Pow­er and Emo­tion in Ancient Judaism: Com­mu­ni­ty and Iden­ti­ty in Formation

Ari Mer­mel­stein

January 12, 2021

In this book, Ari Mer­mel­stein exam­ines the mutu­al­ly-rein­forc­ing rela­tion­ship between pow­er and emo­tion in ancient Judaism. Ancient Jew­ish writ­ers in both Pales­tine and the dias­po­ra con­tend­ed that Jew­ish iden­ti­ty entails not sim­ply alle­giance to God and per­for­mance of the com­mand­ments but also the acqui­si­tion of spe­cif­ic emo­tion­al norms. These rules regard­ing feel­ing were both shaped by and respons­es to net­works of pow­er — God, the for­eign empire, and oth­er groups of Jews — which threat­ened Jews’ sense of agency. Accord­ing to these writ­ers, emo­tion­al com­mu­ni­ties that felt Jew­ish would suc­ceed in neu­tral­iz­ing the pow­er wield­ed over them by oth­ers and, depend­ing on the cir­cum­stances, restore their pow­er to accul­tur­ate, main­tain their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and achieve redemp­tion. An impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the his­to­ry of emo­tions, this book argues that pow­er rela­tions are the basis for his­tor­i­cal changes in emo­tion discourse.

Discussion Questions

In Pow­er and Emo­tion in Ancient Judaism: Com­mu­ni­ty and Iden­ti­ty in For­ma­tion, Ari Mer­mel­stein engages ancient texts in a way that is pro­found­ly gen­er­a­tive for con­tem­po­rary com­mu­ni­ties. The book is not only a nuanced study of pow­er and emo­tion and the rela­tion­ship between them, but also of the way in which text and rit­u­al lead to feel­ing Jew­ish — that is, adher­ing to the rules that gov­ern Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties and expe­ri­enc­ing the emo­tions that derive from a Jew­ish analy­sis of power.

High­light­ing the con­cept of feel­ing Jew­ish as a cen­tral com­po­nent of how ancient writ­ers per­ceived Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is rev­e­la­to­ry. Read­ers inter­est­ed in antiq­ui­ty can find in Pow­er and Emo­tion a fresh lens for under­stand­ing ancient texts and the com­mu­ni­ties that pro­duced them. At the same time, read­ers with more con­tem­po­rary con­cerns can find in it insights to more effec­tive­ly chal­lenge social ills like racism and anti­semitism. Although the book devotes lim­it­ed atten­tion to the present, its analy­sis of pow­er and emo­tion illu­mi­nates cur­rent social dynam­ics as well as ancient ones. More­over, rec­og­niz­ing how ancient texts trans­form pow­er rela­tions by engag­ing emo­tion can inspire read­ers to a new appre­ci­a­tion of the pos­si­bil­i­ties inher­ent in the way in which con­tem­po­rary com­mu­ni­ties con­tin­ue to make text and rit­u­al cen­tral to Jew­ish life.