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Sensing the Truth: Changing Conceptions of the Perceptual in Early Modern and Enlightenment Europe


Sensing the Truth: Changing Conceptions of the Perceptual in Early Modern and Enlightenment Europe

September 1, 2021 – June 30, 2022


Yaakov Mascetti (Bar-Ilan University)

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The proposed research group intends to provide an interdisciplinary framework for a scholarly debate and a further understanding of the relationship between the sensory sphere and conceptions of epistemology and of devotion in the early-modern and enlightenment periods. Our primary goal will be to present ideas of touch, sight, hearing and tasting against the background of the philosophical, scientific, religious and literary discourses from the 15th to 18th centuries. Such representations of the senses contributed to relocating the idea of truth from the objective to the subjective sphere, though the figures in our study often show the fundamental insufficiency of that dichotomy, challenging and at times proposing alternative models.

Motivated by the significantly growing scholarly interest in the cultural history of the senses, and by new trends in the history of science and philosophy, this group will address, problematize and challenge our understanding of the ways in which emergent philosophical and scientific conceptions of visual and aural perceptions played a role in changing devotional practices such as sacramental ceremonies, methods and forms of meditational attention, while they also fashioned exegetical practices and currents in the literary and visual arts of the 16th and 17th centuries. Despite the steady growth in interdisciplinary studies of the early-modern, circles of the kind we propose are rare, and which we believe can make a difference in the complication of our idea of what a field of research is. Our main contribution will thus be methodological, to historians, literary scholars and specialists in other disciplines, as we will show, from a number of perspectives, that a cultural matrix is composed of a variety of interacting idioms, modes of speech which provide specific utterances with a spectrum of diverse intentions. Thus we will present conceptions of taste as the relation between the physical sense of taste, and taste as a metaphorical term used to denote various forms of knowledge and judgement (including, but not only, aesthetic taste).

Early modern taste played a key role in the cultivation of humanist erudition, in the so-called ‘scientific revolution,’ in theological debates about how best to access divine truth, and in the experience and articulation of intersubjective knowledge and sexual desire. Similarly, between the late middle ages and the Renaissance, touching truth came to play a central role in conceptions of truth, knowledge and the conveyance thereof in visual arts. The centrality of vision for the philosophical, theological, and artistic spheres has been widely discussed and continues to occupy a primary role in the cultural history of the senses. This research group intends to bring these scholarly strands together and create an interdisciplinary platform within which the entanglements of discourses may lead to a more exhaustive understanding of the senses and their role in the perception of truth.


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The Poetics of Christian Performance: Prayer, Liturgy, and their Environments in East and West (5th to 11th Century)

[RG # 144] The Poetics of Christian Performance: Prayer, Liturgy, and their Environments in East and West (5th to 11th Century)

September 1, 2015 - June 30, 2016


Bruria Bitton-Ashkeloni (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Derek Krueger (University of North Carolina at Greensboro)

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This interdisciplinary research project is exploring the performance of prayer, liturgy, and hymns among a variety of Eastern and Western Christian traditions from the end of Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Focusing on the history and environments of worship shifts the emphasis in the comparative study of Christianity beyond the history of doctrine.

The timeline extended from the Council of Chalcedon in 451 - when the great division between Eastern Christianities took place - to the eleventh century, just before the cultural upheaval brought about by the Crusades. The geographical framework includes Christianity's religious centers - Palestine, Constantipole, and Rome - and its periphery - East Syria and Medieval France. New models of piety, the ways in which people imagined their interaction with the divine, and the rise of asceticism in the late antique Mediterranean world brought forth new conceptions and patterns of worship. Novel religious performances played a vital role in shaping Christian identities in Byzantium and the Latin West as well as encoding specific poetics and theories of how religion should function. Bringing together historians of religion, art, architecture, and music, the project is focused on religious performance as a way to re-narrate the history of Christian religious culture in the East and West in its social and intellectual contexts.



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A Lasting Vision: Dandin’s Mirror in the World of Asian Letters

[RG #145] A Lasting Vision: Dandin’s Mirror in the World of Asian Letters

September 1, 2015 - January 31, 2016

Organizer: Yigal Bronner (The Hebrew University)

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Dandin’s Mirror of Poetry (Kāvyādarśa), a Sanskrit work on poetics composed in South India around 700 CE, is one of the most influential treatises ever produced in Asia.

The work was translated and adapted into a variety of languages in the south of the Indian peninsula and the island of Sri Lanka (Kannada, Tamil, Sinhala, and Pali), travelled to Southeast Asia (Burma and Indonesia), was repeatedly translated in northern and central Asia (Tibet and Mongolia), and may even have exercised influence on poetic praxis in China. Moreover, it is hard to overstate the profound impact of Dandin’s Mirror, which, in distant corners of Asia and at different times, consistently emboldened new literary beginnings.


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Ancient Arabia (from 1st Millennium BCE to the Emergence of Islam) and its Relations with the Surrounding Cultures

[RG # 118] Ancient Arabia (from the 1st Millennium BCE to the Emergence of Islam) and its Relations with the Surrounding Cultures

September 1, 2009 - July 31, 2010


Joseph Patrich (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Michael Lecker (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

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Arabia (the Arabian Peninsula) may no longer be terra incognita, but many aspects of its history remain unknown. The study of the history and culture of this territory is still in its infancy. One of the difficulties in properly evaluating the historical evidence about the ancient Near East is that modern Europeans or westerners approaching it inevitably do it with a host of confused and half-formed preconceptions about the "Orient", as Fergus Millar has noted in his book The Roman Near East 31 BC - AD 337.

In the last three decades an ever growing amount of new archaeological data, including a wealth of new inscriptions in many languages and scripts (Akkadian, Aramaic, Nabataean and South Arabian) has been gathered from sites in Saudi Arabia, the Yemen, the Persian Gulf, Sinai, the Negev, Jordan and Syria, as well as from sites of the cultures bordering with Arabia. Moreover, many texts in classical Arabic are now more accessible than ever before through various electronic media.

The group will evaluate the state of our knowledge about Arabia and the prospects for future research.



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Encountering Scripture In Overlapping Cultures: Early Jewish, Christian And Muslim Strategies Of Reading And Their Contemporary Implications

[RG #121] Encountering Scripture In Overlapping Cultures: Early Jewish, Christian And Muslim Strategies Of Reading And Their Contemporary Implications

September 1, 2010 - February 28, 2011


Meir Bar-Asher (The Hebrew University)
Mordechai Cohen (Yeshiva University)

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Contemporary critical theory, which highlights the creative dimension of the reading process, is increasingly reorienting the study of the history of scriptural interpretation, situating it within the flux of literary and cultural movements at large. This international research group brings together scholars of Jewish, Christian and Muslim interpretation to conduct a close comparative analysis of shifting encounters with Scripture in three overlapping cultures. Drawing upon diverse yet complimentary perspectives, the participants in this group will investigate five fundamental subjects:

a. The critical role that interpretation played in the formation of Sacred Scripture;

b. Changing conceptions of the "plain sense" of Scripture;

c. The ways in which classical rhetoric and poetics informed scriptural interpretation;

d. Tensions created by the need to transplant Scripture into new linguistic media;

e. The ways in which the Bible has been reconfigured in literature, art and scholarship.



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Computation and the Brain

[RG # 124] Computation and the Brain

March 1 - August 31, 2011


Eli Dresner (Tel Aviv University)
Oron Shagrir (The Hebrew University)

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The concept of computation plays a major role in the current research of brain function. As Peter Stern and John Travis wrote in "Of Bytes and Brains" in Science (2006:75), "Computational neuroscience is now a mature field of research. In areas ranging from molecules to the highest brain functions, scientists use mathematical models and computer simulations to study and predict the behaviour of the nervous system". Another typical statement of the centrality of computation to the study of the brain can be found in Christof Koch's introduction to his book, The Biophysics of Computation: "The brain computes! This is accepted as a truism by the majority of neuroscientists engaged in discovering the principles employed in the design and operation of nervous systems".

However, the instrumental and explanatory role of the notion of computation in neuroscience is still in need of analysis and clarification. There are various different ways in which computational models and the notion of computation are applied in the study of the brain, and it is important for these to be distinguished and assessed. For example, as attested by the two quotations in the previous paragraph, the term "computational neuroscience" may refer to two different enterprises: Stern and Travis talk of the extensive use of computer models and simulations in the study of brain functions, while Koch gives expression to the view that the modelled system itself, i.e. the brain, computes. Both perspectives are part of what is one of the major scientific projects of our time -- the effort to explain how the brain, as a physical systme, works. However, together these two perspectives manifest a duality that is not found in other sciences, where e.g. stomachs, planetary systems, and tornadoes are studied through the use of computational models and simulations, but are not perceived as computing systems.

Thus what is called for is a systematic, philosophical analysis of the role of computation in neuroscience. What is the exact role of computer models and simulations in brain research? What is the explanatory role of the view that the brain itself performs computations? How are the two enterprises (of using computer models in brain research, and of viewing the brain as a computer) related: Do they employ the same concept of computation? Are they components of a wider exaplanatory framework? These are the questions that our research group set out to consider, discuss, and offer answers to.


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Cultural Archaeology of Jews and Slavs: Medieval and Early Modern Judeo-Slavic Interaction and Cross-Fertilization

[RG # 125] Cultural Archaeology of Jews and Slavs: Medieval and Early Modern Judeo-Slavic Interaction and Cross-Fertilization

March 1-August 31, 2011


Alexander Kulik (The Hebrew University)
Moshe Taube (The Hebrew University)

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The aim of the group is to bring together historians, philogists and scholars of comparative religion to help bring down disciplinary barriers and to show how the Slavic and the Jewish cultures can be revealed, each one of them respectively, as unique repositories of the lost texts, sensibilities, and traditions of the other's culture. It seeks to examine, on the one hand, unique data which Slavic cultures preserve on Medieval and Early Modern East European Jews, and on the other hand, key elements of Slavic cultural traditions preserved by Medieval and Early Modern East European Jews.

We will explore cultural exchange within the Khazarian-Slavic, Judeo-Greek-Church Slavonic, Old Russian-Jewish, early modern Polish-Jewish, and other cultural realms from the late 9th - early 10th celturies to late 17th - ealry 18th centuries. The topics are not limited to direct Judeo-Slavic contacts, but include, inter alia, issues such as Slavic reception of ancient Jewish sources, Slavonic Bible and pseudepigrapha, Slavonic Josephus, Biblical iconography, etc.


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Jewish Physicians In Medieval Christian Europe: Professional Knowledge as a Cultural Change

[RG # 129] Jewish Physicians in Medieval Christian Europe: Professional Knowledge as an Agent for Cultural Change

March 1, 2012 - August 31, 2012


Gad Freudenthal (CNRS Paris, University of Geneva)
Reimund Leicht (The Hebrew University)

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During the Middle Ages, in Christian Europe, the religious and linguistic borders between Jews and the surrounding Christian culture always remained less permeable than those in Muslim countries, and very little knowledge was appropriated from the neighbouring Scholastic Christian culture. in the Midi (the southern area of contemporary France) hardly any philosophical or scientific works were translated from Latin into Hebrew. One could perhaps even go so far as to speak of a "Latino-phobic attitude on the part of medieval Jews of the Midi in general.

However, the field of medicine is an exception to this generalization. As far back as the 12th century, and again in the 14th and the 15th, scores of medical works were translated from Latin into Hebrew. Jewish and Christian doctors frequently cooperated with each other and treated patients together. Our research group is focusing on the macro-phenomenon of the role played by medieval doctors in bringing about a cultural transfer from Latin into Hebrew cultures, or from Christians to Jews.

Doctors hold a singular position within the social system of knowledge, since all members of all religions and cultures have similarly constructed human bodes, and all human beings, regardless of their religious and cultural backgrounds, suffer from similar illnesses and seek to be healed from these illnesses. Patients always attempt to seek out the best possible medical treatment, thus putting the Jewish doctors in constant and direct competition with the environing non-Jewish health system. Therefore, medicine was usually a unified knowledge system in which Jewish doctors were compelled to keep up with the tendencies of medicine in the host societies and "modernize".

The study of the history of "Medicine and the Jews" as part of the development of Jewish culture in its Christian European environment is much more than the study of the appropriation of professional and scientific knowledge by one specific socio-religious group. It is rather a comprehensive enquiry into the catalytic role Jewish physicians played in the processes of change which Jewish cultures underwent in southern Europe during the Middle Ages.


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Research Groups:Jewish Women’s Cultural Capital from the Late Middle Ages Through the Early Twentieth Century


[RG # 158]  Jewish Women’s Cultural Capital from the Late Middle Ages Through the Early Twentieth Century

September 1, 2016- July 1, 2017

Moshe Rosman (Bar Ilan University)

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Throughout Western history women have been assigned a status as cultural observers and social facilitators to men's roles as cultural performers and social actors. This status however, was not fixed, and cultural-social gender barriers could be crossed. Authority in the family, responsibilities in the public sphere, communal activism, economic productivity, education, ritual religious roles, literary and artistic creativity were all forms of cultural capital which could position women at intersections of power and privilege and challenge gender hierarchies. Recent decades have witnessed a revolution in the scholarship of women's history, uncovering trends that complicate accounts of the possibilities for women. However, these investigations into women’s social and cultural roles have been based predominantly on the lives of Christian women, in Europe west of the Oder, and in North America. A primary research objective of our group is to turn to communities that, both geographically and culturally, have not been properly attended to by the existing scholarship. By bringing together a group of scholars who specialize in a range of periods and locations, our research will create a framework for exploring these issues in Jewish history and their implications for other histories of women.


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Research Groups:From Creation to Sinai - Jewish, Christian, and Qur'anic Traditions in Interaction


[RG # 149]  From Creation to Sinai: Jewish, Christian, and Qur'anic Traditions in Interaction

September 1, 2016- July 1, 2017

Esther Eshel (Bar-Ilan University)
Menahem Kister (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

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The Book of Genesis and the beginning of the Book of Exodus are of utmost importance for many fundamental issues in the study of Judaism, Christianity, and nascent Islam. The traditions related to the narrative passages of these books refer, inter alia, to the Creation of the World, Adam as bearer of God's image, angels and demons, Enoch, Divine election, the covenants with the patriarchs prior to Sinai, the establishment of monotheism, the formation of Israel as a nation, and the Exodus. These themes were highly significant in the formulation of the competing religious worldviews and self-understanding of Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism, early Christianity, Gnosticism, and eventually early Islam. It should be emphasized that the relevant material is not confined to works dedicated expressly to the exegesis of these biblical books; rather, themes of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus are part and parcel of the religious messages of Jewish, Christian and nascent Islamic thought.

Themes and traditions from Genesis and Exodus may be found in a vast array of sources in Antiquity. The Qur'an – unlike medieval Islamic traditions – is one of the latest products of Late Antiquity. While scholarship by and large has tended toward the study of the relevant biblical themes in each religion unto itself, comparative studies transcending the boundaries between the corpora of varying religious traditions are often mutually illuminating. The group’s purpose is not merely to map and compare divergent traditions, but also to elucidate the dynamics of transformation among them, considering the relationships (including polemics and influence) among the religious groups of Antiquity. The anticipated collaboration of scholars from diverse backgrounds in the proposed Research Group will be a rare opportunity for productive synergy.


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Research Group: The Reception and Impact of Aristotelian Logic in Medieval Jewish Culture

medieval jewish

[RG # 156]  The Reception and Impact of Aristotelian Logic in Medieval Jewish Culture

Sept. 1, 2018 - July 1, 2019

Charles Manekin (University of Maryland),
Yehuda Halper (Bar-Ilan University)

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The purpose of the research group is to investigate: the reception, followed by the naturalization, of Aristotelian logic into medieval Jewish cultures in Europe; and the repercussions of the introduction of logic into the Jewish intellectual matrix in numerous other areas of Jewish thought, beyond the field of logic itself. The proposed group will bring together scholars from various corners of medieval intellectual history: two historians of logic (specializing in the history of logic in Hebrew and Arabic); historians of medieval science, medicine, and philosophy; and scholars who study medieval religious polemic and Biblical exegesis, with an emphasis on the use of logic therein. Among the questions to be considered will be: What was the place of logic in the overall transfer of rationalist philosophical/scientific culture to European Jews in the Middle Ages (12th-15th centuries)? How did the study of logic affect intellectual activity in various areas, including traditional Jewish subjects (e.g. religious polemics; medicine; biblical exegesis; Talmud study).

By highlighting the interdisciplinary importance of medieval logic in Hebrew, we anticipate that the impact of this group will extend beyond the history of medieval philosophy, into the fields of general European medieval culture and history, Christian intellectual history, history of philosophy and logic, history of medicine, kabbalah, etc. We hope to bring to the attention of scholars of Jewish intellectual history and historians of logic just how widespread the study of logic by Jews in the Middle Ages was, and how it impacted their other intellectual endeavors.


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Research Group: The Day Unit in Antiquity and the Middle Ages


[RG # 151]  The Day Unit in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Mar 1, 2018 - Aug 1, 2018


Jonathan Ben-Dov (University of Haifa) 
Sacha Stern (University College London)

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This project aims to shed light on a dark corner in history, which was surprisingly very little investigated until now: how was it that the unit of ‘day’ and its primary division into 12 ‘hours’ came to ne conceived in human culture? The division seems to have been gradually developed in ancient Egypt and then migrated also to cuneiform sources from Mesopotamia. It then circulated, not quite smoothly, into the Greek world and subsequently into western late antique and medieval culture. This account remains vague because there is no comprehensive and solid research that could clarify it more pointedly.

New concepts of the division of the day required proper technological means to express them. After tracing this historical riddle, however, a lot remains to be explored for subsequent periods in history. We ask how the science and technologies of time measurement determined the structure and division of the day unit, conceptually as well as in practice, and conversely, to what extent did conceptual and practical divisions of the day unit underpin and influence the development of time measurement technologies. Time is in many ways a human construction, which requires a set of rituals and cultural agents in order to reinforce it. We aim to study these various mechanisms.

The suggested team is a unique combination of experts for the history of time in their respective fields. Such a group has never before been assembled to study this type of question. The group consists of historians of science and technology as well as of law and of religious and cultural institutions. The historical periods and geographical spread covered by the group is exceptionally wide: from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, to ancient Jewish culture (Second Temple, rabbinic) and into Medieval Judaism, Greek and Roman history, Islamic culture, and the literature of medieval Ethiopia.



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Research Group: New Directions in the Study of Javanese Literature


[RG # 155] New Directions in the Study of Javanese Literature

September 1, 2018 - June 30, 2019


Ronit Ricci (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

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Javanese literature is among the world’s richest and most unusual literary traditions yet it is currently little known outside of Java, Indonesia. The vast majority of Javanese texts, in manuscript and print form, remain untouched by scholars.

The Javanese are the largest Muslim ethno-linguistic group in the world and the largest ethnic group in Indonesia, with their language spoken today by approximately 100 million people. Beginning in the ninth century and into the present they have produced a complex, diverse and intricate literary corpus that is a gateway to understanding Javanese writing practices, approaches to language, poetics, and translation strategies. Through its narrative histories, theological and legal treatises and interlinear translations from Arabic to Javanese, this literature also offers insights on Java’s remarkable transition to Islam, half a world away - geographically, culturally and linguistically - from Islam’s birthplace in the Middle East.

The study of Javanese in western universities has declined dramatically and it is currently on the verge of disappearance. The research group aims to revitalize this important humanistic field by:

  1. creating a rare opportunity for scholars to read, study and discuss Javanese texts collaboratively

  2. examining and analyzing yet unstudied Javanese works, thus broadening the basis of Javanese texts on which to generalize and theorize

  3. exploring anew previously studied texts, employing innovative methodological and theoretical perspectives from Comparative Literature, Islamic Studies, Cultural Studies and Performance Studies, and

  4. in light of the above, reconceptualizing and remapping major dimensions of the field of Javanese literature including periodization, contextualization, literary categorizations, and interpretive methods.

Mindful of the newness of Indonesian and Javanese Studies within Israeli academia, group members also aim to contribute (individually and collectively) to the expansion and strengthening of these fields in Israel. 


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Research Group: The Subject of Antiquity: Contours and Expressions of the Self in Ancient Mediterranean Culture


[RG # 152]  The Subject of Antiquity: Contours and Expressions of the Self in Ancient Mediterranean Culture

Sept. 1, 2017 - July 1, 2018


Ishay Rosen-Zvi (Tel Aviv University) 
Maren Niehoff (The Hebrew University)

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There is a growing scholarly consensus that new notions of the self emerged in Greco-Roman Antiquity, which prompted philosophers, artists, law-makers and biographers to conceive of human beings as individuated selves, situated in specific cultural and historical contexts. We wish to examine these emerging discourses of the self, their interaction and expressions in the material and textual culture of Greeks and Romans, Jews and Christians.

While such an intellectual project seems very much a scholarly desideratum, it is also a complex challenge, since its successful achievement is contingent upon bringing together scholars from disparate disciplines. The constraints imposed by existing academic frameworks are thus often an impediment to its realization. We believe that the Institute provides the most suitable venue for a joint venture to explore the potential of combining various areas of research in order to achieve new understandings of this phenomenon.

The proposed research group consists of leading experts and one young scholar in the fields of Greek philosophy, Roman law and literature, Early Christianity, Jewish Hellenism and rabbinics. Most of us are in the process of embarking on book projects in new areas, which require intensive collaboration with colleagues in adjacent fields. Working closely together for a period of a year will enable us to shed new light on areas and genres which have regularly been studied in isolation. We hope to highlight both shared understandings across religious boundaries as well as culturally distinct types of self-fashioning.


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