What development in Jewish Studies over the last twenty years has most excited you?

University of California at Berkeley

What's Changed

For me the biggest change in Jewish studies (for which, read in this context, rabbinic studies) in the last twenty years is the growing number of young scholars who have both full and deep knowledge of the classical rabbinic texts and a profoundly intellectual, comparative, methodological, and theoretical perspective on their study and research. I hasten to say that I am not defining Jewish studies as Talmudic studies but only saying that for me this is where the prime excitement has been and continues to be. For many years after the trauma of the Nazi genocide, classical rabbinic research turned inwards; many of us were very well trained and equipped with the tools of Talmudic philology and a kind of scholarly version of traditional Rabbinic scholarship (which I do not look down upon in any way), but certain important gains of the Wissenschaft des Judentums were lost with the loss of the institutional and cultural contexts within which it had thrived. In recent years a trickle of rabbinic scholars sought to open their work up to larger cultural and scholarly contexts but we have always been playing a kind of catch-up. Now we are seeing graduate students who are able to read the Maharam Schiff and Homi Bhabha (not to mention Greek and Syriac, Latin and Pahlavi). This is, to me, a very exciting development. Long live Wissenschaft!

University of Michigan

The chronologies we impose shape the histories we write. With this in mind, I want to stretch the two decades I was asked to consider to four decades and to discuss a shift in the institutional framework of Jewish studies in the United States since the early 1970s—its geographical dispersion.

When I entered graduate school in 1971, the field of Jewish studies was dominated by a handful of institutions on the East Coast, in general, and in Boston and New York, in particular. While Brandeis, Harvard, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Columbia did not enjoy a literal monopoly, their clout was far-reaching. Few universities outside the Boston New York axis had the same depth of teaching and research resources in Judaica (Berkeley and UCLA on the West Coast were not in the same league). Their PhD students, whose numbers were small, found teaching position with relative ease, in part, it was believed, because of the pervasive influence of their advisors. The "old boy" system of hiring in the academy as a whole was still alive, although weaker than it had been a decade before.

Emblematic of the East Coast orientation of the field was the seemingly permanent hold that Boston enjoyed as the site of the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies. In its early years, AJS met in the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge. The atmosphere was clubby, masculine, and insular. Not much fresh air, either metaphorically or literally, circulated in the small second-floor meeting rooms where sessions were held. My memory is that there was little in the area of modern Jewish history on the program, which was dominated by premodern, classical Judaica. The annual meeting soon outgrew the Harvard Faculty Club but it remained at a hotel in Boston's Back Bay for many years to come. The decision to move its venue every year recognized—belatedly—the changes that had occurred with the growth and dispersion of the field.

Today the unchallenged preeminence of the Boston and New York institutions is a thing of the past. Centers of excellence have emerged on the West Coast and in the Midwest and South. Who could have imagined forty years ago that Stanford University, whose reputation for hostility to Jews was then legendary, would emerge as a dynamic site for undergraduate and graduate teaching in Jewish history, literature, and religion? At the same time, some institutions have lost their clout in areas in which they once shone. Harvard's preeminence in Jewish history, for example, faded when Yosef Yerushalmi moved to Columbia in 1980 and Harvard failed to replace him with a historian with similar training and breadth. Intellectual preeminence and institutional influence are now scattered and dispersed across North America, as is the authority to guide and shape the field. Notions of what counts in Jewish studies and what kinds of research merit attention and support compete in a market that is freer and more lively than it was forty years ago.

Harvard University

The Transformation of Jewish Studies: Polemics and Prospects

Jewish studies has long stood in a somewhat troubled relation to other academic disciplines. As an institutional formation, it is organized around a topic rather than a method. And, insofar as it designates a thematic domain (beliefs and literatures and histories that involve Jews or Judaism), it has tended to reinforce the notion that Jewish themes reveal some overlapping consensus or family resemblances, animating the thought that such themes belong to the very same religious, cultural, or historico-political phenomenon. At its best, this notion has furnished a serviceable framework for a thriving and diverse field of scholarship, and it has played a considerable role in promoting creative thinking across the disciplines, breaking with the administrative dogma that the disciplines are the natural way to carve up human reality. But at times, the notion of belonging has also helped to reinforce the normative idea that there exists something like a separate and self-identical canon of Jewish ideas or values, or a separate group whose history is best understood under the aegis of "continuity." This idea, I fear, is an ideology that passes for a description. To be sure, I am not the best person to address current patterns in the field of Jewish studies since I have only observed them from the outside. But I would say that one of the most helpful developments of the past twenty years or so (though I'm unsure on the temporality of the development) is that the study of Jewish themes has embraced what one might call the constitutive paradox of collective identity: While we recognize that collective identification has an important role to play in our understanding of who we are as human beings, many of us are increasingly suspicious of claims to naturalize such identifications or to assert that they enjoy a transcendental prestige as marking out essential and transhistorical characteristics of a given collective. To be sure, we may live those identifications as if they were eternal. But it is the charge of the academic to regard with suspicion many of the ideologies that underwrite the way we live. All of us have colleagues who persist in writing works in a celebratory mode—extolling Jewish cultural accomplishments or political power, or a distinctive Jewish literary tradition, or a permanent set of Jewish normative insights. But it seems to me that intellectual integrity lies in questioning those appeals to collective affirmation. Insofar as Jewish studies now thrives by embracing that mode of self-reflexive criticism, this is indeed a promising development.

Bar-Ilan University

There Is What to Celebrate and What to Be Concerned About

The poet of Job, as I understand him, revels in language that can mean one thing and its opposite. The verb "excite" refers to arousal. In most forms, it conveys a positive sense of enthusiasm and pleasure. In other forms, it suggests agitation of a not necessarily positive kind. I have been genuinely gratified to witness the expansion of Jewish studies both numerically and qualitatively. Expertise has taken many forms, and I am glad that methodological sophistication and experimentation are high among them. The questions scholars pose have grown in complexity and diversity, and the answers have turned more and more contingent, which is to my way of thinking, more honest. More and more of us have become increasingly sensitive to issues of gender, racism, and classism. More and more of us have understood that only God can be said to take a neutral perspective, and fewer and fewer of us presume to be God. Two things agitate me in a negative way. While nose-to-the-grindstone philology should be a means and not an end in itself, it has always seemed to me to be a sine qua non of reading. I see too little investment in philological training. Second, demographic and cultural changes, and even more the uncertain economy, have led to a severe decline in the number of academic positions available to well-trained candidates, especially in Israel. Extraordinary efforts are needed in order to preserve academic excellence in Jewish studies by finding funding for excellent people.

Hebrew University

In the last twenty years, Jewish studies has experienced if not a total "ethnographic turn," then at least a serious leaning towards the ethnographic aspects of Jewish culture. This includes both historical and contemporary studies. Among the areas that have consequently come into focus are the home, the family, and everyday life, in contrast to the earlier emphasis on the public sphere, institutional activities, and holidays. Feminist theory and practice have significantly illuminated the areas of women's lives and subjective experience that had either been silenced or simply forgotten, and have—as in the study of culture in general—enabled and stimulated research into various forms of "otherness." As a consequence of the ethnographic as well as the feminist turns, interest in materiality and the human body, including sexuality in its richness and variations, has gained momentum.

Methodologically, these developments have led to the application of research methods developed in the study of contemporary Jewish cultures to scholarship on Jewish lives, cultures, and texts of the past. The weakening of apologetic tendencies has enabled deeper research into the coproduction of culture between ethnic entities rather than within them, thus producing important research about how Jewish culture enriched other cultures, but also how much of Jewish culture is a result of dialogic relations with its concrete habitus or Lebenswelt. In general the concept of "influence" ("Jewish influence on European culture," "Muslim influence on Jewish rituals," etc.) has been fruitfully reconceptualized as a variety of more refined cultural processes and mechanisms. Most of all, this period has produced theories of Jewish culture that do not focus on Judaism as such but rather on the multiplicity and variation of Jewish cultures, creativities, suffering, learning, and lives.

Dartmouth College

The measure of the quality of an academic field is whether it raises interesting questions but these days Jewish studies programs are more often measured by the size of our enrollments and the enthusiasm we generate among students and donors. Initially, Jewish studies emerged in Europe as a field with an intellectual agenda with overt political connotations Not only supporting Jewish emancipation and providing Jews a sense of identity through the story of Jewish history, the Wissenschaft des Judentums also sought to reconfigure the nature and trajectory of Western history. Ever since, the study of Jews has not simply added information, but called established categories into question, making Jewish studies a challenger of the established definitions of the Western canon. The polemical nature of counter-history, "the distortion of the adversary's self-image, of his identity, through the deconstruction of his memory," as Amos Funkenstein writes, has shifted in the past twenty years to an effort to articulate an affirmation of Jewish identity. Often influenced by Emanuel Levinas, but also by a renewed interest in ethics and theology, our students are increasingly searching for Jewish ideas that transcend historical context and offer ideas and morals that link Jews across the centuries. Political and social context seem of lesser importance as the factors that shaped ideas than an effort to encounter (religious) texts without historicist mediation, to allow the texts, as my students say, "to speak their insights to us." This points to a striking shift in the field of Jewish studies: there is an individual and highly subjective dimension to what our students are seeking. Certainly, political issues and the flourishing of the Jewish people as a whole, particularly in relation to the State of Israel, remain very important, but the historicist methods of the past and the sense of collective historical identity that shape the topics of our field are not as compelling to the generation of my students. Instead, it is the individual and the cultivation of his or her personal and emotional commitments that light the spark of Jewish significance for them. Whether a rabbinic text reflects Hellenistic influence or demonstrates parallels with a Qur'anic text is of marginal interest to them. Philosophy, theology, ethics, and mining Jewish religious texts for a transcendent meaning with inspiration for the present defines my students' quest and has transformed my classroom.

By contrast, my generation of Jewish studies scholars were animated in graduate school by the possibility of introducing new methods, and new kinds of questions to explore aspects of Jewish history and literature. When I was still a graduate student twenty years ago, I was thrilled by the remarkable interest in Jewish studies among academics not trained in the field—eg., Sander Gilman, who became president of the MLA, and Daniel Boyarin, who sparked a great deal of attention among scholars of Christian origins and also in literary circles. At the time, I felt with pride that I was entering a field that was among the most influential and prominent in contemporary intellectual life. Yet much to my disappointment, that interest seems to be waning. There continue to be sessions on Jewish topics at the MLA, but there was also a session this past year on "Does the English Department Have a Jewish Problem?" at which the consensus seemed to be a resounding "yes." At other MLA sessions, papers on topics that would easily lend themselves to Jewish reference—eg., on George Eliot's novel, Daniel Deronda—did not mention Jews.

I don't think Jews have been eclipsed only by the multicultural agenda that has long excluded us from its discussions, but by an increasing Christianization of the academy. Where once trauma theory and discussions of Holocaust memory were central concerns in the humanities, today we hear about forgiveness and reconciliation, themes that are not only metonyms for Christianity, but which include Jewish views. The growing attention to the writings of Paul in the debates over universalism versus particularism in the work of contemporary theorists (Badiou, Agamben, Zizek, Vattimo, among others) further enshrine an (outdated) Christian theological perspective in which Christianity is universal, Judaism is particular—precisely the sort of problem that Mendelssohn addressed at the outset of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Have we arrived at an impasse? Perhaps our students, animated by a desire to swim in Jewish texts rather than analyze them critically, are collaborating with those among our academic colleagues who have lost interest in what once seemed the most exciting intellectual adventure of the academy: Jewish studies. Hopefully, we can recover the rigor of critical thinking and demonstrate that the perspective gained from Jewish studies is crucial and invigorating for our colleagues and students alike.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The development in Jewish studies over the last twenty years that has most excited me has been the formation of Russian Jewish and East European Jewish studies as a sub-discipline in its own right. This shift is evidenced in new scholarly publications, new book series, conferences, dissertations, and other academic work. The surge of interest in Jewish studies arose in tandem with political, social, economic, and cultural change in Russia and Eastern Europe. The era of perestroika and glasnost, the 1990s, and the subsequent decade have seen the production in Russia and the former Soviet republics of new works of Jewish culture, new theatrical and musical events, as well as the emergence of new institutions and new publications devoted to the study of Jewish life and expression in many forms. New Russian-Jewish journals, which aim at comprehensive coverage of religion, history, politics, and the arts have appeared. Departments and institutes of Jewish studies have been established in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Minsk, and Kharkov. The Russian State Humanities University (RGGU) instituted a program for the study of East European and Russian Judaica in 1991. In 2009 the Jewish Theological Seminary and RGGU jointly published a bilingual Yiddish and Russian volume of essays on Yiddish literature and culture in the Soviet Union. (Leonid Katsis, M. Kaspina, and David Fishman, eds., Idish: Iazyk i kul'tura v sovetskom soiuze/Yidish: Shprakh un kultur in sovetn-farband (Moscow: Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi gumanitarnyi universitet, 2009)). The institute Petersburg Judaica at the European University in St. Petersburg, directed by Valerii Dymshits, conducts ethnographic research in the former Pale of Settlement, and its publications, exhibits, and webpages have shed much light on the continuity of Jewish life in Russia in the Soviet period and beyond. Plans are underway for a museum of Russian-Jewish history. Jewish-related sites in Russian on the Internet have proliferated, as well, with topics ranging from religious practice (toldot.ru), literary criticism, author's pages, online Jewish encyclopedias in Russian, poetry, fiction, and polemical prose; in addition, most journals have a virtual existence. The websites originate in Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Israel, and the U.S., but their reach, of course, is global, contributing to what Zvi Gitelman calls the "global shtetl."

University of Minnesota

I have been riveted by the intellectual revolution created by feminist scholarship in Jewish studies, a scholarship that has grown to include gender and sexuality over the past two decades. As an anthropologist interested in American-Jewish culture and modern Jewish history this scholarship expanded and reframed my understanding of what and who shaped practice and culture. I recall Marion Kaplan's The Making of the Jewish Middle Class and Paula Hyman's Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History as key texts for me because they raised far-reaching questions about the ways in which modernity and acculturation were powerfully driven by women, family, and private life. As feminist historians were reframing social, economic, and political life, cultural studies scholars reframed studies of Jewish texts by focusing on the body and sexuality. I look back to the foundational work of Rachel Adler, Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, and Daniel Boyarin on the body in rabbinic texts, The next generation of thinkers included both Miriam Peskowitz and Laura Levitt whose work examined the ways that gender shaped texts, tradition, and the field of Jewish studies. The central questions of what it means to be a Jew, where Jewish life is practiced, how it is represented over time and space are most powerfully addressed through feminist scholarship. The meeting place of historical and cultural studies for me is the conversation created by feminist studies. Feminist and Jewish studies scholarship have met in productive ways in part because both fields challenged conventional boundaries of knowledge by integrating the study of culture and history through the experience of outsiders who threatened accepted norms. By acknowledging that reality is mediated by gender (and in the past twenty years an ever-growing set of identities), I discovered a radically different understanding of Jewish experience.


My involvement in the academic field of Jewish studies only goes back ten or fifteen years, so I don't have the historical perspective to really say if my experience is part of something truly new or something that may have long been part of the field. But as a more or less "outsider" (my academic training is in literature and my field of research is critical theory), stepping into the Directorship of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, I was impressed by the welcome that I received from my new (and infinitely more learned) colleagues. Jewish studies seemed wonderfully open to the perspectives of people from other fields, and my interests in philosophy and psychoanalysis were welcomed, and my (probably often naïve) ideas taken seriously. Moreover, I was delighted to discover how much my new friends and colleagues in Jewish studies had to teach me—not only about Jewish philosophy, rabbinic interpretation, Biblical criticism, and myriad other "Jewish" topics—but about ways of reading and modes of thinking that had direct implications for my own work in "non-Jewish" European critical theory. Indeed, it became obvious to me that the line between the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds was not always so clear, and their continuities and often parallel paths became increasingly evident and both conceptually and existentially urgent. I became convinced that many of the texts and ideas that were central to Jewish studies should be part of a much wider discussion: rather than being another "area studies" or "minority studies" program, representing the history and culture of a small (albeit disproportionately influential and remarkably diverse) ethnic group, Jewish studies needed to be considered as a key part of world history, hence of major importance to scholars (such as myself) whose primary work lies in other fields. During the four years of my tenure at the Center for Jewish Studies, I was especially interested in luring my colleagues from other fields into participating in our events, and, in a sense, generalizing Jewish studies, emphasizing the universalism that was imminent in its particularism. And my sense is that this is a trend or development that goes beyond my own experience: more and more, it seems to me, Jewish studies has opened itself to new "non-Jewish" topics, and sees itself as contributing to a broad coalition of research in the history of civilizations and ideas. And increasingly, thinkers from other fields of cultural and religious history look to Jewish studies for the wealth of ideas and research it has to offer them, and the comparative histories (of oppression, diaspora, and genocide, of course, but also of cultural preservation, adaptation, and innovation) that it affords. We might call this development the opening of "Comparative Jewish Studies," if we understand "comparison" in the broad sense it has in the field of Comparative Literature, which often involves neither "comparison" nor "literature" but more frequently an imperative to the interdisciplinary and the multidiscursive. This is the mode of Jewish studies that welcomes the stranger and the often messy but sometimes transformative and always unexpected encounter with the new that he or she brings to the table. And as important as the gifts that disciplinary strangers may offer Jewish studies are those that they may in turn bring back with them to their home disciplines. Both of these openings—of Jewish studies to the world, and of the world to Jewish studies—are among the most promising and provocative avenues of research today.


Breaking Out

The dynamism of an academic field can be measured not by how strictly its boundaries are defined or defended, but by the frequency and ease with which they are trespassed. Over the last twenty years—a period in which three scholarly generations have labored simultaneously, at times in synchronicity, at times in dynamic tension—Jewish studies has benefited magnificently from the blurring of "outside" and "inside." Our scholarship has been enriched as we have begun to turn to sites, sources, languages, and realms of inquiry once viewed as extra-canonical; to publish in journals and book series that reach well beyond the field; to alter (and resist) assumptions about the personal, professional, and political background of Jewish studies professionals; to rethink the chronologies, typologies, geographies, and watershed moments that once framed our classes; to train students as regional or disciplinary or temporal generalists as well as specialists; as, in short, we have begun to broaden our intellectual and institutional communities. What is left, holding us together? Our shared determination to write about things Jewish; to wrestle with how this category ("Jewish") matters, and when it reaches its epistemological limits. Happily, we are left building while simultaneously breaking out.

University of Pennsylvania

Over the last twenty years, Jewish studies has undergone so complete a sea change in virtually all its fields that it's hard for me to single out a single development from so many. The sea change itself has come from the final assimilation of Jewish studies within the American academy, the humanities in particular. Most of the changes Jewish studies has undergone reflect those in the humanities at large—the breakdown of traditional disciplinary walls, the imperializing spread of critical theory, the growth of "identity studies" of every stripe. There are negative and positive sides to all these developments, though I think the overall balance has been extremely con- structive. In all these changes, rabbinics has, somewhat ironically, played the role of the avant-garde, beginning with midrash. The fifteen minutes of fame that midrash and its encounter with literary theory (and theorists) enjoyed some twenty years ago was certainly one of the more exciting developments in which I have personally participated. More recently, the development of a small group of Jewish studies scholars interested in the his- tory of the Jewish book as a material object—a new subfield that truly crosses disciplinary borders with intellectual credibility and integrity—is what currently excites and engages me most; it will be interesting to see where this field is and how it changes other fields in Jewish studies twenty years from now.

University of Pennsylvania

Would I have been asked this question twenty years ago? Probably not. For one, I was not a member of any Jewish studies organization at that time. Jewish studies seemed to me a field largely populated by men who were focusing on matters of religious studies, textual exegesis, Hebrew philology (and, to a lesser degree, Yiddish language), historical questions predominantly focusing on ancient or early modern Jewry, and very rarely, modern-day Israel. As a woman whose scholarship was impressed by the study of philosophy, literature, critical theory, and gender, I was not sure whether my academic work or I would be able to find a place in such an organization or field, and whether even the subjects of my research would be welcome. After all, I study mostly acculturating German Jews from the Enlightenment period, or early twentieth-century German philosophers who regarded themselves as "secular."

In the past twenty years, the parameters of Jewish studies have changed and expanded, however, incorporating approaches already tried in other fields, and thereby inventing itself anew. Could one describe the work of Walter Benjamin or Max Horkheimer as Jewish philosophy? I have been asking this question in my own academic work, which tries to return Jewish culture and thought to German studies. Today, questions of this kind have finally been made part of the field of Jewish studies as well.