Buddies on road from Damascus

Journal of Jewish Studies
October 18, 1996

The appearance of the first issue of the Journal of Jewish Studies in 1948 coincided with a shift in Jewish studies, as the editors of the time acknowledged. The predominance of central Europe and the German language had ended and new centres were on the rise in the Anglophone world and Israel. Forty years later this shift had proved so decisive that even in Berlin, the former epicentre of Wissenschaft des Judentums, a newly established journal, the Jewish Studies Quarterly, was published mainly in English. The movement of the centre of gravity from central Europe is mirrored in the career of Geza Vermes, whose 25 years as editor of the JJS are celebrated in this special issue. The Hungarian-born Vermes went on to be professor, now emeritus, of Jewish studies at Oxford.

Though the mandate of the JJS has always been to cover the entire field of Jewish studies, it has long tended to focus on antiquity. But the scope of this issue is narrower still: the contributors are friends and students of the editor, are mostly British or British-trained, and almost all share one or the other of his interests in ancient biblical exegesis and the Dead Sea scrolls. The result is a good commemorative issue but of limited interest even for students of Jewish antiquity whose concerns lie elsewhere. It does, however, feature an interesting methodological variety. Not that the results are always successful: why for instance does it take 13 pages to publish and comment on an inconsequential Dead Sea scrap which contains all of 13 legible letters? And what are we to make of a rigorous, sophisticated discussion of a small corpus of Rabbinic exegesis in terms of discourse analysis when we are never told what the point of the exercise might be?

But other contributions make a rather different impression. For example, by departing in promising ways from the dominant paradigms of what is generally a conservative field, the young rabbinists Sacha Stern and Maren Niehoff here examine parts of Talmudic literature from the perspective of French structuralist and poststructuralist thought and classical psychoanalytic theory, respectively.

Some of the articles show old masters at or near the top of their form. Philip Davies's consideration of the social implications of the ancient sectarian rule known as the Damascus Document explores the nature of Jewish sectarianism as a whole. This is a characteristically thoughtful, brisk and (here only mildly) iconoclastic performance. Philip Alexander provides a first-rate discussion of ancient rabbinic dream interpretation, which reveals the structure of religious authority. The final contribution shows the venerable semiticist Edward Ullendorff at his cranky and brilliant best in a long review of a recent synthetic of the Hebrew language.

Over the past 25 years, Geza Vermes has overseen the transformation of the JJS into an important voice. He has also helped make Britain a centre of the field. He has been much honoured in recent years, and deserves no less.

Seth Schwartz is assistant professor of history, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York.

Journal of Jewish Studies

Editor - Geza Vermes
ISBN - ISSN 0022 2097
Publisher - Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies
Price - £23.00 a year £14.00 an issue
Pages - -

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