In the Portable Homeland

By Alex Joffe
Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Heinrich Heine described the Bible as the Jews' portable homeland. Both it and its various and proliferating extensions through history have been the objects of intense exploration by modern Jewish scholars. What do the books and articles published by these scholars have to tell us, and how much of their scholarship is relevant to daily life, or of interest beyond the circle of their fellow academics?

A recent conference held on the 100th anniversary of the Jewish Quarterly Review (JQR), America's premier academic journal of Jewish studies, afforded an opportunity to review some surprisingly old tensions. JQR was born in London in 1889, at the high point of Anglo-Jewish confidence. Its founders, Israel Abrahams and Claude Goldsmid Montefiore, were social and intellectual paragons who sought to put England next to Germany—the birthplace of Wissenschaft des Judentums, the "science of Judaism"—on the map of secular Jewish scholarship.

Like their colleagues in Germany, the British editors faced a quandary. Serious historical and textual scholarship represented a liberation from religious authority and "seminaries," but was necessarily specialized in nature. And so, in the early JQR, titles like "Jewish Tax-Gatherers at Thebes in the Age of the Ptolemies" and "The Ninth Mehabbereth of Emanuele da Roma and the Tresor of Peire de Corbiac" dominated. Still, contemporary concerns poked through in, for example, "The Mission of Judaism," "On Some Misconceptions of Judaism and Christianity by Each Other," and "The Russian Jews: Extermination or Emancipation?" Finding and striking a balance among scholarship, apologetics, and polemics was never easy.  

In 1910 JQR moved to America—not to the Jewish Theological Seminary, home of the New World's leading Judaic scholar, Solomon Schechter, but to Philadelphia's Dropsie College. Dropsie was a unique institution of higher Jewish learning, producing over 200 Ph.D.'s who contributed over 2,300 articles to JQR. Conveniently, Philadelphia was also home to the Jewish Publication Society of America, refounded in the 1880's. But, then as now, circulation of JQR never exceeded more than a few hundred subscribers. The journal suffered under decades of editorship by the idiosyncratic Solomon Zeitlin, and Dropsie itself faltered as Jewish studies eventually found a place in secular universities. Upon its collapse in 1986, JQR was absorbed into the University of Pennsylvania.

Now safely housed in the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at Penn, the journal in its latest incarnation faces precisely the same conflicts that it did a century or more ago, and reflects the same balancing act. Titles in recent issues include "Tradition and Truth: The Ethics of Lawmaking in Tannaitic Literature," "Rewriting the Grand Narrative of Jewish Music: Abraham Z. Idelsohn in the United States," and "Do American Jews Speak a ‘Jewish Language'?" If, a century ago, Montefiore could write in JQR about the "difficulties and duties" of liberal Judaism in England, today's editors are no less frank to acknowledge the need to publish "applied scholarship" that is pertinent to current reality. The difference is that contemporary scholars tend to navigate the terrain of Jewish identity with the aid of esoteric language and abstract categories, leaving the rest of us to wonder occasionally whether what they have to say tells us more about scholarship than about life.

The perennial issue of relevance aside, other conditions have changed significantly in the last hundred years. On the one hand, secularization has caused a dramatic decline in overall Jewish literacy, as in religious literacy generally. On the other hand, more scholarly books and articles are being published than ever before, and the Internet has granted unprecedented access both to these and to older bodies of research. Much serious scholarship, as well as primary sources in English, Hebrew, and other languages, is also available for free via Google Books and other portals, and online course syllabuses, lectures, and other resources abound.

True, access to most digital articles still costs money; one either needs a university affiliation or the subscription privileges afforded by a better public library. And actual participation in scholarly discourse requires a union card. As many conference participants ruefully admitted, the study of Judaism, though nominally in the intellectual mainstream, is now walled off in university ghettoes. Moreover, while the religious study of Jewish texts continues to be its own justification, secular Jewish studies must slave in the intensely competitive rat race of academia.

Meanwhile, the imperative to engage both Jews and non-Jews remains. Scholars, as is their wont, may feel marginalized, but Jewish scholarship itself has always addressed both the timeless and the quotidian, in proportions that have shifted with needs and conditions as well as with levels of literacy. In this sense, the ground occupied by JQR is a metaphor of the larger Jewish intellectual community in the early 21st century: dominated by Americans and Israelis, preoccupied with questions of identity, and anxious about its "relevance" in a world where ideas and ideologies swirl at the speed of the Internet.

And now comes the news that ArtScroll, the ultra-Orthodox publishing juggernaut, is digitizing many of its 1,500 titles, bringing the challenge of ultra-Orthodoxy directly to the computer screens of consumers everywhere. How that competition over the Jews' portable homeland will unfold is anyone's guess.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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