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

Peter Eli Gordon

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.