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Event Details

Wednesday, May 1 2024

6:30 pm - 8:00 pm

Speaker bios and topics

Dr. Rodney Hessinger (he/him/his) is Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of History at John Carroll University. He also recently published Smitten: Sex, Gender, and the Contest for Souls in the Second Great Awakening with Cornell University Press.

Title: “‘Religious Overmuch’”: John Humphrey Noyes and the Reordering of the Sexual Cosmos

By introducing sexual communism, religious visionary John Humphrey Noyes raised uncomfortable questions about sex and religious authority. Like many other religious leaders during the early nineteenth century, Noyes received revelations which inspired him to reorder human sexual relations. In his community, first organized in Putney, VT, and later Oneida, New York, he called for a society in which human possessiveness, whether in material goods, or in bodies, was dissolved. Reactions to his visions by mainline religious ministers emphasized the need to subjugate religious vision to secular restraints.

Dr. Ellen Posman (she/her/hers) is Professor and Chair of the department of Religion at Baldwin Wallace University as well as the BW Chair of Faith and Life, for which she serves as the Director for the WISE Center for Worldviews and Interfaith Social Ethics. She holds degrees from Stanford University, Harvard University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Raised a Conservative Jew, she has also identified as Reform Jew, a Buddhist, a JuBu (Jewish Buddhist), and currently as a Reconstructionist Jew. Her scholarly life has also centered on Judaism and Buddhism; her dissertation was focused on diaspora and exile in Tibetan Buddhism in light of theories stemming from the Jewish experience. Her research since has included other religious communities in diaspora or exile, such as in Hindus, Sikhs, Cuban Catholics, and Zoroastrians. In addition to courses on Hebrew Bible, Judaism, Asian Religions, and Buddhism, she teaches themed world religions courses on Gender and Sexuality, Death and the Afterlife, the American Experience, Peace and Violence, and the Environment. These courses have opened up new avenues of research on Jewish and Hindu funerary rituals, Jewish and Buddhist vegetarianism, religious nationalism across religions, religious diversity in the Greater Cleveland area, and her current project on the quest for full ordination among Theravada Buddhist nuns. She has taken part in interfaith trips and research projects in India, Nepal, Israel/Palestine, Turkey, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

Title: Fluid Theory Meets Binary Practice: Buddhist Perspectives on Gender and Sexuality

Buddhism starts from different premises than Abrahamic religions. Rather than devotion to and/or obedience to a higher being whose words are enshrined in scripture with a goal of blessings in this life and /or an eternal heaven, Buddhists envision this world as conducive to suffering but claim that this suffering is based on our own ignorance and desire. Via knowledge and detachment, one can transcend the suffering inherent in the cycle of rebirth and attain enlightenment, known in Buddhism as nirvana, after which one can help others transcend suffering as well. The Buddha is considered a human enlightened teacher whose words are wise but can be questioned as one should attempt to find the Truth through direct experience. In early Buddhism, the quest for nirvana was the purview of monks and nuns; laypeople simply attempt to get good karma to improve their lots in this life and the next, or good merit, which enables them to grow spiritually in this life and the next with the hope of eventually being born ready to be a monk or nun and seek nirvana.

This leads to some stark differences regarding issues of gender and sexuality for monastics vs. laypeople in which all forms of sexuality are deemed equally negative for monastics, while laypeople take a vow to avoid sexual misconduct, which has been open to interpretation. On gender identity, ancient Buddhist texts imply gender fluidity, align with modern notions of gender as a construction, and include the existence of a “third gender” of sorts, but in practice the sangha (Buddhist community) is organized along binary gender lines and framed heteronormatively, creating historic issues for the queer Buddhist community that are being rethought in contemporary times. As with all religions, Buddhist texts are open to interpretations, and these interpretations are conditioned by historical and cultural contexts. While some Buddhist concepts of impermanence or emptiness or the Buddha’s status as a human being may make it easier to adapt Buddhist concepts to contemporary sensibilities, these shifts are indicative of a process all religions go through.

Laynie Soloman (they/them/theirs) serves on the faculty of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, where they co-founded the Trans Halakha Project, an initiative that creates new forms of halakhic (Jewish legal) expression shaped by trans and non-binary Jews. Laynie has studied and taught Jewish text for over a decade in a wide range of spaces, including Yeshivat Hadar, Romemu Yeshiva, UnYeshiva, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. They hold a B.A. in Religious Studies from Goucher College, an M.A. in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and they are a research fellow with M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. 

Title: Nothing About Us Without Us': Power, Autonomy, and Expertise in Queerly Shaping Jewish Law 

Halakha ("Jewish law") comes to life through the confrontations between sacred texts and seemingly new circumstances as a discourse driven by creativity.  In his monumental 1983 work Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits writes that halakha "is the bridge over which the Torah moves from the written word into the living deed. Normally, there is a confrontation between the text, which is set, and life, which is forever in motion.” In recent decades, significant bridges of halakha have emerged distinctly shaped by the wisdom of queer and trans adherents to, students of, and decisors ("poskim") of Jewish law. Through examining the emergence of halakha responding to queer and trans realities in particular, I will offer a window into Jewish legal interpretation and evolution, highlighting the ways in which halakha functions as a system that dis-locates notions of authority and expertise in legal analysis and is fundamentally democratic in its commitment to being shaped not exclusively by its authors or enforces, but by the all people who imbue it with meaning.

Dr. Kate Davis (she/her/hers) is the Krieger Visiting Scholar in Religious Studies at Defiance College. She holds a PhD in Religious Studies with an emphasis on Religion and Gender and Religions of North America. As an interdisciplinary scholar her work sits at the intersection between religious studies and gender studies, and her primary research interests are Evangelical Christianity, Mormonism, Digital Religions, and Oral History/Ethnography. 

Title: Performing Gender Online: Mormon and Evangelical Women in America

The construction of a digital self is fully performative; online identities are simultaneously highly curated, edited, and uniquely personal. Religious women have created increasingly diverse virtual spaces for themselves, and these online communities give women a safe space to talk about their faith and create common bonds with other female adherents. Through these platforms a significant number of Latter-day Saint and Evangelical Christian women perform, co-create, sustain, and perpetuate systemic gendered norms. In this talk I will explore this phenomenon and introduce several 'influencers' who are performatively shaping how we understand and interpret these two religious traditions.

Dr. Semiha Topal (she/her/hers) is the Program Manager of the Tuohy Center for Interreligious Understanding at John Carroll University. She had her Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Arizona State University in 2012, with her dissertation on “Building a Pious Self in Secular Settings: Muslim Women in Modern Turkey.” She holds an M.A. in Gender Studies and Religion from SOAS, University of London in the UK, and a B.A. in English Language and Literature from Fatih University in Istanbul, Turkey. Before her current role Dr. Topal worked as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY, and at William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, teaching courses on gender, secularism, and Islam, in Turkey and the Middle East.

Title: Contemporary Islamic Responses to Gender Fluidity and Sexual Diversity

Utilizing the hermeneutical reading of the Qur’an developed by Islamic feminism in recent decades, many queer Muslims are now defying the traditional legal position that criminalizes all sexuality outside of a legal marriage of a heterosexual male and female couple. They build on the observation that, Islam is, compared to other major world religions, one of the most favorable ones towards sexuality and fulfillment of sexual desire outside of the duty of procreation. While the queer-affirming interpretations of the Qur’an is still a minority represented with a few congregations and masjids mostly in the Western countries, there is an increasing recognition of the distinction between sex and gender in the mainstream Islamic views. This does not mean a change to the established legal view that homosexuality is abhorred and prohibited, but emphasizing a technicality that distinguishes between sexual orientation and sexual acts in the Islamic law. In other words, the dominant view among traditionalist mainstream scholars is that being gay is not a sin, or a sign of being damned but a test from Allah, which requires them to be patient and avoid committing illicit sexual acts. An exploration of these varying views on gender fluidity and sexual diversity in Islam reflects the modern debates on religious authority in Islam after the disruption and collapse of the existing hierarchies in Muslim societies with the dawn of modernity and colonialism.

Dr. Noah Bickart (he/him/his) was appointed in 2022 as the inaugural holder of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Studies at John Carroll University. He holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Chicago. After a brief stint in the Jazz recording industry in New York, he studied Talmud at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Returning to America, he enrolled at the Harvard Divinity School, earning a MA in Hebrew Bible in 2003. The Following year he entered Rabbinical School at The Jewish Theological Seminary as a Wexner Graduate Fellow. After being ordained as a Conservative Rabbi in 2008, he remained at JTS for Doctoral work and received his PhD in 2015. After directing the Prozdor High School, directing the Eisenfeld/Duker Beit Midrash, and teaching Talmud in the Rabbinical School for a few years, he became Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Postdoctoral Fellow in the Program of Judaic Studies at Yale University. In the Fall of 2018, he joined the faculty of the Theology and Religious Studies department at John Carroll University as a Tuohy fellow in Interreligious Studies.