Jewishness Beyond Actual Jews (Response to Lila Corwin Berman)


[John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children (1896). Jewish Museum, New York]

Perhaps as a new genre and for what it’s worth, I’m offering as “an unsolicited response these reflections regarding the recent article by historian Lila Corwin Berman that appeared in the most recent AJS Review under the title “Jewish History Beyond the Jewish People” (42:2, 2018, 269-292). The article belongs to the neo-Deconstructivist move in Jewish Studies to destabilize conventional and taken for granted constructs like “the Jewish People” (Noam Pianko), “Jews” (Cynthia Baker), and “Judaism” (Daniel Boyarin). These exercises tend to be something of a magician’s disappearing act, a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t sleight of hand. In this case, Corwin Berman looks to the disappearance of “Jewish people.”


Not just for students of American Jewish history, the basic point is to say that scholars in Jewish Studies need to look past a narrow and exclusive focus on “actual Jews.” The study of Jewish history needs to include non-Jews who participate in ostensibly Jewish institutional frames, while being wary about assuming the actuality of a Jewish frame just because a historical actor happens to be “a Jew.” Frames are, indeed, the key term in this argument. “The creative task of the historian,” writes Corwin Berman would be to define Jewish fames, not Jewish people, as modes of thinking, exercising power, or interacting with materiality” (p.274). In this view of the social field, Jewish history, “Jewish people,” and “Jewish spaces” would “inform” but not limit critical analysis and constructive cultural discourse (p.275). In other words, what counts first is the form of the frame, not the content. How we frame our analysis determines what “matters.”


Another way to state the thesis would be to say that the object replaces the subject, in this case, “Jewishness” as a theoretical object of analysis or positional point replacing “Jews,” i.e. actual or empirical Jewish subjects. Against “biography,” Corwin Berman argues, “Jewishness may help us interpret a person, a place, an idea, an object, or a relationship without first having to meet any preexisting condition of being Jewish.” This is one part of the argument. The other part of the argument is more bold still, and is indeed a gambit, being that, “Jewishness might be approached as a formation, potentially just as vital in bodies or spaces identified as not Jewish as those identified as Jewish” (p.285). “Jewishness” then becomes the standard by which we critically assess any variety of things or actions relating to putative Jewish things (cf. the discussion of Israel and Jewish philanthropy on p.288). For Corwin Berman, Jewishness might be a general category that “obligates” and “compels” scholars outside Jewish Studies as part of an interpretative apparatus, to understand, for instance, “modes of exchange, forms of power, methods of resistance, and spaces at specific moments of time.” In this view, the “Jewish subject” or actual Jew as a subject has no “intrinsic value” (p.281).


Names and the difference between “potential” and “actual” constitute the philosophical stake in Corwin Berman’s modest proposal. These topoi appear, interestingly enough from a historian, as the first two paragraphs in a section entitled “The Ahistorical Subjects of Jewish History.” Corwin Berman complains that [we] use names like Jews, Jewish, Jewishness, Jewish people(hood) as an ahistorical ground for historical investigation. To this one might protest. What else are there other than names? And does anyone really think that names refer to “stable and empirical” realities (including the reality of the Jew and the Jews) (p.279) or do we still take these subjects for granted? Maybe we do. But it could just as well be the case that all we have to work with are names, not real subjects. Instead of nationalist identity-based claims (p.275) we have notional ones.  If not idealism, this comes close to bringing Jewsh Studies into virtual reality theory.  Jewishness becomes in this theory something like a nominal adjective, i.e. an adjective that takes on the identity of a noun.


John Singer Sargent’s painting, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children is a case in point. So is a Talmud Group like the one at Syracuse University, none of whose active subject-members but one might happen to be “a Jew.” In both instances, Jewishness is the open object of discussion. Everything is equal. This is not to say that the experience of actual Jews is not a touchstone to the analysis of Jewishness, the Jewishness of a painting of Jewish subjects by a non-Jewish painter, or the Jewishness of Talmud in a not-Jewish framework. Because Jewishness is no longer limited to the object of inquiry and controlled by a Jewish subject of inquiry. Jewishness is thus let loose across a larger field. As Corwin Berman notes, this kind of inquiry requires generosity and patience (p.291). There’s no Jew already there, and no necessary Judaism. Jewishness becomes instead an open mode of being in the world that others can chart.

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.
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