In case you missed it, The New York Times had a nice piece yesterday on the discovery of 1,000 books for a long forgotten academic subfield: the "Science of Judaism." Now dormant, the Science of Judaism was an attempt by German scholars to study Judaism as a kind of lost ancient culture–how scholars today might study, for instance, Greco-Roman culture, or Egyptology.
The discovery is a qualified one, though. The academic books have apparently been in the Leo Baeck Institute’s archives, located at the Center for Jewish History, for several years. But apparently no one bothered to research what it was these obscure German books were talking about–until now.
This kind of thing, it should be noted, actually happens all the time. You’ll recall that the same Center for Jewish History discovered only last year that, for decades, they had an original copy of Tuvia Bielski’s memoirs. No one realized it until a Jerusalem Post reporter went digging through Tuvia’s dossier at the center last year.
Why does this happen–books hiding in plain view–you ask?
From my experience, it’s that many people who donate things to archives don’t really know what they’re giving, since they’re usually donated by heirs of the original material’s holders. Moreover, library archivists either don’t have the time or ability to translate all the documents that come in any one dossier.
That seems to be the case for these Science of Judaism books. They were only collected in batches over long periods of time, donated by descendants of German Jewish scholars who fled Europe shortly after the Nazis took power. This was the same cohort of expats, mind you, that included Hannah Arendt ("Dr. Evil") and Dr. Ruth Westheimer ("the sex doctor").
Given the piecemeal nature of the donations, the archivists can be forgiven for not piecing all these recondite German texts together as part of some elaborate field of Jewish scholarship that has long since died.
… Or has it? I can’t help but add that the study of "Jewish seculariasm"–a topic I’ve written about before–is suddenly a hot new field, and one with conspicuous echoes of the Science of Judaism. Jewish secularism may not be looking at Judaism as a long lost culture, but it is basically a modern, gussied up version of the old German field. The Posen Foundation, for the past several years, has been funding new centers that study Judaism with virtually no mention of God. It’s about Judaism as a secular philosophy, a conduit of history, and an entire body of agnostic culture.
If you’re insteresed in this new, err, Science of Judaism?, check out The New School’s all day symposium on March 12. Topics include Freud and psychonalysis, the secular ideologies of Zionism and Communism, and smatterings on everyone from Seinfeld to Spinoza.