Jewish Studies before Jewish Studies @Fordham: Interview with Professors Jason Morris and Karina Martin Hogan

This year, Fordham’s Center for Jewish Studies is celebrating its fifth anniversary.  But before the formal founding of the CJS, many professors, students, librarians, and others taught, studied, and cultivated the study of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish history and culture at Fordham.  This blog series features interviews with some of these people and celebrates their lasting contributions to the university.  

This interview features Karina Martin Hogan, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism in Fordham’s Theology Department, in conversation with Jason Morris, Professor of Biology in Fordham’s Natural Sciences Department. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research?

Jason: My training and research to this point has been in the genetic regulation of development in worms and flies. In the past, I’ve worked on genes that control life span and life cycle decisions, egg production, and larval growth and behavior. I’m just starting to design a more student-centered approach where I will use my lab to help undergraduates develop their own research questions and help them learn the skills they need to begin their work on them.

Jason at work in his lab

Karina: My graduate training was primarily in the Bible, both Tanakh/Old Testament and New Testament, and only secondarily in the history of Judaism. Over the past 20 years, my research has shifted primarily to early Judaism, especially wisdom and apocalyptic literature of the Second Temple period. With my new project on the book of Ruth, I’m returning to my original interest in the Bible, and in particular feminist interpretation of the Bible, which is an interest I have mostly developed during the years since graduate school. 

Karina (far left) with students from her “Religion in NYC” course on a trip to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Spring 2023

When did you arrive at Fordham and what was Fordham like at the time?

Jason: 2003. I loved Fordham right away. I really appreciate that it’s a place that tries to live its core values, especially a focus on a broad and deep undergraduate education in the arts and sciences and a respect for all faiths. My colleagues genuinely care about their students and their students’ learning, and I really appreciate that. And the students are a lot of fun to teach.

Jason Morris at a Fordham event to raise money for HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) for Syrian refugees in a pie-in-the-face event. “Hillel put up the money for the supplies, so I wrote their name on my Fordham shirt next to the HIAS sticker,” Jason remembers.

Karina: 2005. I loved the students at Fordham right away too, but it took a couple of years before I felt at home in the community of colleagues at the Lincoln Center campus and at Fordham in general. My department, Theology, was much more Rose Hill-focused at the time, with only a handful of faculty members at Lincoln Center. I was the only scholar of Judaism in the department. I didn’t realize at first that there were colleagues in other departments who worked on Judaism; I eventually met some of them through the Jewish Texts Reading Group.

Karina on a trip to Costa Rica with Fordham’s Honors Global Outreach

Both of you participate in the Jewish Texts Reading Group. How has being a part of that community shaped your time at Fordham? 

Jason: Some of my best, closest Fordham relationships have come out of this group, including with Anne and Karina. It’s rejuvenating to read some of the greatest, most provocative texts ever written with colleagues from so many different fields and different religious backgrounds, especially because we read those texts with particular attention to their meanings within the Jewish tradition. There’s always the danger when Jewish texts are studied in non-Jewish settings that it can feel like the texts are read with an eye toward appropriation. That doesn’t happen in this group. I also think it’s indicative of Fordham’s respect for non-Christian perspectives that this group has gotten so much support from the administration. 

Karina: I feel the same, that some of my closest friendships at Fordham grew out of the Jewish Texts group. That group provided the kind of intellectual community I was craving. I remember feeling a bit intimidated by the level of the conversation at first, so I was pretty quiet, but Anne and Jason drew me out. Eventually I realized that even though I wasn’t Jewish, I had credibility because I could read Hebrew and knew the Bible. And soon the group grew to include more people who weren’t Jewish but shared an appreciation for the Jewish tradition and for rigorous intellectual discussion, like Peggy and Peter Steinfels.

The two of you also learn together be-hevruta (as study partners).  How did you start doing so, and what have you learned together over the years?

Jason: I think we discovered we had a lot of interests in common right away, and we started reading together not too long after we met. Over the years, we’ve read some theology, some fiction, and even a bit of poetry, but mostly we’ve focused on Talmud. 

I realized very quickly that Karina is one of the most thoughtful and intellectually accomplished people I’ve met. In addition to her erudition and her skills in so many of the languages these texts are written in, Karina can hold these texts in great respect while also appreciating the humor of how bizarre (from a modern, American perspective) these texts can be. I come from a yeshiva background, and it’s really rare to find someone to study with who knows a lot about the theology and the history around these texts who also cares deeply about them, and who can also laugh when we encounter the student who hid under his teacher’s marital bed “to learn from him” or who has the same affection I do for Abbaye, who always quotes “mother” (his nurse) as a sage authority. 

Karina: Jason is my favorite person to talk to about whatever I’m reading, not only what we’re reading together. He reads more widely than anyone I know, and while I don’t even try to keep up with him, I always enjoy the books he recommends. And I loved listening to him talk about his novel as it was taking shape!

When we read Talmud or midrash together, apart from finding similar things humorous, we bring very different perspectives to the text. Jason is the least conventional thinker I know–he is constantly saying things that surprise me and open up meanings of the text that I hadn’t contemplated. And often these are theological points that I would never have thought of, despite being trained as a theologian! I actually think reading Talmud with a biologist has made me a better theologian.

Karina, you study Second Temple Judaism.  Can you tell us about your first book, on 4 Ezra, some of the themes you’ve explored in your research since then, and about your current project on the book of Ruth?

My first book, Theologies in Conflict in 4 Ezra, was only the beginning of my studies of 4 Ezra. I’m not finished with it yet, and probably never will be! I’m working on a commentary on the Latin version of 4 Ezra, which includes two Christian apocalyptic texts as bookends. I have also been working recently on a related apocalypse, 2 Baruch, and on the Wisdom of Solomon, a Hellenistic Jewish wisdom text with some apocalyptic features. My new project, as I mentioned earlier, is on feminist interpretations of the book of Ruth from around the world. I’m excited to be getting back to work on a book that is well known and loved by many Jewish and Christian readers of the Bible.

Jason, you teach in Biology in the Department of Natural Sciences (a department you even chaired), but you’ve also published a novel titled Thicker than Mud (2019), which explores themes related to Judaism and Jewish history. Can you share the premise of the work (without spoiling it for those who would like to read it!) and what inspired you to write this book?

Here’s the description from the back cover: 

Adam Drascher, a Jewish archaeology professor at a small Jesuit college in the Bronx, is at a standstill: Adam is in love with his former mentor, though he knows that relationship has no future, and though his tenure decision is approaching, Adam has little to show for his efforts studying the cult of the dead in ancient Israel. Everything changes for Adam when he discovers a tablet that sheds light on the Healers, shadowy underworld figures in Canaanite myth and in the Bible, on the same day that he loses his grandfather, the man who raised him. As Adam mourns for his grandfather and labors to interpret the text of the tablet, he unearths family secrets that test his loyalties and entangle him in the police investigation of an old family friend.

I worked on the book for many years, and so many threads came together to inspire me to write it. One of the most significant came out of my reflections on the burial of my grandfather. In the Jewish tradition, it is customary for the mourners literally to bury the dead, and I remember vividly my reluctance to hand the shovel over to the next person when I had taken my turn. I was very close to my grandfather and I really wanted to do that one last thing for him myself, to share that one last experience with him, in a way. I thought about what a person might be like who really wouldn’t be able to share that moment with other mourners, who really did claim that relationship all for himself. Another really significant thread came from my own Jewish studies in college. I took a couple of courses with Saul Olyan on the literature of the Babylonian Exile and on the Judean monarchy. One week, we discussed the Rephaim, the Healers from Canaanite mythology, and they captured my imagination. When I wanted a profession for Adam, I just knew that they would be the focus of his life’s work.

We all have unexpected professional experiences – for example, Jason, a biologist by training, ended up writing a novel about a Jewish archaeologist.  Karina, can you share an unexpected experience that you’ve had as a professor of ancient Judaism and what you learned from it? 

Karina: The most unexpected and funny experience I’ve ever had was when someone in Media Relations at Fordham recommended me to a producer who was making an episode about angels for a Catholic TV series called “Mysteries of the Church.” He wanted someone who could speak to the role of angels in the Bible, and I thought, sure, that should be easy. But I ended up having to meet the film crew at Woodlawn Cemetery, where there were many mortuary sculptures of angels on the graves of wealthy people from the 19th century. It was the middle of winter and I gave the whole interview inside a mausoleum, bundled up in my winter coat, scarf and gloves! I didn’t hear back from the producer after that so I assumed the series never got picked up, or my interview was cut. But then years later, a woman from my church told me she had seen me on TV and I found the episode online. I was very embarrassed to realize what a hokey, sensationalist series it was that I had agreed to give an interview for!

This past fall, both of you helped organize Fordham’s first Interfaith Prayer Service during Orientation Week.  Can you share more about that experience?

Jason: I thought it was a really moving service. I was really impressed that President Tetlow wanted to sing a traditional Jewish prayer (and that she has a repertoire of traditional Jewish prayers)! President Tetlow sang Osei Shalom, a song she was familiar with from her days singing at Jewish high holiday services. I said the shehechayanu blessing, which seemed fitting at the start of a new academic year where we welcomed a new president. Probably the facet of the program that most riveted me was the dance in praise of Shiva. I’d never seen anything like it, and I found it very powerful. 

Karina: I was also very happy with the way the service turned out, and with the creativity and commitment of everyone who contributed to it. Figuring out what it should look like took all summer, and some parts of it didn’t fall into place until right near the end. But I found the end result very cohesive, even though it represented so many different religious traditions. My part was an opening prayer based on an Anishinaabe water ritual taught to me by my father. I felt very blessed to have the opportunity to share that part of my heritage with the Fordham community.

Karina offering the opening prayer at the Fall 2022 Interfaith Prayer Service at Lincoln Center

In what ways has Fordham’s Jesuit and Catholic missions impacted the work that you do, in the classroom and in your research?

Jason: This is an institution that encourages us to cultivate so many aspects of our humanity and our students’ humanity in all aspects of our work, whether in student advising and mentoring, or in the classroom, or in training students how to do independent research. It’s also a place that encourages everyone in the community to take ethics seriously and to engage in reflection about our values and our practices. All of that is deeply informed by the Jesuit and Catholic mission, though it resonates very strongly with my Jewish values. 

Karina: My understanding of Fordham’s Jesuit mission has deepened over the years, partly through study groups focused on the mission, but mostly through observing my colleagues living the mission. I agree with Jason that it’s about cultivating the full personhood of every member of the Fordham community. If we don’t allow our own humanity to flourish in all of its dimensions, how can we care for our students as full persons? One of the ways I have found to live the mission is by employing the pedagogy of community-engaged learning. This year I’m working with a committee to create a new cohort program, similar to an Honors program, that centers social justice and community engagement.

Any thoughts about Jewish Studies @Fordham as we celebrate its fifth anniversary?

Jason: I’m very proud of Fordham’s Jewish scholarship and Fordham’s community around Jewish studies. I don’t think too many faith-based institutions would prioritize the understanding and appreciation of another faith in this way. I can’t think of another university, including Jewish universities, that would have helped me to grow in my own Judaism as Fordham has.

Karina: I am thrilled to be a member of the Jewish Studies faculty at Fordham. It has been wonderful to see the Center grow so quickly and to see the incredible diversity of programming that it offers. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that we now reach so many people with our virtual and hybrid programming. My own intellectual life has been greatly enriched by the contact with other Jewish Studies scholars that the Center has facilitated. 

Thank you, Jason and Karina, for such a wide-ranging and moving peak into your research and relationship!