In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link.
Explaining Yourself To Others –Religious Studies and Jewish Studies
by Zachary Braiterman
Maybe it’s not a bad thing, but why is it the case that a Jewish Studies professor or a professor of Religion has to constantly explain to others what he or she does? Because of the roles, obscure and not so obscure, that religion plays in the public sphere, especially among intellectuals? Because religion permeates everything? Because people care deeply about religion, even those against it? Because of the minority status of Jews and Jewish Studies in both the public at large and in the university? If we trip on our own tongues, it’s in large part because we trade with obscure matter about which ordinary people demand clarity. But the object character of our discipline is not the half of it. There’s also the subject of Religious Studies or Jewish Studies. How do we explain not just the object of our study, and why we think it’s important, but rather the subjective character of our investment in it?
We are supposed to be critics. We are supposed to view the object of our study from a distance. That’s what we tell others and that’s what we tell ourselves. But it’s a lie, an apologetic half-truth at best. Literature professors love literature. Chemistry professor are chemists. Physics professors are physicists. Philosophy professors are philosophers. They are moved by the object of their study and participate in its dissemination. So what about us? It is assumed that if one studies religion or Judaism it is because the scholar has a special love for and affiliation with its object, or with the intellectual exploration of its object. It’s not an entirely unfair assumption.
Non-academics, usually Jews, usually older Jews, will invariably ask me if I am a rabbi. I don’t mind the question very much. No, thank God, I’m not a rabbi, and I’m not a community functionary. That’s what I always tell them, as if to cleanse myself. My ready-to-hand quip is that my late father in no uncertain terms forbade me to become a rabbi. Unreligious, my father like many American Jews who grew up in the 1930s had a strong ethnic affection for Jewish people. With other Jews, my father was comfortable, easy and loose. What my father understood was that rabbis are unfree, bound and pushed around as they are by synagogue boards and synagogue politics. In contrast, it has been my experience that academics can pretty much say what they want. This might be a naïve view and there is evidence enough to suggest that, in Jewish Studies, one has to watch what one says. Indeed, we are not autonomous agents; one always speaks in-community. But just because free speech is framed or carries a price doesn’t make it any less free. That’s just how discourse, especially contested discourse, works.
It’s one thing to explain yourself to strangers, another to explain yourself to family. To date I’ve written two monographs, one on theological and textual revision in post-Holocaust Jewish thought, the other on art, aesthetics and twentieth century Jewish philosophy. My late father-in-law gave the first one a good shot. My older brother has both volumes at home but confessed that the material is too technical, impossible to read. My younger brother couldn’t care a less about what I do and regards academic life with unadulterated contempt. My young children already think that “Jewish philosophy” is the punchline to some joke or no little eye-rolling. For whatever reason, I find it easiest to communicate with my sister-in-law, who grew up modern orthodox, and a nephew. These conversations work best when cutting across very particular segments. When I sometime succeed at explaining what I’m trying to communicate, the older brother asks me why I don’t try write in more ordinary language. Or at least he used to. I try to explain that these books are about complex phenomena the understanding of which depends upon technical terminology. So why not write a book for a popular readership? Truth be told, it comes down to pride and craft. Academic books are complex by design, and there’s a pride that comes into their creation.
Having said that, it’s also true that, well into my career, I got bored with my field. Or rather, frustrated with the concentricity of my own marginality–the marginality of Humanities professors in the larger public and the larger university, the marginality of Religious Studies in the academy, the marginality of Jewish Studies in the academy and in Religious Studies, the marginality of Jewish philosophy in Jewish Studies and Religious Studies, and the marginality of aesthetics in Jewish philosophy. So I started a blog as a way to reach out–to friends inside and outside the academy, to colleagues inside and outside Religious Studies and Jewish Studies and Jewish philosophy, to family, and to perfect strangers upon whom one regularly stumbles online. The point has been to go for the middle brow. Some posts are more technically demanding; others are not. Every post comes with a picture that I have either taken myself or stolen from other online sites. What I have tried to do at “Jewish Philosophy Place” is to systematize and record the things that I see, read, look at, and think about on an ad hoc daily basis. The only thing that holds together this miscellany of thought, culture, art, and politics is my own intention.
An almost trivial thing, the blog is relatively uncomplicated. It’s self-justifying. People will read it or they won’t, but there it is. It simply is, calling public attention to itself. Now and then my brother will weigh in on this or that post, usually those relating to Israeli politics. My mother enjoys a fan-base among a segment of my academic friends, mostly because she comments in such an arch way. It may be that because of the blog I never get a job offer from a university more prestigious than the one that currently employs me, and that’s okay. In the meantime, it has gotten me some little attention inside and outside the academy, more attention than was the case when all I did was write scholarly books and articles. As something of an extrovert, that has been the cause of much satisfaction. And while I understand that mine is a very niche presence online, it has relieved much of the isolation I felt previous to its creation.
But to academics? Try to explain yourself to a fellow academic outside the field of either Religion or Jewish Studies. They are the worst, the least ready to hear another person out, especially when it comes to religion or to Judaism. This is a dirty little secret, so dirty that we barely communicate it to our closest colleagues in the field. About lines of affiliation, here’s what I’ve never dared say to a fellow academic in so many words–that no, I’m not a community functionary or apologist, that my father forbade the rabbinate to me, and that, yes, surrounded by books and by family, that, yes, I love the Jewish textual tradition and find myself there, the synagogue and its structure, the home ritual of Judaism and its philosophical expression, that, yes, I find my place in Jewish community politics, including the “Zionist idea,” and that, yes, I can situate myself in community critically, with an eye to history and politics and period detail, which is the only way an intellectual can in good faith situate, not because these things are true, but because they are beautiful, even when they are not. Alas, I fear that this is a conversation killer, but there’s no way around it.
Zachary Braiterman is professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His work explores the interface between Jewish thought and culture, continental philosophy, aesthetic theory, and visual culture.