• Founded
  • Seminar Number

The approaches to religion in this seminar range from the philosophical through the anthropological to the historical and comparative. We concern ourselves with religion in all of its manifestations—ancient and modern, primitive and civilized, heretical and orthodox, individual and cosmic. The guiding thread is whatever subjects are uppermost in the minds of those composing the membership at a given time. Since members come from different disciplines as well as different traditions and have a variety of personal orientations, we are assured maximum openness and flexibility.

Tony Carnes

Sidney Greenfield

Alex Amaechi Ugwuja

Meeting Schedule

04/26/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
7:00 PM
From spirits to worshippers: Jewish themes in Kardecism, Umbanda and Candomblé, joint meeting with Brazil and Content and Methods in the Social Sciences
Alex Minkin, Federal University of Sergipe, Brazil


Syncretic Brazilian religions are using some of historical Jewish characters, symbols, and Hermetic Qabalah to guide and explain the metaphysical experiences of practitioners. At the same time Jews integrate some of Brazilian mysticism into their religious lives while assimilating into Brazilian society. Several case studies based on my field research will be discussed.

First, I will analyze the history of the Jewish Kardecist center in Rio de Janeiro, referring to the interviews with its members. Next, I will discuss my field research of the descendants of Crypto-Jews in Fortaleza, who honor their heritage through ancestral rituals of Candomblé and Umbanda. The temples of these religions provide a safe space of coexistence where rare inter-religious dialogue between Judaism, African, Indigenous and Spiritist religions takes place, and offer Jews a unique therapeutic means to confront historical traumas of discrimination and religious intolerance. Finally, we will explore why non-Jewish Umbanda practitioners chose to embody Jewish spirits.

05/17/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Salem Witch Trials in Context: How Blending of Religion, Politics, Law, and Societal Transformation Triggered Communal Paranoia
Itai Sneh, CUNY,


Intense public law actions during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials from February to September constituted large-scale, localized blood libels. Several factors accounted for the witchcraft trials, including political rivalries, local property disputes, and simple animus. Religious bigotry, based on superstition and ignorance, is crucial. The Bible was used to justify the executions, as well as to describe some of the behavior of witches. It was also the authority under which the accused were tortured into offering “confessions” of their crimes. The civil law of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was based on biblical law, and the religious conflicts which characterized the recent English Civil War were reflected in England’s American colonies, with similar tortures and executions for heresy and witchcraft. LEGALLY: Binding, rule-oriented, Positive law trumps moral, rights-oriented, Natural law. There was NO due process, no presumption of innocence; no lawyers or legal professionals representing defendants. CONFESSIONS were central. Inadmissible evidence was allowed in this Kangaroo court, where the results are known in advance… POLITICALLY: There were many challenges...Recent 1681 charter still in flux. Vacuum when unpopular Governor Phipps is away AGAIN, then challenged locally by Chief Judge Stoughton, an aspiring governor. SOCIO-ECONOMICALLY: “Tale of Two Cities,” Salem was transforming from agriculture-based village, into a market center; there were actually two sections: Present-day Salem, a merchant center of educated people, and Present-day Danvers, then a village of farmers, often illiterate. There were clan fights between the Putnams and the Porters, inter-generational tensions, and tension due to continuous wars with natives. RELIGIOUS schism in the community including Catholic/Protestant, ethnic-English-Irish, settlers-servants class conflicts, while Secularization emerges. In sum, Salem Witch Trials were complex and unpredictable. This talk will explore the various themes involved.