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Gala Banquet Plenary Session

AJS 45th Annual Conference
December 15, 2013 • Boston, Massachusetts
Sheraton Boston

Introductory Remarks
Jonathan Sarna (Brandeis University)

Plenary Lecture: "From Wissenschaft des Judentums to Jewish Scholarship Today: The Issues We Have Faced and Those That Lie before Us"
Dr. Michael A. Meyer, Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History Emeritus at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati

Response: "The Place of Jewish Studies: Discipline, Interdiscipline, and Identity Studies"
Dr. Rachel Havrelock, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago

Introductory Remarks


My name is Jonathan Sarna and it is my great honor to serve as your President for the next two years. I succeed Prof. Jeffrey Shandler who did a magnificent job as President, strengthening our association in many ways, seen and unseen, and overseeing our very first strategic plan, which will, I trust, further strengthen AJS in the years to come. In recognition of Jeffrey's tremendous achievements, the nominating committee decided that his successor as President should bear his initials "J" & "S", as a mark of ongoing esteem, and that explains why I stand before you this evening.

Seventeen highly significant scholars have preceded me in this lofty position—how many of them can you name? I am particularly pleased that our 5th president, Prof. Michael A. Meyer—the first-ever Midwestern president of our Association—is here to speak to us this evening. I know, Michael, that you will be formally introduced by Prof. Reuven Firestone, but speaking personally I wanted to say how thrilled Ruth and I are that you and Margie can be back here with us. (I am sure that the snow brings back many fond memories of AJS conferences past.)

Each president of the AJS has made some claim to uniquesness: the first Midwesterner, the first woman, the first Canadian, and so forth. My claim to enduring fame in this regard is actually two-fold: first, I believe that I am the first AJS president who is also married to an AJS member (think Bill & Hillary). Second, I am the first AJS president who is also the son of an AJS President. I am in that sense the "John Quincy Adams of the AJS."

John Quincy Adams is remembered for many things. For example, he used to swim nude in the Potomac early every morning—reporters looking for a story sometimes used to meet him there (it was before the age of photography). He came into office in 1825 with a very ambitious goal: "the ultimate improvement and exaltation of the nature of man and his condition on earth [Remini, 78]." My goals, I have to admit, are much more modest. I would like to improve our financial condition through an endowment. I would like to see us collect data on the state of Jewish Studies in North America. And I would like to work with the Jewish Book Council to see if we can help to improve the state of scholarly publishing in our fields.

John Quincy Adams in his first message to Congress warned his legislative colleagues not to be "palsied by the will of our constituents."(ibid, 80) That was a disastrous comment—his shocked constituents never forgave him—and his presidency did not quite recover. Even as I am now cast in his role, I want to assure all of you that I shall not repeat that horrific mistake. Nothing is more important to me than the will of our association's constituents! I aim to energetically respond to that will, and I invite you all to write to me——if you have some particular will to express.

Incidentally, should you decide in your will to remember the AJS, that would be nice too. We have many wonderful initiatives that we would love to undertake on your behalf at AJS, but cannot currently fund. A few generous bequests would go a long way.

In the meanwhile, I want to assure you that our association is strong and well-managed. Rona Sheramy—who celebrates ten years as our executive director this year (let's hear it for Rona!)—promises to keep it strong and well-managed.

John Quincy Adams in one of his most famous speeches declared "think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity." I think of both as I become your president today.

Thank you all for your confidence!

Jonathan Sarna (Brandeis University)

Plenary Lecture: "From Wissenschaft des Judentums to Jewish Scholarship Today: The Issues We Have Faced and Those That Lie before Us"

Forty-five years ago, crowded into a small room at Brandeis University, a group of 47 scholars gathered to talk about the state of Jewish studies. All but one were men—Lucy Dawidowicz being the sole exception. All but one were American—the sole exception being Nathan Rotenstreich of the Hebrew University. Most of those present have passed on to the great yeshivah shel ma'alah. And I alone—well, not really alone—"have survived to tell the tale."

This is what I recall. From the start, differences appeared among us, fundamental conflicts of objective that have remained through the years. Gershon Cohen, z"l, then still at Columbia, argued forcefully that the Jewish scholar's responsibility was to his discipline and not to the Jewish needs of his students. Yitz Greenberg, however, virulently took the opposite view: the Judaica scholar, he argued, does have an obligation to the Jewish community. And Nathan Rotenstreich angrily insisted that Jewish scholarship in America could flourish only peripherally, reflecting the shining center in Jerusalem. But the most significant statement was made by Joseph Blau of Columbia when he turned this colloquium, organized by the late Leon Jick of Brandeis, into the founding meeting for an unprecedented national association by proposing the establishment of the Association for Jewish Studies.

We realized, of course, that there was already a society of Judaica scholars in the United States; it was called the American Academy for Jewish Research. Among its carefully selected fellows were the most prominent scholars, deeply learned in the textual disciplines of Judaism and the history of the Jews. But we felt that this elite organization was not only unwilling, but by its nature incapable of dealing with the rapidly growing expansion of Jewish studies in the United States. The time had come for an association that was broadly inclusive both in subject matter and in membership and one that would integrate Jewish studies within American academia.

We began very small, holding our annual conferences in the Harvard Faculty Club. Later we moved on to the Copley Plaza Hotel until 1997—davka the Copley because it had once been a hotel that excluded Jews. Graciously, the management removed the Christmas Tree from the lobby before we arrived, rapidly returning it to its place upon our departure. With one exception, until relatively recently we always met in Boston—regardless of snow. Initially there was only one session in each time slot. That had a certain advantage, we thought, since it meant scholars from various disciplines and dealing with different periods would learn of the work of their colleagues in other areas. The interaction could even help us in defining our field. But what exactly was our field? An argument arose early over whether we should call ourselves the Association for Jewish Studies or would it be better to say: Judaic Studies. The proponents of "Jewish" won out, having insisted that the field could not be limited to the religious or literary dimension. Nothing related to Jews, ancient or modern, was to be beyond our purview.

We were very conscious of standing on the shoulders of the founders of Wissenschaft des Judentums. We paid due obeisance to Leopold Zunz, Moritz Steinschneider, and the other pioneering giants of the critical enterprise we were seeking to carry forward. We appreciated Zunz's insistence that serious scholarship in the Jewish field could flourish only in conjunction with scholarship in general. But significantly, unlike our scholarly ancestors, we insisted on stressing diversity: not jüdische Wissenschaft (a singular) but Jewish studies (a plural). We recognized already at that point that we were not all engaged in a single discipline, but in numerous disciplines and that what bound us together was rather a field in which many flowers blossomed. It was a common but internally multicultural landscape in which we stood. And it was by no means isolated from the outside. Its borders were porous allowing for interaction inward and out. But while recognizing that the Jewish experience had always been open to absorbing, adapting, and sometimes rejecting external influence, we also saw that there was a vertical dimension— "diachronic" we would say today—that provided an internal dynamics linking the variety of Jewish experience through the centuries.

During those early years we were in the process of achieving what Zunz and his compatriots could only dream of: the integration of Jewish studies into the university. In 1968 that process was far from complete. There continued to be academics who regarded our field as a specious one. "Was there really a Jewish history between 70 c.e. and 1948," a professor of history at UCLA once asked me dubiously. Some outsiders thought that perhaps our entry into the university was driven by impure motives. Were we ideologically propelled like the early movement for the inclusion of Black Studies? We were determined to show that we were different, that we did not possess ulterior motives. One of our principal thrusts in the early years, therefore, was to establish our professional legitimacy. And that meant drawing lines not only between ourselves and ethnically motivated advocates of Black Studies, but also between ourselves and the rabbis who taught part-time at various colleges and universities. We didn't merely need to establish the subject, Jewish studies, as legitimate and respectable, but likewise the person, the Jewish Studies scholar. We created an associate category of membership which, as I recall, did not carry voting rights. Dilettantism was our bugaboo. Our goal, eventually achieved, was to shelter under the umbrella of the American Council of Learned Societies.

Within our relatively small circle there was not only a strong sense of common purpose, but also of camaraderie. Not only did we meet at the Harvard Faculty Club, we were ourselves rather clubby. For a time we were also unabashed about displaying Jewishness at our meetings. For over a decade banquets ended with a birkat mazon, read from the benchers graciously furnished by KTAV Publishing and engraved with the name of the AJS and the date of the conference. A Hanukkah menorah was publicly lit when the conference coincided with the holiday. But as we grew, the bonds grew looser. One no longer knew practically everyone at the conferences personally. Our gatherings became less intimate, more closely resembling the conferences of other academic societies.

Although it changed the character of the AJS, growth was certainly to be welcomed. We saw it as our responsibility both to spread Jewish Studies across the American academic landscape and to provide a measure of quality control through giving academic advice. The AJS undertook no less than sixteen regional conferences on a variety of topics to spread awareness of our field throughout the United States and Canada. They featured such leading scholars as Shlomo Dov Goitein and Jacob Katz.

Although our growth was not steady, it continued without hiatus as university after university introduced Jewish Studies in one form or another. In retrospect we can point to some of the causes: the popularity of courses on the Holocaust, the Israel interest after the Six-Day War, the willingness of an increasingly wealthy Jewish elite to fund chairs in Jewish Studies at their alma mater. And so we have grown to the remarkable association that we are today, with over 1800 members and a conference with as many as 18 simultaneous sessions. We have a sophisticated website, two publications, and a dedicated staff. Truly, Leopold Zunz could not have imagined our achievements in his most extravagant dreams. No one can doubt that organizationally we have been an amazing success.

But where are we today, not in size or utility, but in terms of our thinking about our field? Let me turn here from recounting our tale to reflecting on certain questions that lie before us and to suggesting some personal positions with regard to them.

We have achieved a high level of sophistication in our research and writing. Over these 45 years we have avoided insularity by applying the most recent and potent tools of analysis. We scatter about the terms and categories of our day. We write: discursive, subversive, hybridity, hegemony, invention of tradition, post-colonial, cultural capital, mentalités, longue durée, and lieux de mémoire—to mention only a few. We are especially careful to avoid such traps as essentialism, ideology, and teleology even as we recognize the illusions of positivism. We are more cognizant than ever that there are multiple Judaisms and multiple cultures of the Jews. Like the very first modern Jew to write a major history of the Jews, Isaac Marcus Jost, we focus on how Jewish life differed in various historical contexts. Yet, partly in reaction to Jost, Heinrich Graetz shifted the focus to the unity of Jewish experience, elaborating a centripetal history of the Jews. Where do we stand between Jost and Graetz? Perhaps, without losing our sense of the remarkable variety contained in the Jewish experience, we might consider a turn back to looking more intensively at what has created continuity within Jewish history and literary creativity both over time and within any particular period of time.

We have been, rightly, dubious of master narratives since they tend to obscure what does not readily fit into their stories. We have poked sharp analytic needles into such accounts. But our work is an ongoing dialectic of analysis and synthesis. Perhaps the time has come to focus a bit more on the latter, which—incidentally—forces us to employ our artistic as well as our intellectual talents. The tales we have to tell need not be monolithic or exclusionary. We are learning to incorporate into our scholarship the stories of women, mizrahim, and other neglected groups, even as currents of Jewish thought, such as kabbalah, once on the periphery, have likewise moved to within the circle. We are blurring what once seemed clearly defined boundaries, geographically and conceptually, and among disciplines, especially between history and literature. And within the realm of synthesis it becomes possible to give greater weight to an understanding of the persons whose biographies, thought, and creativity we examine. As important as our tools of analysis are, they must not be allowed to distort the multifaceted reality or to destroy the vitality of the object to which they are applied. Every lens sharpens one focus, but dims others. Serious historiography, Collingwood rightly held, involves penetrating to the inner life of the individuals we study, reenacting their thought in our own minds—and, contra Collingwood, I believe, also their emotions. Perhaps influenced by the German historian Wilhelm Dilthey, one of the great figures in the history of Wissenschaft des Judentums, Ismar Elbogen, argued that the task of the scholar was not merely to look into the bookshelf of those he was studying, i.e. figuring out who and what influenced them, but, in Elbogen's words: "also into their mind and soul, determining their use of language, and entering sympathetically into their thoughts and intentions." He called that task Nachempfinden—to feel again what they they felt in their time.

Finally, the question—the tension—that I mentioned as coming out in that first meeting forty-five years ago is still with us, and it remains explosive. At its heart it is a question of loyalty and obligation. Does the Judaica scholar in the university owe her or his allegiance solely to the university and its ideals of dispassionate scholarship or is there in some sense also an obligation to the Jewish community, which represents the living extension of the subjects studied? I teach in a seminary where being engagé with my subject, without distorting its historical significance, is more or less the norm. But what about within the secular university? And what of the non-Jew working in the field of Jewish Studies? During the last few decades the nature of the American rabbinate, especially in its progressive branches, has changed fundamentally. The scholarly role has diminished, the pastoral taken precedence. Today scholarship does not rank high on the desiderata list of congregational search committees. This trend, it seems to me, places a weightier responsibility upon university scholars of Judaism and Jewish history, whether Jewish or Christian. The Jewish tradition—or, if you like, Jewish traditions, in the plural—will not survive without the efforts of those who are dedicated to studying and teaching them on the highest level, not alone as episodes of an earlier time but also as a heritage obtained from the past and stretching into the future. The rabbis will care for the immediate needs of the Jewish community, striving to come to grips with the implications of the Pew Research Center Survey, for example; upon the scholars lies a longer-term responsibility: creating a profound understanding of what Judaism has been and therefore what it might yet become.

Once we were rightly concerned about establishing our academic respectability. After 45 years we have achieved that magnificently. It may now be time to ask ourselves occasionally whether we do not conceive our task as scholars differently from the young Leopold Zunz, who in 1818 regarded the work of Wissenschaft des Judentums as not more than demanding an accounting from a religious culture whose vitality was inevitably seeping away. We may wish to consider how our work can inspire a variegated Judaism which, like the AJS itself, may continue to flourish.

Dr. Michael A. Meyer, Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History Emeritus at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati

Response: "The Place of Jewish Studies: Discipline, Interdiscipline, and Identity Studies"

Where Professor Michael Meyer speaks to you as one of the founders of the Association for Jewish Studies and a past president of the organization, I have no claims to the origins of Jewish Studies. Unlike Wisdom in Proverbs 8, I cannot claim to have been there when the work of creation began. I speak as someone who has inherited this creation by training and teaching in Jewish Studies. Receiving a doctorate from a Jewish Studies program meant that I was affiliated both with Near Eastern Studies at Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union, that I was associated with the program in Folklore in the Department of Anthropology, and that I took courses in Comparative Literature. It also meant that I taught in the Rhetoric Department and Program in Religious Studies at Berkeley, was often dropped from official student rosters, and even on occasion denied access to the library. Life as a Jewish Studies professor has involved positions in departments of Religion, Classics, Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Gender and Women's Studies, and English. For me, Jewish Studies has involved a series of migrations across discipline and field.

This type of movement means that I often need to account for my academic identity and answer questions such as: Are you primarily a Bible scholar? What are you doing in an English Department? Are your methods historical? So you really work on Israel? Why is your latest book only in the Middle East Studies section? Yet I do not see myself or my work as marginal. In fact, at least in my own estimation, I am doing Jewish Studies. Marginal is a key word for Jewish Studies. Over the years, I have heard participants in every unit or subdiscipline at the AJS describe themselves as marginal. I have yet to hear someone declare herself as holding the center, so I have concluded that marginality constitutes the central definition of our endeavor. I see this as the strength of Jewish Studies, as well as a quality with particular relevance to the current state of academe. Admittedly, it is not so productive when feelings of rejection or anger accompany the sense of marginality, but a field compromised of margins means that there are many sites of encounter and opportunities to absorb different methods in order to produce creative scholarship. It means that scholars from a range of disciplines can turn to Jewish Studies in order to find cutting-edge work that innovates. Perhaps we should stop looking for or longing for a center, recognize the power of our marginal positions, and broadcast the flexibility that characterizes Jewish Studies to other programs and departments struggling with their identity in the modern university where a coverage model can rarely be realized. Jewish Studies transpires at colleges whether there are two or three faculty members; professors from across departments with secondary affiliations; or a department with positions in Bible, Rabbinics, Medieval and Modern History, Israel, Germany, North Africa, America, and so on.

Where the adaptations and creativity of Jewish Studies can demonstrate to other departments and programs how to survive the era of academic downsizing, we are failing in some important areas. Although I was not there when Jewish Studies and Black Studies were in formation, I am not sure that the desire to distinguish them was as logical or necessary as Professor Meyer contends. The introduction of identity studies into the university, whatever the particular identity in question, was always about expanding the canon, demanding inclusion, and creating a place among educated elites. On this note, I would say, African-American and Jewish Studies were similarly "ideologically propelled" and "ethnically motivated." Establishing academic units requires tremendous focus and dedication, so I do not think we need worry about any "impure" or "ulterior motives" that may have driven either project. I do not dispute Professor Meyer's assessment that lines were drawn between Jewish Studies and Black Studies, and later between Jewish Studies and other kinds of ethnic studies, but I think that such lines have become a disservice to all. The dogged quest for legitimacy and respectability has, in many cases, alienated Jewish Studies from its natural allies. Intellectual cross-pollination among faculty in Jewish Studies, African and African-American Studies, Asian Studies, Latin American and Latino Studies has the potential to expand discussions of historical and contemporary issues of globalization, race, minority rights, class, gender, and political power. In the climate of academic budget cuts, such intellectual connections can also sustain co-sponsorship of lectures and conferences, shared administrative staff, and training of students to study and work in a world where, for example, Black and Asian Studies can help to characterize modern Tel Aviv and Jewish Studies can offer a lens into the dynamics of growing diasporas.

Sometimes the perceived conservatism of Jewish Studies prevents colleagues from other identity studies programs from pursuing connections. This brings me to the second way in which Jewish Studies is failing the contemporary university. Like Professor Meyer, I celebrate the remarkable successes of Jewish Studies in growing academic programs across the world and establishing an incredible learned society in the AJS. At the same time that we must protect these programs and attend to student enrollment and the application of Jewish Studies to employment opportunities, we have a duty to the wider academic context. The most contentious issue within the wider academic context and the one most likely to disrupt hiring across the university is Israel. The research of scholars on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, their political statements, and their personal opinions can suspend appointments, promotions, and lectures. When it comes to Israel, figures from well outside the university tend to hold forth on its processes. Often, when scandals erupt, Jewish Studies professors are too busy arguing among themselves to offer guidance to the university community. While I would certainly never recommend that Jewish Studies assume a singular position on Israel or suggest that everyone in Jewish Studies needs to have a position on Israel, I do think that we should develop a model for addressing the controversies that arise on campuses. Jewish Studies programs should model how to handle such controversies through a process of examining, discussing, and mediating disputes over hiring and Israel programming when they arise. Informed by academic methods and able to accommodate the views of participants from across the university, such a model would be perhaps the greatest thing that Jewish Studies could give to academe. We could begin by figuring out how to have productive conversations about Israel within our own programs. Blackballing, boycotts, censorship, and silence around the issue of Israel on campuses suggest the deficiency of academic discourse. The more that we as academics take charge of the conversation, the less such controversies can be inflamed by outside players.

My third, and final, recommendation for the future of Jewish Studies also concerns outside players. Professor Meyer correctly cites "the willingness of an increasingly wealthy Jewish elite to fund chairs in Jewish Studies" as contributing to the expansion of the field. Such generosity on the part of community members has likewise enabled lecture series, faculty and student awards, and research support. I like to think that such support has benefitted everyone involved and will help us to maintain high academic standards of inquiry and argument as public funding to education continues to decline. The largess of the Jewish community has inspired other ethnic and religious groups to make contributions to universities and colleges. Of late, many contributions do not seek to support the academic enterprise as such, but rather to advance a particular agenda or identity narrative. I remember some of the dilemmas faced by students in Islamic Studies at Berkeley when fellowships funded by Saudi royals became available. At my own university, I have seen the Chicago Greek community oppose the tenure of the first appointed chair in Modern Greek Studies that they established and I have served on a search committee for a chair in Catholic Studies in which half of the committee members were appointed by the Chicago Archdiocese. A bit closer to home, we are all either implicitly aware or directly told of which candidates for a visiting professor of Israel Studies would not be acceptable to the funders. Although I would hope that all scholarship undertaken responsibly and subjected to peer review could find favor in the eyes of donors to academic programs, I am not sure if this is indeed the case. As a faculty member at an urban, public university, I am well aware that we need all of the support we are offered, but perhaps Jewish Studies with its well-established relationship with supporters in the community can lead some of the pushback on the attempt of donors to influence outcomes in the university. Perhaps we are in a position to place our commitment to unfettered academic inquiry above increased revenue. Perhaps we can develop a set of criteria for when contributions are and are not acceptable that could guide the decisions of faculty and administrators at large.

In closing, I must say how much I love coming to the AJS and how deeply I feel at home here. I am particularly honored to be in conversation with Professor Meyer tonight. He and his colleagues have been remarkably successful in creating the field of Jewish Studies from which so many of us are benefitting. From this position of strength, we can expand our role and our place in the university.

Dr. Rachel Havrelock, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago