British academy


Whither Modern Jewish Studies:
With or Without Hebrew?

19 February 2004, 4.45pm
The British Academy, 10 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1

This debate addressed the importance of language knowledge in scholarship. Specifically do academics need an understanding of Hebrew before they can gain the fullest understanding of Jewish history and culture?

Dr Lionel Kochan, Wolfson College, Oxford
Professor John Klier, University College London

Professor Martin Goodman, FBA, University of Oxford

Dr Kochan's abstract

Jewish Studies will be discussed in the context of Jewish history since the 18th century, or rather historiography. This means that a continuation of existing trends is to be anticipated, i.e. a decline in the amount of attention devoted to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, past and present. But this will open the way to a revised and more critical understanding of the process of emancipation, such as is under way in France and Holland. Also fruitful is the research into hitherto neglected archives by historians of Central Europe, which are illuminating and correcting accepted viewpoints regarding the court Jews, Jews in rural surroundings and their organisation. In other words the existing movement away from concentration on the ghettoes and urban existence is likely to continue. Most of this new material is not of course in any 'Jewish' language, but Hebrew, as the language of the Pinkassim, rabbinical responsa, community regulations (Takkanot) remains indispensable for intelligible understanding of this new and old material. Could a historian of medieval Europe manage without Latin?

Dr Klier's abstract

The term Haskalah (Hebrew for Enlightenment) became synonymous with the sustained effort of European Jews to engage with the opportunities and challenges presented by the phenomenon of Modernity. It is often forgotten that Haskalah was initially a literary movement, devoted to the cultivation of a 'pure' biblical (i.e., not rabbinic) Hebrew among the Jews. Yet Hebrew became one of the first casualties of the emergence of the "modern Jew," one of whose hallmarks was the acquisition of a European vernacular and the abandonment of Hebrew as a language of scholarship (as it had long since ceased to be a language of daily use).

The fate of Hebrew under Haskalah may serve as a symbol for the position of Hebrew in modern Jewish Studies, especially history. Could a historian of medieval Europe manage without Latin? Most assuredly not. But can a historian of German Jewry in the 19th and 20th centuries, or Soviet Jewry, or American Jewry in the 20th century, manage without German, Russian or English? By the same token, how useful would Hebrew be to them?

Alas, the era of the scholar of Jewish Studies, raised in the tradition, boasting native proficiency in several European vernaculars, as well as a knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic from a traditional education, is surely gone. What do we recommend, from the following list, to the young monolingual scholar who wishes to pursue a career in Jewish Studies: Hebrew, English, German, Russian or Yiddish? The ideal answer is 'all'. In the real world, it must be 'choose one'.

This was the first of a new format of informal discussion meetings introduced by the British Academy in 2004 - referred to as British Academy Debates - with the aim of developing intellectual interchange with other learned bodies and societies.