Jewish Studies: Jewish Studies since 1919

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Between World War I and World War II in Europe, Jewish studies witnessed a parallel process of both professionalization and popularization. New professional institutions and associations were established to counterbalance the fact that the major Western universities, with only few exceptions, were still opposed to the inclusion of Jewish studies in their curricula. At the same time, grand projects, including encyclopedias, handbooks, and translations were underway to summarize the academic results of the first century of Wissenschaft des Judentums, as the academic study of Judaism and the Jews was called, for a broader audience.

Already in prewar years, the major rabbinical seminaries of central Europe (Breslau, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest), were no longer the only academic institutions occupied with the research and teaching of Jewish studies. In Germany, the Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaft des Judentums (established 1902) became a central vehicle for the publication of major enterprises in Jewish studies. From the end of the nineteenth century Jewish historiography was increasingly influenced by new subdisciplines of Wissenschaft des Judentums, such as ethnography, sociology, and demography. The Gesellschaft fuer Juedische Volkskunde, a society of Jewish folklorists founded in 1898 and led by the Hamburg rabbi Max Grunwald, played a pioneering role in scholarly research into Jewish folk traditions around the globe. Its journal, the Mitteilungen fuer Juedische Volkskunde, published the most important findings in the field for almost three decades, from 1898 to 1929. In Russia, an expedition to the traditional communities of the Ukraine led by the playwright and folklorist An-Ski from 1912 to 1915 was the culmination of a long search for the remnants of rural Jewish life.

Jewish demographers created their own institutional framework when they established an office for statistics among the Jews in Berlin, which from 1904 published its own journal and was closely related to the burgeoning interest in Jewish sociology best expressed in the pioneering works of Arthur Ruppin. Most of these endeavors were clearly related to the Jewish renaissance propounded by the emerging Zionist movement. Zionist scholars reacted against what they alleged to be the orientation of nineteenth-century Jewish scholars exclusively to the Jewish past and broadened their interest to include contemporary issues within their research.

Europe and Palestine between the World Wars

The establishment of the Akademie für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin in 1919 was a major breakthrough for academic research in the field. For the first time, a secular organization was established to undertake broad research. However, due to the economic crisis of the early 1920s, the Akademie could not live up to its ambitious plans, originally conceived by the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig and later substantially transformed by the historian Eugen Täubler.

More decisive for the development of Wissenschaft des Judentums was the year 1925. In Jerusalem, the Hebrew University was officially opened, with Jewish studies as one of the three original disciplines (together with chemistry and microbiology). Scholars with a Zionist outlook formed a vaguely connected group of Jewish historians, sometimes referred to as the Jerusalem School, emphasizing the centrality of Palestine in the course of Jewish history. Their most outspoken representative, Benzion Dinur (Dünaburg), later became the Israeli minister of education. In 1935 he and medievalist Yitshak (Fritz) Baer, the first professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, established the most important Hebrew-language historical journal, Zion (a first series of the journal had been aborted).

In the same year the Hebrew University was established, Simon Dubnov's ten-volume World History of the Jewish People, written in Russian, was first published in German translation (19251929). His work constituted a clear break from the earlier Germanocentric view of Jewish history and from the strong emphasis upon a history of suffering and scholarship, which had been typical for nineteenth-century German-Jewish historians. Motivated partly by his own political agendahe was the founder of the autonomist Jewish movement which represented Jewish Diaspora nationalism in eastern Europehis version of Jewish history centered on institutions of Jewish life in the Diaspora, most notably the kehilla, the semiautonomous Jewish community.

Dubnow was also among the founders of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, an institution established in Berlin 1925 (and subsequently transferred to then-Polish Vilnius) to systematically research the Jewish past and present in eastern Europe and other Ashkenazic communities. In contrast to the traditional German dominance of nineteenth-century Wissenschaft des Judentums and to Hebrew-language Zionist scholarship, the YIVO deliberately presented its research in Yiddish, the language spoken by the Jewish masses of eastern Europe. Although its emphasis was on the Yiddish-speaking world of eastern Europe, its offices in Berlin, Paris, and New York, and later also Buenos Aires, undertook some groundbreaking studies of Jews in the west, as well. YIVO published its own journal, YIVO Bleter, from 1931. From 1940, the YIVO Bleter were published in New York, which subsequently became the center of its activities. In 1928, the Instytut Nauk Judaistycnych was established in Warsaw as the major center for Jewish studies in Poland, with a clear emphasis on historical studies. The center was supported by such eminent scholars as Majer Balaban, Mojzesz Schorr, and Ignacy Schiper.

Although European universities refused to establish professorships in Jewish studies, they opened slowly to the study of Jewish subjects. In Frankfurt am Main, Martin Buber became lecturer for religion and Jewish ethics in 1924. Christian studies of Judaism were no longer necessarily motivated by missionary motives. Thus, the Berlin Institutum Judaicum under its new director Hugo Gressmann became part of the theological faculty of the University of Berlin directed purely to the study of postbiblical Judaism. In Giessen, and from 1923 in Bonn, the theologian Paul Kahle became one of the most important researchers into the Masoretic text. One of his students was the noted Talmudic scholar Yechiel Jacob Weinberg, who later became the director of the Orthodox Berlin Rabbinical Seminary.

In Great Britain, Oxford and Cambridge expanded their role in Jewish studies. Cecil Roth became the first Jew to teach Jewish studies when he was appointed reader in postbiblical Jewish studies in 1939. In Lithuania, Simon Dubnow was close to obtaining a chair in Jewish history at the University of Kaunas in the early 1920s, but was finally refused the position, perhaps due to his lack of formal education.

Several major encyclopedias were edited in interwar Europe. Most notable were the German five-volume Jüdisches Lexikon (19271930) and the eleven volumes of the uncompleted Encyclopaedia Judaica (19281934), which was brought to an end at the letter L by the Nazi rise to power. The interwar period saw also the publication of comprehensive works and handbooks of lasting importance. In England, for example, Soncino Press of London undertook the first English-language editions of the Babylonian Talmud (19351948), Midrash Rabbah (1939), and the Zohar (19311934). In Germany, the bibliophilic Soncino Gesellschaft für das schöne jüdische Buch published several beautiful editions of Jewish classics and helped to establish a modern Hebrew typography. The comprehensive design and production of Hebrew typefaces in German-speaking regions between the two world wars, particularly the modern Frank-Rühl, which is still the most used Hebrew typeface for various purposes, was assisted by a group of scholars of Hebrew bibliography and booklore, including Isaiah Sonne and the brothers Alexander and Moses Marx.

The field of Jewish art was beginning to establish itself, with major publications and some impressive journals, such as the short-lived Hebrew Rimon (and its Yiddish edition, Milgroyim ) published in Berlin from 1922 to 1924 and edited by Mark and Rachel Wischnitzer. Abraham Zvi Idelsohn was instrumental in establishing the academic study of Jewish music. His monumental ten-volume Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies (19141932) remains an unsurpassed ethnographic work on Jewish music.

The United States until 1945

In the United States, there was a long tradition of including Semitic studies in the university canon. The 1920s, however, saw the first establishment of more broadly designed Jewish studies chairs at American universities: in 1925, Harry A. Wolfson became Littauer Professor of Jewish Literature and Philosophy at Harvard, and five years later Salo W. Baron was appointed Miller Chair for Jewish History, Literature, and Institutions at Columbia, where he taught for four decades. Despite rapidly growing Jewish student numbers, these two institutions remained until long after World War II the only examples of integrating Jewish studies into the broader university curriculum. Parallel to the establishment of the first modern Jewish studies chairs, the years following World War I saw also increasing academic anti-Semitism and restrictions on Jewish student enrollment. Thus, rabbinical seminaries, such as Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Yeshiva University, as well as the secular Dropsie College, continued to be the academic home for most students in Jewish studies.

At almost at the same time as the Akademie was formed in Berlin, the American Academy for Jewish Research was established in 1920, and incorporated in 1929. New U.S. publications in Jewish studies included Hebrew Union College Annual (1924), Jewish Social Studies (1933), and Historia Judaica (19381961). The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (19391943) had a special focus on American Jewish life.

Europe since 1945

Ironically, it was in Nazi Germany that Jewish studies first became part of the official structure of academic life, albeit in a distorted fashion described as research into the "Jewish Question." The Nazis set up research institutes in Munich, Frankfurt, and Berlin that tried to show the magnitude of Jewish influence in German and European societies. Some of the scholarly works on Jewish topics published in the 1950s and 1960s by historians and theologians who had by then become part of the academic establishment in postwar Germany originated in those institutes.

There were, however, other, more serious attempts to establish Jewish studies as an academic discipline. In Vienna, Berlin, and Cologne, Jewish studies (Judaistik) institutes were founded in the mid-1960s, followed by smaller institutes in Frankfurt am Main and a few other universities. The main focus of those institutes was ancient and medieval Judaism. At the same time, a young generation of German historians turned to topics of modern German-Jewish history. Those two approaches remained rather separate until the late twentieth century, when a number of new institutions were created to cover broad areas in Jewish studies, a development which began with the establishment of the Hochschule für Jüdische Studien in Heidelberg in 1979 and continued with the Salomon Ludwig Steinheim Institute in Duisburg, the Moses Mendelssohn Institute in Potsdam, the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig, and new university chairs in Yiddish in Trier and Düsseldorf, in Jewish history in Munich, in Jewish philosophy in Halle, and in Jewish religion in Erfurt. In Switzerland, the universities of Luzern and Basel have Jewish studies positions.

In Great Britain, the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (formerly the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies) and the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University College London developed into major centers of Jewish studies, but more recent institutes have been established in Southampton, Brighton, Birmingham, Manchester, and other cities. France, too, has seen an upsurge in Jewish studies in the late twentieth century. The field there was long dominated by Georges Vajda (19081981) and André Neher, with positions created in Paris, Lille, Strasbourg, Lyons, and Nancy. In contrast to other European countries, Sephardic studies as well as the history of Jewish art have been among the fields taught and researched in France. The Medem Library in Paris is one of the world's best resources in Yiddish literature. The CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) has a particularly strong tradition in Jewish studies. However, France lacks institutions with a full-fledged Jewish studies faculty analogous to Oxford or London.

The Scandinavian countries and Holland, Spain, and Italy traditionally had chairs in Hebrew and Bible studies, and in most of those countries new positions were added, especially to research the Jewish histories in those respective countries. More remarkable was the creation of new positions in Jewish studies in formerly Communist eastern Europe. The only institution of higher Jewish learning during the postwar period in all of those countries was the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest. After the fall of Communism, the English-language Central European University in Budapest developed a program of courses in modern Jewish studies. Polish universities added Jewish studies, especially in the field of Polish-Jewish history, but the most visible changes happened in the former Soviet Union. Moscow and Saint Petersburg have a few centers of Jewish higher education, including research centers and rabbinical training. Kiev established a Jewish university, as did some other Russian and Ukrainian cities.

The increasing activities in Jewish studies found their expression in the establishment of the European Association for Jewish Studies in 1981, which holds a congress every four years. Its membership had grown enormously by the early twenty-first century. In 1998 it published the Directory of Jewish Studies in Europe. In 2003, the Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies, edited by Martin Goodman, summarized global achievements in the field during the last few decades in over a thousand pages.

North America after 1945

Despite the increase in activities in Europe, the United States and Israel became the undisputed centers of higher Jewish learning after World War II. In the immediate postwar era, there was, however, little visible change in the United States. As a reaction to the restriction of Jewish student admissions at major American universities, Brandeis University was established in 1948 and soon developed its own Jewish studies center, drawing such eminent émigré scholars as Alexander Altmann and Nahum N. Glatzer. Emigré scholars also strengthened the faculties of the rabbinical seminaries and were instrumental in establishing the Leo Baeck Institute for the study of German-speaking Jewry in New York, London, and Jerusalem in 1955. The last historian who attempted a single-handed multivolume universal Jewish history was Salo W. Baron. His eighteen-volume A Social and Religious History of the Jews (19521976) reaches only the year 1650 and is characterized by an affirmative view of the Diaspora.

The period of most significant change began in the second half of the 1960s, with the proliferation of ethnic studies programs from which Jewish studies profited as well. In 1969 the Association of Jewish Studies was established and developed within the next three decades from a small circle of scholars into a major association with several hundred active members. This development reflects the spread of Jewish studies from a handful of rabbinical colleges and universities to almost any university campus in the United States and Canada. At most universities, Jewish studies are integrated into a variety of departments and loosely united in a Jewish studies center. At some universities, such as Brandeis or New York University, there exist separate Jewish studies departments. In contrast to earlier periods, when one professor covered vast areas of Jewish studies, most major research universities in the United States and Canada have numerous appointments in Jewish studies. Jewish studies has become part of the mainstream of American scholarship, as can be seen by the inclusion of Jewish studies publications in all major American publishing houses, whereas before the 1970s specific publishers, such as the Jewish Publication Society of America, were responsible for most publications in the field. Modern periodicals cover vast areas of Jewish studies, including Modern Judaism, Prooftexts, and Jewish Thought, as well as the revived Jewish Social Studies and publications such as American Jewish History and the Journal of the American Jewish Archives. The Association for Jewish Studies has published its AJS Review since 1976.

With the increase of teaching positions and publications, Jewish studies has become an accepted part of religious studies, and moreover, it has helped to transform a traditionally Christian-centered view within the field into a more pluralistic one. At the same time, modern trends within religious studies also shaped Jewish studies as a discipline. While it was common for research within the field to focus on its internal developments and concentrate on Jewish issues per se in the early twentieth century, a more comparative view, which takes the developments of the non-Jewish society more effectively into account, has become almost a given in modern research. As a consequence of relativizing and postmodern tendencies, first in literary theory and later in other fields as well, there seems to be no longer a search for what was or is Jewish culture, but rather for what constitutes the diverse Cultures of the Jews, the title of a collaborative work of twenty-three mainly American scholars published in 2002 and edited by David Biale. In contrast to the earlier postwar collaborative efforts of American Jewry, such as The Jews, edited by Louis Finkelstein (1949) or Israeli scholarship, as in A History of the Jewish People, edited by H. H. Ben-Sasson (1969), this volume neither summarizes the "contributions" of Jews to world civilization nor does it reduce the essence of the Jews to their peoplehood and connection to their own territory. Rather it defines Jewishness as an ever-changing category: "The present work is also the product of a particular time. Ours is a self-conscious age, when we raise questions about old ideologies and 'master' narratives and no longer assume as unchanging or monolithic categories like 'nation' and 'religion'" (p. xxx).

This volume may indeed be summarizing a larger tendency in Jewish studies, which began in North America and continued in Israel and Europe at the close of the twentieth century: the refusal to define clear categories for Jewishnes and Judaism, instead adopting theories of invention and the construction of tradition; the opposition to the still prevalent attitude outside academia of viewing Jewish history as a history of suffering, instead promoting the idea of integration into the non-Jewish world; and finally, the turn to previously lesser known and underrated areas of research, both thematic and geographical. This includes Jews in the Arab world and the history and culture of Jewish women, and also areas which had previously been taboo, such as Jewish magic and related phenomena and negative portrayals of Christianity in Jewish literature.

While those trends can be seen in numerous scholarly publications and campus teaching, another development often runs counter to its achievements. The relationship between Jewish studies and Jewish identity has become a major issue as a consequence of the rapid increase in Jewish studies positions. It differs from campus to campus. In some regions, especially those with a low Jewish enrollment, identity building through academic life plays a minor role. There are, however, many cases where Jewish identity is actively promoted through Jewish studies. The large percentage of privately endowed chairs in the field as well as the need for fund-raising in the broader Jewish community underline the growing connection between Jewish academic and communal interests. In this respect, North America differs profoundly from Israel and the United States.

The increasing centrality of the Holocaust as a field of teaching and research (with a significant research unit at the U.S. Holocaust memorial museum) and the large number of Jewish museums (both Holocaust and non-Holocaust related) have shaped the interest in Jewish studies in the last decades of the twentieth century.


Jewish studies in a Jewish state naturally receive a different degree of attention than in Europe or North America. Indeed, Jewish studies is a central subject taught at all Israeli universities, often in its own faculties. The Hebrew University in Bar Ilan and Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva and Haifa have their own degrees in a variety of subjects within Jewish studies, and even the technical university in Haifa, the Technion, offers a nondegree program in the field. The first World Congress of Jewish Studies was held in Jerusalem in 1947, and has taken place there every four years since 1957. It has become the major meeting point for scholars in the field, and its sessions are published in several volumes.

There are also signs of crisis in Jewish studies at Israeli universities, mainly due to the growing divide between the secular and the religious. Many secular students come with little background or interest in pursuing Jewish studies on a university level. The growing radicalization of the Orthodox, on the other hand, leads to their rejection of university education in general, and academic Jewish studies in particular. Thus, while the Orthodox Talmud schools (yeshivah ) claim increasing enrollment, the same cannot be said for the Jewish studies departments. In contrast to European and American traditions, Israeli universities or academic seminars (with the exception of the few non-Orthodox rabbis) have not taken on the education of rabbis in Israel, who are trained in traditional yeshivah.

The debate over post-Zionism has influenced large circles in Israeli studies, which became an increasingly important discipline, related to but not part of Jewish studies. From the late 1980s, the so-called New Historians and their colleagues in sociology began to question formerly fixed truths about the behavior of the Jewish leadership towards European Jews threatened by the Holocaust and about the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem. If the state was founded on the "original sin" of having expelled the Palestinians, this would have not only scholarly but also political consequences. In a time of continuing political crisis and existential threat, critical voices against the New Historians (not all of them post-Zionists) could be heard, arguing that a similar degree of archival access or free discourse does not exist in the Arab world.


The field of Jewish studies not only increased significantly in the late twentieth century, it also changed its nature. The emphasis on traditional Jewish sources has often been replaced by an interest in modern Jewish studies. The knowledge of Jewish languages can no longer be taken for granted among graduates and even professors of Jewish studies at many universities outside Israel. In postwar Europe and the United States for the first time, a significant number of students in Jewish studies are non-Jews. Two areas of enormous student interest have been Jewish mysticism and Holocaust studies.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, Jewish studies moved from its early Germanocentric and later Eurocentric emphases to a stronger integration of widely neglected communities. The experiences of Jews in the Muslim world have slowly been integrated into the general picture. This is partly the result of the emergence of historians of Oriental background, mainly in Israel, but also of the establishment of a few academic positions concentrating on Sephardic Jewry at American universities. At the same time, research and teaching in Jewish studies spread outside its traditional centers. After its establishment in 1982, the Latin American Association for Jewish Studies has held regular conferences. It reflects not only the growing interest in Latin American Jewish history within the United States but also the new academic centers constructed in Latin America itself. There exists a China Judaic Studies Association, and Yiddish is being taught in Japan.

In the United States the history of Jewish women emerged as a subfield of gender studies, with significant publications in the 1990s about Jewish women in imperial Germany and in the United States, along with a historical encyclopedia of Jewish women. Postmodernism also has left its mark on the field. Some scholars have questioned whether Jewish studies constituted mainly an addition to the traditional university curriculum or a challenge to its strong emphasis on Christian and Greco-Roman roots. This opens the wider question of whether Jewish studies forms part of the classical canon of university subjects or if it should be grouped with the essentially modern disciplines like ethnic and gender studies in a multicultural university framework.

Overall, there are few disciplines that have made such significant inroads into mainstream scholarship in the twentieth century as did Jewish studies. From being banned from the academic curricula in the nineteenth century and restricted to a marginal existence in the first half of the twentieth century, Jewish studies was represented at most American and European universities by the end of the century. Moreover, other disciplinesranging from theology to history and literature, from philosophy to art and political sciencehave integrated essential issues of Jewish studies. The burden of this success should not be overlooked: topics that prevail in the public discourse, such as the Holocaust and the Middle East conflict, have very often pushed the study of Jewish languages and crucial sources of Jewish tradition to the background. Overall, however, the fruitful integration of Jewish culture into the curriculum of modern academia has helped create a more open and diverse system of learning. Once the almost exclusive focus on Christian, Greco-Roman, and European traditions was successfully questioned by the inclusion of Jewish studies, the door was opened to other previously underprivileged subdisciplines as well.


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Jewish Studies: Jewish Studies since 1919

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