The Chronicle Review

Who Gets to Define Jewish Studies?

May 05, 2014

To the Editor:

While a great deal of Aaron Hughes’s "Jewish Studies Is Too Jewish" (The Chronicle Review, March 28) is spurious and objectionable, we will restrict our comments to his cheap shots at the Jewish Review of Books. The JRB, he writes, is a magazine "in which scholars (some of whom are associated with other Tikvah programs) air personal grievances, review one another’s books, and trash those with whom they disagree."

It is hard, as William Paley famously noted, to refute a sneer, but when it is as unfounded as this, it isn’t that hard. Can he name the scholars who air their personal grievances in our pages? We know that he cannot. In fact, we routinely ask reviewers whether they have any relationship with the writer that might shape or impair their review.

Hughes’s second charge (which echoes the old saw about "the New York Review of Each Other’s Books," with complete unoriginality) is just as unfounded. Of the more than 250 pieces we have published so far, we count eight in which both reviewer and author had some previous connection to the magazine or its backer, the Tikvah Fund—and not all of those were positive. How many cases were there of actual reciprocal reviewing—the kind of literary logrolling that Hughes insinuates that we practice? None at all.

Hughes’s last charge is that writers for the JRB "trash" those with whom they disagree. Well, we have certainly published some tough criticism. But every review that has appeared in our pages has been anchored in detailed, reasoned, fact-checked consideration. We have never given any writer the kind of careless and abusive treatment that Professor Hughes accorded our magazine, not to speak of the field of Jewish studies.

Abraham Socher
Jewish Review of Books

Program in Jewish Studies
Oberlin College

Allan Arkush
Senior Contributing Editor
Jewish Review of Books

Judaic Studies & History
Binghamton University


To the Editor:

Aaron Hughes has addressed in a bold and provocative way the marginal place of Jewish studies in the American academy. But who’s marginalizing Jewish studies? Is it Jewish-studies professors, as Hughes seems to think, or is it the case that in a Christian or post-Christian majority culture, Jewish studies will always be a marginal thing indeed? Unlike Hughes, I’m more willing to conclude that there’s just not a lot of interest in either Jews or Judaism out there. Is it really the case, as Hughes asks, that "only Jews are interested in studying Judaism?" I think it’s sad to say that the answer is: yes, for the most part that’s true. Is it anyone’s fault?

Historically, what Hughes notes about the origins of Jewish studies in the 1960s reflects not just ethnocentrism, but American Jewish society coming into its own on the larger U.S. scene. This would have included the entry of Jews into the bastion of an American academy that until those years was not unfree from combinations of anti-Semitic and class prejudice that kept both Jews and Jewish studies outside the university gate.

I find it difficult to recognize the field in the critique presented by Hughes. It’s not the case that the vast majority of our colleagues in Jewish studies feel that we are in the interest of making Jewish students feel good about themselves or defending Israeli policy in the West Bank. The only thing we’re guilty of, as a class of professors, is to make Jewish things interesting, just as a scholar of French literature or analytic philosophy would with their topics.

As a field, Jewish studies was far more open and far more self-critical when I left graduate school, in 1995, than it was when I entered, in 1988. And it is far more interesting today than it was in 1995. While I too wish, with Hughes, that there was more methodological suppleness in academia as a whole, the situation in Jewish studies is nowhere near as dire as he presents. Intellectual work in what is and will always be a small field will continue to reflect more general, ongoing, and emergent formations in the academy writ large.

I fear the article, by blaming the victim for her own marginalization, will provide colleagues across the university additional impetus to marginalize an already marginalized field.

Zachary Braiterman
Department of Religion
Judaic Studies Program
Syracuse University

Aaron W. Hughes responds:

I stand by everything I wrote in my piece. I said "some" (not all, not the majority of) scholars have enjoyed the largess of other Tikvah programs. Nowhere in the article do I imply that someone who enjoys a semester at Princeton or NYU is somehow a right-wing ideologue. Far from it! My hunch is that Tikvah has been so bothered by their inability to control thoughts that they are in the process of closing up shop at Princeton and NYU. They are instead now in the business of developing their own in-house programs to attract high-school students and undergraduates—the faculty of tomorrow. My concern, to reiterate, is to call attention to what happens when we let these well-heeled foundations into the university or any other academic venue to set up shop.

As to the more specific comment that some writers for the Jewish Review of Books (again "some"—not all, not the majority) trash others, I simply point to one recent example: Haym Soloveitchik’s nasty review of Talya Fishman’s Becoming the People of the Talmud. Not only did Soloveitchik attack the scholarship of the book, but he even went so far as to quip that the selection committee for the National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship probably did not even read the book. It was the type of review that makes me embarrassed for the pettiness of our profession. I’ll leave it to the disinterested reader to discern whether or not this amounts, in Socher’s and Arkush’s words, to "tough criticism."

Another reviewer calls Arthur Green’s liberal, neomystical, postdenominational Judaism somehow not Jewish, on account of, among other reasons, its lack of connection to Zionism. In itself this is fine, but when one remembers the ideological mandate of the backers of the Jewish Review of Books, it is problematic. Rather than go on, I refer the interested reader to Zachary Braiterman’s Zeek article "Conservative Money and Jewish Studies: Investigating the Tikvah Fund," which, among other things, goes through each issue of the Jewish Review of Books to show these types of connections—connections that I was not interested in making in my original piece.

Socher and Arkush do not mention at all my claim that "Jewish studies is too Jewish." In fact, I would argue that their publication reinforces my claim.

Rather than take one sentence out of context, as Socher and Arkush do, Braiterman’s letter brings up more interesting philosophical questions. I think he is correct to argue that we not simply blame Jewish studies for its marginalization in traditional disciplines.

Like women’s studies, African-American studies—and now LGBTQ studies and disability studies—Jewish studies originated as a way to give its subject matter a voice. All of these fields, and I know that I am not the first to point this out, have the potential to be mired in identity politics, and they all have the tendency to blur the line between advocacy and scholarship. But does this mean that every single Jewish-studies scholar engages in this type of activity? Certainly not. However, I disagree with Braiterman that just because anti-Semitism and class prejudice "kept both Jews and Jewish studies outside the university gate" in the 1960s, this remains the path upon which the field must continue.

Braiterman underestimates the various pulls that some scholars of Jewish studies face. I am not sure if a male scholar of French literature or analytic philosophy ever has an internal debate with himself about whether or not to wear a yarmulke at an interview or when he meets the donors who financed the position for which he has applied. I’m not sure if, when talking with donors (did I mention that a large role of Jewish-studies scholars is to raise funds?), we don’t have to hold our views on Israel in check. I’m not sure if a professor of literature or philosophy is judged by which local synagogue she attends.

I do not think we can correct the problem simply by having Jewish studies improve. Other disciplines must take Jewish material more seriously. Unlike Braiterman, I believe that Jewish studies should be of more than parochial interest.