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He Searches for What Transcends the Physical

December 1, 2005 By:
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Nathaniel Deutsch
Swarthmore College religion professor Nathaniel Deutsch has admittedly chosen some unusual and disparate subjects for his research into the history of religion.

From the beliefs of the ancient gnostics to a "holy woman" who served as a Chasidic teacher in 19th-century Eastern Europe - as well as an analysis of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad's use of "midrashic" techniques to explicate the Bible and the Koran - Deutsch's curiosity moves among the rarely explored chapters of humanity's search for the sacred in life.

In fact, the 38-year-old author calls the title of his first book, Guardians of the Gate: Angelic Vice Regency in Late Antiquity, as "one of the most obscure in publishing history."

He explained that his 1999 book dealt with belief in angels among various mystical religious traditions prevalent in the early centuries of the Common Era, including a strain of Judaism known as Merkabah.

"I'm interested in revealing how historically marginalized communities and individuals reveal important things about central issues," said Deutsch. "All things become illuminated from a different perspective."

For example, The Maiden of Ludmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World, a 2004 National Jewish Book Award finalist, deals with universal issues of leadership and community, while examining the particular example of a woman fulfilling a role almost exclusively held by men.

From Different Worlds
How did the academic come to be interested in seemingly all things esoteric and spiritual? According to Deutsch, it has a lot to do with his own biography.

To start with, Deutsch's parents came from different religious worlds; his mother hailed from a secular, Labor Zionist background, while his father, a Holocaust survivor, was "ultra-Orthodox." The scholar then explained that such a marriage could have happened only in Israel, where he was born.

"The complexity of Judaism was something I grew up with," he said.

He actually spent most of his childhood in what he described as a largely black section of Milwaukee, where he nevertheless attended an Orthodox day school and a shul run by a Chasidic rabbi. Today, he rejects the Orthodox label and simply refers to himself as Jewish.

While he was studying Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Chicago - and giving little thought to what he might do for a living - a teacher suggested that he apply to graduate school. In 1995, Deutsch earned his doctorate in the history of Judaism and religions, and ever since has been teaching a wide array of subjects - including the Hebrew Bible, modern Jewish thought and the history of gnosticism - at Swarthmore.

Recently, his interests have shifted a little from history to ethnography. His latest project involves an in-depth study of Chasidic communities in America. And just for his own edification, he's started learning Talmud regularly for the first time since high school.

Now, since of late more than one observer has predicted that science and reason will eventually bring an end to religion, what does Deutsch think it is exactly about the power of faith - and humanity's desire for religion in all its forms - that has allowed belief systems to endure throughout the millennia?

"People," he began, "want meaning in their lives, and perceive that there is something that transcends the physical realm. There is something basically human that makes religion very appealing, and gives it its power.

"There is a realm of human experience that goes beyond reason."

 

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