As Transition Looms, Jewish Studies is Mired in Controversy

Solomon Schechter, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1902-1915.

What is the state of Jewish Studies in America? This question has been raised anew in light of the series of events in the past few months surrounding the case of Hebrew Union College sociologist and admitted sexual harasser Steven Cohen, who was banned by the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) in 2018. Recently, with three colleagues, Cohen solicited a number of scholars by private invitation to engage his work about Jewish continuity in private meetings. These meetings included Noam Pianko, then president of the AJS. Pianko acknowledged his presence to the AJS Executive Board, and when the meetings and Pianko’s participation became known, he voluntarily resigned from his position as president, and the AJS Women’s Caucus issued a statement critical of the meetings and their implications for Jewish Studies more generally. This then resulted in a series of public letters back and forth, some condemning the Cohen meetings for rehabilitating an admitted sexual harasser who had not apologized to his victims, and some defending the meetings as an expression of “academic freedom” of the attendees. 

Much of the discussion has rightly focused on sexual harassment, both in relation to longstanding gender inequities in Jewish Studies, and in parallel with a push to take the problem of sexual harassment more seriously within American Jewish communities. The Cohen Affair, after all, concerns the sexual harassment of women by a senior male scholar—and the question of how both Jewish academic and religious communities should best respond. In addition, Cohen’s own intellectual project is perhaps the most prominent example of an approach to Jewish Studies that lauds “Jewish continuity” as central to the connections between Jewish Studies and American Jewish communal life, and this approach has been critiqued by Lila Corwin Berman, Kate Rosenblatt, Ronit Stahl, and others, precisely on the grounds of its instrumentalization of women as tools for reproduction—or what its proponents have labeled “Pro-Natalism.” 

But this controversy also has broader implications for the academic field of Jewish Studies, as was pointed out in two recent Religion Dispatches essays by Gila Kletenik and Rafael Rachel Neis. In the first installation, “What’s the Matter with Jewish Studies?: Sexism, Harassment, and Neoliberalism for Starters,” Kletenik and Neis used the controversy surrounding Cohen as a focus for dissecting what they believe to be serious problems in Jewish Studies more broadly. The question of how best to respond to this situation is not only a matter of discussing the best institutional policies in cases of sexual harassment; it pertains to the values at the very heart of Jewish Studies as an academic field, including its relationship to Jewish communal life and what it includes (and excludes) from its articulations of Jews and Jewishness.

In conversation with their essay, I would like to step back and consider the current moment as an inflection point in the history of Jewish Studies in the United States. Kletenik and Neis’ intervention raises important points that have been at the contested center of Jewish Studies in recent decades. What is the aim of Jewish Studies as an academic disciple? Where do its allegiances lie? These are questions that shaped the institutionalization of the field in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. To offer some context, below I briefly sketch this history, with special reference to the founding of the AJS in 1969 and the published proceedings of the meeting at which it was first discussed. A look back, I suggest, might help us to better understand the stakes of this present controversy and its potential for constructive conversations about the future of the field. 


The academic study of Jews and Judaism in America, sometimes called Jewish Studies, sometimes called Judaic Studies, is over a century old. Its first organization The American Academy for Jewish Research (AAJR) was founded in June 1920 by renowned scholars such as Salo Baron and Harry Wolfson. Most of its members in its early period taught at Jewish institutions such as JTS, HUC, and later Brandeis, which defines itself as a secular Jewish and non-sectarian university. There were notable exceptions; Baron taught at Columbia and Wolfson at Harvard. The purpose of AAJR was to serve as an academic arena for senior scholars to share their research. This organization was founded before there were programs or departments called “Jewish Studies” in American universities. Those began to emerge in the late 1960s and 1970s, concurrent with the establishment of African American Studies, as well as Asian Studies and other fields of Area Studies. 

In 1966 Arnold Band, then a professor of Hebrew Literature at UCLA, published an essay noting the early proliferation of Jewish Studies positions in American universities even before the establishment of Jewish Studies programs, and called for a symposium to discuss how to respond to this impending need. This symposium took place in September 1969 at Brandeis University. The symposium, the proceedings of which I mention below, resulted in the founding of the Association of Jewish Studies (AJS). The initial meeting place for the annual gathering was the Faculty Club at Harvard as Charles Berlin, then Judaica librarian at Widener Library, was instrumental in its founding. For our purposes it is important to note that most of the founding members of AJS also taught at a small cadre of institutions, mostly but not all in the Northeast. 

At its founding, AJS was still largely dominated by “Jewish” institutions or by those who were trained at Jewish institutions and now taught at secular universities. One of the most thoughtful early essays on this question that appeared in the 1970 proceedings of the Brandeis symposium was Irving (Yitz) Greenberg’s “Scholarship and Continuity: Dilemma and Dialectic.”

Greenberg lays out quite nicely the challenges of Jewish Studies in the academy (he was teaching at Yeshiva University at the time). He suggests that the precursors to Jewish Studies known as Wissenschaft des Judentums (Science of Judaism) in 19th century Germany had “the concern for the continuation of Judaism” as one of its mandates. Actually, not necessarily. While the intentions of Wissenschaft des Judentums is a matter of ongoing scholarly debate in the work of scholars such as Ismar Schorsch, Michael Meyer, Amos Bitzan, Susannah Heschel, and others, it’s arguably the case that the raison d’etre of this early movement was presenting a Judaism that could cohere with emancipation and promote the inclusion of Jews teaching Judaism in the academy. Its audience was as much the German academy as it was Jews. Whatever the case in 19th-century Germany, Greenberg argues that in late 20th-century America, “the problems of Jewish identity and Jewish survival are bound to emerge and haunt Judaic scholars with great intensity. This is because the crisis of modernization is entering a new level of intensity in the Jewish community…Thus the question of its survival becomes more of a question.” Much of this, for Greenberg, was focused not on the Jewish community writ large but particularly on the “Jewish student”—those whom today we call “heritage students,” who take Jewish Studies courses to affirm, enhance, or cultivate their identities as Jews. This is also why Greenberg argues that resources for Jewish Studies should be focused on universities with a high density of Jewish students.

Greenberg’s vision dovetailed with the formative concerns of the AJS: concern for the Jewish student population initially served as an impetus for the establishment of Jewish Studies chairs, programs, and departments in American universities, and the AJS’s founding statements speak to this situation, thus focusing on teaching rather than research. But the consequences of this approach were three-fold: first, that Jewish Studies scholars will be less integrated into the departments where they teach (since their interests will extend outside the academy); second, that the field would, and even should, be populated by those who have interests beyond their research as part of their vocation; third, that these scholars be Jews. The first meeting of the AJS consciously included only Jews (and almost exclusively Jewish men, with the sole exception of Lucy Dawidowicz, who taught at Yeshiva). Greenberg readily acknowledges these challenges when he writes, “Here we may face the first difference between general faculty people and our hypothesized Judaica scholar… personal observation suggests he is statistically less likely to be completely in this [academic] community. Likely as not, he is differentially located in a more particularistic Jewish social setting…Such a background predisposes him to involvement with Jewish survival.” 

There was certainly pushback, even from Greenberg’s elders. Gerson Cohen, who later become the chancellor of JTS, was opposed to Jewish Studies in the American academy as “stimuli and aid to Jewish identity and pride on the campus.” In a 1981 essay “Modern Jewish Scholarship and the Continuity of Faith,” G. Cohen does state that “if learning and scholarship do not affect our religious faith and behavior, we are simply engaging in a kind of antiquarian exegesis.” But that was a lecture given to rabbis at the Conservative Rabbinic Assembly, and specifically not in a university setting. For G. Cohen, the rabbinic and academic disciplines needed to remain separate. The academy was solely a place for scholarship. G. Cohen taught for a short time at Columbia and Greenberg at CCNY. Neither, however, taught for most of their careers in secular universities, nor regularly delivered scholarly papers at academic conferences. Both made their careers inside Jewish institutions and Jewish communal life.

Lest we think Jewish Studies should align itself with the concerns of other scholars in Ethnic Studies, which was also emerging at that time in American universities, Greenberg invokes the exceptionalist argument to single out the Jewish situation as unique. “The justification of such efforts can only come out of the depths out of identification with Jewish continuity; out of the recognition that a generation which has lived through such events as the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel should feel itself charged with special obligations (my italics); and out of agreement that the crisis of Jewish continuity is so crucial that more total involvement by Judaic scholars is needed to maximize chances of overcoming.” Greenberg knows, and somewhat sympathizes, that such an approach would be offensive to those who enter the field for “scholarly” and not “pastoral” reasons. 

Nevertheless, he goes on to state that “if Jewish students continue to be affected by general campus currents”— remember this is 1970!—”they may seek out and aggressively force such an involvement.” In short, Jewish Studies should serve Jewish survival and offer Jews an alternative to assimilation and the radical politics of the time. In his essay “Community of Concern,” in the same proceedings volume, Leon Jick of Brandeis University,  argues similarly. Jick writes that Jewish Studies as a disciple should view itself as a “community of concern’ and “must act in concert to strengthen the contemporary expressions of Judaic culture and secure the continuity of that culture.” According to Greenberg and Jick, it’s safe to say that the very existence of Jewish Studies on American campuses is ultimately to serve the function of continuity. And this is the position that largely won out for the next few decades, shaping programs and departments of Jewish Studies in American universities in this initial period of their establishment.

But this was by no means the only position held by Jewish Studies scholars at the time, even in the 1970s. An alternative stance came with what I call the “bifurcation position.” This is perhaps best articulated by Marvin Fox, who was also among the founders of AJS and who taught Jewish philosophy at Ohio State and later at Brandeis (where he served as my doctoral advisor). In a letter to Philip Klutznik of the American Academy of Jewish Education in 1971, Fox wrote:

As a Jew devoted to his tradition and people, I allow myself to hope that Jewish students studying with my colleagues and myself will be helped by their Jewish studies to a deeper and more effective personal Jewish life and commitment. As a professor, I can give no consideration to that objective, since my task is to provide students with the tools, methods, and tentative conclusions of learning in my field, but not to save their souls.

This was not uncommon, in my experience, and it also reflects the position of Fox’s close friend and colleague, Isadore Twersky of Harvard. Although he’s speaking personally, Fox believed that, whatever his personal commitment to the Jewish people, the academic study of Judaism could not flourish unless it severed itself from the needs of the Jews. 

A starker and more unequivocal reflection of that position was made by another close friend of Fox, Jacob Neusner, then a professor of Ancient Judaism at Brown University. Often uncompromising and over-reaching in his claims, Neusner did put a finger on a problem that everyone knew was there, but few wanted to engage explicitly. Explaining what he saw as the failure of AJS in his 1983 Judaism in the American Humanities: Second Series, he wrote: “if AJS were to serve the academic sector, it could not also serve any other sector.” Neusner continues:  

The Association for Jewish Studies does not pursue learning. It is not an academic learned society. People gather not to seek stimulation and collect new ideas or problems. The AJS celebrates an ethnic group. Non-Jews feel out of place at its meals, where Grace after Meals was sung. The AJS acts as the learned sector of the Jewish people. Its problems and its tasks do not derive from the academy at all. 

Neusner’s somewhat inflated dismissal aside (e.g. Grace after Meals was discontinued in the early 1990s because of pressure from non-religious members), he does have a point. If Jewish Studies cannot overcome its exceptionalism, as Greenberg describes it, it will exist but it will never be fully taken seriously as an academic field. Furthermore, this was an issue that had more than theoretical implications. The new AJS had twice been turned down for inclusion in the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). In its third attempt in 1984 leading members like Charles Berlin acknowledged that AJS’s “ethnic” perspective may have been a factor. Their third application addressed that vulnerability. In 1985 AJS was finally accepted into the ACLS. 

Even today, scholars from other disciples who attend the annual conference of the AJS often wonder if they’re at an academic conference at all. One young Israeli scholar of Jewish Studies teaching in the US recently told me she enjoys AJS because “it’s like attending a Jewish wedding.” Greenberg and Jick may have been willing to pay that price. In today’s world, much of Jewish Studies takes place in secular university campuses across the country, and professors of Jewish Studies are evaluated for promotion or merit on the same grounds as their colleagues. Such parochialism can put those scholars at a disadvantage. 

In addition, it locks Jewish Studies into an identitarian model where courses would be taught by Jews, and in particular Jews who have an investment in “the Jews” or Judaism (with particular ideas of who and what counts as “Jewish”). With Neusner, moreover, one might ask: if Jewish Studies should function on Greenberg’s model, why have academic Jewish Studies at all? If anything, Neusner’s question is even more relevant today. Not only are there many rabbinical schools and yeshivot, but para-academic or academia-adjacent institutions, such as Yeshivat Hadar, Drisha, the Meah program in Boston, and the Shalom Hartman Institute (where I serve as a research fellow), also flourish. There’s no dearth of spaces where the study of Jews and Judaism can be pursued by men and women in service of the Jewish people. Why the university? 

Neusner’s concerns never had a real impact on the AJS, in part because he resigned and went on to found the Study of Judaism section at the American Academy of Religion (AAR). Thus the Greenberg model, in various forms, remained dominant—this certainly was the case when I entered the field in the early 1990s. But apart from that, Neusner’s critiques suffered from his casting of the alternative as if simply a straightforwardly detached, disembodied, and “objective” approach to scholarship. In practice, Neusner himself seemed reluctant to embrace the non-Jewish scholar of Jewish Studies, sometimes targeting with particular vehemence scholars like Peter Schäfer of Princeton and Chris Hayes of Yale, two of the most prominent non-Jewish scholars of Jewish Studies. Furthermore, his contrast of “objective” and engaged scholarship on Jews and Judaism has been rendered outdated, even obsolete, as research in the Humanities and Social Sciences now takes seriously the positioning of the scholar and the embodiment of all knowledge, rejecting the naive conflation of secularism with critical inquiry. 


While the heat of this discussion has dissipated somewhat in the past few decades, I think the Cohen Affair and the Kletenik and Neis essays brings it back into prominence in important ways. Today, scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences isn’t framed in artificial isolation from the surrounding culture but positioned as potentially engaged with the world in myriad possible ways (ideally: critically analyzed and made explicit). Concern for the nature and state of the Jews thus needn’t be prohibitive of what counts as “academic,” even if “the Jews” need to be theorized like any subject of scholarly analysis. 

Thus the debate between Cohen, on the one hand, and Kletnik and Neis, on the other, isn’t like the debate between Greenberg and Neusner. It isn’t just a contrast between interested and disinterested scholarship. Rather, it’s between a certain interpretation of Greenberg and a critical resistance to the category of “continuity” as undertheorized, tacitly normative, and thus exclusionary. The “Jew” is never investigated in the “continuity” project, it’s simply asserted as a stable category to be re-produced.

Cohen and other proponents of “Jewish continuity” may well have taken Greenberg even further than he originally intended. Greenberg wanted Jewish Studies to teach and produce knowledge of Judaism (e.g. history, philosophy, literature) for the sake of Jewish continuity. For Cohen the subject and the object have fused. One studies the Jews to ensure the survival of the Jews. Of course, there are only a few who, like Cohen, study the Jews for the sake of the Jews, but arguably the Greenberg model is still operational. This can be seen in how Jewish communal funds get allocated, how grants and prizes are given, and even how some appointments are decided. 

Not long ago an endowed chair in Jewish Studies of a major public university was offered to a non-Jew, and the donor threatened to withhold the funds. The candidate was offered a position in Europe and withdrew his candidacy. And here too, we see parts of the situation as it was in the 1970s still persisting; Samuel Sandmel notes in his essay “Scholar or Apologist,” for instance, that a professor at Duke was interested in establishing a chair in Jewish Studies. He interviewed one candidate who said that he was Jewish but that Judaism meant very little to him. The Duke professor wrote to Sandmel saying that he was “interested only in a practicing Jew, not in an ex-Jew.” 

Though non-Jews and “ex-Jews” have certainly made a mark in Jewish Studies, since then, it’s still the case that department chairs hear donors complain that they don’t want to pay for a non-Jew, or maybe even an “ex-Jew,” to teach their daughter about her Jewish identity. Department chairs will often resist such pressure, and as Aaron Hughes showed in his 2013 book The Study of Judaism: Authenticity, Identity, Scholarship, this is an ongoing battle in part because Jewish Studies still situates itself somewhere between the academy and the community. It still functions in a modified version of Greenberg’s model. 

Kletenik and Neis come not only to criticize the practices that are born from Greenberg’s model that has morphed into Steven Cohen’s project, but to theorize how, in Cohen’s case, the scholarship itself produces consequences that are troubling and merit close examination. Cohen’s project exemplifies an approach to Jewish continuity that focuses on counting Jewish bodies, quantifying more as better and fewer as worse, and thus strategizing about how to make more Jews, arguably objectifying and instrumentalizing women in the process. What they’re suggesting is that this severing of Judaism from the Jews not only undermines the academic study of Judaism but also (re)racializes Jewishness in ways not necessarily intended. 

“Jewishness,” in the broadest sense, arguably captures the very telos of Jewish Studies. In myriad ways, the subject is always “Jewishness” (or un-Jewishness) of some sort. Now there’s a significant divide on what this subject is—and how to know what it is. As we’ve seen, the frame of contemporary Jewish Studies in America—perhaps even its very purpose—has been in service to the survival of the Jews, as Greenberg and Jick articulated in 1970. Kletenik and Neis claim that the more sociological expression of this “Jewishness,” predicated on the dilemma of the disappearing Jew and quantifying its solution, has pushed that project into new precarious waters. In this scenario, Jewish survivalism becomes the defining context of even academic Jewish Studies. The object is the body, the Jewish body—in particular the heteronormative Jewish female body. 

But this is far from a concern with the embodiment of Jewish identity, lived practice, or communal memory, in the sense studied by scholars like Daniel Boyarin, Elliot Wolfson, Sander Gilman, and Sarah Hamerschlag. The bodies of Jewish continuity discourse become bodies reduced to objects to count and quantify. Part of the unintentional result, thus, is to move toward the study of Jewish bodies in a manner that isolates those bodies from Judaism. Or, in other words, when Jewish Studies is concerned with the Jewish body—in the sense of making more Jews, or even making more Jews “Jewish” in order to make more Jews, etc.—the result is a kind of Jewish survivalism. 

This move, Kletenik and Neis claim, produces a racialization of the Jew. How so? Here I want to parse one paragraph of their essay on the question of Jewish continuity to illustrate my point. This paragraph makes an intervention into an existing debate about the direction of Jewish Studies more generally, albeit in the context of the controversy surrounding Cohen. And it needs to be read in that context to really understand its broader implications. They write:

Racism is discernible in the construction of an idea of “Jewishness” as inherently distinct from and preferable to other groups or ethno-religious affiliations. It’s more explicitly visible in Jewish continuity discourses that focus less on Jewish cultural-ritual practices and meaning-making but more on embodied individuals and collectivized populations. Rather than studying how people live Jewish lives, the emphasis is on the numbers of bodies that “count” as Jewish. More disturbing still are the legacies of scientific racism evident in the language of “intermarriage,” “in-marriage,” and “out-marriage.

I think there are two steps in the embodiment they describe: one, inherent distinctiveness (the Jew is the Jewish body) and, second, superiority born from a narrative of chosenness (many but not all groups have this). This then begins to sever the “body” from that which it produces (culture, religion, praxis). What’s left is simply, or primarily, physical re-production, or survival. They suggest that the result is inadvertently a racializing trajectory, and I think they’re right; when Jewishness is reduced to physicality, it becomes tempting to define Jewish identity in racialized terms, especially in American cultural contexts where those terms are prominent in the culture at large. 

And this reductionism also has ramifications for gender and sexuality as well. In other words, when Jewish Studies as an academic discipline becomes tethered to the aim of promoting Jewish continuity conceived as survivalism, a whole series of other problems arise that are serious and need to be interrogated—both for the sake of the critical rigor of the academic discipline and in relation to American Jewry (the latter of which has also undergone fundamental changes since the 1970s, including significant diversification). 

For example, it’s curious that many Jews still use “inter-marriage” as if it’s a normative term, typically presumed without explanation to be a “problem.” The roots of this term lie in racism, and we need to ask why the same terminology is used by two different groups to denote a practice presumed to be negative (i.e., white Americans not marrying Blacks, and Jews not marrying non-Jews). Marriage between whites and Blacks was legalized in America in 1967, and today, Jews generally don’t use the term “intermarriage” for such unions, even as they do still use that term for marriages between Jews and non-Jews. What does that mean? 

And here Kletenik and Neis are very explicit. They’re not arguing for Neusnerian detachment. Quite the opposite. They claim that “historical and critical theory have much to offer American Jewish sociology and American Jewish Studies.” The question is: what tools will be deployed to best navigate that engagement, making explicit what’s at stake and bringing a critical eye to the normative claims embedded in our habits and language? 


One of the questions that has consistently plagued Jewish Studies in the academy is where it belongs. Two possibilities are Area Studies or Ethnic Studies. In a forthcoming essay, “The Historiographies of Premodern Critical Race Theory and Jewish Studies,” Dorothy Kim, a professor of English at Brandeis University, notes that Area Studies was often tied to the “military-industrial complex” including US government funding, especially in the Cold War and post-Cold War era. 

Alternatively, Ethnic Studies was born in civil rights and the race wars of the late 1960s and became the home of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Kim argues that because Jewish Studies could never quite decide where it belonged, perhaps in part because it viewed its primary allegiance to the Jewish community, it remained somewhat distant from Area Studies and also very suspicious of Ethnic Studies, and more recently highly skeptical of CRT. In some way Jewish Studies wants the advantages of Area Studies and the wider support it receives, while trafficking in Ethnic Studies and at the same time rejecting CRT. 

How then does it interrogate “ethnos”? What alternative methods are deployed? Not clear. And that’s a problem. This is because the words we use, the way we view our subject, here “the Jew,” the focus on bodies, and on survival in the sense of making more bodies, has a price, and that price is that one must inadvertently racialize the Jew. But those scholars are not yet willing, it seems, to recognize the methods used to explore that racialization, in part because today the regnant view is that Jews are not a race. In short, something here is amiss that needs to be investigated. The problem is that too often—and here the “Cohen Affair” is an example—that a call for such investigation is viewed as an attack on Jewish Studies. Which, in many ways, it is—or at least on the dominant model of Jewish Studies in the United States since the 1970s.

Separating the body from that which it produces, which survivalism often does, will result in a process of racialization with all the benefits (e.g., Zionists embraced the racialization of the Jew as nationalism, and made a country out of it). But it also comes with all the detriments, including the failure of Jewish Studies in the academy to do what academic research is supposed to do: that is, to produce knowledge and critique, including critique of the very methods of its own enterprise. It could be political in all kinds of ways (in the sense of pertaining to how human beings are supposed to live in the world), as knowledge and politics are almost always intertwined. But it should never function as an arm of advocacy. For anything. When it does, as Neusner argued, and even as Greenberg acknowledged, it forfeits a claim to be academic and its place within the university. 

Kletenik and Neis stress that “We resist a false binary that separates the academy from that which is situated beyond it; we appreciate that scholarship engaged with the ‘world’ isn’t inherently problematic and that it is, in fact, valuable and necessary.” But the academic study of Judaism should not tell its outside constituents what they want to hear; that is, Jewish Studies should not serve the Jewish people as a matter of principle, to foster anxiety or to calm it, even as it may retain critical engagement as a matter of practice. 

Today there are numerous para-academic institutions that are performing some of the functions many of the original architects of the AJS envisioned for itself. Jewish students no longer need university professors to feed their identarian needs and development. As Fox argued, if that’s what they take away, fine. But that’s not the job of the university professor, nor academic scholarship. And today, the broader Jewish community has many more options to seek out such resources. 

Part of the reason to look back, and ask what questions remain and what’s changed, is that we live in a very different academic environment than when the AJS was first established. When Jick wrote about a “community of concern,” there were more positions in Jewish Studies than there were candidates to fill them; some universities were even hiring Hillel rabbis to teach Jewish Studies in universities, sometimes without PhDs. Today many excellent Jewish Studies PhDs don’t have academic jobs and very few Jewish Studies departments remain. Most Jewish Studies positions are situated in departments in the secular university––and the highly competitive market for academic positions requires scholars to meet the often high standards of their academic home. And when Chabad attempts to make its way into university teaching by offering courses in Chabad Houses on Judaism for college credit, there’s often strong resistance from many Jewish Studies faculty. And yet, for some, “continuity” remains a stated goal of the field.

In the early days of AJS, the academic study of Judaism was centered in Jewish institutions like JTS and Brandeis. And it’s perhaps telling that many of those involved in this present controversy, including Steven Cohen but also Jack Wertheimer, Sylvia Fishman and Jonathan Sarna, teach in such institutions (i.e. HUC, JTS, Brandeis). In such institutions advocacy may not be deemed inappropriate––in fact it may be celebrated. But the very success of the AJS has meant that most scholars of Jewish Studies in America today are centered in universities that have no formal affiliation with Jews at all, and they’re thus also justifiably engaged in theories, methods, and practices of analysis commensurate with their colleagues, with intellectual horizons that aren’t just limited to, nor necessarily supportive of, the normative needs of the Jewish community.

To conclude on a personal note. As a graduate student at the Hebrew University and then Brandeis, and a faculty member of JTS for eight years, and a rabbi, I’m very much a product of the Greenberg model in a modified form. In those years as me moved from graduate school to positions in Jewish Studies some of us, while continuing to particulate in the AJS, drifted over to the Study of Judaism at the AAR in part because we were sympathetic to Neusner’s critique of the very way that we were bring trained. Yet we knew we were still embedded in Jick’s “community of concern” even as we saw its weaknesses. 

From that vantage point, and after decades now teaching in secular universities, I can say that there’s never really been a serious and sustained collective revisiting, and investigative critique of the original raison d’etre of Jewish Studies in America––certainly not since the founding of the AJS. I hope that this moment will finally bring this much-needed reflection on our field. Intensely interrogating ideologies and priorities are part of the enterprise of critical thinking. Kletenik and Neis’ essays are certainly a laudable first salvo toward that end. 

Perhaps the 1970 proceedings on the first Brandeis symposium that helped found the AJS can soon find its rightful place on the bookshelf as a historical document for research rather than continue to be a mandate for how Jewish Studies scholars today should do their work. Perhaps this uncomfortable moment can be an opportunity to think more deeply, critically, and carefully about what Jewish Studies is, and ought to be, in the university, as we move further into the twenty-first century.


The author wishes to thank Annette Yoshiko Reed, Susannah Heschel and Simcha Gross for their invaluable criticisms, comments, and suggestions.