Creating a New Library

November 1, 2006
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James E. Young

Nearly six years ago, I was invited to serve as Editor-in-Chief of a massive anthology project that would collect all the primary texts, documents, images, and artifacts constituting Jewish culture and civilization, from ancient times to the present. For the purposes of this project, expressions of Jewish culture include extracts from historical, philosophical, religious, legal, literary, exegetical, political, folkloristic, artistic documents, images, and artifacts. All ten volumes will be richly illustrated with images of illuminated manuscripts, architecture, religious objects, folk art, design, drawings, and other arts, high and low, from ancient to present times.

From the outset, the project’s sterling editorial board recognized that our foundational question, “What is Jewish culture?” needed to be followed (in good Jewish fashion) with several other questions: Toward what ends are we defining Jewish culture? Do we want to know what is essential to Jewish culture? Or what distinguishes it from other cultures? Do we want to know in order to celebrate all the cultural crations of Jews as essentially Jewish? Or to be able to weed out the supposed non-Jewish elements from it? Or to acknowledge the Jewish parts of other cultures (and by extension, to acknowledge the influence of other cultures on Jewish culture)? Do we collect only the “great works” or the most representative – including the so-called good, the bad, and the ugly? Is Jewish culture global, or is it an aggregate of many local Jewish cultures, each of them formed and defined in the interaction between Jewish and surrounding non-Jewish cultures? Are there essentially Jewish qualities to Jewish culture, or is Jewish culture itself essentially a dialectic between “adaptation and resistance to surrounding non-Jewish cultures,” as David Biale has suggested in his Cultures of the Jews? Or should Jewish culture be regarded as something that is produced mostly in relationship to itself, its own traditions and texts, as David Roskies argued in his review of Biale’s volume of essays?

Rather than pretending to answer these questions definitively, and thereby prescriptively suggesting some kind of hard and impermeable canon to be excavated by our volume editors, we have chosen to allow such questions to remain embedded in the multitude of entries to be selected by individual volume editors and their expert advisory boards. That is, insofar as any culture is itself a composite of multiple peoples, nations, languages, traditions, and beliefs, the editors have chosen to recognize the heterogeneity of Jewish culture and civilization. While at times a majority culture in ancient or modern Israel, Jewish culture has historically been more often a distinct minority culture present in the midst of other nations and peoples. Historically, there have also been any number of distinctive and parallel Jewish civilizations, some sharing common cultural traits and traditions, some with little in common beyond core religious laws and beliefs.

For our purposes, the entries of this anthology may also include texts produced by Jews but not always with explicit Jewish content. Such texts warrant inclusion if they have been inspired by Jewish texts or experiences, received by the Jewish world as Jewish texts, or codified and responded to as Jewish texts. Here the stories of Franz Kafka might be regarded as parables for Jewish experience, as might Sigmund Freud’s meditations on dreams and monotheism. This also means that instances of culture produced by non- Jews for Jewish purposes (such as illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, synagogue architecture, and headstone reliefs) may also be included.

Indeed, it is clear that this issue of “what is a Jewish text” is also one that arises most prominently in modern eras of emancipation, assimilation, and national self-definition and may have been less pressing in ancient to medieval times. Hence, questions of Jewish literature, philosophy, liturgy, music, folk art, and other forms of material culture before the 20th century may be easier to navigate than the questions that arose later, such as: What is Jewish art or photography or architecture? What makes Mark Rothko a Jewish artist? Is his iconoclastic insistence on the abstract color field after the Holocaust a gesture toward the Second Commandment prohibition of images, and if so, does that give him a Jewish sensibility?

Is there such a thing as Jewish architecture? The current generation of Jewish architects is certainly legend, but what are we to make of Gehry’s suggestion that the undulating steel forms for which he is so famous are inspired by the live carp his grandmother kept in a bathtub before turning it into gefilte fish? While I see no direct references to Jewish catastrophe in the designs of contemporary Jewish architects, the forms of postwar architecture itself have surely been inflected by an entire generation’s knowledge of the Holocaust.

What strategic purposes are served by attempting to collect in a ten-volume anthology all that this generation deems to constitute Jewish culture and civilization? I believe there are at least two large purposes, each with several parts. first, we hope that the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization will showcase extraordinary contributions Jewish thinkers, writers, and artists have made as Jews to dozens of other national cultures around the globe. As a corollary, we hope that the Posen Library demonstrates that like Jewish culture, all national cultures are comprised of multiple, often competing constituent cultures – formed in the constant give and take, the frisson between and within the cultures.

Just as we Jews express ourselves in, participate in, and contribute to national cultures around the world, and just as these national cultures bear the imprint of Jewish culture and experience, so too do these other cultures nourish our own Jewish cultures. We write our literature, poetry, religious thought, talmudic commentaries, and even treatises on what constitutes Jewish culture in many languages in addition to Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Persian. Our Jewish world’s experiences are not only lived in these cultural and linguistic contexts, but they are framed for us and shaped by all these languages and cultures. In this way, we hope to show that Jewish culture necessarily includes the living, breathing, ever-evolving expressions of Jewish experience in all of its shapes and forms, inside and outside halakhah, and that it is animated in its constant interrogation, debate, and disputation.

Finally, the Posen Library is a model for defining national culture as distinct from nationalist culture. In this approach, we see a national culture as it defines itself by its differences and reciprocal exchanges with other cultures, whereas nationalist culture attempts to define itself as sui generis and selfgenerated, pure and somehow untainted by other cultures and traditions. National cultures grow in reciprocal exchanges with others; nationalist cultures partake in the myth of self-containment and self-creation. We know well what happens when nations and cultures attempt to purge themselves of all supposedly foreign elements; they become very small and sometimes so very depleted of inspiration and imagination.

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James E. Young is Professor of English and Judaic Studies and Chair of the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of The Texture of Memory (Yale, 1993) and At Memory's Edge (Yale 2000), among other books.

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