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First Person: Jacob Wright

Jacob Wright

Jacob Wright is assistant professor of Hebrew Bible in Candler School of Theology and a core faculty member in the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies. His book Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers won the 2008 Templeton prize, which is the largest prize for first books in religion. In addition to responsibilities associated with the excavations at Ramat Rachel (located outside Jerusalem), he is currently writing articles and a book that examine the role war and the military played in ancient Israelite society. In 2010–2011, he will serve as director of graduate studies for TIJS and director of the Jewish Religious Cultures program in the Graduate Division of Religion. For 2011–2012, he has been awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Faculty Fellowship to continue his research on war in ancient Israel.

I spent this past academic year in Israel as a visiting fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and at the S. Abraham Center for International and Regional Studies at Tel Aviv University. The exposure to new ideas, as well as the important experiences and connections I have made, will be formative for my career. Although I missed being able to engage my own colleagues and own students on a daily basis, the extended time in which I could focus on researching, writing, and lecturing was immensely rewarding.

Studying Israel’s history in the first millennium BCE and examining a wide array of subjects (ranging from technology and ecology to gender, social mobility, politics, economy, and religion), my work seeks to demonstrate how war functions as a force internal to and inseparable from ancient Israelite society. Although Israel was not unusually warlike or militaristic, I show how war nevertheless must be appreciated as a presence permeating all spheres of its society and as the context in which its most important institutions, practices, and ideas emerged. This approach can better account for the way in which war persists in societal discourses and practices long after the cessation of military conflict.

After working on this project for several years now, I have written much more than can be included in one book. Therefore, I have decided to split up the material into separate volumes. The first volume, which I spent the year finishing, picks up a thread from my book Rebuilding Identity, which examines the formation of a collective Judean identity in the early Second Temple period. In the current book, I expand the inquiry by turning to the problem of the earliest Israelite collective identity. Specifically, I ask: in what ways was this identity informed by military organization and military service in ancient Israel and Judah?

At the most basic level, I look at state building in terms of taxation. Conscription of bodies for military service represents one of the more basic and earlier forms of state taxation, and I examine how conscription worked in the ancient Near East, ancient Greece, and early modern Europe. My particular interest in retracing this history is the citizen-soldier, who fights not because a ruler or state coerces or pays him but rather voluntarily and for the interests of his community. The citizen-soldier is, to be sure, more an ideal than a reality. Yet a long tradition of republican thought, and later nationalism, found the citizen-soldier to epitomize what was essential to their most cherished political principles. In performing the most dangerous civic duty, the citizen-soldier displays—like no one else—the type of sacrifice and devotion needed to make a political community into a people.

The biblical authors demonstrate an exceptionally sophisticated appreciation for this point. They depict at length how a national army and citizen-soldiers fight voluntarily for their land and for their future long before the rise of a king (i.e., a centralized state) who conscripts troops and pays professionals (and even foreign mercenaries) to fight his wars. In this way, the biblical writers illustrate historiographically the point that Israel was a unified people before it entered its land and long before the emergence of a centralized state.

Their aim is not to cast aspersions on statehood and reject its function altogether. To the contrary, by affirming the priority and primacy of peoplehood, the authors seek to remove any doubt that Israel can still be Israel even when it has lost its territorial sovereignty and is dispersed throughout the world. The survival and bolstering of a national identity after defeat and the loss of sovereignty is, according to their penetrating political analysis, the presupposition for a return to the land and the reestablishment of territorial sovereignty—even if that sovereignty may assume a different form.

Building on these points, the final chapters of the book examine how belonging is negotiated by appeal to a history of wartime service and sacrifice. Contemporary examples of this practice are ubiquitous. Various social and political actors—women, ethnicities, gays and lesbians—seek rights and social advancement by appealing to a history of risking their lives in defense of the nation. An important recent example of such commemoration is the new documentary project, For Love of Liberty (

Within the U.S., Jewish social integration is related in no small measure to military service and especially to efforts to document this history. To cite an example close to home, in 1866 Jewish women in the South created the Hebrew Ladies’ Memorial Association, an organization devoted to caring for the graves of Confederate Jewish soldiers. They petitioned “the Israelites of the South” for funds to tend to the graves and place simple stone markers on these graves as well as build a large monument. Motivating this costly project was the fear of potential accusations that Jews, many of whom had recently migrated from the North, were not loyal to the Southern cause. As the Hebrew Ladies wrote in their circular: “In time to come, when the malicious tongue of slander, ever so ready to assail Israel, shall be raised against us, then with feeling of mournful pride, will we point to this monument and say: ‘There is our reply.’ ”

My book studies ancient war commemoration by Jewish communities who sought privilege and protection within the context of foreign empires (of the Assyrians, Babylonians, etc.) and—more extensively—by individuals, classes, and communities who together forged a national identity that represents the direct precursor to the multifarious Jewish identities of the modern age.

In order to explore the fascinating complexities of Jewish military service in foreign armies from antiquity to the present, Derek Penslar from the University of Toronto and I are planning a conference at Emory for 2012.

As one might imagine, my stay in Israel placed my theoretical questions on the subject of war into a much more practical and realistic context. The encounters with Israelis—academics and nonacademics—stimulated many of the questions that my book addresses. But nothing compares to the inspiration that students can provide, which is why I am happy to be back at Emory.





About this Publication

spcrGraduate Fellowships in Jewish Studies

With the admission of four students in fall 2009, TIJS inaugurated a new fellowship program for PhD students who specialize in Jewish studies.

Graduate Student Profile: Craig Perry

Craig Perry’s academic career exemplifies the scholarly process of moving from the general to the specific and provides an unusual glimpse into the development of a scholar.

A Kleyne Velt: Renewal of Yiddish Studies at Emory

Claiming the status of the only all-Yiddish college a cappella group in the world, A Kleyne Velt (“A Small World”) burst on the scene at Emory this past year.

Rothschild Memorial Seminar on Justice in the Judaic Tradition

The first Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild Memorial Seminar, honoring the late Atlanta rabbi and civil rights leader, was delivered by Ellen M. Umansky, Carl and Dorothy Bennett Chair in Judaic Studies at Fairfield University.

Student Papers

Blumenthal AwardsTIJS presents the annual David R. Blumenthal Awards. These awards go to undergraduate and graduate students who best link the knowledge, insights, values, and perspectives of Jewish realities to broader human concerns.

Donor Profile:
Janice Rothschild Blumberg

Janice Rothschild BlumbergA $50,000 gift from the Rothschild family, members of Atlanta’s Jewish community, and corporate benefactors has established the Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild Fund for Jewish Studies.








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