Judaism scholarship and research
Judaism, although relatively small numerically, is full of different opinions and there is no single definition of Judaism that is acceptable in contemporary scholarship. Some scholars maintain that Judaism is primarily a religion; others that it is a culture, still others emphasise nationhood and attachment to the Land of Israel. But although there is disagreement about the definition of Judaism, the study of Judaism is probably best approached as a combination of the study of the Jewish religion and culture and people. This short paper will consider some of the questions being explored in these three areas today which cover a wide array of academic disciplines, although historical studies is probably the most common.
Diversity within Judaism
One feature in the contemporary study of Judaism is an underlying tension between traditional pious study and the application of academic critical methodology, illustrated by Holocaust studies, (generally viewed as a component of Jewish studies), which raises difficulties for Jews (and Christians), in differing ways. A major question is how to explore the subject in a manner that is academically rigorous while responding with sensitivity to the horrendous crimes perpetrated in the heart of Europe.
The study of the Holocaust also crosses the three themes identified above and continues to retain a deep influence. From a religious perspective, the more the factual history of the Holocaust is revealed, the more scholars, notably theologians and philosophers, ask why it happened and what does it mean for contemporary Jewish self-understanding to live in a world in which Auschwitz is possible.
From a cultural perspective, contemporary studies include reflections on Jewish thinkers and writers as diverse as Anne Frank, Hannah Arendt, Emil Fackenheim, Emmanuel Lévinas, George Steiner and Élie Wiesel. The representation of the Holocaust in cinema and museums is also an increasingly popular area of study.
Thirdly, antisemitism had a significant impact on the development of Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the Holocaust continues to play a significant role after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Israel is the country which absorbed the largest numbers of survivors and questions include to what extent the country is built on the memory of the Holocaust and how does it influence the state today.
Jewish Religion and Practice
The most commonly areas explored include theological beliefs and practices, and the diversities to be found within Judaism, often together with its historical interaction with other faiths, especially Christianity and Islam. Jewish religious literature (eg., the Bible and Rabbinic literature) is also a common subject of study as are the relevant languages (Hebrew and to a lesser extent Aramaic, the language of the Talmud).
The study of Jewish religion and practice includes religious responses to Jewish emancipation, notably the role of Progressive (Conservative, Reform, Liberal and Reconstructionist) and Modern Orthodox (Orthodox and ultra-orthodox (charedi)) movements. In terms of religious responses to the development of modernity (and post-modernity), there are an increasing number of studies on the role of Jewish women and issues of equality as well as studies of key Jewish thinkers from the Enlightenment onwards and of intellectual developments in Judaism.
The nature of Jewish belief, as it emerged from biblical times and its evolution through centuries of history, is also the subject of scholarly attention, notably in contemporary discussion about the environment and medical-ethics. Among Orthodox Jewish scholars, studies are generally based on re-interpretation of traditional religious texts.
Finally, there is increasing interest in the study of relations with Christianity and Islam. Studies of Jewish-Christian Relations explore numerous topics including, Christian responses to antisemitism during and after the Holocaust, the role of the land and State of Israel in Jewish-Christian Relations and the Jewish origins of Christianity. Studies of relations with Islam are under-resourced at present but there are signs that this is beginning to change.
Studies in this area tend to focus on the interaction between Judaism and other cultures and traditions from ancient times to the modern day. For example, studies of the Ancient Near East shed light on the cultural environment in which biblical Judaism developed; the entire mediaeval Jewish philosophy was cultivated within an Islamic milieu, which also contributed to Hebrew language and literature. Studies indicate that mediaeval Hebrew religious and secular poetry are a consequence of exposure to Arabic models, partly because Muslims and Jews shared a rich vocabulary as well as the similarities between Hebrew and Arabic.
The consequences of the Enlightenment, Jewish emancipation and modernity are subject to increasing academic scrutiny, particularly issues associated with ethnicity and identity formation, acculturation and assimilation.
Studies of culture include modern Jewish literature, including poetry, auto/biography, fiction as well as film studies. The artistic output of Jews from biblical times to the present day, including Hebrew illuminated manuscripts, Judaica and synagogue architecture is also gaining interest.
The Land and State of Israel
For over three millennia the land of Israel has been a prominent part of Jewish heritage. Contemporary scholarship focuses on the history of ancient Israel, the significance of the Holy Land as well as the rise of modern political Zionism in the second half of the 19th century and the eventual establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
Studies explore the relations between Jews living in Israel and in the diaspora (both pre and post 1948), the tension between Zionism as a modern political movement, necessary as a refuge for Jewish victims of persecution and as a religious movement with requisite religious affirmation.
Today, approximately 6 million Jews live in the state of Israel and make up 80% of its population. Relations with the other 20%, of its citizens, primarily Muslims but also Christians, are the subject of numerous studies as is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and relations with the wider Middle East. Another popular topic is the internal tensions among Jewish Israelis including secular and religious as well as Ashkenazi and Sefardi (Mizrachim, Jews from Arab countries).
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Belief and Practice
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