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studies in not the only field of inquiry aware of a larger community
listening to its debates. How does being aware of a larger potential
audience change a scholar's relation to his or her work?
American Jewish studies, visit these links:
Academic Jewish Studies
Association for Jewish
Libraries' Jewish Studies Resources
Academic Exchange October/November
1999 Contents Page
Excitement over Emory's new
Institute for Jewish Studies matches the energy in this dynamic
academic field now represented on over five hundred campuses.
The institute offers an undergraduate major and a master's program
in a field that has been rocked by a wave of feminist and postmodern
approaches to understanding Judaism, the Holocaust, and Jewish
history and culture in America. While "truth is the real
goal," says Emory professor David Blumenthal, "politics
is the real dynamic" motivating much of what happens. At
times, the politics have grown bitter.
The new generation of American Jewish studies scholars is like
the biblical "serpent" of "delusory omnipotence,"
said Hillel Halkin recently in Commentary, a popular journal
of Jewish thought. A senior editor at the same journal, Gabriel
Schoenfeld, also blasted the treatment of the Holocaust by postmodern
and feminist Jewish scholars as offensive exercises in "victimology"
that turn "murdered Jews" into "case studies"
and "gendered objects."
As Schoenfeld's rhetoric indicates, the subject of the Holocaust
has generated some of the most divisive arguments. Peter Novick,
an historian at the University of Chicago,
has even argued that there is an American Holocaust obsession
that sometimes distorts our understanding of history. An on-line
colloquy last summer on The Chronicle of Higher Education
Web site about his book, The Holocaust in American Life,
brought a flood of responses, almost all negative.
Other scholars worry about the continuing impact of the Holocaust
on Jewish thought. "Having succeeded in placing Holocaust
museums in most major American cities, American Jews now find
themselves caught in these museums like labyrinths with no exit,"
wrote Stephen Kepnes of Colgate University last spring in Modern
Commenting on the recent controversies, Laura Levitt, a feminist
scholar targeted in Halkin's critique, says that "disrupting
the assumptions of a basically conservative field is exciting
but very scary to many people." Formerly an Emory graduate
student and currently director of religious studies at Temple
University, Levitt points
out that the new Jewish scholarship "challenges ideas about
Jewish identity long held dear." It also strains the relationship
between academic Jewish studies and the larger community, which
has historically contributed to the support of Jewish studies,
both philosophically and financially.
The changes in Jewish studies, however, can also be seen as part
of the way universities "at their best generate excitement"
and contribute to the ongoing production of culture that revitalizes
communities, adds Levitt.
The spate of recent anti-Semitic violence in the national news
also offers a reminder of the broader and sometimes threatening
political landscape surrounding American Jewish studies. Here
at Emory, the director of the Institute for Jewish Studies and
Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, Deborah
Lipstadt, is being sued for libel over her 1993 study Denying
the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, which
received simultaneous, front-page reviews in the New York
Times and the Washington Post and won the 1994 National
Jewish Book Honor Award. The plaintiff, David Irving, is a well-known
writer in the movement to deny the Holocaust, which Lipstadt's
book argues is motivated primarily by anti-Semitism. Since that
litigation is still pending, Lipstadt could not comment on it
for this article. Staffers at Woodruff library, however, were
not surprised to learn that all three of the library's copies
are "missing," as is the copy owned by the Decatur
A frequent commentator in the national media on Jewish issues,
Lipstadt feels that the general picture of conflict in Jewish
studies has been overblown. She points out that there is room
for both traditional approaches and postmodern ones, as long
as all scholars maintain a "baseline of knowledge in Jewish
history, language, and traditional texts."
Creating a fruitful dialogue between traditional and postmodern
scholars may be made easier by the fact that doing Jewish studies
has always required a great deal of "translation"--casting
ideas culled from one discipline in terms that scholars trained
in other disciplines can appreciate. Historically, the conversation
in Jewish studies has drawn mainly on insights from history,
anthropology, archeology, literature, sociology, and religion.
A Jewish history course taught at Emory this fall demonstrates
how new scholarship in Jewish studies can engage traditional
material. Visiting professor Miriam Peskowitz, one of the new
scholars gaining national attention for her work on archeology
and gender in the origins of classic Judaism, will help master's
candidates use critical tools from history, anthropology, literature,
and post-colonial and feminist studies to investigate how the
raw materials of the Jewish past acquire a public meaning.
When asked about the claim that Jewish studies no longer has
a center, Lipstadt remembers the ancient saying that "the
Torah has seventy faces," which welcomes the richness of
meaning generated by diverse interpretations. At the center of
Emory's Institute for Jewish Studies, Lipstadt says, will be
a multi-dimensional curriculum" built on a "core of
truly excellent faculty" known for the intellectual rigor
they require of their students.
Jewish studies is not "fluff" about promoting identity
or "feeling good about being Jewish," Lipstadt insists.
Aron Kratchen, executive director of the American Jewish Studies
Association, wholeheartedly agrees, saying that while personal
investment in the subject is "critical to the conveying
of meaning" in research and in the classroom, Jewish studies
is first and foremost an "academic discipline whose primary
function is critical analysis."
Jewish studies scholars from both ends of the spectrum agree,
however, with Yale Professor Harold Bloom's recent statement
in the Jewish Quarterly that "the drama and eloquence"
of Jewish experience are a "paradigm for humanity,"
not merely "a special case." The drama and eloquence
of the recent controversies within Jewish studies are in some
respects paradigmatic of the conflicts much of the humanities
has undergone in the infamous "culture wars." The fact
that the traditional texts of Jewish studies actually are sacred
texts (as opposed to the "sacred cows" sometimes fought
over in English and other disciplines) only intensifies the generational
conflict. Lelia Berner, a rabbi and former visiting professor
at Emory, stresses that while traditional scholars may perceive
the new work as "irreverent," the ancient texts are
"still sacred" to members of the younger generation
who are committed to using history to engage and challenge the
The rhetoric in Commentary notwithstanding, a more genuine
desire to engage across differences in approach seems to distinguish
Jewish studies from other fields famous for their acrimony. The
Jewish studies faculty at Emory, Lipstadt emphasizes, "really
enjoy talking with one another and communicating across different
perspectives." Speaking of the whole field, Levitt credits
this relatively small community's commitment to civil discourse
to its awareness that its members need each other--and that there
is a Jewish community outside the academy to whom what they say