Losing What Would Be? A Response to Mitchell Hart

December 1, 2002
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by Jonathan Schorsch

Mitchell Hart (whom I know well) raises a seemingly simple yet vastly complex question in his piece: Are those Jews engaged in Jewish Studies “Jews or scholars? Jewish scholars?” I would argue that the answer inevitably is “both,” “all,” and even more.

Like Hart, I will begin with the particular and move to the general. It strikes me that there is something naïve or disingenuous about the question he posed in Jerusalem and the way he casts the responses it generated. Imagine that this had been a gathering of scholars studying the Lakota Sioux, the Penan people of Borneo, or the Irish. Imagine that some of those present came from these groups themselves. The question “why should this people survive, what would be lost if it didn’t” would be greeted with no less justifiable outrage. The detachment for which Hart wishes – a clinical understanding that civilizations or populations rise and fall, come and go – would be seen as a Hegelian sniffling at the importance and meaning of a culture, of a way of life, for the people living it. What would be lost with its disappearance is everything those interested in maintaining that culture love about it. The destruction of cultures and languages over the past centuries is hardly theoretical. Certainly some of the drain has been voluntary, certainly cultures undergo change, certainly many of these people still live full lives (disregarding the pain and suffering of both victims and survivors). But the loss and its cost fill me with sadness; for many this sadness is, quite literally, unspeakable.

In some sense, however, Hart’s anecdote is not what he is actually talking about. The emotional ties many feel for their group’s particular way of life, as multiplicitous, fragmented, or even self-contradictory as they might be, brings us right to the heart of the matter. Part of the problem is that Hart bases his ideas on untenable assumptions about the nature of the self, the academy, and intellectual work. His is a triumphal history of progress from lamentable primitive theocentricity and communalism to liberated, detached, disembodied individual ratiocination. Hart’s model of “traditional modern scholarship” hearkens to notions of “science” as a value-free realm, whose practitioners operate unencumbered by such things as gender, race, or class – notions that have been thoroughly questioned and deflated of late. Hart relegates religious belief and communal allegiance to the sphere of the personal, the emotional; their seepage into the realm of intellectual thought threatens the alleged purity of this inner sanctum. To worry that Jewish scholars act as “handmaidens” of the “organized Jewish community” is terminology right out of medieval theological denigrations of philosophy. In Hart’s desacralized Enlightenment tyranny, intellect seemingly must be positioned against faith and community.

It is probable, however, that those who cry for freedom to ask antagonistic questions “of everything related to Jews and Judaism” use Jewish Studies no less as a forum in which to replay primal scenes of identity formation. The “hermeneutics of suspicion,” if wielded equitably, should also question denial of belief, fear of and flight from communal meaning-making, unquestioned faith in the powers, and good of the self, of freedom for its own sake. Is Emanuel Levinas’s work less scholarly because of its overt ethical and theological bent, but the work of Gershom Scholem more scholarly because of its thorough ambivalence (to say the least) regarding the claims of its object? If only from a disciplinary or methodological perspective, “Jewish Studies” embraces so many different modes that, thankfully, there is (and should be) room enough for vastly contrasting approaches. Those scholars who care about Jewish identity and continuity cannot be dismissed as pawns of religious nationalist ideology, nor can they be seen as the only ones “importing” their personal stance. Ultimately, I fully agree with Hart that academic debate must guarantee open, critical interrogation of everything. Yet this questioning must come with a certain amount of respect, even sympathy, for the groups, people, and cultures being interrogated. Daniel Boyarin’s ideal of “generous critique” appeals to me as a wise (and pragmatic) path. If there is no love, on whatever level, for one’s subject or field, I fail to see how one can be a good scholar. Further, though I define it differently than Hart for rhetorical purposes, I have little use for “dispassionate” scholarship; I want passion and engagement even in my sociology.

Hart’s opening anecdote does not serve to elucidate his very legitimate concerns. The fact is that even in the “holy” land of Israel (citing Hart’s gratuitous yet revealing allusion) all sorts of critical scholarship on a wide variety of topics regularly sees the light of publication. Yisrael Yuval can produce an essay acknowledging ritual killings of children by their Jewish parents during the Crusades in a most traditional mainstream journal of Jewish history, and “post-Zionists” tear down the idols of Israeli innocence. Closer to home, unorthodox interpretations have few problems reaching the market (Ammiel Alcalay, Daniel Boyarin, Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, Norman Finkelstein, Naomi Seidman). If all these elicit immense controversy, I take it as a sign of the health of the field. But if Hart yearns for an agonistic intellectual arena in which anything goes, he cannot also feign incomprehension of the political and religious pressures determining the context in which such struggles occur.

Though I am not aware of any pervasive expectation that Jewish Studies scholars “teach Judaism to the next generation,” it is true that various communal interests push for an avowedly and often narrowly defined identity-oriented stance. What I find surprising is that Hart doesn’t name them: the excessive dependence of Jewish studies programs on lay patrons, many fundamentally conservative, and the subtle self-censorship implanted by financially driven community relations; a preoccupation with the Holocaust and the acceptance (encouragement?) of monies from donors for numerous chairs and professorships on the subject; intolerant pro-Israel sentiment forcing the marginalization if not ousting of dissenting voices; the woeful ignorance of students about things Jewish. If institutional limits such as these are what Hart means to contest, I share his concerns. Although dissent needs to be delivered sympathetically, it must also find institutional toleration and protection, particularly after “9/11.” Hart’s formulation, though, valorizes in reaction a detachment he perhaps does not fully intend – one that seems to reserve no space for scholarly engagement that deviates from his own “free-floating” disinterest.

While Kohelet warned against the proliferation of books, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s main disciple, Rabbi Natan, wrote that scholarly dispute serves as a necessary tikkun, for dispute gives birth to better, stronger, and more plentiful Torah scholarship. The continued flow of Torah’s living waters depends, then, on dispute, which R. Natan understood as a sublating reiteration of the biblical mei meriva, the waters of conflict. May we continue to struggle for wisdom and understanding, always sweetening bitter waters in the process.

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Jonathan Schorsch is Mellon Fellow of the History of the Portuguese Atlantic World at Emory University’s Department of History. His book, Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World, is forthcoming. He is Jewish Book Editor for Tikkun Magazine and has published pieces there as well as in American Jewish History, Eretz Acheret, European Judaism, Jewish Culture and History, and Jewish Social Studies.

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