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Theorizing Poverty in German Jewish Sermons

Mon, December 18, 1:15 to 2:45pm, Marriott Marquis Washington, DC, Marquis Salon 15

Abstract

With Jewish scholars usually barred from holding German professorships, nineteenth-century German Jewish academics often earned their livelihood as rabbis. This economic necessity fueled a shift in German Jewish communal culture, and various communities began requiring university degrees in their advertisements for rabbinic positions. These DOKTOR-RABBIS found themselves in the fraught position of continuing their specialized research and publications even as they were obligated to engage a middlebrow audience in the course of their communal duties, particularly through weekly sermons. During this period, the Jewish PREDIGT—a German-language devotional sermon preached weekly—displaced the occasional, Hebrew-language DERASHA as the dominant homiletic form in German synagogues. Given the coincidence of a highly educated rabbinate and the rise of the weekly edifying sermon, German Jewish sermons emerged as a space in which scholarly discourses were translated and transformed for middlebrow audiences. This phenomenon highlights the productive tension inherent in the propagation of technical, philosophical, historical, and literary conversations in a communal setting whose discursive bounds were already delimited by various sets of ideological norms.
This paper maps the various theologies of poverty—namely, theological reasoning about why the poor were impoverished—propagated in German Jewish sermons, linking them to broader scholarly, cultural, and political movements. Was poverty a function of personal moral failing? Idleness, perhaps, or intemperance? Or was it a manifestation of providence’s inscrutable hand? How were the responses to these questions informed by cultures of EMBOURGEOISEMENT, the transformation of poor relief societies, and the industrialization of German economies? In which ways were Jewish representations of poverty distinct from or similar to Christian representations of poverty? The flexibility of exegetical texts to function as scholarly, political, and cultural texts warrant their inclusion in the canons of intellectual history even as they dissolve easy distinctions between elite and middlebrow discourses.

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