Dr. Seth Schwartz
In the mid 1990s, when I was thinking a lot about ancient mosaics, I read Norman Bryson's Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Harvard 1990), an intensely focused rumination on how marked surfaces convey meaning. It sent me into a deep depression, as good books do, because I thought, if I can't think and write so well, what's the point of trying. In any case, when I pulled myself together, Bryson's book completely invalidated for me the standard approach to my material, which reads the iconography of the pavements as if they constituted a simple code. Such scholarship still dominates the field, from which fact the readers can draw the obvious lessons on their own.
Seth Schwartz is the Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Classical Jewish Civilization at Columbia University.
Dr. Steven Weitzman
One book that I have learned a lot from is Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. De Certeau’s book seems far afield from the issues that biblical scholars think about, focusing on everyday practices like walking on a street. What I have found so useful, however, is its effort to understand a kind of creativity that we scholars of ancient Judaism often miss.
De Certeau makes a distinction between two ways of operating in the world, strategies and tactics, associating strategy with power and tactics with the arts of the weak, with how people operate in terrain that is controlled by others. That distinction has helped me to think about how ancient Jews operated in a world controlled by powerful foreigners, and I have also found it an inspiring way to think about my own scholarly work. For whatever reason, I have not found myself completely on board with the ways of reading that I was taught to apply to the ancient evidence, but I do not want to reject or ignore them either. From de Certeau’s work, I’ve come to realize there is a zone between acceptance and rejection, that there is work to be done in the crevices of existing scholarship, ways to make use of abandoned questions, unresolved debates, and contradictions. That is how I’ve tried to operate in my own work. The Practice of Everyday Life isn’t always transparent in meaning, but reading it was a liberating experience for me.
Steven Weitzman is the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center of Advanced Judaic Studies.