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  • "A Remote Right to Entry":Defining Boundaries in the Early Years of the Jewish Quarterly Review
  • Jonathan Decter (bio)

In the last of numerous necrologies Adolf Neubauer wrote for JQR in its early years, he recounted the contributions of Joseph Derenbourg (1811–95), an Orientalist who published in the areas of rabbinics, medieval Jewish literature, and Arabic and Islamic studies, and who was a student of the renowned Orientalist Georg Freytag (another student of Freytag's was Abraham Geiger).1 After reviewing several of Derenbourg's editions and studies of medieval Hebrew translations of Arabic texts as well as works on Hebrew grammar and Jewish history, Neubauer added, "At the same epoch the deceased began his Arabic publications, which we shall not enumerate, since Mahometan subjects have only a remote right to entry into a Jewish Quarterly." The one work Neubauer singled out for inclusion was Derenbourg's edition of the Fables of Luqmān—the pre-Islamic sage for whom the Qur'an's thirty-first chapter is named—because Derenbourg identified him with the biblical Bal'am (based on the fact that l–q–m in Arabic and b–l–' in Hebrew both mean "swallow").

When Neubauer wrote, it had not yet been a decade since the editors of JQR set out to create an interest among English Jews in "Jewish Literature and Theology, History and Religion" while recognizing full well that they were not fulfilling any "long-felt want."2 The editors planned to comment not only on the Jewish past but also on "the present, in which we live, and through which the future is determined." By "the present," they probably meant issues in contemporary theology and current events, but what I wish to reflect on here is the way in which the instability of the [End Page 599] journal's disciplinary and linguistic boundaries reveals contested notions of its subject matter during the editors' "present," as well as debates over the essence of Judaism as a racial, national, religious, or linguistic construct. As though discussing national citizenship, contributors to the nascent JQR pondered or asserted what would be included by full right and remote right, and what would be excluded altogether. Further, given my own interest as a scholar of Jewish studies in the medieval Islamic world, I am fascinated by the process through which Oriental studies was divvied up into Jewish studies, Islamic studies, and other disciplines, and in the early editions of JQR we witness that process frame-by-frame.

It was largely assumed that the reader of the new Jewish studies journal would have training in Arabic and Islam. Moritz Steinschneider, in his classic "Introduction to the Arabic Literature of the Jews," leaves many Arabic quotations without translation or even transliteration.3 In this essay, Steinschneider had occasion to reflect on the boundaries of the "literature of the Jews"; not only did he include leaves from the Cairo Geniza of the Qur'an in Hebrew script but added, "This fact alone illustrates the impossibility of barring the spirit." Celebrating the Judeo-Islamic synthesis and making comparison with his own era overt, the great bibliographer opined, "Arabic and German are the only languages and nationalities which have been of essential and continuing influence on Judaism" (one wonders about the omission of Greek).

In a review of Steinschneider's Die arabische Literatur der Juden, the renowned Orientalist Hartwig Hirschfeld praised the octogenarian's monumental achievement and observed that "literature" in the work is intended in its "widest sense, as it comprises every kind of subject in the treatment of which Arabic was employed."4 Yet Hirschfeld wondered at some of Steinschneider's choices for inclusion, such as works by Jewish converts to Islam. On the flip side, Hirschfeld asks not why "Arabic writings by Jews on neutral subjects as philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine" were included in the volume but rather why such works are called "a contribution to the history of the literature of the Arabs" (italics in the original); for Hirschfeld, these were "almost entirely in Hebrew characters" and "chiefly composed for the benefit of Jewish readers." Hence, Hirschfeld tacitly advances a definition of Jewish literature as writing by Jews (excluding...