Rabbinic Scholar W. David Nelson to Discuss ‘Race, Religion and the Realities of Reading the Bible’

OXFORD, Miss. – W. David Nelson, a noted scholar of rabbinic literature and the Hebrew Bible at Groton School in Massachusetts, will discuss how the Bible has been used out of context in the past to promote racist ideologies during a Thursday (Sept. 6) public lecture at the University of Mississippi.

Nelson’s lecture, “Say Again!: Race, Religion and Realities of Reading the Bible,” is set for 5:30 p.m. in the Overby Center auditorium. The next day (Sept. 7), the scholar will participate in an informal discussion with faculty and students on how the Bible has been misused to advance racist agendas.

“Dr. Nelson’s presentation is the first in the lecture series, titled ‘Intertwining Legacies: Jews and African-Americans in the Deep South,'” said Kirk Johnson, UM associate professor of sociology and African-American studies. “The goal of the lecture series is to bring together scholars, students and community members to explore anti-Semitism, racism and the shared and divergent histories of these two groups.”Other scholars scheduled include Sander Gilman, an internationally-renowned cultural and literary historian from Emory University, who will address the twin legacies of anti-Semitism and racism in the deep South on Oct. 25; and Jonathan Kaufman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America,” who will speak Feb. 6 on the historic relationship between Jews and African-Americans.

Last year, the UM Critical Race Studies Group, an interdisciplinary collection of scholars working to address racial and ethnic inequities on campus and in academia, applied for an Association for Jewish Studies-Legacy Heritage Jewish Studies Project grant to explore the complex relationships between African-Americans and Jews in the South. The proposal, written by Willa Johnson, associate professor of sociology, was funded for $22,000. The university is among only four institutions in the United States to receive this award for the 2012-13 academic year.

“As a teacher of Jewish studies, I know it is important for the University of Mississippi to join other flagship institutions of higher learning in the South in raising awareness of the powerful and important impact of Jews upon our culture,” Johnson said. “I am equally aware of the sacrifices of Jewish men such as Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who in 1964 died fighting for civil rights alongside James Chaney, an African-American.

“As an African-American woman, I have lived long enough to witness what hate does to marginalized people. Three of my uncles fought, and one of them died, to liberate Jews from tyranny in Europe during World War II. Even if all three had survived the war, they would have been among the nearly 1 million returning African-American soldiers who were denied these same liberties by an ungrateful nation.”

Looking at race in Mississippi and the nation as a whole is particularly important at this time, said Jeffrey Jackson, associate professor of sociology.

“As we acknowledge the 50th anniversary of James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi, we need to recognize the commonalities of racially-oppressed groups that still exist to this day,” Jackson said. “All have had similar experiences of being marginalized in society. African-Americans and Jews have historically strongly supported each other in their respective struggles for civil rights and equality.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree in religious studies from the University of Virginia, Nelson received both a master’s degree in Bible and cognate studies and a doctorate in rabbinic literature and thought from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Before going to Groton, he served as a member of the faculty in the Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern studies program at Washington University and as Rosenthal associate professor and director of Jewish studies at TCU and Brite Divinity School. Nelson has both studied and served as a visiting research professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2004-05, he was awarded its Yad Hanadiv/Beracha Foundation Visiting Fellowship in Jewish Studies.

With a specialized interest in ancient and medieval Jewish biblical interpretation, Nelson is the author of numerous scholarly articles and book chapters and has published the first English translation and commentary of the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai, an anthology of early Jewish interpretation of the biblical book of Exodus. He is co-authoring two books: “Exodus: Echoes and Reverberations in Jewish Tradition” and “Exodus in America: White Jewish and Black Christian Experiences of Exodus.” He is an active member of the American Academy of Religion and chairs the Midrash Section for the Society of Biblical Literature.

Co-sponsors lending support to the lecture series include the university’s African-American Studies Program; Center for the Study of Southern Culture; College of Liberal Arts, particularly the departments of history, philosophy and religion, and sociology and anthropology, and the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies; School of Law; Trent Lott Leadership Institute; and William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

The Association for Jewish Studies-Legacy Heritage Jewish Studies Project is designed to foster relationships between scholars and the public and to highlight relationships between Jews and other cultures. For more information, visit http://www.ajsnet.org/legacy.htm.