- Race, Literary History,and the "Jewish" Question
What is Jewish literature? Nearly two centuries have passed since Leopold Zunz first attempted to answer this constitutive question, launching the Wissenschaft des Judentums with an ambitious plan to recuperate the literature of the Jewish people. Less than a century after Zunz published the first manifesto for Jewish literary history, the field was in many ways already clearly mapped out, yet the question has persisted. Describing the transformation of the constitutive question from early Wissenschaft times to the present through an analysis of representative responses to it, this essay suggests that the persistence of the question of Jewish literature and the mixed multitude of answers that have proliferated belie the consensus that informed the discipline at its inception and has sustained it over two centuries of extraordinary political and social upheaval and change, that Jewish literature is simply literature written by Jews--that is, all Jews, regardless of any connection they may or may not have to what we commonly refer to as Jewish culture. The essay contends further that this racial definition is conceptually inescapable and that, rather than ignore it or condemn it, critics ought to deal honestly with its implications.
Who would be rash enough to prophesy aught of a race whose entire past is a riddle, whose literature is a question-mark?— Gustav Karpeles1
"Defining the Subject Under Study"
What is Jewish literature? Nearly two centuries have passed since Leopold Zunz first attempted to answer this constitutive question, launching the Wissenschaft des Judentums with an ambitious plan—as his admirer, literary historian Gustav Karpeles wrote—"to survey the whole field of Jewish literature, and lay down the lines of demarcation indicating its development."2 Less than a century after Zunz published the first manifesto for Jewish literary history, the field was in many ways already clearly mapped out: Karpeles had published his comprehensive History of Jewish Literature, the Jewish Publication Society had begun its task of popularly disseminating Jewish literature and literary studies (including several volumes by Karpeles), and the summa of Wissenschaft scholarship, the monumental Jewish Encyclopedia, had appeared.3 Yet despite these impressive achievements, the question (variously conceived and formulated, as I will show) persisted. The professionalization and institutionalization of the field in the last century have done little, if anything, to decide the issue. Indeed, the further Jewish [End Page 287] literary study has expanded and the more sophisticated it has grown, the more elusive a definitive answer to the question seems to have become. "While the last two decades have witnessed a steady increase in Jewish studies programs and Jewish literature courses," Hana Wirth-Nesher observed several years ago in her important anthology of post-Wissenschaft critical essays, What Is Jewish Literature?, "there is no consensus nor is it likely that there will ever be one about defining the subject under study."4
Yet the attempts to define Jewish literature have proliferated. Some have maintained broadly that Jewish literature is simply literature written by Jews. (Wirth-Nesher finds this particularly unsatisfactory.) But most, particularly in recent times, have insisted on a more culture-based definition: some, that Jewish literature must be written in a Jewish language; others, that it be about Jewish characters or emerge from Jewish historical experience; still others, that it be informed by variously identified Jewish ideas and ideals—Geoffrey Hartman (for instance), that it be anti-iconic; Cynthia Ozick, that it be liturgical; Leslie Fiedler, that it be therapeutic and prophetic; Saul Bellow, that it be marked by "laughter and trembling . . . so curiously mixed that it is not easy to determine the relations of the two."5 So multifarious have the answers been that Wirth-Nesher is led to suggest that the persistence of the question is, in fact, a function of the ultimate indefinability of the subject.
An understandable conclusion, given the history of Jews in modern times. After all, Jewish literature and its study are necessarily and inextricably bound up with the rupture in Jewish history marked by Enlightenment and Emancipation— by the breakdown of rabbinic authority, the de-politicizing of Jewish corporate status, and the consequent renegotiations of Jewish personal and collective identity...