Old Series: Volume 6, Number 1c (February 1997)



I. Responses to Aryeh Cohen, “Towards an Erotics of Martyrdom”:
Michael Carasik
Denise Kimber Buell
Charlotte Fonrobert
II. Sexual Reasoning
Peter Ochs
Kris Lindbeck
III. Some Reflections on Our Preoccupation With Sexuality, Michael Zank

On Judaism and Jewish Studies, Aryeh Cohen

III. Some Reflections on Our Preoccupation With Sexuality
Michael Zank, Boston University

I teach a class on Modern Jewish Thought this semester. The way I
structered it, the exposition of modernity and Jews/Judaism takes about as
much time as the exposition of the philosophers and their ideas. In the
course of reading through some sources I was struck yet again with the
sexual overtones of some of the antisemitic rhetoric advanced in the 1880’s
and following. Oskar Panizza captures this atmosphere in his satire “The
Operated Jew” (1893) — a text brought to my attention by David Weininger,
one of my graduate students and a contributor to our discussions (see tr
5-4). The “operated Jew” is Itzig Faitel Stern who has himself transformed
into a pure German through cosmetic surgery, hair coloring, straightening
of his bones, and, in pursuit of a German soul, a complete blood exchange
(alluding to the tradition of Jews needing “Christian blood) as well as the
recitation of “pathetic and sentimental passages by poets” etc. To crown
the scientific achievements brought about by a medical team (Frankenstein
and Pygmalion come to mind) the operated Jew is to marry and produce
offspring. However, at the climactic wedding banquet, he returns to type.
Before going into a drunken stupor and returning to his natural state as a
Mr. Hyde, Faitel recites what he regards as a splendid joke the telling of
which is worth losing all the achievements of a gentile appearance he paid
for so dearly with the money of his rich father and his own patient
suffering, effort, and determination. Here is what Faitel thought to be so

Faitel’s glass had been filled once again by the innkeeper, who stood
behind him. While terrified and sympathetic forces focused on him from all
directions, Faitel himself began to speak with a squeaky and entirely
different tone of voice. “What doth he do in the next three hours, the holy
Jehovah?-Deradang! Deradang!” [Faitel’s once habitual manner of adding
meaningless syllables to his speech. MZ] With one quick swoop, his thumbs
were in the pockets if his wedding vest. Now he bobbed back and forth and
gave an infatuated look at the heavens. — Again with a changed voice
giving the answer: “He sitteth and copulateth the men and women!” Again the
first voice: “How long doth the holy Lord copulate the men and women?” the
same positur; lascivious movements back and forth on the chair; jumping up
and down, gurgling, clicking of tongue. — the voice answering: “Three
hours long doth he copulate the men and women!” First voice: “What doth he
do in the afternoon, the holy Jehovah? Derdang! Deradang!” — Answer: “he
doth nothing, Jehovah. He taketh a rest!” First voice: “What didst thou
say? What doth thou mean? The holy Jehovah doth nothing? What doth he do?
What doth Jehovah do in the afternoon? Huh?” — A young boy’s voice from
the distance: The holy Jehovah playeth with Leviathan in the afternoon!” —
The first voice interjects triumphantly: “Naturally! He playeth with
Leviathan!” [Translation: Jack Zipes (Routledge, 1991)]

From earlier in the story we know that the first-person-narrator was
interested in Faitel because of his knowledge of talmudic matters that
could not be found in the printed editions and translations, alluding to
the understanding of kabbalah as “juedische Geheimwissenschaft” (the secret
science of the Jews). Panizza succeeds in weaving a number of important
strands of meaning into his satirical tale of the doomed attempt at Jewish
assimilation. His attention to sexual themes is particularly striking. On
the one hand, the theme of dangerously unrestrained male sexualilty is a
common motif in racial sterotypes not only in antisemitic rhetoric. The
African-American male, for example, is subjected to similar type-casting in
Western societies. Panizza, however, seems to allude to a variety of
desires, all of which are clothed in sexual imagery: Faitel’s longing to
overcome his difference and unite with the admired German, blood, soul, and
all. This desire is evidently misdirected but seems to be based on Faitel’s
longing to overcome imperfection. Faitel looks at the heavens with
“infatuation,” a heaven where he envisages the “holy Jehovah” occupied with
“copulating men and women.” The child (the pre-sexual, innocent human
being) envisages Jehovah playing with Leviathan, the symbol of chaos and
distortion which Faitel himself also represents in his pitiful body.

Why are we preoccupied with the theme of sexuality? Michael Carasik has
given us a clue when he writes:

“Shorn of its trendy language, the assertion that the ‘constructed
meaning’ of worshipping idols ‘is embedded in an
economy of fidelity, rape and adultery’ should occasion no surprise. This
is, after all, not a rabbinic invention. The marital, and indeed sometimes
sexual, metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel is
well-grounded in biblical literature. This is not always deployed
negatively. Even leaving aside the Song of Songs, Hosea 2:21 (so popular
today on wedding invitations) comes immediately to mind: ‘I will betroth
you to me forever.’ But there is a wide range of prophetic literature,
Hosea 2 included, which portrays Israel’s idolatry as adultery. Thus, the
idea that “p’gam gavoha” of the Sanhedrin text could imply something
equivalent to sexual shaming ought not to be surprising. In suggesting
that Israel’s idolatry makes God a cuckold, the rabbis were standing on the
shoulders of giants.”

Similarly, Peter Ochs gives his response to the discussion on Aryeh Cohen’s
comments on Bavli Sanhedrin 74a-75b the title “Sexual Reasoning.”

I have been in an exchange with a German scholar, Dieter Adelmann, whose
life’s pursuit is the study of Hermann Cohen, who is afraid that the things
that need to be said in order to begin to understand Jewish philosophy are,
to Christian ears at least, blasphemous. Adelmann interprets Cohen’s “logic
of origin” as a reference to a “theologumenon of procreation” (Zeugung).
Cohen’s idea of a “unity of the cultural consciousness” cannot be
understood unless “culture” is determined as “culture of procreation.” The
origin of culture (so Adelmann) is determined by Cohen (in contrast to
other anthropological assumptions) in the culture of procreation. I think
this is a fertile idea (no pun intended). What it means is the following.

What is God? What do we learn about God from Bible and rabbinic practice?
No doubt, the “Hear o Israel” focuses our attention (daily in prayer, i.e.,
in the basic curriculum aimed at the cultivation of the human being in
thought and practice) on a single attribute: the singularity of YHWH, whose
name (according to Cohen and other exegetes) is, grammatically speaking, a
“factitivum” (hiph’il, causative). The singularity of God implies not
merely the otherness of God compared to what others mean when referring to
“elohim;” what “we” mean by God (“elohenu”) is a being-towards-the-future,
a becoming, a generative principle. What is being generated or created is
the future as ONE, i.e., the cultural task of unification (yihud) the
perpetuity of which is not an empty infinity but the very promise contained
in the name of God and which is beginning to be experienced in the
cultivating effects of the history of the covenant.

In Judaism, procreation is the primary act of culture rather than a
function of nature. To wit, the stories unfolding in Genesis, from the very
beginning; the very first commandment; the genealogies (eleh toledot), the
patriarchal stories, the kinds of sins (the sons of Noah!, Judah and
Tamar), etc. The deepest secrets of the Kabbalah are secret only because
they are are fraught with possibilities of misconstrual for those who
misunderstand the fundamental theologumenon of procreation. — So far the
words of Adelmann in my interpretation.

Itzig Faitel Stern is Panizza’s way of communicating what happens when the
Jewish discipline and cultivation of procreation has lost its purpose, its
frame of reference. It is still there, it frightens others (because it
seems blasphemous), but it needs to be recultivated. Hence “sexual


On Judaism and Jewish Studies
Aryeh Cohen, University of Judaism

The question of what Jewish Studies is, and the blurred boundaries between
Jewish Studies and Judaism, is a constantly recurring concern of the
academic study of Judaism itself. Louis Ginsburg, the American practitioner
of Jewish science as a practice of Judaism, mentions Saadia Gaon as “the
pioneer of a number of fields of Jewish science.” (Geonica I:97) In this
way he constructs his own predecessor, and field of study. Hayyim Na¦hman
Bialik, the author and Zionist thinker, in his programmatic essay “The
Hebrew Book,” raises the question of what should be included in an
anthology or collection (*kinus*) of the best of Hebrew literature of all
time. He suggests the criteria of the “Holy Spirit of the nation” in
deciding which books should be included in the canon. This spirit, Bialik
claims, is also to be found among Jews who didn’t write in Hebrew, and
their works should be translated. (He notes Philo, Spinoza and Heine) On
the other hand, Bialik dismisses those who founded Wissenschaft as having
been heretics to the language (*kophrim balashon*)-opening the treasures of
the nation to foreigners who might then come and claim them for their own.
Gershom Scholem explicitly rejects this criterion.

Scholem’s own argument for a “counter-historical” historiography (as David
Biale has called it) seems to resemble and reenact his own rejection of
German bourgeois culture. The “demonic” for Scholem was, and remained, the
important force in Jewish history. Baruch Kurzweill, in an essay on
Scholem’s _Shabbtai Zevi_ (collected in a section of his book of essays _In
the Struggle Over the Values of Judaism_ called “The Supposed Spokespeople
of Judaism”) attacks Scholem on the grounds that Scholem’s *theology* is
Abraham Joshua Heschel, in the introduction to his three volume Hebrew
work, *Torah Min Hashamayim*, frames his exploration of Rabbinic theology
with the complaint that if a Jew searching for some spiritual sustenance
were to wander into the current (mid sixties) academy they would find only
dry bread and salt, with nothing to satisfy their religious
craving-especially in comparison with what they might find elsewhere. His
answer, of course, was to reinject Aggadah into Halakhah. Each of these
scholars was in some way concerned with the definition of the field of
Jewish Studies, and the point at which Jewish Studies interfaced with or
crossed over into Judaism.

It is only appropriate that we are still troubled by what Jewish studies
is. As an area studies, Jewish studies is interdisciplinary and resists
easy classification. As organization of a body of knowledge, it is only
helpful as long as it is seen as one frame for the constituent parts of
that body of knowledge. Professor Krister Stendahl has said that when the
women’s studies program was being set up at the Harvard Divinity School,
there was a need for a succinct definition of what women’s studies was. The
definition that they came up with was the following: “Women’s studies is
not the study of women, or studies by women, though these are part of it.
Women’s studies is study in which gender is a category of analysis.” If we
were to transfer this definition to Jewish Studies, what would we have in
the last phrase. Jewish studies is study in which *what?* is a category of
analysis. The possibilities are many-Judaism, the Jewish people, Jewish
texts, Jews as individuals, etc. Depending on how we fill in the blank, we
have a very different conception of what it is that makes this field a

I would claim that Jewish Studies is primarily a commitment to a certain
narrative arc. This is an arc which connects the Bible to Rabbinic
literature to medieval Jewish philosophy, poetry and mysticism to
contemporary Jewish expressions in literature, philosophy, theology, art,
etc. What the specific points on the arc might be is of course open to
debate. The debate, however, takes place within the overall narrative
understanding. Rejection, subversion, betrayal as well as enhancement,
acceptance, interpretation are all recognizable moves on the same arc, the
same serial narrative.

At the same time there is a recognition that the Jewish Studies commitment
is not the only locality for the knowledge organized along this narrative
arc. There are other competing narratives-e.g. Bible to New Testament to
Church Fathers to Scholastics, etc.-or synchronic organization-late
antiquity, medieval philosophy-which have equally legitimate claims on this
knowledge. The Jewish Studies claim is that when placed on this arc, the
Bible, the Mishnah, Gersonides, Spinoza, Kafka or Yona Wallach mean
differently than when otherwise contextualized.

In the field of Rabbinics, for example, the 19th century Protestant agenda
saw Judaism as background and Christianity as foreground, and on the other
hand valorized that which could be categorized as spirit and trivialized
that which could be categorized as the letter of the law. This agenda,
which was embraced in various ways by the founders of Wissenschaft des
Judentums, Ahad Ha’am, parts of the Jerusalem academy-though rejected by
Bialik and Heschel-has been largely challenged and overturned by the last
two decades of scholarship in America pioneered by Jacob Neusner but taken
up in various ways by many others.
Jewish Studies is once again a contested site. In light of the important
questions emerging from what has been referred to as the “New Academy,”
Jewish Studies is involved in questions of identity and resistance within
the academy. As I mentioned before, Jewish Studies has always been
implicitly involved in questions of identity or commitments to identity,
and has always been a site of some resistance to the hegemonic culture, it
has not necessarily ever left what has been called the enlightenment or
scientific/objective model. (The Scholem-Bialik-Kurzweill polemics are very
instructive in this regard.)

Thus, for some, the commitment that is Jewish studies, is also a commitment
to an identity or spirituality. Sarah Horowitz in an excellent article on
Jewish Studies in the new academy has suggested that “Jewish Studies is
the study of Jews in their (or our) own terms.” (155) Horowitz also claims
that “Jewish Studies reveals the existence of a counter academy-or, more
properly, counter academies, each with its own competing canonical and
ideological stance: the Yeshivah, the maskilic center, the secular
academy.” (162) Though I think these definitions have merit, I would like
to problematize them.

Both of these definitions collude in the same problematic stance. On the
one hand-who is the “us” that will study Jews in “our” own terms? What this
statement clouds is the fact that the “us” who study often have a very
serious conflict of interpretation–or at least interpretive stance–with
other Jews outside the academy who can make equally legitimate claim to
study “the Jews on our terms.” This is especially evident in the study of
the Jewish literature of late Antiquity. It is often those self-same
discourses–feminism, post-modernism–which generate important avenues of
inquiry, and interpretive stances that separate the “us” in the academy
from other Jews who have differently legitimate claims on and stances
toward these texts.

This same problem is evident in regards to Horowitz’s second statement.
Calling the Yeshivah, the maskilic center, and the secular academy
“academies,” even “counter-academies,” masks the fact that the languages
spoken in the three different places are incommensurate with each other.
While Jewish Studies might “reveal the existence” of the Yeshivah, for
example, it is unclear what if any impact this can have on the *practice*
of the academy. While we have common texts, we have no common language. The
irony is that the move from a historicistic, *wissenschaftlich* stance to
an engaged stance generated by the questions raised in the “new academy,”
has made the chasm deeper and wider. It used to be said in Yeshivot that
academics can say what Abayye wore, but in the Yeshivah we can tell them
what he said. When the academy is making more claims on the meaning and
ownership of these texts there is no longer any mode of discourse with the
Yeshivah. The existence of this chasm between Yeshivah and academy is
clearest at the points where the two “sides” seem to meet, that is in the
Conservative seminaries, or Yeshivah University.

The conflict between these two types of practice is obvious also in the
conflicting reactions to and perceptions of academic students of Rabbinic
literature. In the Yeshivah, the appellation “University professor of
Talmud” is another way of saying heretic; while in the non-Orthodox lay
world, “University professor of Talmud” is another way of saying Rabbi.

In conclusion I would say that while Jewish Studies can offer important
resources for opposition to certain hegemonic understandings of the Western
academy-it must be recognized that Jewish Studies is not in any simple way
*the* Jewish voice, and is in significant ways oppositional to certain
understandings of parts of the Jewish community. That is, there is a need
to be aware that Jewish Studies is itself a praxis which is different from,
and, at times, oppositional to (many types of) Judaism.

“Jewish Studies as Oppositional; or Gettin’ Mighty Lonely Out There,”
in _Styles of Cultural Activism_ ed. Philip Goldstein, (Newark:University
of Delaware Press, 1994): 152-164.