Re-Orienting the History of Jewish Orientalism – Noah S. Gerber

Picture: Braslavi Collection - Yad Izhak Ben Zvi Photo Archive

The academic study of Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentums), originating in the German Kulturbereich and rapidly spreading its gospel in Eastern Europe, is usually perceived as having been a totally Ashkenazi affair; ultimately relocating to the United States and Israel. My research challenges this assumption by considering the Sephardi and Mizrahi reception of the movement.
Even before Edward Said published his classic critique, Orientalism was considered a one way migration of knowledge; a western intellectual discipline whose practitioners studied a passive and unresponsive East. Only recently has this assumption been vigorously challenged and duly qualified by re-orienting the critical gaze westward and examining how traditional savants in the orient refashioned the fruits of Western scholarship.

As a carrier of the German philological ethos, Chochmat Yisrael not only captured the hearts and souls of many traditional scholars in Eastern Europe but also made inroads amongst some members of the Jewish intellectual elite in the Lands of Islam; in North Africa, in the Levant (including Palestine/Eretz-Israel) and even in the Persian Kulturbereich. Most of these local savants were deemed of a ‘native’ frame of mind by their European brethren in faith when it came to matters scholarly. Yet this did not deter Sephardi and Mizrahi men of letters from utilizing the fruits of Chochmat Yisrael in order to refashion their own identity, often in critical conversation with specifically modern notions of Judaism as both a faith community and as a nation. Many of these intellectuals sought to solidify their own sense of place and locality even as they were literally peripheralized by their Ashkeanzi colleagues. For example, a number of noted North African members of the Haskalah movementwere also religious poets in their own right. As such they fashion their own usable past as the natural successors w of medieval Sephardi forbearers. While eagerly welcoming the critical editions of medieval Sephardi poetry prepared in the spirit of Chochmat Yisrael, they qualified this admiration with a traditionalist sense of continuity, rather than that of rupture, with the subject matter at hand. Putting together this and other case studies I hope to produce a monograph tentatively entitled, From Chokhmat Yisrael to Jewish Studies: A View from the Orient.

I am a native of New York City and have lived in Jerusalem for the last three decades. I am married and the proud father of three. Both my undergraduate and graduate education was at the Hebrew University. My doctoral dissertation entitled, The Cultural Discovery of Yemenite Jewry: Between Ethnography and Philology, was awarded summa cum laude. Initially an inquiry into Jewish Orientalism, I ended up refocusing the gaze in this case as well by considering how Yemenite Jews ‘talked back’ to their European brethren who sought out their manuscripts and much more in an age of Modern Jewish Nationalism. I published a Hebrew language monograph last year on the subject with the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. Entitled Ourselves or our Holy Books? The Cultural Discovery of Yemenite Jewry, it was awarded the 2013 Zalman Shazar prize in Jewish History. I did a two year post-doctoral fellowship at Tel-Aviv University. My research under the auspices of the I-CORE Daat Hamakom is being supervised by Prof. Richard I. Cohen.