Reflections on Jewish Studies

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by Sarah Imhoff

Editor’s note: This post is part of the Reflections on Islamic Studies series.

Jewish Studies is full of Jews. This is obvious. It is also surprising, for two reasons. First, the diversity of Jewish Studies scholars compares unfavorably with other religion-centered disciplines. Islamic Studies currently has enough non-Muslim scholars to create a heated debate about epistemology, apology, and the study of Islam. Here I should note that, although Jewish Studies is my primary field, I have found that reflecting on Islamic Studies has made me think more clearly about Jewish Studies, and I hope the reverse also proves true—that reflecting on Jewish Studies offers fruitful parallels with, as well as distinctions from, many of the larger issues at play in Islamic Studies. Second, the paucity of non-Jewish scholars is surprising because, as Aaron Hughes, Zak Braiterman, and recent debates about the Jewishness of Jewish Studies show, most scholars of Judaism today would agree that there should be more non-Jews in Jewish Studies. It is desirable for non-Jews to study Judaism as full members of the scholarly community not only because of ideals of diversity of persons, but also because the health of the discipline depends of the diversity of methods and perspectives. So why doesn’t the field reflect this desire?

It is, in part, a matter of history, but it’s also a matter of how we tell that history. Today, while the students in the seats at the undergraduate and increasingly graduate levels are filled by non-Jews, the probability that the professor at the front of the classroom is a Jew is extremely high. Funding and identity politics have both paved the road that has led to contemporary Jewish Studies, but here I want to highlight a different kind of identity: the identity of Jewish Studies. And, I’ll suggest, the identity of Jewish Studies in the American academy is more closely related to Religious Studies than the usual story of the development of Jewish Studies explains.

Those, like Hughes, who have insisted on the importance of identity in Jewish Studies have noted that scholars are implicated because we are always inventing the tradition we purport to study. Telling stories, histories, and biographies crafts identity in profound and essential ways. So too, when we tell the history of Jewish Studies, we are also crafting a narrative: we’re inventing an identity for the thing we call “Jewish Studies.” Beyond asking how Jewish Studies creates the stories and identities of a people it calls Jews, how does Jewish Studies create the story and identity of Jewish Studies itself? Perhaps the most common version of this story emphasized Wissenschaft des Judentums, or the science of Judaism, as the point of origin of Jewish Studies. Of course, this is an enormously important moment, but emphasizing Wissenschaft has molded a particular identity for Jewish Studies.

This Wissenschaft-influenced identity of Jewish Studies is one that allows us to look past the identities of individual scholars, and to classify concerns about scholarly identity as marginal to the academic project. In essence, when we position scholarly work as “scientific,” as Wissenschaft has done, we’ve already suggested that the identity of the scientist is extraneous. When Jewish Studies tells the story of its own birth as one of the objective scientific study of Judaism, then it can assume that the religious and ethnic backgrounds of scholars are of marginal importance, if any. If the study of Judaism is objective, it matters little who does the studying. When this is the creation story of Jewish Studies, it becomes easy to overlook or dismiss interpretations that put causal or critical weight on the identity of scholars. It’s certainly not inevitable, but the narrative themes of progress, goals of objective knowledge, and growing acceptance of Jews and Judaism in the academy are set. Turning our gaze away from these narrative themes is not impossible, but requires just that: a conscious turning away from the narrative, in a way that can make the observations seem, well, marginal and not crucial to the identity of Jewish Studies. I do not mean to suggest that a historical genealogy focused on Wissenschaft is wrong, but its hegemony has eclipsed other themes. What narratives, themes, and identities for Jewish Studies might we find if we crafted a different story about Jewish Studies? How might the importance of the identity of individuals in Jewish studies appear to us, if Jewish Studies itself appeared through a different story?

What if, as a thought experiment, we moved our focus from nineteenth-century Wissenschaft to the 1960s as a focal point of Jewish Studies’ narrative and genealogy? Telling this different story offers both new themes and a compelling reason to consider the field of Religious Studies as a way to understand identity in Jewish Studies. Of course, Religious Studies is only one field where Jewish Studies takes place. In fact, a perusal of AJS materials and job listings shows that Religious Studies trains and employs a minority of Jewish Studies scholars. Nevertheless, analysis of Religious Studies shapes and contextualizes Jewish Studies because Jewish Studies in the American academy grew up at the same time as Religious Studies in the United States and Canada. In the 1960s and early 70s they both “grew up” in two senses: the fields grew larger and also developed intellectually and institutionally to look something like they do today.

Religious Studies in American academies grew immensely from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. Courses, departments and programs popped up across the US and Canada, funding for the academic study of religion increased, and a generically pro-religion Cold War attitude underwrote its political appeal. Confessional and theological studies had already begun to part ways with the academic study of religion; the “teaching religion” versus “teaching about religion” distinction became a widespread way to parse approaches. A popular creation myth in US Religious Studies attributes this growth to the 1963 Supreme Court decision Abington School District v. Schempp, but in truth, Schempp was merely a sign of its times. At the same time as these Religious Studies programs sprouted and grew, Jewish Studies also began to grow.

While others have noted the importance of the 1960s for Jewish Studies, they tend to do so either by locating Jewish Studies as simply one more instance of ethnic studies, or by offering sweeping generalizations of US American culture and American Jewry. It’s true, the 1960s marked a turn toward particularism exemplified by the growth of ethnic and area studies, and Jewish Studies participated in this trend in some ways. And, yes, in some ways the 1960s marked the “coming into its own” of “the” American Jewish community, although this sort of generalization is far too simple to offer any historical insight. Likewise, the idea that American universities kept Jews and Jewish Studies at bay until the sea change of the 1960s is at least as much [projection] as reflection of historical reality. Demographically Jews already looked a lot like their neighbors by the mid-1950s. References to Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism as the three American faiths reached their heyday before the 1960s. (see Schulz 2011; Herberg 1955) In 1952 Eisenhower famously endorsed generic religion (“a deeply-felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is”) as foundational for US democracy. All of these exemplified ways that Jewish inclusion in the United States was a continuity, rather than a new development. We need to look beyond the notion that the 1960s as a cultural watershed moment for Jews and Judaism was the cause of Jewish Studies’ current makeup.

As the early years of many Religious Studies programs, and growth years for others, the 1960s saw a lot of discussion about what Religious Studies was, could become, and what its institutional arrangement within the university should look like. Many Religious Studies programs—especially public universities, but also some private ones—started with what we might call the “zoo approach:” they exhibited one of each animal. This often took the form of course offerings from a Protestant, a Catholic, and a Jew. Others universities, both public and private, took their current faculty’s course offerings and cobbled together classes that took religion as a topic of study, and which were already offered in various departments. In each case, university committees discussed the perceived benefits, concerns, and liabilities of having or expanding Religious Studies programs.

In exactly zero of these 1960s concerns have I found invoked a specific concern about the teaching of Judaism. Nor did a concerned faculty member or administrator use a hypothetical situation in which a Judaism course or its instructor would create legal or ethical problems for the university. By contrast, hypothetical examples using Catholicism and various Protestant denominations arose in almost every university discussion I’ve seen about the viability and wisdom of creating or expanding programs in Religious Studies. Put another way, a conversation about “critics” versus “caretakers” of religion in the university, to borrow Russell McCutcheon’s typology, took place in nascent form in the 1960s, but it never took on Jewish Studies as its object of concern.

Why did Jewish Studies, in the context of the growing field of Religious Studies, get a pass? First, some faculty and administrators might have imagined the model of the scholar-rabbi, as opposed to, for instance, the stereotypical images of the confession-hearing and ritual-performing Catholic priest. But this sort of thinking cannot explain such a widespread trend. Second, as a minority religion, Judaism may have seemed less threatening: no biologist, literary critic, or anthropologist was concerned that their university would suddenly be mistaken for a Jewish seminary and thereby discredit the university’s scholarly endeavors. Third, and most important, no one worried about instructors of Judaism as proselytizers. Perhaps classes on Judaism might make Jews more Jewy, but no one seemed to mind. For better or for worse, these university discussions about Religious Studies never indicated any concern that rabbis, or PhDs in Jewish fields, would impart Judaism or Jewish identity to their students. “Indoctrination” recurred as an administrative worry in these discussions about Catholic and Protestant clergy, but not Jews teaching Judaism. Judaism, then, began its life as an academic subject in many American universities without undergoing the scrutiny of its instructors or their methods.

The usual Wissenschaft-focused genealogical narrative about Jewish Studies is still meaningful, but it has led us to look past its formative moments in the 1960s, where the rise of Religious Studies as an academic field facilitated teaching about Jews and Judaism in the university. Because faculty and administrative concerns about religion’s entry into the university focused on various stripes of Protestantism and Catholicism, the teaching of Judaism largely escaped the scrutiny of the academic camps critical of the idea of Religious Studies. Judaism, at the same time, was not sufficiently exotic nor demographically rare to be taught largely by scholars who did not identify with it ethnically, as Hinduism was, for example. Judaism, then, was taught by Jews, and Religious Studies had other battles to fight (an ongoing one about separating religion and theology was brewing from the late 1960s on, for instance.) Is Religious Studies to blame for Jewish Studies’ “Jewish problem,” then? No, but their intertwined histories have combined with the narrative emphasis on Wissenschaft in Jewish Studies’ biography to allow a Jewish Studies which is full of Jews, but doesn’t yet know how to be otherwise.

Sarah Imhoff is Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies department and Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University Bloomington. Her work has appeared in the Journal of ReligionAmerican Jewish HistoryReligious Studies Review, and other journals. She is currently completing a monograph tentatively titled, Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism.

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