New Enlightenment gives Kulturwissenschaft a chance to flourish

October 13, 2000

Two new research centres are helping to redefine Jewish studies and rescue it from the academic ghetto, write Griselda Pollock and Eva Frojmovic

If not yet at the heart of the British university, Jewish studies has recently reached the research high table. It will be an element in two centres starting work this autumn thanks to grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

The Centre for Transdisciplinary Cultural Analysis, Theory and History at the University of Leeds and the Centre for Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations - which will link Southampton and Reading universities and the Institute for Jewish Policy Research - both propose expanded academic frameworks for Jewish studies, which, until now, has fallen between religious studies, Semitic languages and literatures or Near Eastern studies.

The centres make clear that the master disciplines of theology or philology have become straitjackets - but they do it in radically different ways. The Southampton/Reading/IJPS project is dedicated to Jewish literature, history and social policy. David Cesarani, its director, says it aims "to transform the way Jewish studies is carried out in Britain, the ways Jews are perceived and how Jewish/non-Jewish relations are managed".

The Leeds centre, of which we are part, has similar aims but a different strategy. It is not a Jewish Studies centre but a transdisciplinary centre linking Jewish studies with fine art, art history, cultural studies and material culture and placing the subject in the larger field of cultural analysis, theory and history.

Its aim is to avoid the Jewish aspect of Europe's and other areas' histories being marginalised or segregated. Looked at through the prism of cultural and postcolonial studies, the Jewish experience will also allow us to readdress key modern and postmodern debates - about identities, difference, displacement, diaspora, nostalgia and cultural particularism. The hope is to move beyond the potential ghettoisation of special studies areas, which often reinforce the very segregation that minorities aimed to demolish through academic projects in their name.

It is an approach that could be controversial. Because it has been hard to pin down in which discipline Jewish studies should be based - with individual courses often taught by staff in English, law or history - there has been pressure to identify a core curriculum. But such an approach has been inspired by the misapprehension that a programme in Jewish studies is deemed not really Jewish if it does not mirror an essential, already known identity for the subject - even when that subject spills over academic and theoretical boundaries.

This is a debate that began in 19th-century Germany when three newcomers tried to enter the university curriculum. These were: Wissenschaft des Judentums (science of the Jewish worlds, hence Jewish studies); Kunstwissenschaft (science of art, hence art history and theory) and Kulturwissenschaft (cultural studies). The first two were born in the early to mid-19th century; the third was proposed by the art historian Aby Warburg around 1900. It is his concept that the Leeds centre aims to revisit, while also examining the other two in the light of recent critical and cultural theories.

Wissenschaft des Judentums was a child of the Enlightenment. It represented the engagement of newly emancipated Jewish intellectuals with the modernising possibilities of critical historiography and textual study. It means much more than its literal translation. Wissenschaft encompasses the dispassion of the natural sciences and critical interpretative readings that characterise the modern humanities. Judentum involves Judaism, Jewishness, Jewish civilisation, Jewish experience.

Unlike Kunstwissenschaft, which by 1842 was recognised in Prussia in the form of a chair at Berlin University, Wissenschaft des Judentums remained outside the German academy, and a chair was established at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, only in 1925. It was 1930 before Jewish studies was acknowledged in the United States, with the appointment of a Viennese historian, Salo Baron, to a chair at Columbia University.

Britain's tradition of teaching Hebrew and the Bible dates back much further - to Henry VIII, who, needing Hebraists to help prepare his divorce by interpreting key verses in Leviticus, established regius chairs of Hebrew at Oxford and Cambridge universities. These posts, like others founded in the 1820s at University College London, were closed to non-Anglicans until the 20th century.

In 19th-century Germany, art history was founded on nationalism infused with overtly racial overtones; it assumed that the essential identity of each people or nation was revealed through the mirror of their art. Thus, just as they identified the Gothic with the German spirit and the classical with the Greeks, 19th-century German art historians acknowledged that there was such a thing as Jewish art, but only a lost one - that of the Biblical temple.

Jewish art was defined as oriental, excessive and eclectic, just like the people who brought it forth. The myth of Jewish excess was wedded to that of the people's lack of visual creativity and aesthetic sense. Its barrenness was often compared to that of the Old Testament as compared with the richness of the New. So just when modern impulses were fostering within the emergent Jewish world the desire to engage critically with its past so as to reinvent its presence in post-Enlightenment Europe, art history, shaped by nationalist Christianocentric thought, was defining the Jews as foreign and antique, oriental and superseded. This friction between art history and Jewish studies persists today. To ally Jewish studies and a social history of art as we are doing at Leeds is to challenge assumptions in both fields.

The existing centre for Jewish studies at Leeds, founded in 1995, has been developing this interdisciplinary cultural approach, with a unique focus on art, visual culture and issues of representation. It is a model that breaches the norms for Christianocentric, Eurocentric and phallocentric historiography, art history, literary studies, philosophy and Biblical studies and is part of the struggle in British universities for an interdisciplinarity that is not just the bolting of old disciplinary formations onto each other.

For Jewish studies confronts the same questions now as it did at its inception. How can it be developed within the western university model? Will that model impose its divisions and categories, falsely splitting and impoverishing the complex whole of Jewish cultures and identities into segments? Or can it foster more comprehensive models that balance specific and comparative perspectives? Can Jewish studies ever flourish in isolation from contemporary debates about sexual and cultural difference, diaspora and cultural co-existence?

New generations of scholars with new tools are bound to challenge assumptions about what makes Jewish studies Jewish. But this does not make new kinds of Jewish studies less Jewish than the old. It merely recognises that religious practice and belief systems - as filtered through community, institutions, historical change, philosophical and legal reflection, visual representation, material culture and subjectivity - always have a wider cultural significance.

Griselda Pollock is professor of social and critical histories of art, co-director of the Centre for Cultural Studies and director of the AHRB Centre for Transdisciplinary Cultural Analysis, Theory and History at the University of Leeds. She helped to found the Centre for Jewish Studies.

Eva Frojmovic is director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at Leeds.

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