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Move Over Talmud: There’s a New, Secular Jewish Commentary in Town

Move Over Talmud: There’s a New, Secular Jewish Commentary in Town

Move over Talmud: there’s a new Jewish commentary in town. This week, the Posen Foundation and Yale University Press announced the publication date for the first in a 10-volume series anthologizing 3,000 years of Jewish culture and civilization. The first volume is schedule for this November. The project—something of a throwback to the glory days of the encyclopedia—promises to add some serious scholarly heft to the secular mission of the Posen Foundation. Jewish-life observers know that the Posen Foundation has been smitten on supporting efforts to create a serious Jewish academic curriculum that is essential devoid of the traditional religious focus. Out with Rabbi Akiva, in other words, and Pesach and Talmud and Mishnah, and in with Mark Rothko.

The 10-volume series, officially called the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, is edited by the prominent Jewish scholar James E. Young, who wrote a thoughtful explanation of the project on the Posen Foundation website. He stressed that the thorny debates inherent in the project’s mission—who makes the cut for what’s sufficiently Jewish: merely the creator being Jewish, or something more deep?—would be up to the individual volume editors and the writers of the specific entries. The editorial board is made up of intellectual heavy-hitters—Robert Alter, Yehuda Bauer, A.B. Yehoshua, and Jonathan Sarna among them. So whoever and whatever makes the cut, one suspects it’ll be thoroughly vetted.

But Young made clear that he’s going for the big-tent approach, saying that he’s in favor of both opposing views on the perennially, perplexing question: what exactly is “Jewish culture”? Pace the scholar David Biale’s interpreation, Young writes that the project will allow for the idea that Jewish culture has always formed in a constant dialectic with the non-Jewish cultures that surround it. Over Jewish history’s three millennia, Jewish culture is fundamentally defined by what it chooses to assimilate—and reject—of the cultures that surround it, Biale argues.

But in contrast to Biale’s view, Young says there will also be room for the more sunny view, pace David Roskies, who argues that Jewish culture should be regarded as only things that are produced in relation to Judaism’s own traditions and texts.

Rather than pick one side—Roskies’ or Biales’—Young writes that “a crucial aspect of our central mission” will be “to establish an inclusive and pluralistic definition of Jewish culture and civilization, in all of its rich diversity.” Here’s hoping the first volume, set for November and starting from the most recent history—the volume will cover the years 1973 to 2005—lives up to its promise.

My only question is this: how possible will it be to maintain the distinction between Jewish culture and the more religious aspects of Judaism as the dates slip further and further back in time? Once we move beyond the Jews’ entry into modernity, it seems that the line between what’s Jewish religion and what’s Jewish culture will be increasingly murky. By the time the last volume is complete, which covers Judaism into the second millennium BCE and is slated to appear by 2015, I hope they’ll have figured it out.

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