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Departments Of Jewish Studies Focus On Ethnicity, Not Religion, Charges Jacob Neusner

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May-June 1999

Throughout the U.S., university departments of Jewish studies and their professors focus attention primarily on Jewish "ethnicity," not religion, which should be the proper subject of their scholarship, charges Rabbi Jacob Neusner, Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida and a professor of religion at Bard College.  

Writing in Chronicles (May 1999), Neusner notes that, "Turning on its head Karl Barth’s insistence that Christianity is not a religion among religions, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s appeal for a ‘religionless Christianity,’ scholars of Judaism are drawn to the subject by ethnic affiliation — Jews studying and teaching Jewish things to Jews. So they end up ethnic cheerleaders, telling Jews why they should be Jewish (stressing ‘the holocaust’ as a powerful reason) or rehearsing the self-evident virtue of being Jewish (‘nicer, smarter, more sensitive’). Jewish studies are dumbed down and amateurized, the principal qualification for advertising opinions on Jewish topics is ethnic affiliation. Jewish professors of anything — philosophy will do, or chemistry in a pinch — qualify as experts by virtue of ethnicity. The universities want the Jewish money that comes with the celebration of Jewish ethnicity. Jewish culture is not interested in religion . . ."  

The trend is the same in Jewish institutions of higher learning as in non-sectarian colleges and universities. "Here," writes Neusner, "the ethnicization of Judaism finds enormous impetus. Jewish sponsored and financed universities and research centers make room for everything but religion and the comparative study of religions. Brandeis University, the secular-Jewish university near Boston, has no department of religious studies, nor does the Orthodox Yeshiva University in New York City . . . Why is all of this so? Because the Jews in charge of the politics of Jewish culture, and therefore in control of the scholarship — those that give the money and those who take and spend the money — insist that ‘Judaism’ means anything Jewish but nothing religious."  

"Above all," Neusner declares, "they do not want Jews as a group to be defined as a religious community, a nation (for the state of Israel), an ethnic community (in the Canadian and U.S. mosaic of ‘peoples’), a community of fate (including anyone the Nuremberg laws called a Jew and anything such a person ever thought, said or did). To be a member of ‘the Jews’ involves everything except believing something or obeying something religious."  

Neusner concludes: "When Jewish scholars of Judaism define Judaism as an ethnicity, not a religion, what is lost is any conception that Judaism has a statement to make to the human situation — and a cultural claim and a theological judgment to set forth concerning the intellectual life of humanity."

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