CCCC 2014 Reviews

D.32 "Jewish Rhetorics, Alternative Traditions"

Chair: Michael Bernard-Donals, University of Wisconsin–Madison


Patricia Bizzell, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, “Talmud and/as Argument”

Janice Fernheimer, University of Kentucky, Lexington, “Writing across Traditions: Making a Space for Jewish and Cross-Cultural Rhetorics”

David Bleich, University of Rochester, NY, “Commentary, Orality, and Literacy”

Michael Bernard-Donals,  University of Wisconsin–Madison,  “Writing (and) the Jewish Body”

Andrea Greenbaum, Barry University, Miami Shores, FL, “Engaging in Ti-kun Olam: Repairing the World through Peace Studies’ Projects”


Deborah H. Holdstein, Columbia College, Chicago, IL

Patricia Bizzell, “Talmud and/as Argument”

Patricia Bizzell enacted Talmudic discourse as a means of challenging the modes of inquiry and knowledge-making that are prized in the Western academy—and in turn, often privileged in students’ expository writing. Bizzell asserts that Western academic scholarship primarily values cogency and certainty as it strives towards central and singular conclusions. Bizzell contrasts this with the more networked epistemological approach of Talmudic scholars, which is predicated on the belief that truth is not attained unless all possible opinions are kept in view. 
To illustrate this, Bizzell talked the audience through a Talmudic commentary by the medieval scholar Ramban (otherwise known as Nachmanides). Ramban’s commentary addressed a complicated passage in Leviticus/Vayikra on the sacrificial offering of a goat. 

Ramban’s commentary addressed an ambiguity in the text: Why is the sacrificial goat labeled with the uncommon word azazel? From whom, what, or where does this term originate? In his response to this question, Ramban weaved together two seemingly discordant commentaries from the Talmudic scholars Rashi and Iben Ezra. While Rashi explained that the sacrificial goat is named azazel for the location to which the goat will be sent, Iben Ezra claimed that the original azazel is a lesser deity which the Jews no longer worshipped. In a synthesized response, Ramban asserted that while azazel is a place, it is also the name for an evil angel that must be appeased on the day of atonement. In his insights, Ramban managed to acknowledge—even harmonize—the opinions of the two other commentators.  

Upon concluding the passage, Bizzell encouraged writing instructors to consider this more nuanced approach to argument when teaching expository writing. A discomfort with oppositional views, she posited, might be at the root of some students’ difficulty with argument-based writing. Bizzell encouraged instructors to emphasize that exploring all possibilities “helps with knowledge gene pool.”  

Janice Fernheimer, “Writing across Traditions: Making a Space for Jewish and Cross-Cultural Rhetorics”

Janice Fernheimer opened her talk by drawing attention to the ambiguous disciplinary location of Jewish rhetorics. While Jewish rhetorics are often included in collections of non-Greek rhetoric, they are commonly left out of ethnic/indigenous collections. In response to this disciplinary quandary, Fernheimer called for Jewish rhetorics to have a place amongst other transnationalist rhetorics.

Fernheimer presented the Israeli Black Panthers as a historical case study of transnationalist Jewish rhetoric. The Israeli Black Panthers, who mostly consisted of second generation Moroccan Jews from east and west Jerusalem, were active in Israel between March 1971 and May 1972. They advocated for equal access for Mizrachi Jews, Sephardic pride and a greater Mizrachi presence within an Israeli sociopolitical sphere largely dominated by Israelis of Ashkenazi descent. The Israeli Black Panthers successfully engaged Black Panther rhetoric from the American movement in order to disrupt Israeli discourse and reframe Israeli culture. As a prime example of transnationalist rhetoric, the Israeli Black Panthers navigated across different rhetorical traditions to make important inroads in social justice.

Fernheimer ended her presentation with a call to shift the disciplinary conversation surrounding Jewish rhetorics from one of isolation, to one of interconnection. In this vein, she encouraged scholars to incorporate this cross-cultural approach to Jewish rhetoric into their pedagogy and scholarship, by initiating discussions at a field level and seeking out transdisciplinary collaborators on their college campuses. 

David Bleich, University of Rochester, NY, “Commentary, Orality, and Literacy”

David Bleich engaged personal narrative—his experiences with Yiddish—as a means of challenging the widespread distrust of vernacular language in college writing classrooms. Bleich, who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household, shared humorous anecdotes and various “yiddishisms” to demonstrate vernacular language’s powerful ability to convey nuanced sentiments and local ironies. These expressive capacities are lost when declarative language and unambiguous objectivity are valued above all else. In a particularly amusing anecdote, Bleich mentioned a Yiddish theatre production of a Shakespeare play advertised as “Shakespeare—but improved.” According to Bleich, this is an example of a subaltern community using vernacular language to better engage with their own society as well as the broader public. Bleich concluded with the declaration that “Vernaculars are everyone’s mamalushon (mother tongue), and it’s time they are integrated into the teaching of language.”

Michael Bernard-Donals, “Writing (and) the Jewish Body”

In the most heavily theoretical of the four presentations, Michael Bernard-Donals reflected upon how Jewish bodies trouble both material and discursive binaries. To start, he noted the long tradition of seeing Jewish bodies as removed from the normative bodies of their surrounding cultures. This characterization is evident in the Christian tradition, within which Paul the Apostle labels Jews as “evils workers” and “dogs” to be avoided at all costs. Beyond the Christian canon, Jewish bodies have often been characterized with bodily stereotypes as well, cast as corpulent, large-nosed threats to society. Bernard-Donals then focused upon Jewish embodied experience from a Jewish perspective, evoking Daniel Boyarin’s (1992) scholarship on circumcision. While Bernard-Donals acknowledged that presenting Jewish self-definition as male is problematic, he asserted that the circumcision paradigm is highly consequential for Jewish ethics and Jewish writing. In summation, the spiritual significance of the circumcision ritual can be explained as “I am because unmaking makes me.” This paradox, Bernard-Donals asserted, breaks with notions of self-possession. Similarly, with language and utterance, there is a tension between the self that exits and that—which in the process—is made. The speech act exerts a pressure on the writer that can’t be seen. Bernard-Donals then drew broader parallels between the otherness of the Jewish body, and the discursive otherness that comes with writing. As a writer, one is involved with others through the written word, yet in that place, one is not in full possession of oneself. What you say casts you—and your language—out of place. In turn, within the discursive domain of the written word, the space of community also serves as a place of exclusion.

Andrea Greenbaum, Barry University, Miami Shores, FL, “Engaging in Tikun Olam: Repairing the World through Peace Studies’ Projects”

In a presentation on her recent peace studies project, the Comic Book Peace Project, Andrea Greenbaum reflected upon the relationship between literacy and social practice. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Greenbaum taught graphic novel writing to Arab, Jewish, and Christian teenagers at the Beit HaGefen cultural center in Haifa, Israel. The youth participants used a computer program called Comic Life to scan photographs and turn them into personalized graphic novels. Along with creating their own graphic novels and sharing them with each other, the group read excerpts from Marjane Satrapi’s (2003) Persepolis and graphic novels by Scott McCloud. 

Greenbaum explained how the process of sharing personal narratives is significant to peace studies work. Listening to the narratives of others, she explained, is a way of listening to their understanding of the world and their experiences within it. In a region where those of different religions and ethnicities are often “othered,” this discursive opening is particularly crucial.

Reflecting upon the broader exigency of her project—and the work of peace studies more generally—Greenbaum evoked the Jewish concept of tikkun olam. Tikkun olam, roughly translated as “repairing the world,” is a mystical Jewish concept that was redefined by modern Jewish leaders in the mid-twentieth century as a call to social action and communal engagement. Wryly, Greenbaum noted that she didn’t believe she brought total peace in the Middle East. However, in the words of the Mishnaic text Pirkei Avot, “it is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither can you desist from it.”

Follow this link for Greenbaum’s YouTube video on the Comic Book Peace Project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eS3dLS_Y3xA.

Respondent:  Deborah H. Goldstein, Columbia College, Chicago, IL

Deborah Goldstein concluded the panel with a pithy take on the famous 1960’s slogan for Levy’s rye bread: “you don’t have to be Jewish to love Jewish rhetoric!” In a similar vein as Fernheimer, Goldstein emphasized the hybridity of Jewish rhetoric and called for vigorous analyses of the various threads of Jewish rhetoric and their intersections with other rhetorical traditions. She anticipated a 2015 CCCC panel that will push the discussions of Jewish rhetoric even further, to examine how Jewish rhetorical traditions infiltrate and assimilate into others. 


Boyarin, Daniel. (1992). “This we know to be the carnal Israel”: Circumcision and the erotic life of God and Israel. Critical Inquiry, 18(3), 474-506.

Satrapi, Marjane. (2003). Persepolis: The story of a childhood. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

CCCC 2014 Reviews

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