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Jewish Studies in Germany

Markus Krah

Scholarship and research practices are thought to be compatible across national borders and academic cultures, in Jewish Studies as much as in other disciplines within the humanities. Yet, the varying academic traditions in the United States, Europe, and Israel make for marked differences in research interests, methodology, styles of presenting findings, and in how Jewish Studies are positioned in relation to the humanities at large. Ideally, this diversity is enriching, though sometimes differences large and small – from, say, different understandings of “religion” to academic writing in endless sentences (hint: I work in Germany) – can be exhausting rather than stimulating.

The differences between academic cultures are particularly pronounced, when it comes to the demographic, disciplinary, and departmental frameworks in which Jewish Studies are set up in Europe compared to other settings. Germany, the country of origin of modern Jewish scholarship, is a case in point. Doing Jewish Studies here feels different on various accounts: students and colleagues, topics and approaches, and conditions and cultural expectations are all quite unlike their counterparts in the United States.

To begin with demographics: There are fewer Jews in Europe than in the United States, chiefly, but not exclusively due to the Holocaust. As a result, non-Jews often teach Jewish Studies courses to other non-Jews. For the same reason, Jews and Judaism are much less of a presence in the overall culture. This has a number of effects, particularly in Germany. Whatever anti- or philosemitic exoticizing and othering of Jews occurs in the classroom (and in society at large), fueled by a fascination sometimes born out of post-Holocaust moral considerations or (non-Jewish) religious searching, is rarely checked against the contemporary realities of Jewish life. This adds a layer to the responsibilities of the teachers. So does the entirely justified focus on the Holocaust at all levels of the German education system. In the land of the perpetrators, it is all the more difficult to avoid letting the richness of the Jewish experience past and present be eclipsed by its more recent destruction.

The result is a more abstract, even anemic engagement from a distance with the actual subject of Jewish Studies. On the other hand, the demographic constellation can provide unique opportunities and insights for scholars, including visiting ones. As many of us will have experienced in classes with many non-Jewish students: the “outsider” position they express in their questions and contributions often makes for new perspectives that complement, enrich, and occasionally undermine and correct well-worn insider views. To take a step back to see the larger picture of why doing Jewish Studies in Europe is something special: I would argue, there is a historical, intellectual, and moral obligation to teach Judaism in Europe, not even though, but because Jews and Judaism are much less present here than in the U.S. (In Germany, this may change with the current growth of the Jewish community.)

Demographics and history have also shaped the way in which Jewish Studies relate to the humanities, both intellectually and institutionally. Our field is a rare plant in the garden of the humanities, and as such stands in the shadow of more common and larger flowers, bushes, and trees. At the same time, cynical as it sounds, German history, again chiefly the Holocaust, makes Jewish Studies a politically protected species. How well it can survive without such protection (in the form of state funding in Germany, where almost all universities are public), is an open question. When recently a very large learned society in the humanities rejected a panel on a Jewish topic for its conference, a colleague said, only half-jokingly: “That means that now our field has been accepted as normal.”

Exotic and small as it is, however, Jewish Studies has historically been part of the humanities at European universities, growing into its own out of an ancillary role related to Christian theology. Today, Jewish Studies is an uneasy umbrella term for various subfields which are institutionally located in various corners of the garden: history, philosophy, cultural/area studies, religious studies, or Christian theology. The origins of the discipline in philology or ancient history still makes for a focus on religion, the Bible, and other aspects of ancient rather than modern Judaism. History, thus, makes a selective brand of Jewish Studies a marginal, yet integral part of the humanities.

More recent developments complicate matters. Interdisciplinary, culturally conceived Jewish Studies sometimes have a harder time breaking into the humanities. Those tending the garden tend to favor the more common plants and police the borders between the beds. Historians here have a strong guild identity and disciplinary pride, and thus often look askance at the cross-pollinated plant of Jewish Studies. In a (Groucho) Marxian mixture of hurt pride and sour grapes, some in Jewish Studies have developed their own particularistic-exclusionary pride by emphasizing special skills, such as Hebrew, to protect its own borders. Between these narcissisms and the more rigid structures of German universities, there are few Jewish Studies programs that bring together scholars of various departments. It is mostly the individual training of scholars that lets them relate to other disciplines in the humanities. The diversity of these disciplinary backgrounds makes Jewish Studies in Germany, despite its small size, a highly diversified discipline, shaped by a complex constellation of forces – and in need of exchange with others in the humanities and with those doing Jewish Studies in other cultures.

Markus Krah is a lecturer in Jewish Religious and Intellectual History at the School of Jewish Theology at University of Potsdam, Germany. He received his Ph.D. from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York.