ABSTRACT

Culture is as slippery and broad a notion as Jewishness; their meanings are much contested and subject to a wide variety of frequently very imprecise circumscriptions. The apparent difficulty of scholars in cultural or Jewish studies to concur around definitions becomes even more tangible when the two terms are linked in the nexus Jewish culture, which, in contrast to Judaism, is the topic of this essay. Whereas “Judaism has been located in a set of texts” (Biale 1994: 41) and possesses a strong religious dimension, Jewish culture encompasses both the realm of texts and practices. Judaism is a subsystem of the much larger and more secular concept of Jewish culture. Disagreements concerning the definition of Jewish culture spring not only from differing

ideological positions, such as religious, Zionist or liberal, but also from the intricacies of defining the generic term “culture” in the present-day academy. No single definition meets with an uncontested accord among scholars. Yet, a broad spectrum of academics accepts at least a few characteristics purportedly constitutive of culture. One of these central properties of culture, as it is understood in the field of cultural history, is its dynamic quality. Culture must be understood as a process. It is not fixed and solid, but always in flux. It is thus impossible to accurately de-or circumscribe it. James Clifford, for example, argues that “cultures are not scientific ‘objects’ … (They are) produced historically, and are actively contested. … culture is not an object to be described, neither is it a unified corpus of symbols and meanings that can be definitely interpreted” (Clifford and Marcus 1986: 18). Culture, it follows, has no essence; it can never be reduced to a specific core content that

would help to unambiguously differentiate one cultural “system” from another. Theoretically, writing about culture, that is casting it in a (static) text, does not do justice to its fluidity. Culture seems almost to be too elusive a phenomenon as to be dealt with as a subject of research. Still, many scholars work on it and thus have come to grips with its dynamic character. They usually proceed by divesting (some) cultural properties of their temporary quality, as has been done by the distinguished historian and political scientist William Sewell, Jr. He maintains that “culture is most fruitfully conceptualized as a dialectic between system and practice. It is a system of symbols and meanings with a certain coherence and definition but also a set of practices” (Bonnell and Hunt 1999: 13). Culture thus consists of dynamic as well as apparently static elements. The latter, such as signs and codes, are not completely fixed, but are sufficiently tenacious so as to render writing about culture feasible. In other words, culture is a phenomenon neither entirely transient nor rigidly determined. Additionally, this ambiguous nature enables

culture to give meaning to our experiences in a changing world. Sewell thus provides us with an understanding of culture that may serve as a suitable hermeneutic tool to approach the subject. The relative fluidity of the term “culture” holds true for notions of Jewishness or Jewish

identity as well. These also lack a fixed, steady content and their meanings are likewise hotly debated and widely contested, as Laurence J. Silberstein argues: “no universally agreed-upon criteria to support particular views of Jewish identity exist. All efforts to impose a dominant category such as religious group, race, nation, transnational people, or ethnic group on the heterogeneous world Jewish population ultimately fail” (Silberstein 2000: 13). It is impossible to determine the content of Jewishness, and even more so to come up with an accurate, lasting definition of it. As is the case with culture, Jewishness can only vaguely be circumscribed. In the postmodern era, many (but not all) scholars in Jewish history have accepted the transient

character of all notions of culture and Jewishness, and so of Jewish culture. Some have striven for a more definite delineation of Jewish culture characterized by at least a few presumably indispensable and static constituents. Frequently, religious tenets are emphasized as the very properties thought not to be subject to the processes of fluidity and relativity (Berger 2011). More secular perspectives refer to elements coming into relief when the Jewish social and cultural realms are analyzed, frequently in comparison with the non-Jewish world (Bonfil 1994). For example, a disposition or resistance to specific diseases caused by particular modes of everyday life such as eating habits or the observance of hygienic prescriptions are frequently mentioned as distinguishing traits of Jewish culture. Due to their apparently unchanging nature, they are understood as solid and static, disavowing the dynamics of culture as well (Patai 1996: 409-13). This essay aims to give an overview of the various ways Jewish culture is comprehended in

historical studies. The focus lies on contemporary scholars, but for comparative reasons references to historians of the more recent past are made as well.