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Straus Center Course Spotlight: Spiritual Autobiographies

For the fall 2020 semester, Dr. Ronnie Perelis, Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Associate Professor of Sephardic Studies at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, and Dr. David Lavinsky, associate professor of English at Yeshiva College, are co-teaching Spiritual Autobiographies, a course that goes beyond the standard lectures on autobiographies by examining how these writers presented their spiritual selves.

YU News sat down with Dr. Perelis and Dr. Lavinsky to discuss the class, which is being offered at Yeshiva College in collaboration with the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought.

What is the class about, and what can students expect to gain from it?

Dr. Ronnie Perelis Dr. Ronnie Perelis


The class is an exploration of self-presentation: how do people from the classical period until the cusp of modernity present themselves to their readers?
We chose to add another dimension to this topic by examining how people reckon with their soul. These are spiritual autobiographies, meaning texts where the life being fashioned is inextricably tied to the author’s spiritual development.

We decided to adopt a comparative lens. We look at Christian and Jewish texts and include texts written in a variety of languages from differing geographic and cultural zones—think the Mediterranean, Europe, the Americas—as a way to deepen our analysis and appreciation for what these works share and how they are special and unique.

David Lavinsky Dr. David Lavinsky


In this course, students join a conversation about spiritual autobiography. Through close reading and seminar-style academic inquiry, they can expect to develop their skills as critical writers and thinkers.

But this course also asks them to grasp the contours and substance of a complex literary-historical tradition that they often encounter piecemeal, either as individual examples presented as exceptional or highly unusual or as texts detached from their larger historical contexts.

So, students might read, say, the Life of Josephus in connection with different topics but without wrestling with its autobiographical style or its relation to later instances of first-person narrative—or even its status within a tradition of Jewish writing. But when they do the kind of work they will do for this class, they will appreciate the complexities of autobiographical self-fashioning.

I’ll also quickly add that the large chronological sweep of the course is not so much an attempt to survey a ready-made body of knowledge or writing but rather a recognition that work produced in the context of migration, exile and diaspora cuts across a lot of different borders: of temporality and historical periodization; genre and style; language; global economy and trade; cultural identity and practice; and, for all the same reasons, the traditional boundaries of academic discipline, something reflected in the fact that this is a co-taught course in which students are invited to explore different approaches and methods.


How does the class exemplify the ideal of Torah Umadda?


On a fundamental level, Torah Umadda begins with a commitment to dialogue between people, cultures, disciplines and philosophical approaches. There is an awareness that any one thing can be better understood when compared to something else, placed in its wider context or set in conversation with an opposing, like-minded or counter-intuitive point of view.

This course hits all these notes. We consider the autobiographies within their historical and intellectual context; we read Christian and Jewish writers who occupy discrete and shared cultural zones; we bring in a variety of theoretical approaches to interrogate, illuminate and push our discussion of the texts; and we see these texts as speaking to each and every one of us on a human, psychological level, making them worthy of the hard intellectual work required to understand them and appreciate them.


This course features many autobiographical readings of a spiritual nature. Is there a specific text that speaks to you on a spiritual level?


I suppose there is always a temptation to personalize what we read. Perhaps that’s especially true in the case of autobiography, where the discursive effect of the speaking voice makes an unusually strong claim on our attention.

But one interesting feature of spiritual autobiography is how it sometimes takes us out of ourselves and insists instead on the stubborn facticity of other lives, of subjectivities radically different from our own. A text can be ethically urgent precisely because it does not speak to its modern readers on any kind of personal level, even though we might expect it to, or wish that it did. How do we respond when the centrality of our own perception and experience is called into question? That is not to say, of course, that we cannot or should not read with empathy and personal interest, or that we cannot somehow see ourselves reflected in another person’s life story.  But responses of that kind are just one dimension of historical criticism.


I find these autobiographical texts—especially these texts that were written long ago by authors with radically different assumptions and values to my own—to be like a slightly blurred mirror. I see myself and then I don’t. In that in-between space, I feel like I can learn something about being human, struggling towards self-understanding and striving towards the Divine.

I try to not play “favorites,” but one of the texts that I am very excited to read together with the class is a spiritual autobiography written by one of the most extraordinary women of the 17th century: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican nun whose poetry brought her acclaim as the “Tenth Muse” and the “American Phoenix.” Sor Juana’s passionate defense of her right to explore God’s world through the study of science and to express her ideas in her poetry inspired me when I first read her “defense” in graduate school many years ago.

I am also inspired and intrigued by another Mexican dissident, Joseph Lumbroso, a 16th-century crypto-Jew who crafted a powerful spiritual self-portrait in the 1590s while living under the watchful eye of the Inquisition. Lumbroso’s story has kept me riveted throughout my scholarly life, and I find teaching his tale of spiritual audacity thrilling.


Why did you decide to teach this course? Why is it interesting and meaningful to you?


I decided to teach this course for several reasons. Having taught Milton and Religion last year with Straus Center Resident Scholar Rabbi Dov Lerner, I was eager to work with Straus students again. Teaching alongside a scholar with expertise different from my own was not only illuminating in itself but also pedagogically enriching because it prompted me to ask questions I would not have thought to ask otherwise.

The idea of a course devoted specifically to spiritual autobiography appealed to me because it touched on an interesting problem in medieval studies: why are there so few first-person narrative accounts from the Middle Ages when compared to later contexts? Also, spiritual autobiography allows insight into the complexity of relations between Jews and Christians as well as Jews and Muslims during the medieval and early modern periods. Most of all, though, I could not pass up the opportunity to teach with Dr. Perelis and to collaborate with a friend and scholar whose publications have influenced how I view a wide range of materials, including those in my own field.


I am so honored to teach this course together with my friend and colleague David Lavinsky. We work in different fields, with different approaches and concerns, and that is what is so exciting. Together with our fabulous, dedicated and thoughtful students, the class has been a space for inquiry and honest conversation.

Jorge Luis Borges Jorge Luis Borges, one of the authors covered in the course