We are joined today by Mirjam Thulin and Jeffrey Blutinger for a conversation about the past and future of modern Jewish studies. We’ll look at what’s at stake when in how people write and tell the history of the Jews, and delve into why studying the Jews has mattered over the course of two centuries of modern Jewish studies, and why it still matters today.
This episode is produced in conjunction with Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, where an article is appearing in the latest issue that introduces the podcast project and places it in cultural and historical context. Read the article, “Introducing Jewish History Matters.” (If you don’t have access and you’d like a PDF, you can email Jason at jasonlustig AT gmail.com.)
Jeffrey Blutinger is Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach, where he holds the Barbara and Ray Alpert Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and is the director of the Jewish studies program. His research has focused on nineteenth-century Jewish scholarship and in particular the historian Heinrich Graetz (1817–1891), who published the tremendously popular eleven-volume Geschichte der Juden (History of the Jews), which was widely translated and republished well into the twentieth century, and he is currently preparing a book on Graetz. His recent work includes the study of the Holocaust education and commemoration, and you can check out recent articles of his including “Bearing witness: Teaching the Holocaust from a victim-centered perspective” and “Creatures from Before the Flood: Reconciling Science and Genesis in the Pages of a Nineteenth-Century Hebrew Newspaper.”
Mirjam Thulin is a research associate in Jewish studies at the Leibniz Institut for European History in Mainz, and she teaches at the Göthe University in Frankfurt am Main. Her work has focused on the international network of scholars centered around David Kaufmann, a student of Graetz’s who lived from 1852 until his untimely death in 1899, looking both at Kaufmann and this network to think about the global development of Jewish studies. Read Mirjam’s recent article, “Disciplining Jewish Knowledge: Cultures of Wissenschaft des Judentums at 200.”
Together, Mirjam and Jeffrey each offer a really interesting perspective on the nature and history of Jewish studies based on their reflections on how and why history has mattered for people like Graetz, Kaufmann, and others.
In our conversation, we consider the rise of academic scholarship of the Jews, how it has been put to use by both Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, and how it continues to be relevant in terms of Jews’ position in the societies in which they have lived and for our understanding of the contemporary globalized world. We also explore why talking about historians of the past matters, even those who are not widely read today. Historiography is not just an obscure academic topic, something just to be studied on the path towards PhD exam, and it’s not just a kind of navel-gazing either. It’s a means to comprehend broad cultural and social trends: in the case of Jewish history, the rise of historical consciousness and the application of historical narratives and arguments which underpinned the development of modern Jewish culture, religion, and politics.
When we think about Jewish studies over the past two centuries we can look for instance to Leopold Zunz and his colleagues who launched the modern study of Jewish history in the 1820s under the banner of “Wissenschaft des Judentums,” or the science of Judaism—but it wasn’t just an academic subject or inquiry for them. Zunz and his friends hoped to wrest the study of the Jews from the hands of Christian figures who they saw, more or less correctly, as trying to missionize to the Jews. They also aimed to use Jewish studies to advance their program of emancipation and integration. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I would say, Jewish history has mattered because scholars and the public have looked to the Jewish past in order to justify all kinds of religious and political programs: The study of Jewish history played an important role in debates over religious reforms, inasmuch as historicizing Judaism and the Bible helped to explain and justify the possibility to make changes to ritual, liturgy, and religious practices in their own day. ANd Jewish historical narratives, in their various interpretations and presentations, also played critical roles in the development of new nationalist ideologies as well as opposition to nationalism.
With all this in mind, we wanted to center historiography, and the past and future of Jewish studies, because it provides a window into the issues that Jewish History Matters as a project engages at large.
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