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

Kenneth Reinhard


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.