Bergenfield’s Rabbi Mordechai Cohen leading multi-faith research project

Bergenfield’s Rabbi Mordechai Cohen leading multi-faith research project

From left are Choon-Leong Seow of Princeton University and Mordechai Z. Cohen of Yeshiva University at an editorial meeting of the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (published by Walter de Gruyter in Berlin), at YU earlier this year. Jane Windsor/Yeshiva University

Bergenfield resident Rabbi Mordechai Z. Cohen, professor of Bible and associate dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, is heading a 13-member international research group sponsored by the Jerusalem Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS).

The scholars will study early Jewish, Christian, and Muslim strategies of scriptural interpretation and their contemporary implications from September through February at the IAS center on the Hebrew University campus.

Though it may seem unusual or even radical for an academic from centrist Orthodoxy’s flagship institution to be involved in such an undertaking, Yeshiva University’s administration and rabbinic faculty support Cohen’s endeavors and their effect on the university’s reputation.

Cohen and his wife Suzanne, a Bible teacher at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, believe so strongly in the project that they have transplanted their family of five children – ages 4, 8, 10, 13, and 16 – to Jerusalem for the year.

Meir M. Bar-Asher, Hebrew University professor of Islamic studies and chairman of its Arabic department, is co-directing the group of scholars from the universities of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rome, Exeter, Kent, and Tel Aviv, as well as the Catholic University of America, Harvard, Yale, and Bar-Ilan.

Cohen explained that 20 years of research and teaching at YU convinced him that classical Jewish biblical commentators must be understood in the Christian or Muslim cultural contexts in which they lived. He realized that scholars from all three faiths would benefit from exploring this idea face to face.

“I’ve been at conferences over the years where I see the potential of these multicultural interactions,” he said. “I’ve studied Muslim jurisprudence and Arab poetics on my own, but when I’m in actual contact with experts in this field, and describe the Jewish perspective to them, we discover things about each other’s common strategies we could not see on our own.”

Cohen’s 2003 book “Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor” explored how Jewish interpreters drew upon Arab poetics to appreciate literary aspects of the Bible. His forthcoming “Opening the Gates of Interpretation” focuses on Maimonides’ adaptation of concepts from Muslim jurisprudence to explain legal biblical interpretations in the Talmud.

“Rather than challenging our tradition, I find that the comparative approach helps us appreciate it more,” said Cohen, who has ordination from RIETS, YU’s rabbinical seminary, a master’s degree from Columbia University in English literature, and a doctorate in Bible from Revel.

“I am delighted that Revel continues to be recognized as a driving force in academic Jewish scholarship,” said YU President Richard Joel. “Professor Cohen, in his own training and now exceptional research and teaching, exemplifies the extraordinary quality and rigor of our premier graduate school.”

The IAS, which grants highly competitive sponsorships to international research groups in the humanities and sciences, turned down Cohen’s first application in 2007.

Prof. Stephen Prickett of the University of Kent in England offered to arrange for the project to be hosted instead by the Church of England in Canterbury. But Cohen was determined that it take place in Jerusalem, and a later application was accepted.

“It was a challenge to gather these important scholars to come to Jerusalem to engage in research for a full semester, and it took a good six months to put together the group,” he said. “Some responded with regrets, saying they could not arrange a semester’s leave, but others made the commitment enthusiastically. This was especially gratifying in the case of scholars who had never been to Israel before – and some regularly visit Muslim countries.”

Cohen said that Revel’s growing reputation worldwide enhanced the credibility of his invitations to scholars unfamiliar with him or YU. Some are now eager to visit Cohen’s home institution. Prof. Robert Gleave of the University of Exeter gave a guest lecture on Muslim jurisprudence at Revel last year. Prickett, an expert on the King James Bible and its influence on English literature, will lecture next year at YU’s Stern College and at Revel.

In weekly seminars, the IAS group will investigate the inter-relation between scriptural interpretation, literature, and other disciplines in Hebrew, Latin and Arabic learning; the cross-cultural influences on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim readings of Scripture; and developments within the three faiths prompted by tensions between ancient authoritative traditions and newer approaches.

The highlight of the project is to be an international conference in January.

Every member of the group is expected to produce substantial writings afterward, said Cohen. “Most importantly, we are confident that the seeds sown in this research group will inspire further new studies by the participants and their students after they have returned to their home institutions.”

Cohen’s longer-term goal is enriching how scriptural interpretation is perceived and studied in the academic world at large. “Collectively, these contributions will represent a new wave of scholarship that opens innovative perspectives on scriptural interpretation,” he said.

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