Jacques Berlinerblau

Director and Professor of Jewish Civilization

jacques hsPh.D, 1999, Sociology, The New School for Social Research

Ph.D, 1991, Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, New York University

Jacques Berlinerblau holds separate doctorates in ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, and in Sociology. He is currently Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Berlinerblau has published on a wide variety of issues ranging from the composition of the Hebrew Bible, to the sociology of heresy, to modern Jewish intellectuals, to African-American and Jewish-American relations. His articles on these and other subjects have appeared in Biblica, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Semeia, Biblical Interpretation, Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages, Hebrew Studies, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and History of Religions.

He has published five books, the most recent being How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). His previous works include Thumpin' It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today's Presidential Politics, which was released in January 2008 (Westminster John Knox), Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy and the Responsibility of American Intellectuals (Rutgers University Press) and The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously (Cambridge University Press).

Follow Jacques Berlinerblau on twitter at @berlinerblau.

View Jacques Berlinerblau's ExploreGeorgetown profile.

Publications

HOW TO BE SECULAR: A CALL TO ARMS FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2012)

Weary of religious conservatives urging "defense of marriage" and atheist polemicists decrying the crimes of religion? Sick of pundits who want only to recast American life in their own image? Americans are stuck in an all-or-nothing landscape for religion in public life. What are reasonable citizens to do?

Seen as godless by the religious and weak by the atheists, secularism mostly has been misunderstood. In How to Be Secular, Berlinerblau argues for a return to America's hard-won secular tradition; the best way to protect religious diversity and freedom lies in keeping an eye on the encroachment of each into the other.

Berlinerblau passionately defends the virtues of secularism, reminds us what it is and what it can protect, and urges us to mobilize around its cause, which is for all Americans to continue to enjoy freedom for--and from--religion. This is an urgent wake-up call for progressives in and out of all faiths.

THUMPN' IT: THE USE AND ABUSE OF THE BIBLE IN TODAY'S PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS

Westminister John Knox Press (2007)

In one of the most witty and insightful books yet to explore the fascinating relationship between the Bible and American politics, Georgetown professor Jacques Berlinerblau looks at: the recent history of how Scripture has influenced public policy debates about the environment, abortion, stem-cell research, and foreign policy; how recent U.S. presidents have employed the Bible; plus how each of the major candidates in the 2008 presidential elections is using and often misusing the Bible in his or her race for the White House.

Politicians, especially those seeking the presidency, must develop a good Scripture game, as Berlinerblau calls it. However, "It is a cynical business, politics is. It becomes no less so when public servants and interest groups get it into their heads that God Himself provided proof texts for their policy initiatives two thousand years ago. It is a peculiarity of the Good Book that it elicits in its readers the strong conviction that it unequivocally supports their strongest convictions."

THE SECULAR BIBLE: WHY NONBELIEVERS MUST TAKE RELIGION SERIOUSLY

Cambridge University Press (2005)

Today's secularists too often have very little accurate knowledge about religion, and even less desire to learn. This is problematic insofar as their sense of self is constructed in opposition to religion. Above all, the secularist is not a Jew, is not a Christian, not a Muslim, and so on. But is it intellectually responsible to define one's identity against something that one does not understand? And what happens when these secularists weigh in on contentious political issues, blind to the religious back-story or concerns that inevitably inform these debates?
 
In The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously Jacques Berlinerblau suggests that atheists and agnostics must take stock of that which they so adamantly oppose. Defiantly maintaining a shallow understanding of religion, he argues, is not a politically prudent strategy in this day and age. But this book is no less critical of many believers, who--Berlinerblau contends--need to emancipate themselves from ways of thinking about their faith that are dangerously simplistic, irrational and outdated. Exploring the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, from the perspective of a specialist, nonbeliever, and critic of the academic religious studies establishment, Berlinerblau begins by offering a provocative answer to the question of "who wrote the Bible?" The very peculiar way in which this text was composed provides a key to understanding its unique power (and vulnerability) in the modern public sphere. In separate chapters, he looks at how the sparse and contradictory words of Scripture are invoked in contemporary disputes about Jewish intermarriage and homosexuality in the Christian world. Finally, he examines ways in which the Qur'an might be subject to the types of secular interpretation advocated throughout this book. Cumulatively, this book is a first attempt to reinvigorate an estimable secular, intellectual tradition, albeit one that is currently experiencing a moment of crisis.

Courses

INAF 349 Philip Roth: Fiction About Fiction

The Jewish-American writer Philip Roth is reckoned as one of the most important novelists in the American post-War literary canon. While the comic, pornographic, and scatological dimensions of his work are well chronicled, less has been said about Roth’s enduring commitment to exploring genres of post-modern, metafictional and autofictional storytelling. In this course, we will read Roth’s “greatest hits” (e.g. Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral) with an eye towards understanding how he explored the question of (Jewish) identity by recourse to a fiction about fiction. This inquiry will require that we study his self- reflexive masterpieces such as My Life As a Man, The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife, and Operation Shylock, among others. When all is said and done, students will not only learn about Roth’s bold secular Jewish vision, his views on sexuality, and American history, but they will familiarize themselves with some of the late 20th century’s most intriguing forms of narrative experimentation.

ENGL 216 Jewish American Literature

This course explores the fiction of a wide variety of contemporary Jewish authors working in the post-Holocaust era. The body of work that they have produced may be described as comic, dark, critical of self (and others), and, quite often, exceedingly disturbing. These writers, however, can rarely be described as boring.

Throughout the semester we will cling to an analytical distinction in which how an author writes is contrasted to what an author writes about. This separation of form and content is performed under the artificial laboratory conditions of literary analysis. Form and content, needless to say, are inextricably bound and comprise an organic unity. Be that as it may, we will often employ this distinction in our study of the novels, novellas, and short stories that we encounter this semester.

In terms of form, the questions we ask are simple (though the answers we will come across are decidedly not): how is the work of literary art built? Why did the author decide to narrate the story in this particular manner and what advantages and disadvantages resulted from this decision? How is the overall work structured? How might we describe the prose style of the writer in question? What are the technical strengths and weaknesses of the author? What literary influences can be identified? What is unique or idiosyncratic about his or her artistry?

In terms of content, we will notice that certain themes recur in nearly all of the works selected for scrutiny. Using a kind of shorthand we will organize our semester around some recurring obsessions of Jewish-American writers (many of which bleed into one another): “Holocaust,” “Israel,” “American Jews and ‘Others,’” and “Immigrant Stories.”

As the term progresses we will come across recurring motifs which might be described as: “the emasculated diaspora Jew”: “the lonely protagonist”: “Jewish women for and against Judaism”: “an American Jew in Israel”: “the eternal immigrant”: “assimilation and its discontents”: “the lure of the secular”: “orthodoxy and modernity”: “the oversexed Jew/ess”: and “the (dysfunctional) Jewish family.”

GOVT 216 American Secularism

The purpose of this class is to give students a balanced and comprehensive overview of a concept shrouded in confusion and hyperbole. Essential to our work will be the disentangling of three separate understandings of secularism that have become hopelessly knotted up in journalistic and even scholarly writing. These distinct ideas might be described as: 1) Church/State separation, 2) nonbelief, and, 3) the process of secularization.