Readers of this blog will by now have become familiar with my cognitive preference for free association. I read something about Brazil, which reminds me about something in China, the two items together have an implication for a theory of mine. If the currently fashionable brain science is right, this predilection of mine may be due to some malfunction in my cerebral electrical circuits. This hypothesis does not worry me too much.
The German publishers Mohr Siebeck sent me a book of theirs just out in its English original, on the history of the Society for the Promotion of the Science of Judaism (Gesellschaft zur Foerderung der Wissenschaft des Judentums, the name is the title of the book, with the added phrase “in is historical context”). The author is Henry Soussan, who has a doctorate from the University of Sussex, received rabbinical ordination in Jerusalem, and is currently a rabbi and instructor at the US Military Academy in West Point (must be an interesting job). Nineteenth-century German Judaism is hardly a specialty of mine, I started to read the book because I have had dealings with the publishers (I don’t know the author), but I became increasingly intrigued by the story and its relevance to developments in the Muslim world today.
The idea of a “science of Judaism” emerged a few years after, under the influence of Napoleon’s campaign to establish civil equality irrespective of religion, the Prussian edict of 1812 granted this status to all legally resident Jews. Comparable developments took place in other European countries, beginning the era of Jewish emancipation. The ideological accompaniment of the emancipation was haskalah, the Jewish adaptation of the Enlightenment. The idea of a “science of Judaism” was very much a part of this movement, which also launched the beginnings of Reform Judaism ( so effectively transplanted to America). The Society with which Soussan’s book deals was founded in 1902, quite some decades after the “science of Judaism” had become a very lively part of the Jewish scene, and it lasted until its suppression by the Nazis in 1938. In a very sensitive passage in his introduction, Soussan observes that “any research on the history of European Jewry is written in the shadow of the Holocaust”, but one must try to understand objectively what was the context of any particular development in its time (when of course nobody knew what would happen a century in the future); only then can one appreciate a particular intellectual contribution – in this case a significant one.
The “science of Judaism” had an intellectual and a political agenda. Intellectually, it was a Jewish replication of what was at the time a gigantic engagement of Protestant (mainly German) thought with modernity. The even larger context of this was the application of modern historical scholarship not only to the Christian Scriptures (Hebrew Bible and New Testament), but to all other major religious traditions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on. As in the Protestant theological community, the modern historical approach was fiercely resisted by traditional Jewish scholars. The resistance was even stronger in Judaism, where a fairly literal understanding of Torah (less so of course of Talmud) found “critical” interpretations profoundly offensive; among Protestant theologians, Lutherans had a much more flexible view of Biblical revelation and were consequently less upset by the application of the modern historian’s analytical scalpel (there was little parallel to the “inerrancy” notion of American Evangelicals – Catholics had other problems). The scholars of the “science of Judaism” made a distinction between the core of the tradition and the more marginal elements that could be negotiated away in the bargain with modernity (as in dealing with the more bloodthirsty episodes in the history of ancient Israel and the more brutal penalties of Jewish law). The putative core would then survive the relativizations of modernity. A key thinker in the “science of Judaism” and the broader Reform movement was Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), who tellingly was interested in interfaith dialogue.
There was also a political agenda: Making Judaism a respected participant in “high” German and European culture, and thereby defeating anti-Semitic attacks. An important part of this agenda was to push for the establishment of faculties of the “science of Judaism” in Germany universities. This effort failed. Time and again, pertinent proposals were turned down by individual universities and by the ministries of culture (Kultusministerien) of different German states (until our own time, these ministries are in charge of all universities). Instead, the movement created a network of rabbinical schools, Jewish institutes and associations, and scholarly publications; a high point was the 1873 founding of an independent (that is, not state-supported) University (Hochschule) for the Science of Judaism in Berlin. At the insistence of the Prussian ministry, the name was changed to “Teaching Institute” (Lehranstalt), to make clear that it was not a state-recognized university. I cannot say whether this resistance was due to anti-Semitic prejudice or to turf interests of existing theological and philosophical faculties.
It seems to me that Soussan is right that the story of the “science of Judaism” has lessons for Judaism today. The intellectual issue of reconciling modernity and Judaism persists, including the question of the limits of aggiornamento; the role of modern historical scholarship is inevitably involved in this (as applicable to Torah, Talmud and different schools of traditional Jewish law). There is also the question of the non-negotiable core of the religion, as against less centrally important elements. The political agenda is obviously different in the diaspora and in Israel. The hot question in the latter, a contentious one, is just what it means that Israel is a Jewish state.
The relevance of all this to the debates among Muslims today is, I think, very intriguing – although, except for very small groups of moderate intellectuals, there is no parallel to the broad movement of nineteenth-century Reform Judaism. There are of course gradations, but most Muslims are quite traditional in their faith, and so are most religious scholars. Among those who can reasonably be called moderate, there are also intellectual and political agendas. Once again, there is the intellectual challenge of modern historical scholarship (though that has a very hard time in Muslim communities). A key question: How is one to deal with the differences between the chapters in the Quran dating from the earlier and the later periods in the life of Muhammad. All the chapters with which modern individuals can be comfortable (such as those that state the unity of mankind and that prohibit coercion in matters of religion) date from the early period, the uncomfortable ones from the latter period (those that rail against the Jews and impose horrific penalties in criminal law – incidentally, quite similar to those declared in the Hebrew Bible). Traditional Islamic scholars were aware of this chronology, and some of them found ways to moderate or qualify the latter ones (as did traditional Jewish scholars with some of the sharper statements in their scriptures). In the earlier period Muhammad was an isolated and endangered prophet in Mecca; after the move to Medina, he was head of a state and its commander-in-chief. Modern historical scholarship can/could draw out the implications of this difference, but that is made difficult if the Quran as a whole, from beginning to end, is considered a seamless divine revelation (in the Arabic language to boot). I leave out the not so minor difficulty that in many Muslim-majority countries a scholar applying modern scholarship to the Quran or even the hadith (authenticated traditions concerning the life of the Prophet) will have a rather short life expectancy (be it due to a trial for “blasphemy”, or to the action of an enraged mob). Even moderate Muslims, who want to make some sort of bargain with modernity, confront the question of the limits of such aggiornamento.
The political agenda here is also intriguingly similar to the one in the State of Israel: What is the respective status of secular law and religious law, halacha or sharia, in a state that defines itself as adhering to one religion? In that case, what space is there for religious minorities, and also for distinctively secular discourses (for example, in the economy or any institution based on modern technology? Take the hot debate about the place of sharia in the constitution of a Muslim-majority country. A majority of Muslims say that they want “a sharia state” (though they mean different things by that). Most constitutions for Muslim-majority countries mention Islam. Some constitutional drafts say that legislation should be based “on the judgments (fatwas) of Islamic courts” (comparable to so-called responsa of rabbinical courts), others that they should be based on “Islamic principles”. A vast difference between the two: Comparable to the difference between the “integral Catholicism” established by the Franco regime in Spain, and the largely Catholic-inspired “Christian democracy” in Western Europe after World War II. The politics is obviously different in countries where Muslims are in the minority. All the efforts of the “science of Judaism” movement to establish chairs for their discipline in German universities failed. In recent years German universities fell over each other to set up chairs for “Islamic studies” – understood not so much (if at all) as the modern study of Islam, but rather what, say, the renowned medieval thinker al-Ghazali meant by the “divine sciences”. The political interest of Muslims in Germany today is very similar of that of Jews in nineteenth-century Germany – to get respect and recognition for their faith, and to combat discrimination and “Islamophobia”. The political motive of the German state is to integrate Muslim immigrants and their religion into German society – as one politician put it, “Islam belongs in Germany”.
As I have argued for many years, the major challenge of modernity to religion is not secularism, but pluralism – the co-existence between different worldviews and value systems in the same society. For social and psychological reasons that are not at all mysterious, this does not mean that religious faith is no longer possible, but that it is no longer taken for granted. And certain aspects of faith indeed become questionable, notably those that are deemed to be directly contradicted by scientifically established facts. There then ensues a sort of bargaining process between modernity and faith, in the minds of individual believers and in the theological reflection in religious institutions. Different religious traditions differ in the construction of such bargains. Many Evangelicals in America have difficulties with biological evolution, and refuse to budge in their adherence to a literal understanding of the Book of Genesis (some of them, in the great phrase used for stubborn defenders of apartheid in South Africa, are “bitter-enders” in their war with Darwin). Other Christians will continue to affirm that the world is God’s creation, but the Biblical account of this is not (as some Evangelicals hold) “inerrant” – and therefore is negotiable. This has a very interesting consequence, very clearly illustrated by the proponents of the “science of Judaism”: Believers who are not “bitter-enders” are pushed to differentiate between a non-negotiable core of their faith, and other aspects of it (accretions for whatever historical reasons) that can be, as it were, negotiated away.
In thinking about this, I remembered a school of religious scholarship that arose in Sweden in the middle of the twentieth century – so-called “motif research”. I cannot read Swedish, but I read two prominent members of this school in English translation – Anders Nygren, author of Eros and Agape, in which he compared Greek and Christian ideals of love – and Gustav Aulen, who in Christus Victor compared different doctrines of the Atonement. The method here was to look for central trends/”motifs” in a tradition (say, Greek philosophy, or Eastern Christian theology). This is not what postmodernists like to call “essentialism” – the notion that some “essence” of a tradition is passed, unaltered and unalterable, from generation to generation – a notion that is rather obviously false. But rather the much more plausible notion that there are some core ideas or values that have a tendency to persist or to resurface despite often significant changes in a tradition. I have found this to be a useful concept for the understanding of religious history.