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Trends and Controversies in Judaic Scholarship

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Monday, June 2, 2008

"Trends and Controversies in Judaic Scholarship"

By: Moshe Rosman

Paula Hyman, in reviewing my work, has described it as customarily a combination of judiciousness and provocativeness. I don't intend to be very judicious today. In my opinion, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Jewish Studies is facing a crisis. I view the opportunity of addressing such a large and central group of Jewish Studies scholars and teachers as a chance to sound the alarm. Like an alarm, it won't be very subtle or nuanced, but I do hope it gets your attention.

Within the time constraints, I want to mention five issues which I think challenge the continued existence of Jewish Studies as we know it. There are others, but these are a start:


As you undoubtedly know, the question of whether there is a Jewish People for Jewish Studies to study is a fraught one and the Introduction to my book, which you may have read, is an attempt to articulate what some of the aspects of this question are. To briefly recapitulate some of what you read and add to it:

First there are the epistemological problems involved in studying any language- and text-linked subject in light of postmodern sensibilities and I won't rehash those here.

Next comes the difficulty in defining Jewishness (or any subject) once essentialist definitions have been jettisoned. If the word 'Jewish' signifies no essential features continuous over time and place, if it can be constructed in an infinite number of ways, then how do we go about defining the subject which we seek to research and write about? How do we initially recognize something as Jewish and mark it as a proper component of our study? If Jewish can be everything, is it anything? Is there a discrete field for Jewish Studies to study?

Connected to this problem of the theoretical possibility of definition is the practical difficulty of definition. What are the Jews: religion? community? ethnos? race? nation? people? perennial minority or outsider? those simply designated as "Jews" by themselves or by the Other? All of these definitions have been tried and none has proved satisfying.

The instability or indeterminacy of definitions of Jews and Jewishness has had an effect on Jewish Studies. It has segued into a new metahistory or master narrative of Jewish history. In place of the nationalist, acculturationist and religious metahistories, there is now what can be called a "multicultural" metahistory. Its proponents view the various historical contexts of Jewish existence as determinative. In each historical context, Jewish society and culture are not seen to be cells of some world-wide Jewish community 'in dialogue' with 'surrounding' or 'host' societies and cultures, but rather to be a 'hybrid' component of the 'hegemonic' society and culture whose frameworks set the templates according to which, and the parameters within which, Jewish identity, culture and society are 'constructed'-differently-in each time and place. While Jews may share certain religious and ethnic markers over time and space, Judaism and Jewishness are always and everywhere primarily local constructs. Jewish collective identity, Jewish cultural creativity and Jewish social institutions should be understood mainly from a local perspective. Jews are a hybrid version of whatever identity they live among. Jews in Iraq or other Arab lands were 'Arab Jews' and the term 'German Jews' really means 'Germanized Jews'-not only post-Emancipation, but earlier as well. It is difficult, therefore, to speak of 'the' Jews; 'the' Jewish tradition; or a coherent Jewish history. The essence of Jewish existence-from ancient times onward-is diversity. But all of this diversity is a solvent that threatens to dissolve our subject. If Jewish experience, cultural creativity and social life are always only subsets of something else, then the main subject is indeed "something else" and the category "Jewish" becomes an artifact or an epiphenomenon.


Cultural evolution has reached the stage of multiculturalism, defined as, for example, 'pluralism without the element of public conformity and without pluralism's optimism of ultimate inclusion for all...a nation of disparate entities sharing public power but existing, immutably, as separate and autonomous units'. Some Jews are willing to adopt the multicultural paradigm; they believe that in a world organized as 'a community of communities and a culture of cultures' Jewish culture and the Jewish community can assume a respected place. Jewishness, as the product of so much historical multicultural experience might even be emblematic of multiculturalism, with 'multicultural theory itself [lying] at the heart of modern Jewish experience'. Responses to this thesis from multiculturalists are often, however, in the nature of: your culture was too complicit in the formation of the oppressive monoculture for you now to claim membership in-much less leadership of-the ranks of the oppressed; however you might construe your history in the past, today you are aligned with the white elite; you are no longer vulnerable (if indeed you ever were); you are not outsiders; contrary to your claims there is no valid multiculturalism inherent in Jewishness. This is most poignantly and vociferously expressed in the so-called 'new academy', the stronghold and fountainhead of multiculturalism. Jewish academics who thought that Jewish studies belonged in a framework where every tile in the cultural mosaic is entitled to full visibility are rudely awakened to their exclusion. They are left out and they protest that they deserve to belong. In time-honored fashion, their argument for inclusion in the hegemonic group concentrates on the contribution Jewishness can make to the dominant discourse and ethos, now connected to multiculturalism. Where other minority groups may use their history to prove that they are 'somebody', that they have a past that entitles them to standing in the present and the future; the Jews use their past to prove that they can contribute to everybody else's future. This new discourse on the contribution of Jews to multicultural civilization has two main vectors. One version (popular among non-Jewish theorists as well as some Jews) is to regard Jews, whose identity is always in flux, as an allegory, metaphor or trope representing all of the people sinned against by modern Western Civilization and summarizing all of the ways in which they have been harmed. As Homi Bhabha has put it, the Jewish experience is short-hand for the universal experience of all hybridized, colonized, alterior people who have suffered at the hand of modern civilization because they disconcert it. It is studied as an introduction to the need for multiculturalism and for the way in which it problematizes hegemony. It has no intrinsic value, or even significant content, beyond its representative potential and its power to discomfit. This depriving Jewish identity of particularist substance and converting it into a trope has been strongly opposed by some academics whose main occupation is the study of Jewish texts and Jewish experiences, yet who are committed to a multicultural perspective. They reject the presumption that Jewishness has no substance valuable in and of itself.

This second vector of the new Jewish contribution discourse sees the Jews, not as trope, but as model; that is, the Jewish experience and Jewish texts have something to teach-to contribute-to contemporary, multiculturalist governed, discourse. The proponents of Jews-as-model contend that Jews and Judaism possess precious and powerful cultural treasures that can contribute to everyone else. This approach contrasts with an older one, that considered the Jews neither trope nor model but principal; a group that was peer to all the other historical groupings. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi spoke of Jewish Studies' '...contribution as pure scholarship to the sum of man's historical knowledge and understanding...'. Jacob Katz declared: 'Any true historical insight with regard to the development of Jewish society has the right to be considered a contribution to general historical research'. Yerushalmi's and Katz's 'contributions' reflected a conviction that Jewish studies had nothing to prove, that including Jewish studies added to the legitimacy of the academy. They displayed a confidence in the worthiness of the subject that is missing in their heirs. The Jewish Studies scholars of today often leave us with the impression that if Jewish Studies cannot prove its value to everyone else then it has no justification for inclusion in the academy. 


Does the most cutting edge research in Jewish Studies undermine one of its fundamental presuppositions; namely that Jewish civilization is original, interesting, valuable, generally salutary and even inspiring? From the beginning of Wissenschaft des Judentums at least part of the justification for Jewish studies was that Jewish culture or civilization was world class, equivalent to Christian, Muslim, Chinese, or any other one. Since the university was supposed to teach all fields of human knowledge, it was only right that the field of Jewish knowledge be given a rightful place there alongside the others. Until today, the "model" claim has often been asserted, that Jewish Studies has something original and valuable to teach. Indeed Western Civilization was usually spoken of as based on a Judeo-Christian foundation and logic dictated that the "Judeo" be examined and analyzed. Moreover, Judaism-as one of the great monotheistic religions-was important in it own terms, and its cultural monuments: the Bible, the Talmud, rabbinic literature-deserved to be studied. Finally, in the Diaspora at least, the Jewish experience was that of a semi-enfranchised, subordinate minority group, who typically made text and its interpretation a central focus of life, and whose political life was atypical and usually overshadowed by intellectual, social, and cultural developments. Holding the moral high ground, it was therefore tailor-made to serve as a fresh vantage point from which to view and interpret important, if somewhat unconventional, questions of history as well as from which to critically study hegemonic civilizations.

Recent developments have called all of these assertions into question.

First I return to the multicultural metahistory discussed earlier. As noted, one consequence of this construct is to replace the dialogue metaphor of the relationship between Jews and their surroundings (i.e. that Jews were in dialogue with the societies and cultures around them) with the notion that Jews have always been embedded in the societies, cultures, and civilizations in which they lived and thus culturally indebted to them. This usually leads to what I call a meta-solution to all historical questions: influence. That is, Jewish ideas, institutions, rituals, etc. were merely reactions to or derivatives from the people with whom Jews were in close contact. Under the powerful influence of hegemons, Jews mostly adopted things from their environment; usually late and often poorly: the Pesah seder, part of early Jewish-Christian polemic; the "great" medieval Jewish philosophers, imitative Neoplatonism or Aristotelianism; piyyut, an iteration of Christian liturgical poetry; biblical commentary, modeled on Islamic Arabic templates; the Ashkenazic custom of preparing a Torah wrapper, or wimpel, out of the diapers of boy babies, an adaptation of a Christian practice; Jewish autonomy institutions, copies of standard medieval European local governing arrangements; Hasidic rebbes, Polish noblemen wannabes. The list goes on.

What about those great cultural monuments?

Once upon a time Jews believed (some still do) that the Bible was the word of God Xeroxed in Heaven. Next, many Jewish scholars conceded that the Bible wasn't actually written by God, but was inspired by Him. When I was educated, the question of the text's divinity seemed moot-certainly mute. Speiser, Albright and their students stressed how the Bible took common near eastern beliefs and motifs and turned them on their head. When God-one, invisible, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God-began to create He created the Heaven and the Earth-A to Z, EVERYTHING: the firmament, that was not the carcass of some god defeated by another one, but the one God's purposeful action; you believe in TANINIM (sea monsters), well the one God created those too. The Bible did not come to tell us how the world was created but why; and not how the physical world works but how the moral one does. Within that grand design, the Bible lays out the great mission of the Israelite, later Jewish, People based on revolutionary monotheistic beliefs and noble moral principles. The Bible's message was intended to present ethical models and moral teachings which would reshape the world and the way people lived their lives-for eternity. But then along came James Kugel and, chronicling three centuries of critical Bible study, told us HOW TO READ THE BIBLE; demonstrating how we who see in the Bible a book of eternal moral and religious instruction have been reading it through the filter of later mis-interpretations (or to be charitable, reinterpretations) of it. The actual Bible speaks of at least two types of God. One of them is a corporeal God who is not only NOT omnipresent, he cannot even be in two places at once. He is not omniscient either, knowing only what He physically sees and hears. Subject to emotion, He is barely superhuman, much less Divine. The actual Bible is to a large degree a collection of folkloristic, etiological stories intended to explain to the generations in which they appeared such things as: why the Kenite people were so ferocious yet worshipped the Israelite God; why the Semitic languages were similar yet different; why Sodom was a ghost town; why exogamous marriage is permissible. In many places the Bible is an extraordinarily political document used to legitimate the rule of a priestly or some other party. Eternal principles? Moral revolution? Ethical models? Maybe if you read Rashi, the classic distillation of biblical commentary. The Bible itself is really much less of a book than Jews have made of it.

And who were those Jews who mis- or re- interpreted the Bible? Mainly, THE RABBIS. Again, once upon a time Jews believed (and some still do) that the rabbis transmitted the one true interpretation of the Torah that guided the Jews from the time of Moshe on. Later, scholars thought that the rabbis were actually the heirs of Ezra, the progenitor of the scribes and the Great Assembly which codified Judaism and evolved into the Sanhedrin dominated by the Pharisees. Still later, it was concluded that those Pharisees-the rabbis' putative spiritual ancestors-were but one among several factions whose interaction served to determine the contours of Jewish belief and practice. Finally, scholars understood that, in fact, most Jews practiced one or another non-rabbinic Judaism in Temple times. It was only the circumstances created by the destruction of the Second Temple that facilitated the emergence of rabbinic style Judaism as predominant and determinative of what constituted "Judaism".

And then, a few years earlier than Kugel on the Bible, Seth Schwartz crashed the party. While insisting that during Temple times there was only one Judaism, albeit "frayed at the edges", after 70 Jewish society and with it Judaism pretty much collapsed. The adjective he commonly associates with the word "rabbis" is "marginal". As he sums up the situation at the onset of the sixth century: "Though the rabbis continued to exist and to have followers in late antiquity...they themselves remained marginal in the Jewish world...Rabbinic Judaism was no more a completely discrete entity in late antiquity than it had been in the second and third centuries...(p. 199)."

Thus the Rabbinic Judaism with which virtually all Jews seek to connect their own practice; the pristine, classic rabbinic Judaism that many nineteenth century reformers, of various stripes, wished to recapture, was not really classic and certainly never pristine. It only became "Judaism" in the seventh century, at the earliest, asserts Schwartz. And this past year Edrei and Mendels in two influential articles on the non-rabbinic nature of the Western Diaspora, in effect push this date to the ninth century. So Judaism turns out to be a medieval tradition, not an ancient one, and it is reasonable to expect that Jewish Studies may come to question that premise as well. And then there is the point about Judaism holding the moral high ground and being generally salutary. One salient aspect of this is the commonplace that-at least until those nasty Zionists came along-Jews were a non-violent people. Indeed violence was repugnant to Jews (even anti-semites depicted Jews as effeminate 90-pound weaklings) and Jewish history might serve as the subject matter for a course on ADR-alternative dispute resolution-demonstrating how conflict can be managed in non-violent ways. This convention, too, has now been questioned by Elliott Horowitz's book, RECKLESS RITES: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence. Horowitz-or at least many of his interpreters-seems to say, Jewish violence is not a modern invention, but part of the tradition; suppressed only because of weakness. Seething Jewish anger and hatred for the goyim leaked out whenever Jews thought they might get away with it.

Derivative, pedestrian, marginal, politicized, congenitally violent and recent. Can such a culture justify the prodigious investment of resources, manpower and dedication that Jewish Studies currently commands? If it continues to portray the object of its study in this way can it continue to command them?

4) This leads directly into the next issue: IS JEWISH STUDIES JEWISH ENOUGH? When Jewish Studies began to blossom in the 1960s there was an implied bargain among the three partners: the universities, the Jewish community and the scholars. The universities would allow the establishment of Jewish Studies as a legitimate field of research and teaching, IF the Jews would pay for it. The community, in the form of some of its wealthy members, would finance the institution of Jewish Studies in academia and the salaries of the professors on condition that Jewish Studies would do a few things:

a) First by establishing a place for itself in the representative institutions of the elite sector of American culture, it was to demonstrate Jewish acceptance and legitimacy in American society;

b) Second, it was to be a Jewish voice on campus, presenting Jewish views and representing Jewish interests;

c) Third it was to appeal to Jewish youth alienated by the Hebrew school-bar mitzvah factory Jewish experience. It was to show Jewish young people that their impression of Judaism was mistaken. Judaism was not simple-minded and outmoded; it was sophisticated and campus cool.

Jewish Studies faculty-in the early days largely liberal rabbis with PhDs-tacitly accepted these terms.

However, things have not worked out exactly as planned. The universities have gotten their money. The professors have their positions and their academic freedom. But the community is now complaining that they haven't gotten their money's worth; especially with respect to the third point. 

Jewish studies was supposed to be a way to appeal to the thinking Jew. But today many in the Jewish community are saying: We don't need thinking Jews. We need feeling ones. Without the elements of a priori religious belief and commitment there is no point to the study. We don't need to pay for non-Jews (who now often study and teach Jewish Studies) to be expert in Judaism; we need Jews to be. גדול המצווה ועושה משאינו מצווה ועושה. We need to bolster Jewish commitment and Jewish Studies doesn't do that.

In addition there is a growing attack on Jewish Studies from the Jewish religious right. Where once fundamentalist rabbis often evinced unease and even grudging respect when faced with professors; this has now largely been replaced by contempt and attack, claiming that Jewish Studies leads to heresy and even provides anti-semitic grist; to wit: Ariel Toaff's notorious: BLOODY PASSOVERS: EUROPEAN JEWRY AND RITUAL MURDER, the cover of which (actually a medieval illustration of the akedah) depicts a stereotypical Jewish figure holding a knife to the neck of a child; and the content of which touches the third rail of Jewish history, the blood libel-virtually purporting to affirm its truth.

Is this the Jewish Studies the Jewish community has paid for? Better to invest in elementary education.

5) The fifth issue is: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE JEWISH STATE? Once upon a time the elites of Israel believed in Ahad Ha'amism, that it was possible and indeed vital to create a secular Jewish culture out of the raw material of Jewish tradition integrated with modern sensibilities and knowledge. This objective was abandoned by Israeli elites sometime after the Six-Day War. The Greater Israel that was created then was not just geographically enlarged. It was also economically and culturally expanded. Israeli elites looked to the Western world, past and present-not to Jewish history-as their natural reference group. Judaism and Jewishness were regarded as provincial, signifying reactionary politics and both political and gender chauvinism. By the end of the 1980s, "Jewish" and "Haredi" were often seen as synonyms and in CONTEMPORARY Israeli polite society the semantic field associated with "Haredi" is not very positive. Thus in the early 1970s some 30% of Israeli students took at least a minor in some field of Jewish Studies. Today the number is around 3%. Moreover, the demographic profile of the Israeli Jewish Studies faculty is overwhelmingly "dati"(=religious) or "datlash"(=formerly religious) with a large minority of people like me-immigrants-in senior positions. I would argue that the reason there was room for so many immigrants on Israeli Jewish Studies faculties was because the native elites, the Israeli "WASPs" abandoned the field.

With Jewish Studies programs in Israel shrinking to a fraction of their former proportions (three years ago, for example, Tel Aviv University took five departments dealing in Jewish Studies disciplines and downsized them into one Department of Hebrew Culture), the locus of Jewish Studies is in the process of moving to America. At least for now, that's where the money and the interest are: North American Jewish Studies programs are expanding, top university presses are willing and even eager to publish Jewish scholarship, and there is money for conferences and workshops. There are also undergraduates who, for all sorts of reasons, want to understand what Jewishness is all about; and graduate students who are willing to bet their twenties on the possibility of gaining that tenure track brass ring.

However, this geographic shift comes with a shift in perspective.

When Israel was the undisputed capital of Jewish Studies, the "Jerusalem School" was constantly criticized for trying to ground a romantic Zionist nationalism; reading onto the Jewish past a national consciousness and national institutional constellation that paved the way for modern Israel.

The American School of Jewish Studies, has, I think, its own bias.

My mother, living in Israel since 1984, still calls the United States the "superior culture". My impression is that many, if not most, Americans-and most Jewish Americans-agree. They try very hard to coordinate their Jewishness with their Americanness. As a boy, one of my favorite readings from the Silverman Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook was "America, Founded on Biblical Precepts" which consists of side by side quotations from the Bible and from the sacred documents of American democracy demonstrating how the latter drew from the former. Today, much effort is expended in proving that Judaism is a source of or at least compatible with the religion inspired by political correctness (that I personally subscribe to) which has three mitzvot lo ta'aseh (racism, misogyny and homophobism) and two mitzvot asei (environmentalism and self-determination) . That is, tolerance, pluralism, feminism, environmentalism and, of course, democracy all have roots, if not blueprints, in Judaism. How ironic that in Israel to say "Jewish" and any of these words in the same breath would be almost laughable. But in America it is taken for granted that Jewish tradition and the progressive American tradition are points on the same continuum.

This often results in going a step further, with an eisegesis ( a favorite word of Harry Orlinsky) that reads the American Jewish situation into the past, proposing: Jews in the past were probably like us not only in their felicitous values, but in their cultural and social relationship both to Judaism and to the other people among whom they lived.

Again, the reigning metaphor is the "embedded and indebted" one. A fair description of American Jewry, it has become the axiom for a new master narrative of all Jewish history.

A good example of this is Seth Schwartz's depiction of the Jews of Palestine in the early centuries of the Common Era: Most Jews seem to have lived mainly as pagans and looked primarily to the Roman state and the city councils as their legal authorities and cultural ideal, but even they may have retained some sense of being not quite fully Greek-(un?)like their insistent neighbors in Scythopolis. Others may have been eclectic, living in some respects as pagans and in others as Jews, occasionally supporting and consulting rabbinic figures for some purposes, perhaps by the third century helping in the construction of synagogues, but most often ignoring them. Or they may have been people whose primary identity was Jewish and, like the rabbis themselves, may have often regarded their accommodations with the dominant culture with unease.(p. 176)

In my opinion, substitute "secular" for "pagan" and "American" for "Roman" and "Greek" and you have here an arguably accurate sketch of 21st century American Jewry. If you read CULTURES OF THE JEWS you will find this type of American-colored characterization of the past in most of the chapters.

The problem with this eisegesis as a foundation for Jewish studies is, I think, its implied reverse derivativeness. If Jewish tradition and Jewish history are merely anticipations of American Jewry, who needs them when we have the fully mature, perfected real thing? How many times need we validate Jewish tradition in American terms? How many times is it necessary to prove our legitimacy as Jews by showing that Jews in the past usually followed the same social and cultural patterns we do? How long can a Jewish Studies that is at base a mirror of the lives and beliefs of its practitioners remain interesting or vital?

So where do we stand? Is there a future? Probably.
Am I optimistic? Sort of.

I don't think Jewish Studies will continue in the form we know it; but I do think it will continue in some form.

First of all, I think there is a subject. I think that Judaism and Jewishness have both constructed and essential features and I think this position will be articulated in the years ahead.

Second, there are cogent critiques of Kugel, Schwartz, Horowitz, et al. They are not the last word. But even if there weren't such critiques, I do believe in the power of reinterpretation. I am willing not to commit the genetic fallacy.

Third, there are powerful vested interests promoting the continuation of Jewish Studies.

Fourth, the times they are a-changing.
If we are indeed witnessing the decline of American civilization, Judaism may once again latch onto the new hegemonic cultures and while the old will whither something new will be created in its place.

Israel also is in constant flux and whether its face is to peace or war, Jewish Studies may find new opportunities in unexpected ways there.

Thank you for inviting me and thank you for listening. We don't need thinking Jews. 

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