Too Jewish Studies (Response to Aaron Hughes)

venice ghettovenice syng

Throwing down the gauntlet in the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE), Aaron Hughes wants us all to consider the possibility that Jewish Studies is “too Jewish.” No doubt, the very articulation of the question in this precise formulation appearing in a public forum open to the entire university community might raise all kinds of specters relating to the history of Jewish and anti-Jewish polemics and apologetics. It has, of course, always been said that the Jews are a small and misanthropic people, a ghost-like and parochial people. As it emerged in Germany in the 19th century, Jewish Studies, or the Science of Judaism, as it was once called, has always combined academic inquiry and cultural polemics.

The point behind Jewish Studies in its first, nineteenth century iteration was to either give Judaism a decent burial or to defend it against its cultured despisers. Taking the dynamic one step further, it now appears that the problem isn’t the Judaism. The problem is Jewish Studies. The brilliance of Aaron’s essay and the larger critical project it represents is to underscore the fact that Jewish Studies has always been apologetic, has always been forced into this or that apologetic crouch. The argument forces scholars of Jewish Studies to “defend” not just the Jews or Judaism, but the practice of Jewish Studies as an academic discipline. As it turns out, Aaron thinks that Jewish Studies is itself  “too Jewish,”

“Too Jewish” might have once looked like an anti-Semitic a Jewish-culture fighting word, like “queer” or “dyke.” In the 1920s, Martin Buber edited his volume Der Jude in precisely the same un-apologetic spirit. Or consider how, in 1996, the Jewish Museum in New York showed Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities. The very naming of the exhibition as “too Jewish” was meant to launch a pioneering exhibition of new Jewish art that bristled with overt and over-the-top Jewish content. To be sure, the question-mark was still in place. In the glory days of postmodernism, identity politics, and appropriation art, “too Jewish” was a question that Jews in the United States seemed ready to embrace.

Wanting to respond to Aaron’s essay, I sent to the CHE a shorter version of what appears below. In part I sent the shorter version because part of what I wanted to say was of a more narrow interest to scholars of Jewish philosophy, and because I didn’t think that the CHE was the right forum for this kind of insider baseball. My own sense remains that Jewish literature, Jewish thought and philosophy will never be anything but what Deleuze in his book on Kafka called a “minor literature.” It’s a minor literature that became invisible again in the fields of continental philosophy and continental philosophy of religion. Long past the post-structuralism of midrash and “the jews,” today Jewish things as such are left at the margins of the discourse, used as a negative foil, if even noticed in the first place.

Whose fault is it that Jewish thought and philosophy writ small and Jewish Studies writ large remain a minor literature if not, in parts great or small, our own? What I appreciate most about Aaron’s argument is its call to open doors to include new theoretical perspectives, as well as and especially scholar-colleagues with diverse methodological and political commitments. Most important, Aaron is right to argue that Jewish Studies can’t just be for Jews and by Jews for it to count as the academic discipline we want it to be and know that it is. It has to set aside litmus tests based on identity and politics and include Jews and non-Jews on equal footing. About this there is nothing with which to disagree and with which there is everything to concur.

Then maybe Jewish Studies and our own field of Jewish philosophy should look like the Jewish Museum. When it re-recreated itself in the 1960s, everyone and everything was welcome, Jews and non-Jews alike. There were no pre-scribed “Jewish” contents that an artist had to meet. Still committed to the preservation of Jewish cultural objects and artifacts, the museum stood out in the day as one of the first venues to show works by contemporary artists, most famously Jasper Johns, and to showcase contemporary movements like Minimalism and Conceptualism. Like the Jewish Museum, there’s no reason why Jewish Studies can’t stand out today as an open and exciting cultural place and intellectual hub.

While Jewish Studies is an academic field more defined by an ethnic-religious-national identity, and more defined, as such, by particular group of contents, Aaron is right. There should be every interest to open from the inside the field of Jewish Studies to new things and to new people. But I think Jewish Studies will always run up against walls about which there’s not a lot one can do. In his author’s reply to the letter to the editor that I sent to the CHE, Aaron continues to insist, “Other disciplines must take Jewish material more seriously. Unlike Braiterman, I believe that Jewish studies should be of more than parochial interest.” But this is a normative statement, not a descriptive one, more a wish than a fact, and not to mention, an unfair dig. It’s not clear to me why other disciplines “must” take Jewish material seriously. In some cases, I can see how this might be true, and in other cases not. About this I think there’s nothing to do but to continue to work hard at the margins, to do interesting things, and to wait for a miracle.

Parts of what I cite below you’ll find in my letter to the editor, but I’m including the longer version of what I wanted to say than what appeared in the CHE:

In his own recent remarks in The Chronicle of Higher Education, my friend and colleague Aaron Hughes has addressed in a bold and provocative way the marginal place of Jewish Studies in the American academy. Who’s marginalizing Jewish Studies? Is it Jewish Studies professors, as Aaron seems to think, or is it the case that in a Christian-post-Christian majority culture, Jewish Studies will always be a marginal thing indeed. Unlike Aaron, I’m more willing to conclude that there’s just not a lot of interest in either Jews or Judaism out there. Is it really the case as Aaron asks that “only Jews are interested in studying Judaism.” I think it’s sad to say that the answer is, yes, for the most part that’s true. But who’s “fault” is that?

Years ago already Daniel Boyarin quipped at a session at the American Academy of Religion that when he’d come to talk about Talmud and rabbis he’d pull a small crowd of some thirty people, as opposed to the three hundred colleagues in the study of Religion who’d fill a room when he came to speak about Paul. The answer he thought was very simple. There are simply more of “them” than “us.” Is that really it then? So many years after the emergence of Jewish Studies in U.S. universities, it comes back down to Christians and Jews?

In our own area of specialization in Jewish philosophy, I regret with Aaron the lack of broader philosophical and methodological interests. It’s also true that after the heyday of Jewish postmodernism, the larger intellectual environment has cooled. I can think of no continental philosopher of note who today takes a genuine interest in Jewish philosophy or textual traditions. You can blame Jewish philosophy or Jewish Studies, but I don’t think Jews were the ones who built the gates to the ghetto. Among colleagues in the continental philosophy of religion, there is practically zero interest in Jews, Judaism, or Jewish philosophy, except perhaps as a negative foil for the near systemic disavowal of their own Christian or post-Christian perspectives.   

What’s different is that Jewish Studies always has to name itself as Jewish, a burden from which colleagues at work in philosophy or religion are usually relieved.  We don’t name Kant or Hegel, Nietzsche or Heidegger, James or Dewey as Christian because they can present themselves as normative and universal. The same reason we don’t have Gentile Studies but we have Jewish Studies is the same reason we don’t have White Studies, but we have Afro American Studies, not Men’s Studies, but Women’s Studies. For their part, I don’t think scholars of Augustine have ever needed justify their interest the way Aaron in his channeling of Jacob Neusner insists that scholars of Judaism must do.

Aaron regrets “the imbrication of scholarship into culture and politics,” but I think there’s nothing wrong with it per se. As I see it, the problem identified by Aaron is rather the other way around. What bothers me more is the imbrication of politics into scholarship. I think there’s a substantive point to this formal inversion. As for the question of money, that Jewish Studies has to depend upon Jewish donors should be no surprise. One could say the same about the study of religion, writ small, or the study of the humanities, writ large at places like Harvard, or Princeton, or Stanford, not to mention Notre Dame or Georgetown that the study of Christian religion depended and depends, historically, on Protestant or Catholic civic largesse.

Historically, what Aaron notes about the origins of Jewish Studies in the 1960s reflect not just the ethnocentrism observed by him but rather American Jewish society coming into its own on the larger U.S. scene. This would have included the pushing back of all kinds of glass ceilings in society, including the entry of Jews into the bastion of an American academy that until those years was not unfree from combinations of anti-Semitic and class prejudice that kept both Jews and Jewish Studies outside the university gate. We should certainly want to “check our privilege,” but about this there is no reason to be “apologetic.”

I don’t think any of our colleagues in Jewish Studies feel that we are in the interest of making Jewish students feel good about themselves. Nor do I know any of us interested in defending Israel, and especially not Israeli policy in the West Bank. A good many of our students turn out to be not Jewish, and they often outperform their Jewish peers. Let’s also not forget that most of us are critical of the occupation and are beginning to open our eyes to the fact that the two state solution to the conflict might be past life-support. As a class of professors, the only thing we are guilty of is trying to make Jewish things, as the subjects of our study, interesting, no less than scholars of French literature, analytic philosophy, or cell biology.

While I purposefully choose the images for this blog post tongue in cheek, I know that Aaron had nothing to with the unfortunate cover image for his article at the Chronicle. That said, I would note the picture of a guy wearing a black suit and an orange kippah in an enclosed Jewish space with his back turned away from his students and the larger American society they represent. By turning the figure back from the viewer, the cover artist relieved himself of the obligation to imagine an actual human face reflecting upon the predicaments that most of us do a decent enough of a job handling in the classroom. The image of the Jewish Studies professor in this picture or in Aaron’s article resembles in no way today’s Jewish Studies professoriate, which is largely secular and increasingly if not already predominately female in many if not most sections in the AJS. If that’s not the case in medieval or modern Jewish philosophy, well, that’s too bad of us who work in Jewish thought; it’s something we need to fix.

Mostly, what Aaron seems to obscure in this cri de coeur is how Jewish Studies continues to re-invent itself with each passing decade, and how much his own work in medieval and modern Jewish philosophy not to mention interventions such as this one and others into the state of Jewish Studies, Islamic Studies, and the Study of Religion contribute to the very renaissance about which Aaron has so many doubts and complaints. My own sense is that Jewish Studies was far more open and far more self-critical when I left graduate school in 1995 than it was when I entered in 1988, and that it is far more interesting today than it was in 1995. I too wish with Aaron that there was more methodological suppleness in our own areas of specialization and perhaps, yes, in Jewish Studies as a whole, the situation is nowhere near as dire as Aaron presents it. I would like to consider that our own work in what is and what will always be a small field is part of a more general, ongoing and emergent formations in the academy writ large.

By blaming the victim for her own marginalization, I fear that Aaron’s article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education will provide colleagues across the university additional impetus to marginalize an always already marginalized field of human interest.

For your consideration, I’m posting below a pdf of Aaron’s original piece, as well as a link to two letters to the editors, the one from me, the other from Abraham Socher and Allan Arkush representing the Jewish Review of Books. Instead of “confining their remarks to the cheap shots,” I would have liked to see the editors of the JRB respond to the substance of Aaron’s essay. Instead they respond in an ad hominem way to Aaron’s ad hominem attack on the JRB. This was to be expected. Aaron’s larger argument may be “objectionable,” if only in part, but there’s nothing “spurious” about it.

I don’t know what the feeling is in other Jewish Studies disciplines outside my own field of modern Jewish philosophy, where I would agree that the problem is particularly pronounced. As Jewish Studies pulls, continues to pull, or tries to pull itself out from the margins, it might be useful to keep in mind that there’s always room for good apologetic thinking. I don’t think that groups at the margin are always or necessarily responsible for their position there. And that try as hard as they can to get out of the margin, they may still continue to find themselves there –as a simple and brute social fact.

Alas, though, these two responses, both mine and the one from the editors of the JRB will only go to prove Aaron’s argument that too much of Jewish Studies is too much inside baseball. Alas, they will support as well my own contention that not many people other than Jews might actually want to pay attention to things like Jewish Studies, Jewish philosophy, the Jewish Review of Books, and the cultural politics that are most particular to them. About people like us, a small people like us, there will always be something “narrow.” One can hope from us at least something “deep.” Interesting things can happen in small places, one would like to hope.

[[Here’s the pdf of the original piece in the CHE  (Hughes), and a link to the letters to the editor of the CHE from me and the editors at the Jewish Review of Books is here. Aaron’s original article is itself an excerpt from his recently published The Study of Judaism: Identity, Authenticity, Scholarship]]


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Too Jewish Studies (Response to Aaron Hughes)

  1. efmooney says:

    Some random observations. 1) In 1962 I entered a newly minted “American Studies” program at the University of Michigan. My politically radical friends from NYC thought it was a program for the advancement of American Imperialism. American Studies has always been on life-support or still-born in the states. Abroad such programs are pretty healthy. 2) In my first years of teaching philosophy in Northern California I tried to start a religious studies program — to no avail. It was assumed it would be “too religious.” On the other hand programs in Black studies and Mexican studies and Jewish studies and even Irish studies were inaugurated. 3) Last year at the AAR I organized a session of Kierkegaard and Jewish Thought, and presented a paper at a conference in Frankfurt on the same theme. One recurrent question in Frankfurt was whether Arendt, Adorno, Marcuse, Kafka, Simone Weil and Wittgenstein are Jewish thinkers or instead thinkers who happen to be Jewish. 4) Finally, on “Jewish thought” in continental philosophy: Agamben makes extended use of rabbinic traditions in his exposition of messianism [See Jeremy Bernstein on this.]. And the enormous interest in Levinas has led many to override his claim not to be a Jewish thinker.
    These are just scattered anecdotal thoughts. The issues are provocative and deep

Leave a Reply