Religious Studies and Repression A(nother) Cautionary Tale


by Aaron W. Hughes

Last week I wrote on my recent experiences during an interview for an endowed position in Jewish studies. I had been “long shortlisted,” and on the Skype interview was informed that a non-academic from the local Jewish Federation was on the committee. I’ve had some time to reflect on this encounter and I’d now like to think more generally about some of the tensions between religious communities and scholars of religion.

Since nothing is sui generis in the study of religion, I looked for recent analogues. I thought in particular of Wendy Doniger’s recent comments in the Chronicle of Higher Education concerning the desire on the part of religious communities to try to “repress” those who study them. Therein she noted the pressure exerted by Hindu nationalists to remove Sheldon Pollock from his directorship of the Murty Classical Library of India published by Harvard University Press. This was, of course, in addition to her own encounters with such nationalists over the years.

I thought to myself, could a Jewish Federation member on a Jewish studies search committee be akin to Hindu nationalists in India taking legal action against American academics and burning their books publicly? While I certainly would not want to go so far as to say bookburning in Delhi is analogous to non-academic Jews sitting on search committees in the Midwest, the intent is in many ways the same. Both, in their different ways, are attempts to patrol academic conversations. Hindu nationalists disagree with Doniger’s portrayal of Hinduism and have used the courts to silence certain conversations about Hinduism. Jewish federations seek to define discourses when it comes to Israel. Both, I would suggest, are instances of community interference and attempts to derail the freedom of speech.

While many academics are outraged by the case of Doniger and Pollock, it seems to me that they are more than willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to the makeup of search committees in their own institutions.

At the height of the 2014 bombing of Gaza my own local Federation’s “Stand with Israel” campaign completely ignored Palestinian suffering. Federations, simply put, do not tolerate criticism. As it says on the Jewish Federations of North America homepage, “We stand by Israel’s side. Always.” Always? Perhaps, most germane to my point here, though, is that most members of Jewish Federations that I have known over the years know very little if anything about Judaism as a religion, let alone its historical development. So why put such an individual on a search committee?

Jewish Federations do what Jewish Federations do. Ok. Fair enough. Presumably they do it well. Search committees do what they are supposed to do: they are entrusted to be advisors to the Dean or other administrators to hire the “best” candidate. But should the twain meet? That is the issue.

I wondered to myself how the non-Jewish scholars on this search committee could sit with a straight face as a non-academic was introduced. When they hired their scholar of Islam, did they invite a representative from the local Muslim community to adjudicate the candidates’ credentials? Ditto for the scholar of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and so on? If they had not, I would like to ask them, what is the difference with Jewish studies? The paradox was that the department to which I had applied prided itself on being one that was attuned to theory in the academic study of religion. Surely those in religious studies on the search committee were aware that one of the major issues in that larger field was the difference and tensions between religious “insiders” (i.e., believers) and “outsiders” (i.e., scholars). If aware of it, they certainly showed no signs of discomfort.

While I wished my colleagues had known better or would have resisted the intrusion of a community member on their search committee, presumably they were following protocol. But whose protocol? Did the federation insist on having one of their members present on the committee so that the university did not hire someone “unsuitable”? Or, did the university willingly reach out to the Federation because maybe the latter was somehow contributing to the funding of the position’s endowment. An outsider like myself can only speculate. There might be an entire history there that candidates are unaware of, but surely this should be transparent. If one of the conditions for the job is that one also must work for the local Federation, then why not say so. From the outside looking in, though, it looks like discourse patrol.

In her piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education Doniger warned scholars to find the courage to defend religious studies and preserve its independence from external pressures. I say “good for her,” but would underscore her point that external pressures are everywhere, not just “over there” in places like India, but often in places where we might not expect them, like search committees.

Aaron W. Hughes holds the Philip S. Bernstein Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester. Professor Hughes’s books include:  The Texture of the Divine (Indiana University Press, 2003), Jewish Philosophy A-Z (Palgrave, 2006), The Art of Dialogue in Jewish Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 2007), Situating Islam (Equinox Publishing, 2007), The Invention of Jewish Identity (Indiana University Press, 2010), Defining Judaism: A Reader (Equinox Publishing, 2010), Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford UP, 2012), The Study of Judaism: Identity, Authenticity, Scholarship (SUNY Press, 2013), Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularity and Universality (Oxford UP, 2014), and Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception(Equinox Publishing, 2015). 

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One Response to Religious Studies and Repression A(nother) Cautionary Tale

  1. Andrew Gow says:

    One might exercise one’s right to refuse to be interviewed by non-academics (other than such as might have an appropriate university position — administrative staff, for example) for an academic position — at least when applying from a tenured position for another one. That would send a very clear signal. I agree with you entirely, Aaron, and have successfully argued to keep “community representatives” off hiring committees for endowed chairs in RS.

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