Samuel Moyn and Eugene Sheppard join us to talk about the expansive vision of what constitutes modern Jewish thought that they are exploring through the various books in the multi-volume book series Brandeis Library of Modern Jewish Thought, published by Brandeis University Press. The series brings together edited and translated sources relating to modern Jewish thought, broadly defined. Each of the books focuses on a theme, and topics have included Jews and race, Diaspora Nationalism, the Sabbatian movement, legal theories, and more. Listen in for our conversation with Eugene and Sam about how the series came together, what they have tried to achieve with it, and what it means to push the boundaries of modern Jewish thought.
This book series is particularly exciting because all too often, modern Jewish thought is usually associated, first, with philosophy and intellectual history, and second, with a “canon” of primarily German Jewish writers and texts. While the Brandeis Library of Modern Jewish Thought does engage squarely with this canon—indeed, they did publish a volume on Moses Mendelssohn, and there is a forthcoming volume on Spinoza—Sam, Eugene, and the other editors have been making a conscious effort to expand the terrain of modern Jewish thought by publishing materials that go beyond traditional understandings of the field. This is true in both geographical and conceptual terms, for instance with the books on Middle Eastern Jewish thought and the volume on Jews and race. Other volumes, like the collection on Diaspora nationalism, puts forward materials that represent a kind of “countertradition” to what most people think of when they think about the history of Jewish state-based nationalism. On the whole, the books aim to provide students and teachers with primary source materials that will allow us to study and teach Jewish history and Jewish thought in a way that matches up with some of the new developments and trends in the various fields of modern Jewish history. It’s a tremendous achievement, and an ongoing project which we are excited to be able to discuss on the podcast.
This episode is a collaboration between Jewish History Matters and the New Books in Jewish Studies podcast, and it is guest hosted by Moses Lapin, a graduate student in the Departments of History and Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Eugene Sheppard is Chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, and Associate Professor of Modern Jewish History and Thought there.
Samuel Moyn is a Professor of Law at Yale Law School, and a Professor of History at Yale University.
Some of the books in the series that we discuss include:
- Jews and Diaspora Nationalism: Writings on Jewish Peoplehood in Europe and the United States, ed. Simon Rabinovitch (preview on Google Books)
- Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference, 1880–1940, ed. Mitchell B. Hart (preview on Google Books)
- Sabbatian Heresy: Writings on Mysticism, Messianism, and the Origins of Jewish Modernity, ed. Pawel Maciejko (preview on Google Books)
- Jewish Legal Theories: Writings on State, Religion, and Morality, ed. Leora Batnitsky and Yonathan Brafman (preview on Google Books)
- Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics, ed. Sarah Hammerschlag (preview on Google Books)
- Moses Mendelssohn: Writings on Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible, ed. Michah Gottlieb (preview on Google Books)
- Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought: Writing on Identity, Politics, and Culture, 1893–1958, ed. Moshe Behar and Zvi Ben-Dor Benite (preview on Google Books)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows:
Moses Lapin: I’d like to begin with a general question about the library: What are some of your goals and hopes, and what do you think holds the project together as a whole?
Eugene Sheppard: I think, initially, one of our main motivations was from the standpoint of being teachers. We were frustrated, especially in terms of undergraduate teaching, that the kinds of texts we wanted to assign where either only available in very obscure places, and usually not available in English translation. So one just basic heuristic task, then, was to bring together texts which we wanted to teach, and we knew other rising scholars and in our fields wanted to teach, and get them out in an affordable and reliable way that could be used in the classroom, and as well use by instructors who aren’t necessarily specialists in the field.
Samuel Moyn: I think Eugene and I shared the goal of making texts accessible to teachers and students who might not have facilities with the original languages and have the time to organize things. I think we also wanted to cast some light on some under-appreciated aspects of modern Jewish thought. In the tradition in which he (Eugene) and I are trained, especially, there is a kind of canon. And if you utter the phrase “modern Jewish thought,” you think of Moses Mendelssohn—to whom, you know, we, we did dedicate a volume, but of his underappreciated writings—and then a series of mostly German Jewish thinkers through the twentieth century. And what we hope to do is show that the very idea of modern Jewish thought is very constrained, and we can use these volumes to give a new sense of just the different forms it has taken, and still could take.
ES: And if I could just add onto that, I think our choice of editors—who have really done incredible jobs with these volumes—shows how different currents in the various fields of modern Jewish thought reflect the dynamic change, more generally, just how capacious modern Jewish thought can be, in going to all kinds of areas that really went beyond that canon that Sam had mentioned.
ML: Sam, you mentioned canonization. And I think (for) somebody who’s looking at the series as a whole, this is one of the things that jumps out. How do you think the library situates itself relative to some canon, or perhaps any canon at all?
SM: I hope we think of a “library” as an open-ended experience, that you might walk down different, you know, corridors in the library and find different things. And the editors themselves to run the library, at least for now, don’t really know how long it will last, where it’s going, what new wings will have to be added given the experiences that we face. So without disrespecting some of the central figures who have been at the heart of Jewish thought and textbooks about modern Jewish thought, we wanted to just see where it went. We had some early ideas of areas that we thought had not been served well. One of those is French Jewish thought, which we’ll come to, but others came to us because of encounters with young scholars who were doing interesting work and wanted to, in a way, offer teachers a companion of primary sources to the kinds of advanced scholarship they were doing. I wouldn’t think of it as a canon. I would say, it’s a mapping project, to try to rediscover just how far and into how many corners modern Jewish thought has gone.
ES: I love that image of a library that Sam invoked, because a lot of times from my own experience in libraries, the most incredible finds you have in the library are accidental. You’re looking for one particular book, but then you see some strange title next to the book you’re looking at, and you take it off the shelf and you all have a sudden see connections and start asking questions that you didn’t know existed beforehand. And I think that’s what a lot of our library has tried to get into, that kind of dynamic sense of really a quest for seeing what exactly are the contours of modern Jewish thought, really pushing at those boundaries and different configurations. What types of materials are considered appropriate for thought? It’s not just confined to systematic philosophical essays. Instead, you can see, to bring it back to that first volume that we published on Moses Mendelssohn, as Sam mentioned we include Mendelssohn’s Bible commentaries as well as some letters, these things are not exactly conventional to include in a more stiff notion of a canon, at least within German Jewish thought, that Sam and I have both been introduced to.
ML: The first volume we’re going to discuss today is entitled Jews and Diaspora Nationalism: Writings on Jewish Peoplehood in Europe and the United States, edited by Simon Rabinovich in 2012. Could you tell us a little bit about this volume, and wha you think are some of the themes that hold the volume together?
SM: This volume is particularly exciting. It’s a response to a new wave of scholarship, of which the editor Simon Rabinovich is one of the leaders. And that, in turn, is a response to contemporary Jewish political experience. Many of us were raised to think that if you believed in Jewish peoplehood in a modern political sense, you know, the Jews are a political nation, then you believe in territorial Zionism. And you might have some worries about the contemporary politics of the state of Israel. But for all intents and purposes, nationalism is support for Zionism in its Israeli form. And of course, that’s still broadly true, but given contemporary politics, Simon and others have revealed to us that Zionism was not the only game in town. And in fact, you know, it became so rather late in the day. So this volume retrieves modes of nationalism that existed within the Diaspora and understood the prime or sometimes exclusive destiny of the Jewish people as a nation to be in the Diaspora, in different forms, sometimes spread amongst the nation, sometimes in their own autonomous areas. And so the volume looks into what an alternative tradition to territorial Zionism would look like, including major figures, minor figures, religious figures, socialist figures. This really is an act of canonization because I don’t think before this book we had a sense of what this countertradition, if you like, looked like
ML: Some of the themes that hold the volume together are universalism are particularism, I guess you can say political and theological problems. Can reflect a little bit more on the content of the volume itself? It’s divided up into three sections. The first is entitled from Haskalah to national renaissance. The second is socialism and the question of Jewish peoplehood. And the third is preservation and reconstruction of the republics. Could reflect a little bit on the readings themselves, perhaps some of your favorite readings, and the ways in which they’re tied together to these broader themes?
SM: It’s the volume that I would say has its unity, really, because all of the writings are really counterexamples to the form of nationalism that we hold dear, or at least know so prominently in our day. And the organization is more or less historical, but it also looks at different situations in which Jews were writing. That early first section includes a figure like the famous historian Simon Dubnow. I think the second section is one of the more exciting ones, because it takes up the relationship between the different forms of Jewish socialism, like Bundism, and the national question, and looks at how Jewish socialists often were some of the pioneers in developing a sense of Jewish collective political existence within the Diaspora, and of course their understanding of what that meant, Someone like Vladimir Medem, in that section, is just radically different from the later form that that Jewish nationalism took.
And then, finally, I think interestingly for a lot of potential students whom this volume would reach, you look at more writings from Jews in the West or even across the Atlantic from Europe and the United States, Horace Callen, Mordecai Kaplan, figures who inherited some of these earlier strands and impulses in (the) Diaspora nationalist tradition, but tried to rethink what they might mean in a pluralist democracy like the United States. One of the central lessons of this is the impact this tradition had even on American thinking, not just about the Jews but about American culture as a whole. So Horace Callen, coming out of this tradition, is one of the founders of the American vision of pluralism that you later see in, say, a contemporary Jewish thinker like Michael Waltzer. And so the volume, as a whole, I think in this regard succeeds in traversing this long time span and moving from east to west and getting at how, in a way, there may even be some hidden components of our own understanding of the Diaspora that have their origins in this alternative to Zionism.
ML: It’s this question of nationalism that reflects implicit ideas about Jewish collectivity as a whole, whether it’s peoplehood or the concept of Diaspora, etc. What do you think it’s like to read the volume in the shadow of dominant Jewish nationalism today, which is ZIonism?
SM: I think it’s exciting, because, you know, most of us, and most students even today who enter college and wander into a Jewish studies course—whether they’re Jews or not—have the impression that if you don’t affiliate strongly with the state of Israel, you must divest from any commitment to the Jewish people, not just as a religious group but as a political entity with its own interests and aspirations. What this volume shows is that you have an ongoing debate to join within the Jewish experience. And there’s this receptive countertradition that is minimally there to know about. This is a teaching volume, and in his scholarly work, Simon and others writing in this vein aren’t proselytizing for the alternative. A few go in that direction. David Myers has written in this regard with respect to the last figure in volume, Simon Rawidowicz, but for our purposes, this is a teaching volume that’s meant to expose students and and teachers of those students to just the breadth of Jewish thinking about the different forms Jewish nationalism could take and still could take.
ML: The second volume is Sabbatian Heresy: Mysticism, Messianism, and the Origins of Jewish Modernity, edited by Pawel Maciejko in 2017. Eugene, I was wondering if you can reflect a little bit on this volume. I think of the many volumes that you have published, this may be the one that’s most surprising to readers who perhaps don’t know about the movement. And also surprising in the subtitle, “the origins of jewish modernity.” What do you think holds the volume together, and what its place in the series as a whole?
ES: This volume is really quite a shot across the bow of several different fields. For those who don’t know anything about the Sabbatian heresy and its impact, I think some people may be just shocked by the power of this messianic movement and its mystical aftershocks through Jewish thought. But on the other hand, for even those of us who are familiar with the Sabbatian heresy, primarily through the works of Gershom Scholem, Pawel does a wonderful job of showing the limitations of Scholem’s own framing of what the Sabbatian heresy was about. Scholem was primarily interested in capturing the antinomian qualities of Sabbatian thought and Sabbatian practices, and especially it’s the practices and the polemical literature against Sabbatian thought which has created Sabbatianism as such a watch word in Rabbinic Judaism.
I think Pawel challenges us to think beyond just the scandal of a declared Jewish messiah that then ends up committing apostasy on the way to a reclaiming his throne for a new temple in Jerusalem, and gets us to think more systematically and seriously about what are the contours of modern Jewish thought. One of the things that marks a specifically “modern” understanding of Jewish thought are the experiences of syncretism, of engaging very different religious and intellectual sources, and trying to make sense of them. And here, Pawel pushes us through these collection of writings to see how Jewish mystical thought gets forever transformed through not only the Sabbatian heresy, but as long aftershocks in modern Jewish thought as well.
ML: I found this volume particularly exciting because it reflects the wide geography, the many languages that encompassed the modern Jewish experience. The volume itself is interesting in terms of literature on the Sabbatian movement, because not only does it cover the time of Sabbatai Zevi himself, but the first section is the movement prior to Sabbatai Zevi’s conversion and moves on to his conversion and its interpretations. And then it’s followed by the reception of the movement and the number of controversies that resulted, and ends off with some literary accounts of the movement in the modern or very modern period, I suppose. Could you reflect a little bit more on the ways in which this volume shows centers and peripheries of Jewish life? In Pawel’s introductory essay, he mentions how Jewish absorption of outside influences, particularly Christian thought, affected the movement, not only on its outsides but also the mainstream of the movement. What were some of the results of the movement that we can see from the texts that you’ve collected, and how does this reflect onJjewish modernity in general?
ES: Those are all key questions to answer. Let’s start with the scope of the volume, going from the seventeenth century to the twentieth century, in really resituating what we consider things at the margins and what’s at the center, because I think you put your finger on something central to Pawel’s presentation. As you noted, the first section ends up dealing with Sabbatian writings and Sabbatian reception before this moment of conversion to islam. Here, his “public relations” guy, Nathan of Gaza, ends up being the first source that that Pawel features. But he goes through, just geographically, all these remarkable port areas, whether It be Amsterdam or Hamburg, then we ended up going through different parts of the Ottoman empire and through eastern europe as well, back into Germany. The volume ends up going everywhere. And each place that we visit geographically, I think you see those kind of shifting sands as to what is on the outside and what is on the inside, both in terms of how Jjewish mysticism, or I should just how mysticism is becoming recast given all of these shocks of the modern period, where new types of exposure, new types of catastrophic but also messianic experience really shapes and re-forms what jewish thought is all about.
ML: The next volume is entitled Jewish Legal Theories: State, Religion, and Morality. It’s edited Leora Batnitsky and Yonatan Brafman in 2018. What’s this volume about?
SM: This volume also reflects changes in what interests scholars, which is always happening, in particular the rise of great interest in the intersection between Jewish thought and law, which has become something that is increasingly prominent in law schools. I’m a law professor, and I’ve taught at law schools where there are centers and lots of students interested in Jewish thought as it bears on law and legal interpretation. That’s, of course, the traditional subject in Judaism, going back to the beginning, and identified with the Talmud and a long tradition of rabbinics. This volume, edited by the Princeton scholarly Leora Batnizky and her associate, now JTS professor Yoni Brafman, is really exciting because it looks at the modern phase and what happened to the way that Jewish thinkers conceptualized and were forced to reconceptualize their legal tradition.
Now this is linked to Leora’s own scholarship, and an older book she did on the nature of modern Jewish thought, and a forthcoming work she’s finalizing on Jewish legal (thought), and the main theme and what drives the organization is really that Jews had to give up the old kind of political authority they exercised over one another in self-contained communities, the kehilot. And when they did so, when they became citizens of modern states, Jews had to change their understanding of their law. In particular, they had to rethink what authority their law had, because of course now they were much more directly under the law of the secular so-called state as its citizen. So that’s how the volume begins, and then tracking Leora’s scholarship, we witness as the volume continues some let’s say responses to, more resistance to this modernization of Jewish law that was centered in western Europe. So there’s a section on eastern Europe, there’s a section on so-called ultra-orthodox understandings of law, before it turns to the twentieth century.
What was interesting to me about this book, particularly the relationship between the title and the subtitle, is what’s a law without a state? (Can) you unpack a little bit about this evolution that you track? On one hand, the book is divided up into these thematic sections. And on the other hand, the sections are themselves chronological. What was the evolution of these different natures, or different relationships, between religion or Judaism as a religion and law, and the way in which that featured in relationship between Jews and the state?
The meaning of the word “state” in the subtitle is that the modern state comes about in the early modern period, and Jews have been living amongst others for centuries, more by that point. And again, they could in their thinking, while of course they had external relations through various kinds of intercessor devices to political authority. kings most notably, they could treat those authorities as external to their own. Whereas once Jews became subjects of absolutist kings and then especially citizens of modern states like republics, first of all, in France after the French Revolution, they could no longer treat political authority as external to the Jewish people. Rather, they were Jews but Frenchmen, or Jews and Germans. It’s true, the book is generally chronological, but actually each section looks at a tradition really across two centuries and how the Jewish thinkers were willing or unwilling to adjust their understanding of the authority of Jewish law in light of this new political reality of the modern nation-state.
So the first section begins with Spinoza and ends with Robert Cover, a law professor who used to teach, now deceased, at my own school, Yale law school. And the story we get there is that these are thinkers who were willing to treat Jewish law as something that didn’t have the same kind of political authority as the secular law of the modern state. And then when we moved to the latter sections of the book, most notably the ultra-orthodoxy section, but also the east Eeuropean section, we get much more dissidence, with people not really agreeing that the Jews should give up the kind of authority their law had really held for the Jewish people, without much debate, in the Medieval period and before. Then the book goes on, as it should, to look at how Jewish law has been theorized in the state of Israel. Because, of course, in this unique situation, you have a Jewish majority in a Jewish state, and so if the Jews get a modern state as the result of the victory of Zionism, there are lots of unique battles to have there in thought about what the relationship between the law of their state and their traditional Halachah. Finally, there’s a brief but very interesting section on feminist critiques of Jewish law in the twentieth century.
ML: In one sense, it’s age old questions in the modern context. But it also represents the series as a whole, as we mentioned previously, it really covers a wide range of texts and languages as well as geographies. What stands out about this text, though, as different to the other volumes, (is) the ways in which it’s sort of dominated by religious orthodox thinkers. If I’m not mistaken, the majority of the writers, although obviously not all of them, were rabbis or religious thinkers. And many of the texts here are made available for the first time. (Can) you reflect on the unique role that this volume plays? Jewish law has been the realm of religious scholars for centuries, for millennia. How does that fit into the series as a whole, both in terms of answering those questions that the series does, but also in standing out in this unique way?
SM: I think each of the volumes tries to challenge, let’s say, or supplement the traditional German Jewish focus of much of the story of modern Jewish thought that has been told. If you look at an older book, like Emile Fackenheim’s Encounter Between Judaism and German Philosophy, it’s really about the highest of the high, or an even older book by Julius Guttman called Philosophies of Judaism, which starts with Spinoza but really then focuses on high thought. I would say all of the volumes try to depart from that model. But I like your insight, that this one is most interested in looking at the way at the way, after that first section which has some more familiar kinds of thinkers in the canon to which I’m referring, does make sure to generously sample religious thought. But the point in this book in particular is that these are innovators. They’re forced to innovate in response to the rise of modern citizenship. This, I think, gives this volume some of its appeal, because many of these figures like the Hatam Sofer in the third section, as just one example, are hoping to hark back to a past before the modern nation-state. But the texts show they’re forced to innovate within Halachah or Jewish law in response to it. That makes it very important. And, then, towards the end of the volume, you get lots of contrast about how women in the face of what happens to women in the modern nation-state, eventually with their own kind of emancipation, what Jewish law should say about them. So, I mean, there are more conservative voices and then more more feminist voices in the last section and I think the reader gets a sense of what a lively sense of change, even those we might think of as traditionalists, are forced to undergo.
ML: The next volume is the volume on Moses Mendelssohn. Of all the volumes, this is the one that in some senses maybe people predicted would be in the series. On the other hand, maybe it’s a big cliche, isn’t there so much written on Mendelssohn, and aren’t all his texts available? Can you tell us how this fits into the series and what are the goals of this volume that sets it apart from previous Mendelssohn scholarship?
ES: I think, going back to those earlier questions you had about canonicity, Mendelssohn is certainly part of a conventional canon. But I think this volume is emblematic of what we’re trying to do. And Michah Gottlieb, who’s a professor at NYU, he gives us a sense of who Mendelssohn was, how he’s viewed by a more conventional line of German Jewish thought that Sam has talked about, but he also presents other kinds of Mendelssohn. And Mendelssohn, probably more so than any other figure other than I guess Spinoza or Maimonides, these three figures, you tend to learn more about the person writing about that figure than you learn about the figure themselves, usually.
I think Micha wanted to capture many different faces of Mendelssohn. Famously, Heinrich Graetz refers to the origins of the modern period basically being marked at the moment when Mendelssohn walked through the gates of Berlin, and the whole city of Berlin becomes illuminated with Mendelssohn’s presence. He also adds some comments about this contrast between the beauty of his mind and soul, on the one, hand and his rather monstrous physical appearance. He had a hunched back and a large nose. Actually, I don’t think he was that ugly, but a lot of people make a lot of about Mendelssohn being so ugly and having such a beautiful mind and heart. Anyhow, back to Mendelssohn in Michah’s treatment: I think we get the classic treatment of Mendelssohn’s probably most important political treatise, which was Jerusalem, which bears the subtitle “on religious power,” and deals with this decisive moment in Jewish history when Jews needed to figure out how they were or were not going to fit in within the modern state. Were they going to give up on forms of enforcement of religious law and norms? Or was there going to be an acceptance of a more general civic or secular, legal norm?
Mendelssohn wanted to maintain, both to a Jewish audience but especially a non-Jewish audience, in Jerusalem that there really wasn’t any controversy, that Jews were a natural fit in the modern period and the period of the German enlightenment, but also the period of the German Jewish enlightenment. So he was a participant in the German Enlightenment and credited as being the very founding father of the German Jewish enlightenment, the Haskalah, and he presents that case in Jerusalem.
But we also have all these extra documents and extra types of controversies that I think situate how he was really being pushed and pulled in so many directions. He had controversies going on, you might say, to his right in terms of his Jewish reception where many traditionalists thought that Mendelssohn was going too far in breaking down certain norms within Jewish education and kind of cultural openness to a non-Jewish external culture. But there was also a worry about the kind of syncretism that enlightenment might bring.
You really can’t get a sense of what Mendelssohn was up to, unless you deal with things like his Bible commentaries. And it’s there that you see Mendelssohn making this incredible balance between trying to show to a non-Jewish audience, for example, why the Hebrew Bible deserves to be read with a specific sensitivity to the dignity of the ancient Israelites and contemporary Jews, apart from any claims that Christianity may have on the old or new testament. But he also has specifically Jewish claims, and here’s what I think is somewhat innovative about the volume as well, that we have English translations of his paper and German commentaries and especially as the german commentaries of the psalms, for example, Mendelssohn is making these specific arguments of how the Hebrew Bible really ought to guide us going forward as a model of enlightened education and enlightened religion more generally.
ML: I think while many of us may disagree with Graetz’s characterization, what the volume does show is how Mendelssohn was at the seat, and perhaps a microcosm, of many of these tensions that you described, the tensions of modernity, as he sat at this intersection between religious and philosophical enlightenment. The volume itself is obviously, as you mentioned, an expansion of somebody who is sometimes cast as one-dimensional. And here we not only see Mendelssohn in his full capacities, but Mendelssohn as a figure of this period of Jewish modernity.
Some of the discussions that Mendelssohn was involved in lead us to the next volume, Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference from 1880 to 1940, and that was published in 2011 and edited by Mitchell Hart. It’s not around a single figure. It’s a large thematic volume that’s subdivided into sections with different methodological lenses. What are some of the animating questions, and what are the themes that hold the volume together?
SM: This was one of the first volumes in the series, and we have been particularly excited about it because it helps us think about Jewish thought and its intersection with dead tendencies, or we hope dead in some cases, in modern thought that were once regarded as quite progressive and up-to-date, and also connects Jewish thought with the history of, let’s say, social science and even natural science in ways that is rarely if ever done. So Mitchell Hart, who’s the great scholar who’s written on this along with many others, who put this volume together, knows and has helped teach us how, let’s say, omnipresent racial thinking was for the best part of a century, between the middle of the nineteenth and the middle of the twentieth century, before what has been called the decline of scientific racism.
At the heart of natural science and the social scientific study of populations was the idea that there were these “races” that just existed in time, and rose and fall, and maybe more disturbingly were in competition with each other. Again, students don’t often understand that this was a tradition not just of the right, which it was and became most famously, but also of the center and left, and it defined what was going on in universities for a long time, to the core, and public understandings of who the Jews were.
And, of course, that means that a series like this has to register the rise and fall of a kind of Jewish racialism, where Jews were understood by themselves to be a “race,” and not just by their enemies. So the book samples the paradoxes and different forms of this kind of moment, I think very helpfully.
ML: You mentioned in the introduction something that I think is fascinating, and really stands out from this book, that Jews were not only the subject ofracial discourse, but themselves were thinkers of race. I think one of the themes that we can highlight in this book, and really we can talk about it here but it’s in the series as a whole, are implicit reflections about what it means to be a Jew, as an individual and as a collective. How does this feature here, and in a sense how does this book allow us to ask that question about the series as a whole? What do you think the Brandeis library of Jewish thought has to say about Jewish collectivity?
SM: I think that’s a great way of thinking about this volume. So let me just say something about the volume, and then I’ll pivot to a larger question.
Again, you’re absolutely right to emphasize that this was a participatory discourse in which Jews and Jewish intellectual (and) thinkers were engaged, that they wanted to not ward off the idea that Jews are a race, as like a charge coming from the outside, but they wanted to define it. And that’s because people thought of the future of their peoples in this period as a matter of the rise and fall of, like, a zoological community. Statisticians like a very famous early Zionist, Arthur Ruppin, really did think about the Jews as (being) like a biological population, and study their rise and fall. The reason lots of scientists, natural and social, engaged in this discourse is because it was thought that social problems were ultimately a matter of, like, hygiene. (In their view) if there were Jews who were criminals, and of course there were and are, this was going to be something that we’d need to study from an almost biological point of view to figure out how the race could take a different direction.
This is an at times disturbing volume, although it also turns to Jews who are critics of the racial framework, and we’re really proud of it. But your larger question is equally pertinent, and it’s about what the series does to define what’s going to count as a contribution to “Jewish thought,” which of course presupposes this much larger and contested question, who’s a Jew in the first place? Now, I’d venture to say that maybe we’re less experimental on that second question than on the first. Most of the contributors to all the volumes are Jews by anybody’s definition, more or less. And we don’t have external voices, typically, who are speaking about defining Jewishness or the Jewish “race” from the outside. That’s another topic. But, certainly, it’s the case that this volume is, like all the others, trying to say what counts as Jewish thought is really going to depend on what “thought” is in the time and place where the thinking is occurring. One of the biases of the more canonical style of Jewish thought is that it assumes that there’s something perennial called philosophy. And in many ways, there is. But there are also whole schools of intellectual life that are very much bound up with their time. And, of course, racial theory is one. And this volume registers that Jews do the thinking that their time and places allow. And this is a great example of how that’s always going to be the case.
ML: The next volume under discussion is Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought: Writings on Identity Politics and Culture, 1893 to 1958, edited by Moshe Behar and Zvi Ben-Dor Benite. It’s somewhat different to the other volumes, as it’s not organized thematically or chronologically but rather by personality. And it’s got a number of different personalities that I think, to most people, are unknown. What are the themes you find in the volume that hold it together, and what do you think is the contribution of the volume and of these various thinkers?
ES: Moshe Behar and Zvi Ben-Dor Benite really put together an astounding anthology which I venture to say is unavailable even in Hebrew and French, even though most of the writers who are included in the anthology primarily wrote in Hebrew, French and Arabic. There’s certainly nothing available in Arabic, as well, (which is published) in this anthology. As you mentioned, there’s a wide spectrum of figures that are in this volume. Some are relatively obscure, but I think in part thanks to this volume and in part due to the increasing prominence of the field of Mizrahi studies and Sephardic studies, many of these figures are becoming less and less obscure. Then you have some major figures, like the first chief Sephardic rabbi of the state of Israel is included in here as well.
There’s a lot of subtext in dealing with even contemplating this volume. Sam and I knew that we wanted a volume dealing with this broad subject matter, but we had no idea just how it should be featured, in part because we came of intellectual age at the time when this whole field of Mirahi studies came into existence, in the 1980s and 1990s, within the university. So we ended up choosing two scholars who were at one time activists and then later became professors. Moshe is at Manchester, and Zvi is at NYU.
I think some of the incredible insights that this volume might have for a typical North American reader is that there wasn’t just the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) that took place in Berlin or in central Europe or even eastern Europe in the nineteenth century. You also have this confluence with an Arabic inflected form of enlightenment, the Nahda, which you put these two forces together, combined with all of the changes that are taking place from the seventeenth century going into the twentieth century. And there was going to be a variety of exciting intellectual articulations of how Jews saw themselves in the world.
Now, this volume, as you can tell from the subtitle, “Identity, Politics, and Culture, 1893 to 1958,” has a kind of political focus in a way that is different from many of the other volumes. And I think that helps root things. People (were) trying to figure out who they are, how they affiliate themselves in terms of their contemporary surroundings. If they’re writing from a place like Egypt around 1900, who do they see as being part of their group and who do they see as others? It was really quite shocking for me to find out that even the term “Mizrahim,” we find a lot of people in the 1890s already in the Arab east refer to themselves as being part of the “mizrah.” So, therefore, whatever skepticism people might have about so-called Mizrahi studies, there’s a lineage of people who associated themselves as being part of the Mizrah over against a Eurocentric, western understanding of Jewish belonging that is there beginning in the 1890s. Some of these figures are radical anticolonialists, some are Zionist, some are anti-Zionists. They’re kind of all over the map. Again, this was a way to kind of introduce a whole new field that has come into focus, really just starting in the 1980s, and this is the first time we have an anthology, really, available in any language.
ML: Can you expand a little bit about some of the central features of this thought, of Mizrahi thought or of modern middle eastern Jewish thought? What are some of its defining characteristics? What are some of the questions that they deal with? And what links these thinkers together to form a project?
ES: I think part of what’s going on is they’re really looking at this intersection of how Jewish culture and politics started to overlap with these competing Arabic, Islamic and colonial contexts from the 1890s going forward. They also make a very strong historical claim, which we’ve yet to see how this will really bear out, but it’s a very provocative claim that in their understanding, 1948, the birth of the state of Israel, really marks a watershed for these groups of people who consider themselves to be modern middle eastern Jewish intellectuals, because after 1948 there was a change in orientation. The decisive experiences, say, that Moshe and Zvi experienced, even though they are children of immigrants from middle eastern countries, their decisive of experiences all came under the state of Israel, and therefore there’s a fundamental change in those generations. So, in terms of the writers that are included, they pretty much give a cutoff line of figures who had decisive experiences prior to the state of Israel, and therefore you look at some of their closing figures, the great writers Sami Michael, who wrote in Arabic and Hebrew but made a switch to Hebrew. He’s one of the last figures in the volume, as well as Avraham Abbas. But it’s interesting here that there are also some French and Algerian figures as well. So Jacqueline Kahanoff is one of the featured figures in this text. She’s a fascinating, important feminist figure, as well, that the Hammerschlag volume also touches upon her importance.
ML: I think, of all the volumes, this was the one that I learned the most from, and I think emblematic of the series as a whole we find here just the variety of Jewish life and expression and particularly the number of languages that they wrote in and the ways in which the series productively brings all these languages together into one volume, whether it’s Arabic or French or Hebrew.
The most recent volume is entitled Modern French Jewish Thought, edited by Sarah Hammerschlag. On one hand, it’s incredibly exciting because it brings (together) a lot of thinkers that are perhaps lesser known to people. On the other hand, the themes themselves, I think, although the title is so specific—it’s about French Jewish thought—again, reflect on the series as a whole. What brings this volume together? What are some of the themes and some of your favorite writings in the volume?
SM: I’m just thrilled about this volume, in part, because I began my career as a scholar of French Jewish thought, and many of us who have dabbled in that field or spend our lives on it have recognized that French Jewry is not given as much respect, even though today it’s the third-largest Jewish community in the world, and was always very important, certainly because of the emancipation of Jews, which inspired the Jewish world everywhere in the late eighteenth century. This book is edited by Sarah Hammerschlag, who, like I have been, is really interested in some of the high theorists of twentieth century French Jewish thought. I referred earlier to that old canonical tradition which sort of dwelt on German Jewish thinkers. Today, we would say that that canon, at the very end, veers into France thanks to a very famous French Jewish thinker, although born in Lithuania, Emmanuel Levinas and his, let’s say, wayward disciple Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction.
This volume is exciting because it gives a sense of the long term richness of French Jewish thinking, as well as taking those two figures, Levinas and Derrida, and putting them in context so that they can be taught in relation to what other kinds of discourses were taking place in France about Judaism. I think this volume is a big intervention in these two respects, both forcing us to think of France as a place there was a vibrant tradition of not just of Jewry but (also) of Jewish thought, and taking these now-canonical French figures from the illustrious philosophical canon and giving us a sense of their context.
ML: What’s distinctly French about this volume, and in the same sense, what’s distinctly Jewish about it?
SM: I think that, like any place, it might turn out that some of the ideas and even most tenacious commitments turn out to have analogs across borders. I think the idea of this volume, what makes it something worth featuring as a kind of national experience, is mainly, again, as a counterpoint: Just as the Diaspora nationalism volume is offered as a counterpoint to many, many books, and we might also one day have one in the series on Zionist political thought, this one is (also) offered as counterpoint to the overwhelming focus on German Jewish intellectual history. would say there’s less of a claim in the book by the editor or otherwise that there’s something uniquely “French.” It’s more about showing that Jews who were part of French culture, with all of its specificity, were and have been legitimate contributors to the general modern Jewish discussion. So, just as examples, we see in the early period lots of contributors to what some of them called the “science of Judaism,” which is an analog of a much more famous school across the Rhine, in Germany, called the Wissenschaft des Judentums.
And later, we see how French Jews responded to the Holocaust. Maybe this is unique to France, how they negotiated their relationship to French national identity, which was different as you know than other national identities because it was so focused on its cosmopolitan heritage. Jews in France have had a special relationship to the universal, not just because Jews have their own traditions of universalism, but because French national identity is so bound up with the idea that it’s like a mission for the world. And that goes back to the French Revolution, if not before, and its idea of the universal rights of man, which it thought it was bringing to humanity. Jews have had to think a lot about this.
The volume concludes with something that actually cuts across national lines, but is particularly interesting in France, because of its universalism, which is a return to religion and to some national identification including Jewish identification. So, French men and women have have been very bitterly critical of the idea of multiculturalism that Americans coined in recent years. And some of these Jewish thinkers were engaging with these debates. How do specific kinds of people, the Jews necessarily, relate to the at least supposedly universal French nation in an era when we don’t believe as readily in ideas like universal human emancipation and we’re much more interested in our group identities?
ML: To continue that thought, I think one of the animating tensions of the volume that’s implicitly there is the tension between something that’s global, and something that’s local. It certainly’s caught up in the section about the universal and particular, where we talk about concepts of the Jewish people as a whole and nationhood, but also in the earlier sections, which one of the topics that comes up is colonialism and the relationship of Jews to colonialism. How do you understand this tension in the volume, of the global and the particular, and particularly as it features, I guess one example of this is Jews to the French state and to the colonies?
SM: This is a volume that, I think, I hope, anticipates maybe another volume that would we may do, because one of the revolutions in modern Jewish history and Jewish studies in general is the recognition of the fact that Jews were deeply part of (colonialism)—sometimes were from, like Jacques Derrida, born in Algeria—otherwise often very deeply involved with the imperial projects of the main European nations, and of course that would notably include France but also the United Kingdom. This volume, because of Derrida’s provenance and because of the strong importance of Algerian Jewry and North African Jewry more generally in French Jewish studies, is out front in featuring this dimension, which is also part of modern Jewish thought. And, of course, we have another volume which deals with modern Middle Eastern thought, and these two together, really, I think are bellwethers of lots of changes that are going to continue to take place in our understanding of how central the experience of overseas empire has been to the Jewish experience in ways that we’re just now reconstructing a scholars.
ML: We’ve talked a lot about the interventions and how new some of the topics that you’ve discussed are, and how in visiting old topics revitalized the discourse. Can you guys reflect a little bit about the project as a whole, standing in the middle of it? Is it what you expected it to be? What are some of your successes, and perhaps some of your failures as well? Where do you see it going in the future? How do you see it shaping itself?
SM: I have been really lucky to be part of this with Eugene and the others who have sponsored this series. It’s really been consistently interesting. I think we’ve made it easy on ourselves, because we have thought of it, as I described at the beginning, as engaged in something open-ended and we’ve been interested in seeing where it goes and I think we’re quite proud of the volumes that have come out, precisely because they take the boundaries of Jewish thought, what it’s considered to be, and push them back in various directions. Now, we have a number of volumes forthcoming, and I’ll let Eugene talk about those, including one I’m supposed to be doing on a very canonical figure called Hermann Cohen who we think hasn’t been well served in English, but there have been some difficulties. You mentioned, in the Jewish legal theory book, the presence of debates and arguments about (and) within what you might take to be traditional precincts about the nature of Jewish law—and we’ve actually wanted for years to have a whole volume about this, and have had trouble getting it together and finding the right editor and coming to terms about that. Eugene’s going to talk about American Jewish thought. And we believe that’s a whole field that needs to be canonized. And we’re very excited, after a very long period of trying to figure out what that would look like, that we’ve settled on a plan.
ES: So, looking back on this whole project of creating a library, it was rather bold and perhaps chutzpadik for us to think that we could create a “library” and reframe a canon, that also sought to go outside the boundaries of a canon, both strengthening and affirming parts of a traditional canon while also challenging and pushing how there really can be no monolithic thing such as “Jewish thought.” I think one of the really interesting ways that we’ve challenged what a traditional canon of Jewish thought might be is by trying to go beyond the bounds of a straight history of ideas approach to these things. Sam and I are both historians by training and intellectual historians more specifically, but I think you look at a number of our volumes, both ones that have been produced, but ones that we have in the pipeline, it’s still probably too dominated by historians and especially male Jewish intellectual historians, but nevertheless I think we are more and more going into other fields. Sarah Hammerschlag is more of religion person who also approaches religious thought more generally at the border of comparative literature and philosophy, although very much informed by historical context, as her volume will show. I think more and more we’ll probably get beyond the conventional contours of framing things historically, and go more into areas of literature and other disciplines.
I think you can already see that in one of our upcoming volumes on Spinoza that will be edited by Daniel Schwartz, and that volume is not so much on Spinoza himself but more on a tracking Jewish thought by looking at so many different responses to Spinoza, because perhaps even more than Mendelssohn you can almost take a whole course and understand what modern Jewish thought is really about by looking at how people respond to the figure of Spinoza. So this does include people like Mendelssohn in the late eighteenth century, but also goes back to his contemporaries when he’s excommunicated, and then you have the impact of legendary qualities of Spinoza and his life as well as specific writings that continue to challenge the contours of some of those central questions that the library in general deals with: who was a Jew, who is not? What is jewish thought? Should Spinoza be considered a Jewish thinker, even though he is either a heretic or, for many thinkers, is even worse than being a heretic? He was an uncaring heretic, meaning that he didn’t really care whether you called him a heretic, or Jewish or not Jewish. It’s a debate whether or not we should even call him Baruch Spinoza, or just refer to him by his Latin name or Portuguese name, which he probably preferred to do especially after his excommunication.
ML: On that note, could you tell us about some of the other forthcoming volumes? And not just the volumes that are to come themselves, but where you see the direction of the series going as a whole?
ES: Sam mentioned one of the major areas that we were looking to cover for a long time, American Jewish thought. And this has been a very difficult topic to approach, in part because neither Sam nor I are Americanists, but also there’s been a kind of somewhat Eurocentric dismissal of American Jewish thought. And it’s been difficult to find people who can make a strong case that there is such a thing as American Jewish thought that should be part of the library. We think we found our editors, who already have most of a text completed for their anthology. Beyond that, I think we’ll be looking to more volumes which will get to those central questions of belonging, exclusion, and transformation of not just the Jewish experience, but also how those experiences are inflected in Jewish thought.