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Section I: Academics and researchers


An academic subject like any other: Jewish studies


Liviu Rotman




In the various contacts that I have had with centers of Jewish studies I have sometimes felt a certain particularity in the understanding of this subject, materialized in an attempt — and I must emphasize: not necessarily malevolent — to grant this field supplementary objectives, exceeding the academic sphere. This may lead either to a special interest, sometimes even excessive, but misdirected, or a certain restraint, as before something underground, dangerous. Many people — including young ones — who approach this subject — and even consider dedicating themselves to it — regard it as a somehow mysterious area, with no precise boundaries. That is why I prefer to deal today with a definition and delimitation of Jewish studies.

I must stress, from the very beginning, that I do not claim to have made some new discovery. This is not a proper presentation, rather an attempt to systematize some thoughts and views determined by various readings but also by my daily activities in this field. These thoughts were probably made easier by my position, I would say privileged — though not comforted — by the opportunity to see this subject from several different viewpoints, both from inside the Israeli academic world — whose sensitivity to Jewish studies needs no emphasis or explanation — and from the academic world outside Israel, facilitated by my constant contacts with similar centers in Romania, Western Europe or the United States. Which makes this a paper written with the assistance of the… airplane!

Also, I wish to underline that I am not undertaking this enterprise out of a purely theoretical impetus, but out of the constant concern to improve the education or research curricula, particularly by a thematic clarification.

Naturally, Jewish studies have their own evolution, organically related to the history of the Jewish people, to the dynamics of the Jewish society and collective mentality along the time, to the particulars of this evolution, and most of all to its fundamental feature of history in spreading. Life in Diaspora, or in ”Galut” leaves its mark on everything that is spiritual activity of the Jewish people.

Sociologist Shmuel Trigano wonders whether ”a people dispersed all across the planet, which has penetrated into all types of civilizations, can still have a history of its own? Were there a Jewish history at all, it would be a minority history, at the edge of the history of various other peoples. This hypothesis has been promoted by some of the Jewish historians… But then an answer-less question emerges: how can the concrete and historically sustained connection between the various Jewish communities be explained? Such be the case, the only thing that could be pointed as academic subject is the imaginary”[1].

In its millenary history, Jewish society has always put science at the core of its evolution. In the words of Robert Bonfil, ”there is a constant importance granted to the notion of ”knowledge”, which is placed at the origin of Power and justifies it”. The importance granted to knowledge in the historical evolution of the Jewish people can be easily traced. Thus, the paramount place of the rabbi in the social and spiritual context of the classical Jewish world originates in his privileged role in the knowledge process. He is constantly regarded as an intellectual guide, which is why he is called rabeinu ve moreinu (our rabbi and teacher). He is the one who knows the ”law” — understood as faith — and that is why his role in the process of establishing a leading elite is so important.

In the organization of such a world in spreading, in which the power centers are dispersed, an important part play the Yeshivot, whose parallel evolution to the Christian universities and other scholastic institutions has facilitated a strong impact with them. The students of these Yeshivot, ”talmidim-chachamim”, are the earliest scholars (avant-la-lettre) of Jewish religion. The Hebrew texts of the 3rd and 4th centuries AD provide quite a number of definitions for ”talmid-chahcam”. This richness stands proof for the importance given to his role in Jewish society. Thus, he is described as ”someone who abandons everything in order to study” or — in a superior stage — ”someone who explains his knowledge”[2].

The structuring of this rabbinical elite (be it about the ”moreinu ve rabeinu” or about the ”talmid-chacham”) that was endowed with a special authority, was the reflection of its privileged place in the collective mentality of the classical Jewish society, in which erudition and the ability to comment and explain, qualities related to study, were regarded as true marks of social excellence.

The breaking point intervenes when society no longer grants exclusive credit to the ”talmid chacham” and transfer some of his authority to a new type of erudite, the modern intellectual. In his attempt to break away from his world — for most of the times he himself comes from a yeshiva — the latter is extremely critical to the culture in which he was formed, living an ambiguous relationship with the entire spiritual inheritance of the Jewish world. This inspired philosopher Isaac Deutscher — himself an ex-talmid chacham — to define this new product of the Jewish society — the modern intellectual — as the ”non-Jewish Jew”[3].

But it is precisely the distance the Jewish intellectual takes from the pointed ”truths” of Judaism that allows him to better detect the origins of Jewish spirituality, which has led literary critic George Steiner to call him a ”meta-rabbi”[4].

An important step in the detachment from tradition was taken by Moses Mendelsohn, whose work has marked the entire later dynamics of Jewish spirituality. He was the first to maintain that the border between Jews and non-Jews was not impossible to cross, and that was probably why his integration — together with his cultural inheritance — in the European civilization was possible. He was perfectly integrated in the German culture, without renouncing his Jewish ethnicity.

Mendelsohn gives education pride of place, and his adept Naphtali Hertz Wessely underlines in his work, ”Divrei shalom ve emet”, the importance of knowing, besides the Torah, the generally valid human truths: torat ha-adam. In this context one can identify an attempt to move the focus from the study of the Torah — of the classical tradition — to the study of the Hebrew literature of the biblical times, which is not exclusively rabbinical.

The spiritual emulation in the Jewish world, provoked on the one side by Mendelsohn and his adepts and on the other side by the neo-orthodox reaction, with its own momentum, represented particularly by Hatam Sofer, leader of an important Yeshiva in Presburg (Bratislava) and Rabbi Haym ben Isaac, leads to the crystallization of the concept of Jewish science, or science of Judaism.

The reference point is the year 1819 — considered to be the birth year of Jewish sciences — when the Wissenschaft des Judentums society is set up in Berlin. The purpose of this society was to correct the ”uneducated-Jew” cliché in the world’s eyes. This tendency to ”look good” in the eyes of the surrounding world was specific to the Haskala movement.

The soul of this society was one of the fathers of Jewish reform, philosopher Abraham Geiger, who promoted the Mendelsohnian thesis of the Jewish history as part of the peoples’ history.

As of this moment, Jewish sciences claim and obtain — not without difficulty — the citadel right in the academic world. In the words of Israeli scholar Ephraim Urbach, ”the history of the science of Judaism — translated into Hebrew, not exactly but with a certain intent, as ”Hochmat Israel” (wisdom of the Jewish people) — over more than a century is the history of a controversy on the path and on the statute”[5]. Thus, against the liberal background of the 1840’s in Prussia Geiger was denied the establishment of a Jewish Theology Chair at the University. In 1848 the Prussian Ministry of Higher Education rejected Zunz’s proposal regarding the setting up of a department of Judaic theology and Hebrew literature[6]. Seventy years had to pass for a similar request to be admitted by the respective Ministry. Thus, it is obvious that the Jewish subjects’ penetration into the academic sphere was difficult and the rejection was not always due to academic reasons.

The founding generation was aware of the integrality and complexity of the subject. Immanuel Wolf defined Judaism as the ”quintessence of all living conditions, all particularities and achievements of Jews in the field of religion, philosophy, history, law, literature in general, civil life, all human actions, and not just the Judaic religion”[7]. This definition shows an ambition to globalize Jewish sciences from the very moment of their initiation.

This tendency is also visible in the ambitious — or downward utopian — project of classification of the Jewish sciences proposed by historian Zunz, one of the founding fathers of the Wissenschaft des Judentums academic society and the editor of the society’s publication. He envisaged a seven-volume encyclopedia of Jewish sciences. What is interesting in his approach is the classification he proposes:

Cultic sciences: theology, mythology, dogmatism, etc.

State-defined sciences: law, jurisprudence, Roman, Greek and Hebrew comparative legal terminology

Natural sciences: mathematics, geography, astronomy, physics

Sciences based on the use of natural sciences: technology, industry, commerce

Sciences related to the beauty of nature: poetry, architecture, typography, music and inventions

Sciences expressing the nation’s universal life: history, antiquity, language

Auxiliary sciences: paleography, catalogues of Jewish libraries, bibliographies[8]

One cannot fail to appreciate the modernity of the project, drawn almost two centuries ago, and admire its integrative character and the distinction between fundamental and applied sciences. Of course, Zunz wrote in a period when the encyclopedic model was consolidating, among others, in the German cultural environment to which he belonged. But the interest in encyclopedias that had begun to win over the world starting from the emulation of 18th century France soon spread all over Europe. We can remind here of the project of a Universal Library proposed by Ion Heliade Radulescu in the 1930’s.

The setting up, in 1918, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and particularly the establishment, in the same year, of the Research Institute of Jewish Sciences (Mahon le mehcar hochmat Israel) was another reference moment in the evolution of research in Judaism. Hitler’s ”final solution” led to the disappearance of the large Jewish collectivities in Central Europe and at the same time of the most important centers for the research of Judaism that had been active until then. Many surviving scholars took off to Jerusalem or the New World. In the American democratic climate, doubled by the mostly liberal climate of Jewish life in America, Jewish research flourished in various academic structures. In the first twenty years after the war only, the number of Jewish Research Centers in American universities increased from 12 to 60[9].

In this context one must not ignore the influence of the birth and development of the Zionist movement and the important part played by the rebirth of Hebrew as a living language. This gave Jewish studies a new impetus, and research new grounds. Here I would like to recall Ahad Ha’am and his theory on cultural Zionism. He said only spiritual rebirth can ensure the political rebirth of the Jewish people.

Another contribution worth mentioning in this context is the work of the most important representative of cultural Zionism in the Jewish-Romanian space, Rabbi I. Niemirower. In 1905 he wrote: ”My optimism feeds on two moments of our latest development. The interest in Jewish culture is increasing. Literary and scientific societies, museums, libraries led by public figures such as Philipsohn or Korpels are being established in Germany. And then there is the acknowledgment of the right to Jewish culture of the German socialists’ political program”. His conclusion: ”Independently from the orthodox or liberal rabbinical schools, Jews ca now learn in a Jewish university; I am referring to a high, liberal institution where one can study history, philosophy, Hebrew literature”[10].

Product of the Jewish society’s dynamics, of its need for self-knowledge, the Jewish sciences once established and consolidated as an academic subject became autonomous. Naturally, it is a fact and almost a banality that Jewish spirituality — both in Israel and in the Diaspora — is sensitive to the topic of Jewish sciences but still, an important contribution comes from the non-Jewish world — from Orientalists, theologians, historians, etc.

A very interesting cultural area from this point of view is Transylvania, where history records a preoccupation with the Hebrew language and culture ever since the medieval and pre-modern period. The Reformed Colleges laid a special emphasis on the study of the Hebrew language — as proven by the Hebrew textbooks edited under their aegis — and the Romanian schools besides the border regiments taught the history of the Jews — as proven by an interesting manuscript from the end of the 18th century, discovered and presented by researcher Mihai Alin Gherman of Cluj.

Also, we cannot go further without mentioning the important set of Hebrew books to be found in the Romanian space, in the royal library of Constantin Mavrocordat[11] and later on, in mid-19th century, in the personal library of Bucharest count Scarlat Rosetti. The latter had a special preoccupation for Hebrew studies and visited the Holy Land, where he founded a church on Mount Tabor and received the title of honorary citizen of the City of Jerusalem from Patriarch Hrissant Nottara[12]. This series of books and the respective catalogue can be now found in the Romanian National Library, which took it over together with the entire Rosetti Library from the Athenaeum Library, founded by the same Scarlat Rosetti.

One must not forget — and perhaps this deserves a special medallion — the contribution to the research of the Dead Sea Scrolls of the distinguished scholar in Jewish studies Father Anastasie Negoita. Another example of exceptional contribution to the development of Jewish research is Professor Comorozzi in Hungary. And such examples are many.

Of course, research in the field of Judaism enriches a segment of human knowledge and the special character of this civilization spread all over the planet gives it an important place among the academic subjects.

We, the researchers of the meeting point between the 20th and 21st centuries, have a special task: to ponder over this field without prejudice, equipped with a modern methodology, and add another brick in the wall raised by so many generations of scholars before us.

Perhaps this is not a field of civilization that needs a cold objective look, if possible from a distance, but the research of a society that played, against its will, due to an adverse destiny, an exceptional role.

To a people which, in its dispersion, facilitated the connection between different civilizations and people, corresponds, symmetrically, an academic field that can contribute to improving the links between universities and research centers all over the world and whose specificity —determined by dispersion — can contribute to a better understanding of the various civilizations.


English version by Felicia Waldman



Liviu Rotman holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Bucharest, and he is currently an Associate Professor at the Tel Aviv University in Israel. His area of expertise covers the modern and contemporary history of the Jews in Eastern Europe, with a particular emphasis on Romania. He is teaching the history of Romanian Jews and general Jewish history within the M.A. program in Jewish Studies organized by the University of Bucharest.


[1] Shmuel Trigano, La societe juive a travers l’histioire, Paris, 1992, p. 13.

[2] Robert Bonfil, La savoire et le pouvoir. Pour une histoire du rabbinat a l’epoque pre-moderne in La societe juive a travers l’histoire (ed. Shmuel Trigano) Paris 1992, vol. 1, p. 145.

[3] I. Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays, New York, 1968, p. 64.

[4] G. Steiner, Some meta-rabbbis in Next year in Jerusalem, London, 1976, p. 64.

[5] E. Urbach, Mehcarim be madeea iadut, Jerusalem, 1998.

[6] Idem.

[7] Immanuel Wolf, Le Wissenschaft des Judentumus en France in ”Revue de Syntese”, IV, 2, April 1988, p. 271.

[8] M. R. Hayoon, O istorie intelectuala a Iudaismului, vol.2, Bucharest, Hasefer, 1998, p. 193.

[9] Urbach, idem, p. 23.

[10] Egalitatea, 1905, 24 November, p. 35.

[11] Biblioteca domnească a Mavrocordatilor. Contribuţii la istoricul ei, ”Analele Academiei Romane, Memoriile Secţiei istorice”, Series III, tome XXII, 1940, Excerpt.

[12] Liviu Rotman, Biblioteca unui mecenat: Comitele Scarlat Rosetti în ”Biblioteca şi Cercetarea”, VIII (1984) pp. 273-284.


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