Is thought a form of materiality? The question is not an innocent one. I once overheard two neuroscientists at a faculty mixer joking about some of their colleagues in the humanities who still did not yet seem to realize—they were incredulous, in a self-congratulatory, slightly tipsy sort of way— that “mind” is really just another word for “brain.” But what precisely is at stake in this polemic? I want to argue that there is no empirical question here but really a taxonomic one, and that reflection upon prayer—in my case, classical Jewish models of prayer—may help to reframe our mostly implicit taxonomies of matter and spirit in helpful and intellectually freeing ways. Is mind really just another word for brain? I think it depends on what you are asking.
Don Seeman is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University. He is the chair of the Graduate Division of Religion’s doctoral program in Jewish Religious Cultures and convener of the Forum for the Ethnographic Study of Religion at Emory. Don is committed to an interdisciplinary research paradigm that includes both ethnographic and textual-historical approaches. He recently co-edited special issues of both Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History and Ethos: Journal of Psychological Anthropology. His first book, One People-One Blood: Ethiopian Israelis and the Return to Judaism inaugurated the “Jewish Cultures of the World” series at Rutgers University Press. Professor Seeman received his PhD in social and medical anthropology from Harvard and taught previously at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Posts by Don Seeman
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the so-called Alter Rebbe, or founding teacher of the Chabad movement, was once asked to explain to his students how he prays. He is said to have responded, “I pray with the table and with the chairs.” When I first heard this story many years ago, I assumed he meant merely to say that he prayed with great intensity, so that the tables and chairs shook with his fervor. Anyone who has seen Orthodox Jews engrossed in speaking to their Creator while bowing and shaking in constant motion—shuckling, as it is sometimes known in English— will know what I had in mind. I was more wrong than right though, because I underestimated the central importance of tables and chairs and the whole world of mundane materiality to Hasidic prayer.
“Neighborhood Mystics” will be the first interdisciplinary (ethnographic and textual-historical) study of contemplative practice within a dynamic Jewish mystical movement known as Chabad Hasidism. Chabad was founded more than 200 years ago in White Russia through the promotion of specialized practices including contemplative prayer and study (hitbonenut, tefillah ba’avodah) in the context of a close fellowship of pietists.