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

Susannah Heschel

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.