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Indiana University Bloomington
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Brian Hillman

Visiting Faculty, Borns Jewish Studies Program, 2021-22

My research focuses on Modern Jewish Thought and Kabbalah. I study how modern Jews engage with the Jewish textual tradition in conjunction with modern political, intellectual, and social changes.

My dissertation, "Textual Authority and Jewish Modernity," explored how nineteenth century students of the Rabbi Elijah be Solomon of Vilna, known as the “Vilna Gaon” (1720-1797), known as mithnagdim, defended the authority of the Jewish textual tradition against philosophical and scholarly challenges. Mithnagdim (literally “opponents”) are best known for the conflict with the nascent Hasidic movement, spearheaded by the Vilna Gaon. Although the conflict catalyzed mithnagdim as a self-identified group in Jewish Lithuania, the conflict with Hasidism became peripheral to mithnagdim after the turn of the nineteenth century. Mithnagdim are often depicted as reactionary and anti-modern, upholding the authority of static, traditional Judaism at all costs. However, I argue that mithnagdim embraced many modern European intellectual trends. One example is the mithnagdic engagement with traditional Jewish texts. Many students of the Vilna Gaon adopted a critical perspective on traditional Jewish texts that was developed in nuce by Rabbi Elijah. For these thinkers, Jewish texts are subject to the same processes of corruption and the contingencies of circulation as other texts.

I explore how mithnagdic thinkers (principally the Vilna Gaon’s son Rabbi Abraham of Vilna and, a generation later, Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Haver Wildmann and Rabbi David Luria) combined a text-critical approach to Jewish texts with a belief in kabbalah, which they understood as the esoteric stratum of the Jewish tradition, as a source of ultimate truth in their construction of a form of Judaism that is traditionalist and modern.

Unlike contemporaneous streams of Judaism, such as Hasidism and the Haskalah (often called the “Jewish Enlightenment”) which have been studied extensively, mithnagdim have received scant scholarly attention. During the forthcoming academic year, I will submit some of my dissertation research for publication as I develop my dissertation into a monograph. The monograph explores not only the scholarly and kabbalistic works of mithnagdim, but their ethical and homiletic writings as well. My project troubles the standard taxonomy of modern Judaism as a competition between modernizers and traditionalists by showing how mithnagdim, despite their staunch adherence to the authority of the Jewish tradition, engaged in some of the same textual practices as modernizing Jews. This study of the mithnagdim troubles the binary of tradition and modernity, showing how the defense of tradition can be one of modernity’s manifestations.

In addition to Jewish thought and kabbalah, I am interested in the intersection of religion and popular culture. Two areas of interest are hip hop and religion and religion and graphic novels. More specifically, I am interested in how graphic novels and memoirs function as sites for the exploration of Jewish identity.

Education

  • Ph.D. Indiana University, 2021
  • M.A. University of Chicago, 2013
  • B.A. University of Chicago, 2011

Research Interests

  • Modern Jewish Thought
  • Kabbalah
  • Scriptural Interpretation
  • Religion and Hip Hop

Courses

  • Introduction to Jewish History: From the Bible to the Spanish Expulsion
  • Exploring Jewish Identity Today
  • Religion and Popular Culture

Selected Publications