What Would Be Lost?

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December 1, 2002
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by Mitchell Hart

In 1991–92 I lived and studied in Jerusalem, do-ing research for my doctoral dissertation at the numerous libraries and archives in the city. I arrived with my wife, who is also a professional historian. We were both funded in part by a fellowship sponsored by the Friends of the Hebrew University. It was a rather generous fellowship, and all it required was a commitment to attend biweekly gatherings at the home of a distinguished Jewish philosopher, a professor at the Hebrew University.

So a group of twelve graduate students from Jewish Studies programs in the United States assembled in his living room, presented our on-going research, and discussed and debated points of interest. At one of these meetings, a member presented a paper about the recently released study on American Jewish population numbers and the question of continuity and survival. The issues are quite familiar to anyone acquainted with the literature on American Jewry: birth rates, intermarriage, federation studies on waning Jewish identity. During the discussion, both my wife and I asked the same question: Why should the Jews in the United States survive? If at some point in the future American Jewry as an identifiable group ceased to exist, what would be lost?

We believed we were speaking as dispassionate scholars, in an academic environment in which all questions were at least worth asking, in which open inquiry was the supreme value. It was clear from the responses, however, that we were pretty much alone in this belief. The philosopher looked at us as if we were monsters, as if we had not merely asked about but insisted on a point so horrific that, if he could, he would physically eject us from his home, so that we could not further infect all that rested within it. The students started yelling at us, unable to believe that Jewish Studies scholars-in-the-making could entertain such notions, let alone verbalize them (in the holy city of Jerusalem, no less).

We did not linger for long in the philosopher’s home, and I don’t remember the subsequent visits, though I’m sure we returned to fulfill our obligations. But that exchange has stayed with me for over a decade now. Who was in that room, Jews or scholars? Jewish scholars? Are the identities truly or wholly compatible, or must one give way to the other in specific contexts?

This tension has by no means gone unremarked within Jewish Studies. Shaye Cohen and Edward Greenstein, for instance, insisted over a decade ago that “while Jewish scholarship has become a full partner in humanistic studies, it also remains part of Judaism,” and asked pointedly: How does one, writing as both a Jew and a scholar, engage in dispassionate scholarship, practice “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” and also “teach Judaism to the next generation”?

But is teaching Judaism to the next generation really one of the legitimate tasks of Jewish Studies professors working in the academy? I would argue that it is not. Jewish communities are, of course, inhabited by individuals whose task it is to teach Judaism to the next generation and thereby help secure group continuity and survival. They are called rabbis and Jewish educators. Rabbis and teachers within the organized Jewish community may at times express skepticism or suspicion about aspects of Jewish history and culture, but this is not their primary task. Scholars, in contrast, owe their intellectual allegiance to the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” to the critical, at times antagonistic, interrogation of everything related to Jews and Judaism. This does not mean that securing Jewish collective identity and continuity cannot be an unintended consequence of Jewish Studies. It cannot, however, be articulated as a necessary or positive component of the discipline without compromising the traditional principles of modern scholarship, and thereby calling into serious question the intellectual standing of Jewish Studies.

I want to be clear, however, that I am not arguing that a scholar’s personal relationship to his or her own Jewish identity should not necessarily play a role as an impetus to scholarly work. It may very well be that the tension between personal engagement and professional disengagement is a key driving force in Jewish intellectual production, one that is impossible but also undesirable even to attempt to disentangle. Indeed, in Jewish Studies it is axiomatic: that the discipline functions in some way to allow individuals to work out or through issues of identity, of relationships to community, people, nation. For some, though by no means all, academic Jewish Studies provides a surrogate sort of Judaism, with libraries and seminar rooms taking the place of the synagogue and yeshiva. But there is a crucial difference between granting this personal impetus that is, perhaps inherently, a part of the enterprise, and allowing, even encouraging, the goal or ideal of Jewish collective identity and continuity to be a proscriptive element within Jewish Studies. When this happens, when Jewish scholars are expected to be handmaidens of the organized Jewish community, then some of the most difficult and uncomfortable – but also, perhaps, some of the most interesting and important – questions and issues may not be raised.

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Mitchell Hart is Associate Professor of Jewish and European Studies at Florida International University in Miami. In 2002-03, he is the Padnos Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is the author of Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity.

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