Benjamin joins MHC as Jewish studies chair

In addition to her book on Franz Rosenzweig, Mara Benjamin studies maternity, gender and sexuality and feminism in modern and historical Judaism.

By Sasha Nyary 

Mount Holyoke College’s newest religion professor, Mara Benjamin, didn’t attend the College as an undergraduate, but it changed the course of her life nevertheless. 

In the early 1990s, Benjamin was a recent Hampshire College graduate living in the Pioneer Valley when she decided to audit a class in Jewish mysticism. The Mount Holyoke course was taught by Larry Fine, who in 1989 had been named Mount Holyoke’s first Irene Kaplan Leiwant Professor of Jewish Studies. 

Even though she was auditing, Benjamin wrote all the papers — and Fine gave her feedback on them. The two connected and would have coffee at Rao’s in Amherst, discussing Jewish mysticism, history, philosophy and her future career plans, including the possibility of rabbinical or graduate school. 

After some consideration, Benjamin chose graduate school and became a professor, most recently at St. Olaf, a Lutheran college in Northfield, Minnesota. Then in 2015, Fine retired, and Benjamin has been named his successor. 

“I couldn’t be more gratified personally that she will be my successor as the next occupant of the Irene Kaplan Leiwant Chair in Jewish Studies and chair of Jewish studies,” Fine said. “A distinguished scholar and a wonderful, warm person, there is no doubt that Mara will be a great teacher, a terrific colleague and will become a valued member of the Mount Holyoke community.” 

Jon Western, vice president of academic affairs and dean of faculty, echoed Fine’s enthusiasm. 

“Mara is an outstanding scholar and a committed and passionate teacher,” Western said. “She has a breadth of knowledge across disciplines and, in the best tradition of Mount Holyoke, she brings a deep commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration.” 

For her part, Benjamin is excited to be part of advancing the next phase of Jewish studies at Mount Holyoke. 

“It’s exciting to think about developing Jewish studies in a collaborative environment, with a variety of professors in other departments as well as my own to think with, teach with, talk to,” she said. “Most of my classes will be cross-listed in at least two other departments or programs.” 

Those courses this year include Reading the Hebrew Bible, Jewish Interpretative Traditions, Women and Gender in Judaism and a seminar on the Sabbath. How religion is taught in the 21st century is especially interesting in the context of a small, diverse New England college, she noted. 

“I’ve found most meaningful interactions with students teaching in a liberal arts context,” Benjamin said. “Really getting to engage with students is the context I was educated in, where I find opportunities to help them explore deeply their questions. I also appreciate the diversity here, and the opportunity to connect with students from very different parts of the world. The College’s genuine commitment to diversity is very exciting.” 

Benjamin’s academic background has also been diverse. In addition to her previous position at St. Olaf, she has been a visiting lecturer at Yale University and University of Massachusetts Amherst and a visiting scholar at Jewish Theological Seminary. She received her Ph.D. in modern Jewish thought from Stanford University and a diploma in Jewish studies from Oxford University. 

Her forthcoming book is entitled “The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought.” Her first book, “Rosenzweig’s Bible: Reinventing Scripture for Jewish Modernity,” makes "a lasting and significant contribution,” wrote Peter E. Gordon from Harvard University, by showing how “the great German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig struggled to define what the ancient Hebrew liturgy could mean to Jewish existence under the radically altered conditions of late modernity.”

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