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PROGRAM IN
JUDAIC STUDIES

 

Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Jewish Studies:  A Theoretical Introduction, by Andrew Bush.  New Brunswick and London:  Rutgers University Press, 2011.  150 pp.  $39.95.

 

Andrew Bush’s slender volume Jewish Studies: A Theoretical Introduction is evidence of the commitment to serious scholarship in a relatively new academic field, first arising in Germany in the nineteenth century after Jews were “released” from their ghettoes and permitted to enter universities after the nation-state of France first led the way in 1789, and still trying to fully articulate not only its object(s) of study but its validity in Western secular universities, the acknowledged home for much of contemporary scholarship today. This text, the first in a new series “Key Words in Jewish Studies” to be published by Rutgers University Press (Series Editors Deborah Dash Moore and Macdonald Moore, both at the University of Michigan; and Bush himself at Vassar College, New York), is the template for all subsequent volumes (none of which are even suggested as future titles anywhere in the book), as the editors write in the Foreword:

The volumes in the series share a common organization. They open with a first section, Terms of Debate, which defines the key word (i.e. in this case “Jewish Studies”) as it developed over the course of Jewish history. . . . The second section, State of the Question, analyzes contemporary debates in scholarship and popular venues, especially for those key words that have crossed over into popular culture.  The final section, In a New Key, explicitly addresses contemporary culture and future possibilities for understanding the key word. (p. x)

In this particular instance, Bush’s “Introduction: To What May This Be Likened?” (pp. 1–10) should have been combined with Chapter One, “Terms of Debate” (pp. 11–49), for both trace the history of Jewish/Judaic studies and its departure from yeshivot and rabbinical seminaries to the aforementioned Western universities and with it the lessening of such authorities to dictate either the persons who may study this material or the methodologies by which such material is investigated. If, in fact, Judaic/Jewish studies—the choice of terms is itself suggestive: “Judaic” is seemingly the more academic and objective; “Jewish” the more parochial and subjective—is a legitimate activity of study, then Bush is on target when he notes early on: “The fundamental question for studying Jews is not how to maintain a relationship to the Jewish God, to the Jewish Book, or to the Jewish people, but what kind of object does one study when studying Jews” (p. 1). The response to that singular question, no easy answer to be sure, largely determines Judaic/Jewish studies curricula today.

              Yet tensions continue to present themselves when studying Jews (and, therefore, Judaism) to the degree to which organized and aggressively active Jewish communities and organizations view universities as both places for “saving the souls” of Jewish young people and battlegrounds for Israel advocacy as a counter and challenge to the antisemitism and anti-Zionism prevalent in too many American, British, and other Western universities. Yet, Bush reminds us, “It is not the purpose of Jewish Studies in the nonsectarian university to make students Jewish or more Jewish, whatever those expressions might mean” (p. 4). 

              As regards the unknowable future of Judaic/Jewish studies, “the Jewish Studies to come will depend on political developments and material conditions as yet unrealized and so radically unpredictable” (p. 5). In the current moment, at least in the United States, where the economy continues to take a substantial hit and Jewish populations are either shrinking or growing slightly, both significantly disproportionately smaller to the larger society and other sub-populations (e.g. Hispanics and Blacks), future justifications for studying Jews (and Judaism) may become relegated to both historians and religious studies scholars investigating a past rather than a present and future viable group or groups. (Interestingly enough, political science and international relations scholars may prove the shape of things to come as Israel and the Middle East show no signs whatsoever of decreasing their presence on the world’s stage.)

              In Chapter One, “Terms of Debate,” Bush rightly and positively assesses the contribution of feminist scholarship on Judaic/Jewish studies, serving to “round out” our understanding of various historical moments and textual materials. Regarding the former, one thinks of Shoah/Holocaust scholarship; regarding the latter one thinks of the work of Judith Plaskow (and others) in reframing Jewish theological thinking by re-reading Hebrew Bible and Talmudic texts.  Bush also suggests (pp. 41ff) that, although in the past Judaic/Jewish studies has been largely Western (European and American) and Ashkenazic (Central and Eastern European), today we are seeing the beginnings of significant Sephardic (Mediterranean) scholarship coming into its own.

              In Chapter Two, “State of the Question,” Bush correctly notes that we may divide Judaic/Jewish studies into pre- and post-Shoah/Holocaust timeframes historically (that is, pre-1945 and post-1945), even going so far as to suggest naming “the current period in Jewish Studies ‘after Auschwitz’” (p. 55). As an historical event, though, as the Shoah/Holocaust recedes in historical consciousness (we are already witnessing the demise of those for whom it was a lived experience), such a dividing line may cease to be intellectually meaningful.  Interestingly enough the rebirth of the Third Jewish Commonwealth, M’dinat Yisrael/State of Israel (1948) has, of yet, provided no marker, as Israel Studies is itself experiencing its own birthpangs. Wave of the future, perhaps, and affecting present and future scholarship, and noted as well, are the increasingly porous boundaries affecting understandings of identity as, for example, non-Jews are welcomed into and embraced by various Jewish communities including Israel, and issues of sexual/gender orientations further redefine individuals, families and communities.

              Chapter Three, “In a New Key,” is somewhat problematic for this reviewer as it appears to be abstracts from various courses taught by Professor Bush which are designed to, perhaps, chart and expand directions for studying Jews in both the present and future by enumerating a “cast of characters” (pp. 93–95) and representative readings of selected passages of their writings in keeping with his definition of “Jewish Studies as studying Jews . . . at any and perhaps every point in time” (p. 109). What would have been most helpful here would have been either an Appendix with sample syllabi from Professor Bush, or an internet link to those same syllabi, further fleshing out how these materials have been used by him.

              Overall, Professor Bush and his colleagues are to be commended for inaugurating a series which promises much in enlarging this important conversation regarding the present and future of Judaic/Jewish studies. This first volume, Jewish Studies: A Theoretical Introduction, serves its cause well and should be required reading for present faculty in the field as well as graduate students who will one day assume their own places in our universities.

Steven Leonard Jacobs

Aaron Aronov Endowed Chair of Judaic Studies

University of Alabama