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Panel discussion of Geoff Claussen's new book

Faculty from UNC, Wake Forest, and Elon praise Claussen's scholarship, wrestle with his book's protagonist



On Wednesday, March 8 at 5:00 p.m. four panelists joined Elon faculty member, Dr. Geoffrey Claussen, in Belk Pavilion to share their reactions to his new book, Sharing the Burden: Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv and the Path of Musar (SUNY Press 2015).

Dr. Claussen’s book narrates and analyzes the career and writings of a man known by his followers as the Elder of Kelm. Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv (1824-1898) was the greatest student of Israel Salanter, the founder of the modern Musar movement, an Eastern European movement that called for the strengthening of traditional Jewish virtues by resisting the paths of both acculturation to European norms and rigorous Talmudic study advocated by rival 19-century Jewish leaders. In the 1860s Simhah Zissel founded a boys school called the Talmud Torah in the Lithuanian city of Kelm to train them in the path of Musar, emphasizing the virtue of loving kindness while recognizing the difficulty of interior moral change and the cultivation of virtue. Claussen’s book brings both the man and his teaching to life.

Elon Center for the Study of Religion, Culture and Society Director, Brian Pennington, introduced Claussen's book and the panel.Dr. Christian Miller, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Character Project at Wake Forest University tested Simhah Zissel’s assessment of human character against the findings of empirical psychology. Invoking classic studies of human responses to moral crisis—such as Stanley Milgram’s demonstration that subjects could be pressured to deliver painful shocks to others for trivial reasons—Miller argued experimental psychology agrees with Simhah Zissel that humans have natural inclinations to both cruel and just responses to moral quandaries.

 Dr. Andrea Dara Cooper, Assistant Professor and Leonard and Tobee Kaplan Fellow in Modern Jewish Thought and Culture at 

Claussen responds to the panel.

UNC Chapel Hill underscored the irony of Simhah Zissel’s expansive view of fellowship and love that nevertheless excluded women and perhaps even his own family. Dr. Jeffrey Pugh, Elon's Maude Sharpe Powell Professor of Religious Studies challenged the rabbi’s embrace of biblical texts in which God endorses violence against Israel’s enemies. Christian social ethicist Dr. Rebecca Todd Peters of Elon expressed appreciation for Simhah Zissel urging us to "move beyond the virtuous behavior of the individual to take into consideration how moral relationships are built in the communities in which we live.”

All expressed a deep appreciation for Claussen’s deft and sympathetic portrait of the man and his thought as well as his discussion of his own ambivalence about Simhah Zissel’s complex and sometimes contradictory teachings.

Claussen joined the Elon faculty in August 2011 as an assistant professor of religious studies. In April 2012, he was named the Lori and Eric Sklut Emerging Scholar in Jewish Studies. He is also the founding director of Elon's Jewish Studies program, which launched in Fall 2012.

His courses explore the history of the Jewish tradition, from the Hebrew Bible to contemporary Judaism. His scholarship focuses on Jewish ethics and the legacy of the Musar movement, and he has particular interests in questions of love and justice, war and violence, and moral education.

This event was sponsored by the Elon Center for the Study of Religion, Culture and Society. 


Brian Pennington,
3/9/2016 9:40 PM