Publication of Julia Watts Belser’s "Rabbinic Tales of Destruction: Gender, Sex, and Disability in the Ruins of Jerusalem"

January 4, 2018

Jewish Studies and disability rights scholar Julia Watts Belser. Courtesy of Julia Watts Belser.

On January 4, 2018, Julia Watts Belser, a scholar who applies the lenses of gender, sexuality, disability, and ecology to Jewish texts, published her book Rabbinic Tales of Destruction: Gender, Sex, and Disability in the Ruins of Jerusalem. Belser, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Georgetown University, focuses on the Talmud’s account of the Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. She argues that the rabbinic narrative of the event described the effects of Roman domination on diverse Jewish bodies empathetically, rather than portraying this destruction as “divine chastisement.”

Belser was educated at Cornell University (BA), the Academy for Jewish Religion (MA in Rabbinic Studies and Rabbinic Ordination), and the University of California, Berkeley (PhD). At Georgetown, in addition to her position in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, she is a core faculty member in the Disability Studies Program and a Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Belser teaches courses including Judaism and Gender, Disability & the Jewish Bible, and Disability, Ethics, Ecojustice.

Belser’s scholarship has attracted attention for its interdisciplinary approach to Jewish texts and modern issues. In addition to Rabbinic Tales of Destruction, she is the author of Power, Ethics, and Ecology: Rabbinic Responses to Drought and Disaster and over ten academic articles. Though Belser covers a wide range of topics in her work, she consistently approaches Jewish texts with an inclusive eye that challenges traditional Jewish scholarship by centering women, queer people, and disabled people.

Belser’s work on disability, both academic and popular, is illuminated by her identity as a wheelchair user and disabled person. In a news article about COVID-19, for example, Belser invoked her experience as a wheelchair user, writing, “As physicians and health care workers on the front lines of crisis face wrenching decisions about how to allocate scarce resources, disability communities are terrified. Yes, if I get sick, I’m afraid my lungs might fail. But I’m even more afraid of this: that someone will use my wheelchair or my disability diagnosis as a reason to move me to the back of the line.”

Belser’s perspective as someone thinking about scarcity of resources for health and public safety has influenced her understanding of the climate crisis, too. She has stressed that inclusive approaches to the climate crisis are possible: “Working for climate justice requires challenging the root causes of vulnerability rather than treating disabled people as the inevitable casualties of climate change,” she wrote in an article for Truthout. By addressing public services’ frequent failure to meet the needs of disabled people during crises, Belser argues, we can combat climate change while maintaining the belief that “no body is disposable.”

Sources:

Belser, Julia Watts. “Disability and the Politics of Vulnerability.” The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, April 15, 2020. https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/disability-and-the-politics-of-vulnerability.

Belser, Julia Watts. “Disabled People Cannot Be ‘Expected Losses’ in the Climate Crisis.” Truthout, September 20, 2019. https://truthout.org/articles/disabled-people-cannot-be-expected-losses….

Budryk, Zack. “Climate Resilience Efforts Pose New Risks for Disabled People.” The Hill, September 9, 2021. https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/571389-climate-resilience-efforts-pose-new-risks-for-disabled-people/.

“Katz Center Fellow Julia Watts Belser on the Talmud, Disability Studies, and Environmental Humanities.” Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. April 18, 2018. https://katz.sas.upenn.edu/resources/blog/katz-center-fellow-julia-watts-belser-talmud-disability-studies-and-environmental.

“Stroum Lectures 2021 | Reading Jewish Texts in an Age of Climate Change.” UW Stroum Center for Jewish Studies. April 1, 2022. https://jewishstudies.washington.edu/julia-watts-belser-stroum-lectures-reading-jewish-texts-age-of-climate-change/.

“Rabbi Julia Watts Belser on Jewish Story, Crip Culture, and Disability Arts.” The Contemporary Jewish Museum, January 18, 2018. https://www.thecjm.org/learn_resources/363.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Publication of Julia Watts Belser’s "Rabbinic Tales of Destruction: Gender, Sex, and Disability in the Ruins of Jerusalem"." (Viewed on April 21, 2024) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/jan/04/2018/publication-julia-watts-belsers-rabbinic-tales-destruction-gender-sex-and>.