I recall the meeting at the University of Michigan on Vision and Audition in 1995 when I proposed to the scholars present that we form the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism unit. I distinctly remember one of the scholars present shaking his head and admonishing us that our unit would never be approved because the SBL was not allowing for the expansion of its number of units. I'm one of those people that take such advise as a challenge, so we went ahead with the proposal anyway. Of the couple new units approved that year, we made the cut.
Why did I suggest that we form this group? The main reason was that the academy had no units studying mystical traditions or religious experience. So when my colleagues and I tried to present papers in other groups, our work was tangential and even marginalized in those sessions. The audience had come to hear about a particular text or set of texts - be it the Dead Sea Scrolls, or Rabbinic literature, or Nag Hammadi literature, or Thomas traditions, or Pseudepigrapha - and when we would try to engage them in a conversation about mystical traditions within this literature, it wasn't particularly productive because it wasn't their issue or interest.
But once we formed a space for the discussion of the mystical to occur, wow, did things happen. I think our unit, in terms of publishing books connected to our unit, is one of the most productive. I can list at least twenty books that have roots in our group, and these books are published in excellent scholarly series put out by Brill, Mohr-Siebeck, T & T Clark, SUNY, etc.
And what spins off should be noted too. From the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism group has been the creation of the Religious Experience in Antiquity unit, and the New Testament Mysticism Project Seminar - more spaces for more scholars to explore connected but more specialized interests or research projects (as is the case with the New Testament Mysticism commentary). It is the snowball effect, and it is what vitalizes everything that our generation of scholars will produce.
These smaller specialized units allow a space for graduate students to be welcomed into the academy, to be supported as they look for jobs, as they begin writing for journals, and publishing their first book.
But complete specialization and separateness is not what I'm talking about. It is important to stay connected to the discourse of other groups. So the ability to do joint sessions on a common topic of interest is exceedingly vital. We try to put together a joint session at least every other year, to stay in touch with bigger issues and alternative methods.
This is what I mean when I say that SBL is a communal experience for me. And I can't imagine it being that way without the presence of the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism group to which I owe more than words can express. I just can't emphasize enough how these units can become your family, your home away from home. The people that I have met and worked with in these units have become very dear to me. I can't imagine a SBL meeting without this special space for us and our work. Or our Saturday night dinners, which is always a highlight of my meeting.
So I am SO GLAD that the SBL Powers have changed their minds and policy on new groups, allowing the growth to occur and supporting this as much as possible. I don't worry one bit about "over-specializing" - this isn't even a word in my vocabulary. What we are about is enlivening biblical studies, making it an exciting field for a new generation of scholarship. To do this successfully requires scholars to have the freedom to work on collective projects, to create units that support minority positions or interests as well as the dominant.
With more units, it means that we are going to miss things that we would like to have been part of. But when hasn't this been the case? It also means that the committees have to provide an agenda that the group wants to participate in. But this is what we want anyway - programming that is connected to the scholarship happening on the ground.
This means, though, that we are never going to have our agendas set two years in advance as the SBL Powers are insisting - because who knows what fabulous things we are all going to be doing then (smile!).