New Perspectives on the Origins, Context and Diffusion of the Academic Study of Judaism

New Perspectives on the Origins, Context, and Diffusion of the Academic Study of Judaism

From its inception, Jewish studies was a transnational endeavor characterized by a network of scholars emerging from different seedbeds. In time, modern rabbinical seminaries in central Europe and universities in France, England, the US and Israel would provide new and necessary forms of institutionalization. The needs and strategies of the discipline and its political and cultural functions varied in different countries and political contexts. What the present state of the field requires is a collaborative effort to deepen our understanding of the intellectual revolution at the heart of modern Jewish history. The turn to history in the 19th century fundamentally recast the nature of Jewish thinking in Europe and beyond, influencing even those who challenged or rejected the dominance and mandate of historical-critical scholarship. The predominant narrative in this history of the academic study of Jews and Judaism is that of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (WdJ), which fulfilled crucial cultural, political, and religious functions in its day, and which, despite recent scholarship, remains to be fully contextualized. How have academic categories and methodologies framed how Jews and Judaism are understood—be they in parallel with Christian theology, political science, history, classical philology, or in relation to traditional teaching contexts and methodologies? How might modern Jewish studies be seen in comparison to other emergent ethnic and religious area studies? What can we learn from a more systematic comparative study of different religious or national currents within WdJ and other parallel academic developments in Jewish studies?

Proposals addressed the following questions, among others:

  • How did and does WdJ function in the struggle for emancipation and against anti-Semitism in varying national contexts?
  • How was Jewish scholarship influenced by its institutional home or lack thereof?
  • What role did Jewish scholars play in the establishment and conceptualization of Oriental and Islamic studies? And vice versa?
  • To what extent did the WdJ engage with, build on, and depart from, the scholarly legacy of Christian Hebraism and Renaissance humanism, and the historical-critical approach to the Bible in the late 18th and early 19th century?
  • What extra-scholarly motives drove the development or neglect of some fields? To what extent were those aims achieved, and what do its failures reveal about European-Jewish history in the 19th and 20th centuries?
  • How have the idea of the Bible and the categorization of ancient texts been shaped by trends and biases in modern scholarship?
  • What impact has the rise of Jewish nationalism and Zionism had on the direction of Jewish scholarship, such as the politics of archaeology, the place of messianism in Jewish history, or the history of communal institutions, even the funding of academic chairs?
  • By what channels did the results of critical scholarship reach a broader public, and which audiences exactly?

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