* In 2007 I published a slim and what I hoped would be a provocative volume entitled Situating Islam: The Past and Future of an Academic Discipline. This work functioned as a genealogical and analytic exploration of the study of the study of Islam. What, for example, are the various assumptions, ideological agendas, and political implications involved in those who have studied and continue to study Islam professionally? These manifold processes, I argued, are what ultimately make the discipline—its written and unwritten rules—possible. Russell McCutcheon, the editor of the series in which that book appeared, encouraged me at the time to try to do something similar for Jewish studies, my other and primary disciplinary home. His exposure to Jewish studies had been primarily negative, thinking—not incorrectly—that Jewish studies tended to be peopled largely by Jews who studied their own religious tradition in a rather self-congratulatory and apologetic manner. The result, according to him,
is that Jewish studies has largely established itself as a fortified ethnic enclave within larger departments of religious studies, becoming, as it were, a problematic subfield within a larger and equally problematic discipline.
* I recall being early for a panel at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) and finding myself part of a conversation in which the panelists and some audience members—all roughly my own age—reminisced about the same Jewish summer camp they used to go to—their shared songs, counselors, and so on. Having grown up in a non-Jewish environment, I felt uncomfortable and unable (and unwilling) to enter their conversation of “Jewish geography” (i.e., who knows whom or is related to whom). Several months later, I was having lunch with a friend and fellow non-Muslim Islamicist, and for some reason, our conversation turned to whether he had ever thought of moving institutions. He informed me that he had, but that he now worried that Islamic studies was becoming too much like Jewish studies in the sense that soon no one who was not a Muslim would be wanted to teach Islamic studies.
* The history of the academic study of religion… is predicated on a set of largely Western and Christocentric categories that are subsequently retrofitted onto other cultures and earlier times with the express intent of carving out, examining, and describing a set of world “religions”. Today, such categories are largely employed for the sake of articulating a set of vague similarities (e.g., prayer, belief, spirituality) between various religions with an eye toward some form of liberal Protestant ecumenicism. As others have well shown, this ecumenicism is often predicated on the claim that religious experience is somehow sui generis or unique and that differences between religions are based on the assumption that “the political,” “the cultural,” or “the ideological” impinges upon that which is perceived to be an almost ubiquitous access to the so-called “spiritual”.
* This assumption unfortunately discourages much interdisciplinary work. If religionists start from the assumption that religion is that which informs all other aspects of human creativity, there becomes no good reason to examine this creativity from other disciplinary perspectives.
* This speculation about religion is perhaps best on display in a recent popular book by Stephen Prothero entitled God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (2010). It is important not to assume—as Prothero does, as indeed so many in the discipline do—that a specific religion is
tantamount to a culture’s, for lack of a better term, épistémè. In other words, we cannot assume that if we read thirty-five pages on Judaism or Confucianism and then find ourselves at a later date in Jerusalem or Shanghai we will somehow become magically equipped to understand our foreign surroundings. Religion does not tell us about
or help us understand culture (although interestingly understanding culture does provide us with the tools to understand “religion”). In like manner, religion does not tell us about or help us understand local political issues (again, though, the political and the ideological frequently give us insight into the so-called “religious”).
So what does religion tell us about? The study of religion is, I maintain, an exercise in falsity. It means extracting one cultural or social formation from an intricate and conjoined matrix and then labeling it “religion.” This “religion” is subsequently held up as the essence of the people from whom it was extracted. We should also keep in mind that most languages do not even have the word for religion and that this further adds to the falsity of the endeavor.
* over 95 percent of those who teach Jewish studies are ethnically Jewish. This is a huge number and, I would argue, is unparalleled in other fields and areas within the larger discipline of religious studies. I doubt, however, that such numbers are aberrant for other ethnic or area studies.
* The majority of scholars who study Buddhism or Islam, for example, are neither Buddhist nor Muslim.
* The tension between showing Jews to be part of and “influenced” by the larger cultures in which they dwelt and the impulse to make Jews sui generis is one that…runs throughout much of the scholarship on Jews and Judaism.
* In 1996 there erupted a controversy at Queens College in the City University of New York (CUNY). The dean of the college had just appointed Thomas Bird, a Russian and Yiddish literature professor, as the head of the interdisciplinary Jewish studies program. Although Bird was a scholar of Yiddish language and culture, and a longtime activist on behalf of Soviet Jews, he was not Jewish. Samuel Heilman, Bird’s colleague and an Orthodox Jew, objected to his appointment. He reasoned that because Bird was not Jewish, did not know Hebrew (even though he knew Yiddish), and had not published articles in mainstream Jewish studies journals, he was unqualified to direct the Jewish studies program (Greenberg 1996). Little over two weeks into his new and now highly contentious position, Bird resigned, citing what he called “primitive religious bigotry.” He claimed that “it is impossible not to conclude that the attempt to trash my academic record and standing in the community through insinuation and omission is anything other than a fig leaf for objections to my being a gentile” (Greenberg 1996).
At the height of the controversy, just after Bird had resigned his position, Heilman, the principle accuser, published a short essay entitled “Who Should Direct Jewish Studies at the University?” Therein he mentioned that he was less interested in whether or not Bird was Jewish than the fact that he did not have a PhD (although an associate professor, he was still a doctoral candidate at Princeton). In particular, Heilman writes, “If the university singles out Jewish Studies and appoints a person to head it who does not come from that ethnic group, at a time when all its other ethnic studies programs are headed by members of those ethnic groups, who does not have the same high academic qualifications as those in other programs, and when the administration chooses not to appoint as Jewish Studies director one of the many professors on campus who hold the highest academic degrees and have distinguished reputations and records in Jewish Studies, and read and understand Hebrew in favor of someone who does not, then there ought to be some compelling reason for that decision.”
This is a strange claim. Since other area studies at his university happen to have directors or chairs that are the same ethnicity, gender, or color as the administrative unit they lead, Heilman thinks that Jewish studies should be no different. If others are engaged in identity politics, he reasons, so, too, must Jewish studies. Heilman also faults Bird for the fact that he does not know Hebrew and, in so doing, makes the problematic assertion that Hebrew somehow represents the authentic Jewish language. Bird’s lack of knowledge in Hebrew—at least in Heilman’s worldview—seems to disqualify him from administering a program in Jewish studies. This creates two problems. First, would Heilman have put up such linguistic objections if Bird was Jewish? That is, would Heilman object to a Jewish director of Jewish studies who did not know Hebrew? Second, and relatedly, Heilman
ignores the fact that Jews throughout their long and diverse history have not only spoken but also articulated Judaism using Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, and countless European vernaculars. The result is that all these languages could just as easily be regarded as “Jewish” languages (Hughes 2012). Heilman, in other words, is making a number of normative judgments that should make us uncomfortable: not only does he attempt to articulate what is authentically “Jewish” and “not-Jewish,” but he engages in a slippery argument that those most qualified to direct (and presumably teach) Jewish studies are Jews. He nowhere says, however, what kind of Jews. Are Reform Jews better than secular ones? Does this, then, make Conservative Jews better than Reform? Or, are Orthodox (or, even, ultra-Orthodox) the most qualified because they are somehow deemed the most “authentic”?
Although in principle he states that his objection is with Bird’s academic credentials, it soon becomes evident that this is not all that Heilman has in mind. For, in addition to the above statement, he claims that Jewish studies faculty “can and do also serve as role models for students and the larger Jewish community, embodying what it means to take Jewish life and culture seriously.” Presumably by this latter comment—that a director of Jewish studies needs to “take Jewish life and culture seriously”—Heilman means that one can only do this by being Jewish and that a non-Jew cannot presumably undertake such activity or at least do so with any degree of competence. Again, this creates a host of uncomfortable distinctions: does a Jew who is shomer shabbas (i.e., follow all the legal restrictions of the Sabbath), for example, take Judaism more “seriously” than a Jew who does not? The repercussions of such statements are problematic on a number of levels.
Whether he knows it or not, Heilman, trained as a sociologist, invokes a well-worn trope in religious studies, that of taking Judaism (or, religion in general) “seriously.” This trope—and all of the unchecked assumptions that it implies—forms the subject matter of this chapter. What Heilman clearly verbalizes, a position that I have heard articulated in numerous other settings, is that non-Jews should not or cannot study Jews or Judaism.
* Since the academic study of religion purports, according to some, to study that which is most dear and precious to people (i.e., their “inner” and “spiritual” lives), there exists the dangerous assumption that only those who have had the same kind of “inner experiences” are uniquely qualified to study and write about the religion in question.
Such an assumption, however, is predicated on a number of nebulous concepts that are impossible to verify or subject to any sort of intellectual scrutiny. What, for example, is an “inner experience”? Even if we could ascertain what it is, who would be in a position to adjudicate what counts as an authentic “inner experience” and what counts as an inauthentic one? The answer to questions such as these is political and ideological, not natural or scientific. Such “experiences,” moreover, are often assumed to be irreducible as opposed to culturally or ideologically constructed. This means that religion in general—or religions (e.g., Judaism) in particular—is assumed to possess an essence that cannot be reduced to other material or historical forces. …[M]any have no qualms about taking this manufactured and ideologically charged concept of experience and then claiming that it exists naturally in the world.
* Not only has [David] Gelernter defined Judaism’s essence as that which corresponds to Orthodoxy, not surprisingly his own denominational commitment, but he goes on to project its essence into the spiritual core of Western civilization. In an appendix entitled “What Makes Judaism the Most Important Intellectual Development in Western History?” he writes that Judaism “[h]as given moral and spiritual direction to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim society, and indirectly to the modern and postmodern worlds. But not only that. Judaism formed our idea of God and man, of sanctity, justice, and love: love of God, family, nation, and mankind. But not only that. Judaism created the ideal of congregational worship that made the church and the mosque possible. But not only that. Much of the modern liberal state grew out of Judaism by way of American Puritans, neo-Puritans, and quasi-Puritans who revered the Hebrew Bible and pondered it constantly.”
This essence of Judaism, moving effortlessly throughout human history, is the origin of virtually everything that we are supposed to hold dear in the modern world. No mention is made that such ideas took shape through a synergy of “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” ideas—indeed to such an extent that it is probably impossible to pull them apart and
decipher which is which. Many of the pieties and platitudes that we find in works such as Gelernter’s are more appropriate for the synagogue than the academy. For it is ultimately in the former that matters such as identity creation and maintenance are never questioned, but assumed as given, something handed down from generation to
Identity politics with a chaser of neo-conservativism (to keep Gelernter’s alcoholic metaphor) will only end badly for Jewish studies. Once one claims to know the essence of a tradition, what it is and what it is not, inquiry gives way to apologetics, and scholarship gives way to ideology.
Gelernter’s work is not a disinterested or objective work of scholarship, even though the Yale University Press imprimatur may make it appear otherwise. Rather, it is a highly partisan account of Judaism based on and funded by very interested constituents outside of the academy. Perhaps if a Jewish theological press had published it, I might not take it to task in the manner that I have here. However, the fact that it is written by a nonexpert and financed by a neoconservative philanthropist seeking to make inroads for right wing causes in Israel and in Jewish studies in America potentially sets a very dangerous precedent.
Although Gelernter’s argument is different from the likes of Heilman, it nonetheless emerges from the same privileged sphere. There is an essence to Judaism that only Jews are able to access owing to their birthright or commitment to a particular denomination. Those outside the privileged sphere—non-Jews, non-Orthodox—have no or
little existential access to it. This, I submit, is all that is wrong with Jewish studies at this particular moment. And unless Jewish studies confronts this, it risks being relegated to the back room of area studies and becoming confined to the dark domain of identity politics.
* There is no such thing as “true” Jewishness, just as there cannot be any such thing as “true” Muslimness, “true” Christianness, or any other such entity. Jewishness, like any other identity formation, is continually imagined (and reimagined), invented (and reinvented), and produced (and reproduced).
* The central question in the academic study of religion is how to understand properly the various texts, actions, behaviors, rituals, and so on that practitioners describe as “religious.” The professional religionist is presented with a great deal of religious “data” and must decide how to explain them, interpret them, and ultimately classify them.
This gives way to a fairly vociferous debate known as the “insider/outsider problem.” An insider approach—alternatively called an emic approach—is one that tries to understand religion from the perspective of religious practitioners. It involves looking at religious texts and religious rituals in order to find out the significance of these for practitioners and subsequently describes their contents and performances to others. Many who privilege the insider perspective believe that there is something unique about religion and religious experience that can never be reduced to something else (e.g., culture, society, politics) or explained away. The insider approach represents, in sum, the effort to understand religious thought and behavior primarily from the point
of view of religious persons.
The outsider perspective—or alternatively, the etic approach—is one that refuses to explain religion using the categories and terms of reference that religious people use. As such, it attempts to import categories from the outside in an attempt to interpret or explain religious data. This can be reductionist; witness Sigmund Freud’s desire to “reduce” religion to psychological function and explain it using the language of psychology or Emile Durkheim’s reduction of religion to social processes. Increasingly, such approaches tend to question the very appropriateness of the term “religion,” preferring instead to see this term as a “Western” imposition. Rather than regard religion as something internal to the individual, there is a preference to regard religion as a human creation, the site of various contestations and collaborations over ideas and terms that have been signified as divine or transcendent.
* Is [Jewish studies] an advocacy unit on campus—functioning as a resource for Jewish students, rallying support for Israel, and addressing anti-Semitism if and when it rears its ugly head? Or is it but one among many academic disciplines, in which case the scholar of Jewish data maintains an objective distance from his or her data and seeks to find engaged and engaging conversation partners with fellow academics in cognate disciplines.
* The debate between Heilman and Bird also reveals the tensions over what the goal of Jewish studies ought to be. Is it, as many believe, to show the Jewish contribution to Western civilization? The institution in which I used to teach (SUNY, Buffalo), for example, defines its mandate as “focused on teaching and scholarship related to the contributions of the Jewish tradition in the development of Western civilization.” However, many others prefer to argue that we can never articulate “Jewish” ideas, let alone “Jewish” contributions, because such ideas always respond to and are in conversation with the “non-Jewish” civilizations in which Jews live.
* …the “Jewish Question” (Ger: “Judenfrage”; Fr: “la Question juive”) was the name given to describe the negative attitude toward the apparent and persistent singularity of the Jews as a people against the background of rising political nationalisms. Many pamphlets, treatises, and monographs were put forth to address this “Jewish Question” with an eye toward solving it. Such solutions included assimilation, emancipation, national sovereignty, deportation, and most severe of all, ultimate extermination.
* …religious studies has been constructed largely by means of excluding those religious forms that threaten the order and stability of Protestantism: Judaism, Catholicism, Mormonism, Pentecostalism, among others, which have largely become “relegated to the world of sects, cults, fundamentalisms, popular piety, ritualism, magic, primitive religion, millennialism, anything but “religion”.
* Unlike the world of nature, which functions as the locus of the sacred, [Mircea] Eliade argues that the city exacerbates the dislocation of modernity. Eliade, thus, seems to be working with the traditional romantic stereotype that argues that cities are places of sin, corruption, and greed; whereas it is only in the countryside that one encounters authentic forms of religious expression (Orsi 1999, 3–13). Implicit here is the assumption that city life is frantic, frenetic and unstable, a place of moral depravity where different religions and ethnic groups bump against one another and mix and mingle. The result is that city life is traditionally characterized as a place of alienation, of strangeness, and of inauthenticity. Rural life, on the other hand, is associated with
simplicity and a purity of place, where concepts such as multiculturalism and complex religious forms are absent. Rural life and peasant religion is an intersection of wholeness and of authenticity.
Although many claim that nothing anti-Semitic can be found in Eliade’s postwar writings, it seems quite clear that his tidy distinctions between the sacrality of religion and the profanity of history, and between rural simplicity or authenticity and urban complexity can easily be read in such a manner that problematizes Jews and Judaism. Judaism, for example, is traditionally held up as the historical religion par excellence because it conceives of God as an actor in history. Moreover, as mentioned above, Jews were notorious for their urban existence in Europe. Also telling is the fact that Eliade, for the most part, largely ignored postbiblical forms of Judaism.
* From its origins in the nineteenth century, the academic study of Judaism has largely been bound up with the apologetical desire to show that Jews and Judaism were normal. From its inception, we see that the study of Judaism has not necessarily been an academic enterprise, but primarily an existential and a political one. This is significant because, prior to the application of academic approaches to Judaism, both rabbinic chosenness and Christian supersessionism had tended, albeit for different reasons, to deny Judaism a history. Whereas the former located Judaism’s superiority in a set of timeless and sacred texts (e.g., Bible, Talmud), the latter sought to show its inferiority with the claim that after the advent of Jesus, Jews possessed neither a history nor a territory. Land, power, and providence—it is important to remember—were intimately connected to one another: to lack one was necessarily to lack the others. The fact that Jews possessed neither a home nor any political or other power could be and was connected to the later anti-Semitic notion that Jewish existence was parasitic, needing other nations and languages to sustain it. Not surprisingly, then, history, and its use of rhetoric and
methods, became an important tool for both those who wanted to claim that Jews did indeed possess a history (and, thus, were normal) and for those who wanted to deny such claims.
Those Jewish thinkers responsible for this new understanding of Judaism, writes Leora Batnitsky, did not so much secularize Judaism as redefine the tradition as a religion (2011, 36). That is, the individuals to be discussed below sought to mold Judaism into a set of claims that could easily fit within the modern, Protestant category of
religion. …The nineteenth century was a time, then, in which Jewish scholars/reformers sought to make Jews normal by transforming Judaism into a religion in this Protestant and European sense of the term.
* [The] modern discipline of history (Geschichte) is largely the invention of the nineteenth century German university. …[They] used history as a way to imagine and shape national identity. …The primary social function of the university was connected to the rise of nationalism and the creation of a class of intellectuals to disseminate nationalist ideology.
* History accordingly played a key role in both imagining and forging together a national community. Imagined by professional scholars in the nineteenth century, historical research was not simply a form of cold or disinterested research (even though this is precisely how it was often portrayed), but a quest for national glory and self-recognition. This often involved locating a pristine past that could function as the vehicle for contemporary regeneration.
The “discovery” of Jewish history, perhaps not surprising given the fact that Jews adopted the theoretical methods and models produced by the likes of Herder and Fichte, coincided with the “discovery” of the histories and national identities of various European states. Much like their non-Jewish colleagues were doing for the glory of their own nations, Jewish intellectuals sought to create and forge an identity for Jews using the tools that the discipline of history provided them. This meant trying to create a Jewish Volk independent of rabbinic claims that Jews existed outside of history owing to their chosenness and anti-Semitic claims to deny such a history because Jews lacked a state of their own. The rise of Jewish history was, in many ways, an apologetical enterprise, one that both responded to and took place against a complex backdrop of religious reform, political emancipation, and anti-Semitism.
* Their vision was not simply academic, but political: Jewish self-improvement through scholarship would ideally lead to full political emancipation. Their desire to implement this vision was revolutionary. They desired nothing less than a new conception of Judaism, one that could be historicized as a religious civilization and one that, reconfigured, would lead to reform within the tradition and political emancipation for it from without.
* Common to both Geiger’s and Graetz’s constructions of Jewish history was the desire to make Judaism rational…
* Whereas in Germany, the scholar of Judaism had articulated the political desires of larger European Jewish communities, in Israel and America the Jewish community saw itself reflected in the scholar of Judaism, who was now expected to uphold Jewish values and concerns. Framed somewhat more theoretically: in Germany, the scholar
spoke for the community, and in America (and, to a lesser extent, Israel), the community spoke through the scholar. Perhaps it could even be said that in Germany scholars had expectations that were too high for their community, whereas in America, the situation was the opposite: communities had expectations that were too high concerning what Jewish studies was and what those scholars who engaged in it could realistically achieve.
* the migration out of Europe to Israel and America coincided with a change in scholarly language: from German to Hebrew in Israel, and from German to English in America. Such changes necessarily created a different set of political and ontological emphases.
* Jews were no different from other Europeans: a past was imagined and subsequently constructed to be magnificent—one in which all infelicities were neatly excised—that would in turn provide the seeds for contemporary renewal and the creation of a future. This was intimately connected to the rise of the modern university and the programmatic creation of all of the modern humanities and social sciences to make this past accessible.
* when Leopold Zunz approached the University of Berlin in 1848 with a well-thought-out proposal for creating a Chair in Jewish History and Literature, the faculty responded that they were not in the business of training rabbis…
* Is it the goal of Jewish studies to train those engaged in apologetics or to produce critical scholars? Does the academic study of Judaism produce caretakers or critics?
* The study of Judaism in the non-Jewish German academy, in contrast, was only important when it was reduced solely to the Old Testament. This meant that much intellectual energy on the part of Jewish scholars of Judaism went into apologetical and emancipatory concerns (Wiese 2005, 81), the major focus of which was an examination of the period after the canonization of the Bible. This academic study of postbiblical Judaism, from its very inception, was not simply a scholarly enterprise. It sought, on the contrary, to dispel German prejudices against Jews and Judaism in order to legitimate both the religion and its practitioners in their eyes, and to make the case for political and legal emancipation. This meant showing the contributions that Jews and Judaism had made, among other things, to monotheism, to ethics, and to making the case that Judaism functioned as the bedrock from which the other monotheisms would eventually spring.
* the switch to Hebrew as a language of scholarship coincided with a turn inward.
* Much like their German Jewish counterparts, American Jews also regarded university recognition as the pathway to achieve social and cultural inclusion…
* Jewish scholarship tended to be supported primarily by Reform Jews, many of whom sought both to legitimate and to strengthen themselves in the face of more traditional denominations. Many of the latter were either not interested in or were outwardly hostile to the higher criticism of university Semitics. By the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish Semitics in these select institutions thrived, largely owing to “American Jewish communal subventions”…
* As scholars interested in professional fame produced highly technical studies on obscure areas of study, the community became less interested in supporting such study.
* Jewish studies departments, then, could function as definers of identity for Jewish students on campus, as places that celebrated Jewish contributions to Western civilization, and as a sign that Jewish topics had finally arrived on American campuses. Yet, this connection between identity and scholarship is, as we have seen throughout this study, always a problematic one. It assumes, for example, that identity is fixed and stable, and that Jewish studies is in the business of teaching about Jewish identity as opposed to showing how it is just as constructed as any other identity formation. Since the 1960s, when the study of Judaism had become increasingly entangled with area/ethnic studies and given Israel’s victories in the Middle East, Jewish studies took a tremendous turn inward.
* What does it mean to be both “like and unlike” other groups, religions, or cultures? This is surely the claim that every area or ethnic studies program makes of its particular subject matter. If Jews and Judaism are like other groups they can presumably be understood using the same methods used to analyze those other groups. If, however, they are “unlike” them, this means that Jews are somehow sui generis and accordingly must be understood on their own terms, something that amounts to little more than a quasireligious or theological claim.
* Perhaps indicative of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jewish studies scholars were Jewish, the earliest AJS conferences distributed benchers (small prayer books) with the AJS logo, courtesy of Ktav Publishing House. In addition, the birkhat ha-mazon (Grace after Meals) was recited at communal dinners (Loveland 2008, 7). And, as Loveland writes, although some AJS members expressed discomfort with the appearance of public religiosity at an academic conference, many argued for the continuation of the communal ritual (2008, 7).
The need for scholarly legitimation, on the one hand, and the acknowledgment of the uniqueness of the Jewish tradition, on the other, is one of the tensions that runs throughout the academic study of Judaism.
* the supposition of the academic world [is] that a scholar is, relatively, objective, dispassionate, and—above all—committed to the impartial search for the truth and not to some antecedent convictions?
* Is it the goal of the scholar to uphold the values that the people of a particular religious community hold dear, a community to which she has largely devoted her academic life, or, is it to go about her labor without due regard for communal sensibility? This tension is particularly acute in Jewish studies where not infrequently the scholar of Judaism holds a position that has been endowed by someone in the local community, someone moreover who, if still living, often has particular ideas about what Judaism is and what scholarship should communicate to others.
* [Jacob] Neusner’s novelty is that he refuses simply to describe the contents of rabbinic texts, preferring instead to analyze and taxonomize them. In so doing, he argues that we ought to inquire into the social, material, economic, and historical conditions that made such texts possible in the first place. This movement from description to analysis, from contents to structure, signals an important marker in the developing relationship between the academic study of religion and Jewish data (see, e.g., Neusner 1979). These rabbinic texts are now to be approached using a set of issues (e.g., the social construction to reality) that those working with other
datasets in other religious traditions should be able to understand.