Featured Faculty: Professor Joseph L. Angel
Professor Joseph L. Angel is an Associate Professor of Jewish History at YU, where he teaches Bible and Jewish History courses in YC, IBC, and Revel. A recent tenure recipient, Professor Angel has been teaching at YU since 2008, the same year he received his PhD from NYU.
Arthur Schoen: Can you tell us a bit about your life story/background? Where are you from originally? Where did you study?
Joseph L. Angel: I was born and raised in the small, vibrant Jewish community of Seattle. As an undergraduate I attended the University of Washington, where I majored in Jewish studies and ancient Near Eastern civilizations. I spent my junior year pursuing semikhah studies at the Shehebar Sephardic Center located in the Old City of Jerusalem. After that I studied ancient Jewish history and literature at NYU in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. In 2008, I completed my doctoral work and began teaching at YU.
AS: One of your primary academic interests is the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS); they were a major focus of your graduate work at NYU, where you wrote your dissertation about them (“Victory in Defeat: The Image of the Priesthood in the Dead Sea Scrolls”) and studied under Professor Lawrence Schiffman, a prominent DSS scholar (and former YU faculty member and administrator). How did you get interested in studying the DSS?
JLA: It's a long story, but I can share one formative episode. I was about twenty years old and studying in yeshiva in Israel. One hot summer afternoon, during a lull from our review of hilkhot ta‘aruvot, my havruta pulled a book from the shelf just beside us that had caught his eye. It was Solomon Zeitlin’s The Rise and Fall of the Judaean State: A Political, Social and Religious History of the Second Commonwealth. After reading just a few pages I was stunned by the detail and confidence with which he reconstructed the Maccabean era. (Later I would discover that Prof. Zeitlin taught Jewish history at YU several decades ago.) The book inspired a thousand questions in me. I felt that I had to know more about how sources like Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls could shed light on the development of Jewish history and tradition. Eventually I found a copy of Prof. Schiffman’s Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls and enrolled as one of his doctoral students at NYU. The rest is history. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Prof. Zeitlin’s book had been stowed on a higher shelf.
AS: Briefly – can you tell our students how the DSS are relevant to us now, in 2017?
JLA: The DSS are by far the largest collection of Jewish religious texts from the Second Temple period. Before their discovery we had relatively few primary sources from this period. Among the DSS are some of the oldest examples of biblical manuscripts, biblical interpretations and translations, halakhic works, prayers, mystical texts, and tefillin, as well as a number of previously unknown texts authored by the members of an apocalyptic sectarian movement. The enormous influx of data (some 1,000 manuscripts) has revolutionized our understanding of several fundamental issues in the history of Judaism, including, for example, the development of the biblical canon, the transmission and interpretation of biblical texts, and the polemical social background of Rabbinic halakha. The DSS also provide an unparalleled window into the Jewish religious and social settings that contributed to the rise of Christianity in the first century. Now, the extent to which all of this is relevant for us today is very much a matter of choice. In my view, there is no question that the new vistas provided by the Scrolls are relevant beyond the bubble of the academy. If we take archaeology and history seriously, then the enriched understanding of this pivotal era has real implications for the self-understanding of modern Jewish and Christian communities, and may even foster constructive dialogue between these groups.
AS: Can you please tell us a bit about your dissertation?
JLA: The late Second Temple period was a time of religious turmoil, when Jewish society was comprised of several competing factions. At the center of the debate were issues pertaining to ritual purity and the proper administration of the temple. In the midst of this tumult some groups, including the movement behind the Dead Sea Scrolls, sought to extend priestly holiness and the experience of the divine presence beyond the walls of the temple. Within this framework, my dissertation gathers together and analyzes the numerous portrayals of heavenly and messianic priests in the Scrolls. The results of the study shed light not only on how the sectarian community of Qumran reformulated and relived the priestly experience of the temple in various ways, but also on the religious ideology of broader groups within Second Temple society. Moreover, by addressing the numerous shared concerns of the Scrolls and the writings of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, my study deepens our understanding of the common Second Temple Jewish heritage that placed images of temple and priesthood at its very core.
AS: Outside of your teaching duties, are you working on any interesting projects?
JLA: One of my current projects centers on a previously unknown collection of hymns for protection against wicked spirits known as the Songs of the Sage (4Q510–511). As a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation hosted in Göttingen, I completed a material reconstruction of the scroll known as 4Q511, arranging the fragments into their original order, which yielded sixteen (very fragmentary) columns of Hebrew text. Then, as a research fellow of the Yad Hanadiv Foundation hosted in Jerusalem, I prepared a new full edition of the text, including original transcription, translation, notes on readings and philology, and contextualizing commentary. This work is set to be published by Brill in a series called Dead Sea Scrolls Editions.
AS: What are some of your extracurricular interests?
JLA: With three young children and a wife pursuing a PhD of her own, there isn’t much free time. My favorite thing to do these days is to spend time with my family enjoying the outdoors. If I could find the time in the future I’d love to return to music. I have played the flute since I was a child.
AS: What does it mean to you as an Orthodox Jew to teach in YU?
JLA: It means that my students share core personal commitments with me—the love of Jewish tradition and the love of Israel. This creates a unique bond. Teaching at YU is not simply about giving over information or imparting a discipline to students. It is also a way of lending my voice to the future of Modern Orthodoxy.
AS: You held teaching positions at other universities before you came to YU. How has your experience teaching Jewish studies in a Jewish university differed from teaching them in a more typical university setting?
JLA: In other university settings you encounter many students with little or no connection to religion. Bridging the gap between a modern secular mindset and the world of Tanakh and ancient Judaism can be a major challenge. At YU, students are already largely tuned in to the logic of Jewish tradition. The challenge in this context becomes getting students to appreciate familiar texts and traditions in a new light. At times this requires explicit reflection on the meaning and value of academic approaches to ancient Judaism.
AS: At the undergraduate level, you teach in both the Judaic studies program (in IBC) and the college. Are your goals in presenting your courses any different when you teach in IBC versus when you teach in YC?
JLA: The intonation may differ at times, but the goals are essentially the same.
AS: You also teach graduate Judaic studies courses in Revel. Some of our students might be interested in continuing their studies at Revel. How are academic Jewish studies at the graduate level different from the courses they have taken in their undergraduate years at YU?
JLA: In my graduate courses I begin from the assumption that the students possess a basic pool of knowledge in Jewish studies, both in terms of content and methodology. This frees up time for in-depth study of particular topics and allows us to engage the diverse variety of research methodologies and debates driving the current scholarly discourse. In addition, in graduate courses there is an effort made to support those students who wish to pursue a career in professional Jewish studies. This usually involves the writing of essays and book reviews or the giving of oral presentations with an eye toward the emulation of professional standards.
AS: At YU you teach Jewish studies courses in a few different areas: Later Prophets, Ketuvim, survey courses in Jewish history, and more specific history courses. What are your favorite subjects to teach about and why?
JLA: After eight years of teaching at YU I’ve found that it’s not the particular topic, but rather the dialogical process of learning in the classroom that counts. To truly learn something new requires a certain openness and sense of adventure. For me, the most exciting part about teaching is that moment when a student has made an intellectual breakthrough. The world that he thought he knew is now transformed into something more complex. The student is more mature, empowered, and enriched. That is the moment when I feel like I’ve done my job. This is what keeps me engaged. You can’t expect such moments to occur every day, but they won’t happen at all if you’re not constantly plugged in.