginings of Magic | Jlive with the Frankel Center and JCC of Metro Detroit on March 9, 2022 at 7pm to learn more about Rodney Caruthers II's work.