The Seventy Faces of American Jewish Studies
Emory scholars confront a field rocked by controversy

By Amy Benson Brown


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Jewish 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?


For more information
about American Jewish studies, visit these links:

Academic Jewish Studies Internet Directory

Association for Jewish Studies

Columbia University 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 Judaism.

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 Public Library.

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 texts.

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 matters.