The Jewish Contribution to Civilization

BookThe Jewish Contribution to Civilization

The Jewish Contribution to Civilization

Reassessing an Idea

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization


December 27th, 2007

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The biblical idea of a distinct ‘Jewish contribution to civilization’ continues to engage Jews and non-Jews alike. This book seeks neither to document nor to discredit the notion, but rather to investigate the idea itself as it has been understood from the seventeenth century to the present. It explores the role that the concept has played in Jewish self-definition, how it has influenced the political, social, and cultural history of the Jews and of others, and whether discussion of the notion still has relevance in the world today.

The book offers a broad spectrum of academic opinion: from tempered advocacy to reasoned disavowal, with many variations on the theme in between. It attempts to illustrate the centrality of the question in modern Jewish culture in general, and its importance for modern Jewish studies in particular.

Part I addresses the idea itself and considers its ramifications. Richard I. Cohen focuses on the nexus between notions of ‘Jewish contribution’ and those of ‘Jewish superiority’‚ David N. Myers shifts the focus from ‘contribution’ to ‘civilization’, arguing that the latter term often served the interests of Jewish intellectuals far better, and Moshe Rosman shows how the current emphasis on multiculturalism has given the idea of a ‘Jewish contribution’ new life. Part II turns to the relationship between Judaism and other monotheistic cultures. Elliott Horowitz’s essay on the sabbath serves as an instructive test-case for the dynamic and complexity of the ‘contribution’ debate and a pointer to more general, theoretical issues. David Berger expands on these in his account of how discussion of Christianity’s Jewish legacy developed in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Susannah Heschel shows how the Jewish–Christian encounter has influenced the study of other non-Western ‘others’. Daniel Schroeter raises revealing questions about the altogether Eurocentric character of the ‘contribution’ discourse, which also bore heavily on perceptions of Jews and Judaism in the world of Islam. Part III introduces us to various applications and consequences of the debate. Yaacov Shavit probes the delicate balance forged by nineteenth-century German Jewish intellectuals in defining their identity. Mark Gelber moves the focus to the present and considers the post-war renewal of German Jewish culture and the birth of German-Jewish studies in the context of the ‘contribution’ discourse. Bringing the volume to its conclusion, David Biale compares three overviews of Jewish culture and civilization published in America in the twentieth and twenty-first-centuries. 

Author Information

Jeremy Cohen holds the Abraham and Edita Spiegel Family Foundation Chair for European Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, where he served as Director of the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center between 2002 and 2005. A specialist in the history of Jewish–Christian relations and three times a winner of the National Jewish Book Award, his various publications include The Friars and the Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism (1982); Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (1999); and Christ Killers: The Jews and the Passion from the Bible to the Big Screen (2007). Richard I. Cohen is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has co-curated two major art-historical exhibitions, one in New York (From Court Jews to the Rothschilds) and one in Paris (Le Juif Errant: Un Témoin du Temps). He is the author of Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe, which was the recipient of the Arnold Wischnitzer Prize for the best book in Jewish history (1999), and has edited and co-edited over fifteen books, many focusing on aspects of Jewish art and history. Two of his co-edited works are published by the Littman Library: The Jewish Contribution to Civilization: Reassessing an Idea (2007), and Insiders and Outsiders: Dilemmas of East European Jewry (2010).

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Cover 1
Title Page 4
Copyright Page5
Note on Transliteration10
Part I Formulating The Question20
1. ‘Jewish Contribution to Civilization’ and its Implications for Notions of ‘Jewish Superiority’ in the Modern Period22
2. Discourses of Civilization: The Shifting Course of a Modern Jewish Motif35
3. From Counterculture to Subculture to Multiculture: The ‘Jewish Contribution’ Then and Now47
Part II Judaism And Other Cultures66
4. Day of Gladness or Day of Madness? Modern Discussions of the Ancient Sabbath68
5. The ‘Jewish Contribution’ to Christianity91
6. Judaism, Islam, and Hellenism: The Conflict in Germany over the Origins of Kultur109
7. From Sephardi to Oriental: The ‘Decline’ Theory of Jewish Civilization in the Middle East and North Africa136
Part III Jews, Germans, Americans160
8. From Admission Ticket to Contribution: Remarks on the History of an Apologetic Argument162
9. German-Jewish Literature and Culture and the Field of German-Jewish Studies176
10. Louis Finkelstein, Mordecai Kaplan, and American ‘Jewish Contributions to Civilization’196