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E Pluribus Unum? The Real-Life Challenges of Multidisciplinarity in European Jewish Studies Today

François Guesnet

When you become a member of the European Association for Jewish Studies, you are requested to identify your academic discipline. New members have the option of selecting approximately ten disciplines and almost a hundred sub-disciplines, including bible, rabbinics, history of the Jewish people, Jewish thought and philosophy, language, and art.

Facing such disciplinary diversity, any Jewish Studies programme needs to negotiate what it considers a disciplinary core with the resources it can muster. Hebrew and other Jewish languages, bible and rabbinics, history, and literature seem to constitute such a core, but an academic programme which hopes to accommodate the current focus on student satisfaction hardly can do without a substantial offer of courses on the Holocaust, Anti-Semitism, and Israel. A programme which would not reflect on gender as a critical category would be considered sub-standard.

In Europe, this embarrassment of riches is somewhat balanced by disciplinary traditions, often going back to the very beginning of an academic interest in Judaism. Germany and Italy pride themselves on a tradition of Hebrew philology, while Jewish Studies in Great Britain still seems a close ally of (Christian) theology and biblical studies. Across Europe, these traditions with rather clear assumptions about the disciplinary core compete with the ecumenical approach of postwar Jewish Studies - most visibly expressed in the cohabitation of two academic associations in Germany, the ‘Judaistik’ (with a strong emphasis on Hebrew philology and the Jewish literary traditions) and the ‘Jüdische Studien’ which strive to offer an all-encompassing approach to the Jewish cultural encounter. Representatives of these different academic approaches have toned down the rhetoric significantly, with the most heated exchanges going back to the early 1990s.

Furthermore, Jewish Studies programmes in Europe reflect the different cultural contexts and legacies, both from a point of view of local Jewish communities and their non-Jewish context. This is an especially challenging context in eastern Europe, where scarce resources, a comparatively recent emergence of a comprehensive academic training, passionate public debates about Jewish-non-Jewish cohabitation, the fate of the large Jewish communities during World War Two and the German occupation, and the involvement of the local population in the persecution of Jews necessarily inform the ways academics will think about conveying Jewish civilisation and history. Despite the fact that such debates are quite draining, the stunning achievements in the consolidation of Jewish Studies programmes in Poland (the next EAJS Congress will take place in Kraków, in 2018), the Czech Republic, Hungary and Lithuania demonstrate that contestation creates fertile ground to encourage ambitious young people to take up a serious investigation into the cultural, religious, and historical legacy of the European Jewish diasporic encounter.

The complexity of this encounter informs the impressive variety of Jewish Studies programmes across Europe. It is reflected in the simple fact that this academic field is taught literally in dozens of languages. For the European Association for Jewish Studies, this also represents an obstacle. In order to create a European public sphere, such as in the area of academic teaching, would require a major effort in translating syllabi, degree programmes, and text books. A first modest step is a workshop ‘E pluribus unum? Multidisciplinarity in Jewish Studies Programmes and Teaching’, proposing an exchange among colleagues how to enable our students to understand the interdependence and cross-fertilization between the many disciplines which constitute Jewish Studies. As it will take place in Girona, the hometown of Nachmanides, we hope that the genius loci will inspire the participants.

François Guesnet is Reader in Modern Jewish History at University College London. He currently serves as Secretary of the European Association for Jewish Studies (EAJS). For more information about the Association, which has established a formal partnership with the AJS two years ago, please visit the EAJS website.