Rarefied reflection is far from orthodox

The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies
October 31, 2003

Jewish studies over the past four decades or so has experienced an extraordinary efflorescence. Departments have been founded, journals established, conferences organised and every variety of literature published. Of particular importance is the entry into major universities of one or the other component of Jewish studies. These subjects are now academically salonfähig , so to speak, in a way that was barely conceivable, say, 40 years ago.

Among the gold there is inevitably some dross. Some of the new courses are not unblemished and the research not untainted by tendentiousness and apologetics. The students at many of the newly founded departments are dependent on translations in their use of source material; and some of the posts that have been established respond to the benefactor's extra-academic hope that they will reinforce identity among the Jewish students. Concern with the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in general are other extra-academic motivating forces, especially in North America. A recurring theme in many chapters of The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies is a reference to the manner in which scholarship and research have been directed to political ends. The history of the Jews in Eastern Europe is shown to have been bent to Marxist, Zionist or other Jewish nationalist purposes. In Israel, the division between secular and religious forces is seriously hampering the academic study of rabbinic literature. But despite these weaknesses, Jewish studies is indeed thriving. To talk of a renaissance is no exaggeration.

This makes the publication of the handbook extraordinarily timely. The first half is historical in treatment and covers selectively periods from the biblical to contemporary North America. These chapters have a strong literary, religious and cultural emphasis, for example the Karaites, Hebrew and rabbinic literature, historical chronicles, medieval Jewry in Islam and Christendom. The second half is thematically oriented. Each chapter treats a particular subject matter, for example modern Hebrew and modern Yiddish literature; the liturgy; "Jewish" languages; Jewish law; philosophy; music; mysticism; film studies; and theatre. To each chapter a juicy bibliography is attached.

A fairly uniform pattern of treatment prevails throughout. A representative chapter will begin with a discussion of the historiography of the subject, with particular reference to differences and controversies among past scholars. Then follows an account of present-state scholarly disputes and debates. (On the subject of disputes, this is one of the few academic works where the views of one contributor are vehemently attacked in the contribution of another; thus the joint authors of the chapter on Jewish theatre accuse Glenda Abramson, author of the chapter on modern Hebrew literature, of a "leftwing stance" and of returning to "the anachronistic content-form dichotomy".) The choice of topics has confessedly been dictated by pragmatic considerations - space has been allocated "on the basis of the extent and interest of current scholarly debate in the area", the editor writes. The aim is "to reflect only the present state of debate". There is nothing, or very little, that is prescriptive about this handbook. There is no claim here that to understand Jewish culture, one topic might be more important than another.

These pragmatic considerations and criteria are difficult to reconcile with the contents of the handbook, which display an imbalance that does not correspond to the level of interest or extent of debate. I counted at least ten chapters out of 39 devoted to the literatures and languages of the Jews, which seems to me to represent a lack of proportion similar to that of the Wissenschaft des Judentums . This was a school of research founded by a group of young Jewish scholars in early 19th-century Berlin. Some had studied classical philology and philosophy at the University of Berlin and this gave their research a turn towards literary and intellectual history, presented with apologetic motives. The school eventually fell into disrepute and Gershom Gerhard Scholem treated it as a noxious symptom of the despised "German-Jewish symbiosis". Evidently this type of scholarship is undergoing a revival. The result is a peculiarly rarefied representation of Jewish studies and, by extension, Jewish existence, when refracted through these studies.

The missed opportunity is all the more regrettable because increasingly the reality of past and present Jewish existence is the subject of research and scholarship. All sorts of works are appearing, for example, that deal with the "political" and self-governing organisations of the Jews in their various diasporas. Since Louis Finklestein's pioneering work, this has certainly become a thriving field of study. The many volumes on communal institutions in Germany and Italy in the 14th to 18th centuries, edited by Daniel Cohen, Daniel Carpi et al , have enormously enriched this field. In this light, and especially so if the criterion for inclusion of a topic is confessedly pragmatic, the works devoted to the ethics of war, national defence, war and society as a major focus of research in contemporary Israel also warrant inclusion.

And what of the general economics of Jewish life? What has research to say on the ways in which Jews earned a living? In this I would include the study of the Jewish poor and the criminal element, the subject of study in recent Dutch and German scholarship. If ten chapters can be allocated to literature and language, one for economic history would not be excessive.

Obviously, a book of more than 1,000 pages is weighty enough. But could not a more reasonable balance have been achieved?

Two reasons have been adduced to justify the production of this handbook: first, to help students find what issues deserve discussion and what body of literature will help them; second, to encourage practitioners in the field to put their studies "into a general perspective" and thereby "produce insights of many different kinds". It seems to me that the first reason is by far the more persuasive. The range of topics is so wide and disparate as to defy any attempt at a "general perspective". But if it is a question of acquainting students with the present state of knowledge or helping them to identify the crucial issues, then it is easy to suppose that the handbook will serve a valuable purpose. In many cases, individual chapters provide an education in themselves. The handbook succeeds as a collection of parts rather than a totality. After all, the substance of every chapter is a discourse in which scholars engage not only with their own topics but also with the work of predecessors and colleagues in a highly personal way. This is both informative and entertaining and I cannot imagine that a student will not benefit from this display of erudition (even if a bibliography that is sometimes in four or five languages might seem intimidating).

Most attractive is the zeal with which inherited paradigms have been revised and old certainties shaken. Bernard Jackson's chapter on Jewish law makes clear, for example, that Orthodoxy is not what it was, that Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague diverges from Rabbi Moses Sofer of Pressburg, and the latter in his turn from the exponents of modern orthodoxy, not to speak of the mainstream orthodoxy transmitted by Rabbi Samson Hirsch of Frankfurt-on-Main.

A similar zeal for new frontiers enlivens the work of the historians.

Elizheva Carlebach, on "European Jewry in the early modern period: 1492-1750", removes the earlier distinction between "traditional" and "modern" Jewish society and reveals a world of proto-modernity and continuity, encompassing post-Renaissance heterodox tendencies, the early Enlightenment, Messianism and the struggle in the Sephardi world between the traditionalists and Spinoza. A valuable byproduct of this survey is the rehabilitation of the neglected work of Azriel Shohet, who detected the disintegration of tradition in the late 17th century, long before this view became acceptable. The following chapter, David Rechter's survey of the period 1750-1933, replaces the previous model of a uniform mode of emancipation with a plurality of models. Rechter also breaks down the division between the Jewries of Eastern and Western Europe and thus automatically dethrones the hitherto dominant status attributed to German Jewry in the formation of the modern.

Certainly the greatest virtue of this handbook is its very lack of finality. It is unbalanced, but no controversy is laid to rest; no debate resolved. It will assuredly fulfil its editor's hope of "stimulating further fruitful debate".

Lionel Kochan is a member of Wolfson College, Oxford.

The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies

Editor - Martin Goodman
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 1,040
Price - £80.00
ISBN - 0 19 829996 6

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