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Species: Rabbis, Humans, and Other Creatures in Late Antiquity

  • Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies 1140 Amsterdam Avenue New York, NY, 10027 United States (map)

The notion of humanity “created in the image of God,” often seen as quintessentially Jewish, highlights the elevation or singularity of the human inasmuch as it resembles or reflects divinity. However, this talk presents an alternate approach to the human, one which travels through early rabbinic zoological and reproductive science. Reading texts from the Mishnah’s tractates of Niddah (menstrual purity), Bekhorot (firstborn donations to the Jerusalem temple), and Kilayim (forbidden mixings of species), Professor Neis shows evidence of how the rabbis intertwined their ideas of gynecology together with those of zoology. The rabbis of the Mishnah conceived of the human alongside other animals, within broader considerations about reproduction, overlaps and distinctions between species, and hybridity. This alternate rabbinic view of the human with its more porous approach will be put in conversation with ideas about bodily and species variation in Aristotle’s Generation of Animals.

Supported by the generosity of the Kaye Family.

Rachel Rafael Neis, an associate professor appointed in History and Judaic Studies, holds the Jean and Samuel Frankel Chair in Rabbinics. Neis obtained a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Harvard University, a Masters in Religious Studies from Boston University, and a law degree from the London School of Economics. Neis' first book The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2013) won the Salon Baron Prize for best first book in Jewish Studies and an honorable mention for the Jordan Schnitzer Award. The Sense of Sight offered a cultural history of vision focusing on late ancient rabbis, Jews, and other minorities living under Roman and Sassanian rule in Palestine and Mesopotamia respectively. Neis' second book project is at the intersection of rabbinics, history of ancient science, animal studies and feminist science studies, and is entitled Generation and the Reproduction of Species: Rabbinic Conceptions of Life in Late Antiquity. Neis is also working on a third project about the potentials and limits of "law" as a category of analysis for rabbinic literature and Jewish studies.