Rebecca Lesses, Jewish studies professor at Ithaca College, will be going to Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany this coming year to continue her research on Jewish magic through a fellowship she received from the Ministry of Education and Research of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Lesses centers much of her research on women’s roles in mysticism and sorcery in the context of Jewish studies. Her research project, and name of her next book, is “Angels’ Tongues and Witches’ Curses: Jewish Women and Ritual Power in Late Antiquity.”
Contributing Writer Madison Bess sat down with Lesses to discuss the fellowship, her research and her plans for studying in Germany.
Madison Bess: Describe your research project.
Rebecca Lesses: I study early Jewish magic. What I mean by early is about first century to sixth and seventh century C.E. in our era. A lot of my previous research has been in this area, but now I am really concentrating on what was the role of women. Can we know anything about what women were doing or participating in at that time period? Were there women mystics? Were women involved in magical activities in a variety of ways? So I’m interested in the image of women as witches because we already know from our time that, you know, if you want to, one way to insult a woman is to call her a witch. This sort of negative association between women and magic has ancient roots. It’s not just a feature of modern American society. It’s going back to the Salem Witch Trials.
MB: How did you get into researching Jewish religious traditions?
RL: When I was an undergraduate, I was a religion major. And I, myself, am Jewish, so that’s probably one of the main reasons I wanted to study Judaism rather than other religions. Although there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence: Plenty of Jews do research on other religions. But I was interested in it first for my personal interests. And then I just got fascinated by what mysticism was. And what are mystical experiences? And I got interested in magic because it’s something that is so concrete. You know, you make things and you say things. It has to do with ordinary interactions between people.
MB: How does this research project relate to your book, “Ritual Practices to Gain Power: Angels, Incantations, and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism”?
RL: That was my doctoral dissertation. And when I was writing it, I planned to write a chapter on women in early Jewish mysticism, but I really wanted to finish my dissertation, so I left that chapter out. So, this is a longtime interest. It is connected to my earlier research.
MB: Do you plan on writing another book based on this research project?
RL: Absolutely. I am actually in the middle of writing one on this research project. And I have written about two-thirds of it.
MB: What new opportunities will you find at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany? What exactly are you looking to find research-wise in Germany?
RL: A couple of things are, one, that this research fellowship gives me time. I won’t be doing any teaching when I am there, so I’ll really be able to concentrate on my research. Another thing is that I am part of a fellowship program. So there are people and many others who are researching a lot of things in the study of religion. So I am hoping to have that cross-fertilization of interests and different people to talk to and people with different expertise. And they may have questions that I’ve never thought of in that way.