Brandeis professor wins 2018 National Jewish Book Award

Brandeis professors, like their students, are hard at work during the school year. If they are not teaching classes or giving talks on campus, they can often be found working on their own independent projects and research. Jonathan Decter, the Edmond J. Safra Professor of Sephardic Studies, of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies (NEJS) Department, is one such professor.

Decter has won the Jewish Book Council’s 2018 National Jewish Book Award in the field of Sephardic culture for his book titled “Dominion Built of Praise: Panegyric and Legitimacy Among Jews in the Medieval Mediterranean.”

Published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Decter wrote to The Brandeis Hoot that the book is about “Jewish culture in the medieval Mediterranean (including Spain, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Southern France, and Sicily) as seen through the lens of praise writing (panegyric), i.e., texts written in praise of people.”

Decter explained that these texts “tell us a great deal about how Jews idealized their leadership, usually with a blend of qualities that emanated from traditional Jewish and contemporary Islamic or Christian culture.”

The book also discusses topics such as inter-religious relations found in texts that Jews wrote in honor of non-Jewish rulers, and political and theological issues, “such as the tensions that arise when people dedicate praise to God and to humans at one and the same time,” said Decter. According to an article written by BrandeisNOW, Decter will accept the Mimi S. Frank Award in Memory of Becky Levy on March 5 in New York City.

Decter began teaching at Brandeis in 2002 after finishing graduate school. Some of his favorite courses to teach include NEJS 144A: Jews in the World of Islam, NEJS 155A: Maimonides: A Jewish Thinker in the Islamic World and NEJS 3A: Religions of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, FYS 53a: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain and NEJS 177b: Judeo-Arabic Literature.

Some of his favorite parts of being in the Brandeis community are “its strengths in Jewish and Islamic Studies,” “the commitment to the humanities and the liberal arts,” its activist history and the “warm community and bright students.”

Decter’s inspiration for “Dominion Built of Praise” began when he was a graduate student, as he noticed that “some panegyric texts praised flesh and blood humans with the very words with which God is praised in the Hebrew Bible and in the Jewish liturgy.” Decter realized that there was a large amount of Jewish writings in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, Arabic written in Hebrew script, that had not been analyzed systematically. He explains that this is largely due to the fact that the texts were “anathema to contemporary literary tastes and perceived as boring.”

“Quite often I find that things that seem boring or strange to us (it seemed inexplicable that medieval Jews spent so much time and ink praising one another) turn out to be truly fascinating when thought about the right way,” said Decter.

Although the idea of the project began for Decter as a graduate student, he first worked on his dissertation, which later became his first book, “Iberian Jewish Literature: Between al-Andalus and Christian Europe,” published in 2007. Once that had been released, Decter returned to his prior interest, which would eventually become “Dominion Built of Praise.”

Decter said it felt wonderful to discover that his work had won the award. “While writing a project of that magnitude over such a long period, you often feel that you are toiling in the dark and wondering if anyone will find it to be of value. I hope that the book will reach audiences in Jewish Studies, Islamic and Mediterranean Studies and Hebrew and Arabic Literature,” said Decter.

The professor is currently on sabbatical with a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies working on a project called “The Jewish Discovery of Religion in the Medieval Mediterranean.” It will study how Jews living in Islamic territories came to compare Judaism “somewhat systematically with other religions, not only Islam and Christianity but also Hinduism, Buddhism and even systems of idolatry.”

“Of course they believed that their own religion was superior to those of others, but the very fact that they thought they could be compared was something new. I study this shift as result of the Jewish engagement with Muslim writings on religions of the world,” said Decter.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Prof. Decter as an Associate Professor.

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