The Trials and Tribulations of A New Jewish Canon

Claire E. Sufrin and Yehuda Kurtzer on our relation to the past

For five years, we have been working on a book project that is finally about to see the light of day. The New Jewish Canon—to be published by Academic Studies Press, and due for release this summer—is a collection of more than sixty excerpts of non-fiction writing on major Jewish themes from the years 1980-2015, each accompanied by a scholarly commentary reflecting on the legacy of the text in question. The commentators include a diverse range of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies scholars. As we began, we envisioned the book both as a textbook for a class on contemporary Jewish thought (in fact, both of us have assigned many of the pieces in the book to students, and longed for such a collection) as well as a statement in its own right about the “ideas economy” of the preceding 35 years and thus of our own time as well. It is also a personal project for both of us: we were both born in the late 1970s, both of us live personal and professional lives at the intersection of Jewish community and Jewish scholarship, and the ideas and thinkers included in the collection shaped our lives and those of our peers. We felt that it was right for folks of our generation to take stock of what we grew up with; and as educators, we were excited to curate this conversation for the next generation of Jews who will inevitably write their own canon.

The New Jewish Canon. Edited by Yehuda Kurtzer & Claire E. Sufrin. Academic Studies Press. 2020. $39.95.

A project like this is built on audacity – or if you prefer, chutzpah. Canon is a heavy word. We are not proposing a more modestly-construed “collection,” or an “anthology.” Canon suggests the elevation or even the sacralization of certain ideas and books. Canons are fixed: they are closed by individuals or small groups who either already have authority over others to make some ideas or texts more powerful than others, or who acquire such authority through the activity of canonization. Canon law is a good example of the former; the early formation of the biblical canon by the rabbis of antiquity is a good example of the latter. In curating this collection, we were arguing not just for the merits of these ideas and texts as worthy of preservation and discussion: we were also making a claim about ourselves, and our capacity to adjudicate the boundaries.

We moved forward with the idea of assembling a canon, aware of the chutzpah, based on a few understandings. One is our belief that even when canon formation is not taking place explicitly in a closed gathering, certain ideas and texts become implicitlycanonical through other means such as compelling presentation, citation, and education. Communities and consensuses can create canon by bringing powerful ideas to life and to market, and by privileging some ideas and texts over others. For example, Yosef H. Yerushalmi’s Zakhor is required reading in dozens of college and graduate school courses in Jewish Studies; it is among the most commonly cited texts in Jewish Studies lectures in both academic and lay settings. No one person decided that the book is important, but the book has emerged over time as a canonical piece of Jewish Studies scholarship with relevance for the larger Jewish community. In engaging actively and directly in canon formation, in naming what we were doing an act of “canonization,” and in inviting commentary from our colleagues we hoped to call attention to the implicit canonization that was already happening and to open a conversation about it.

To claim that canonization happens implicitly is not to deny the structural, coercive, and self-interested forces that enable some voices to be louder and some writings to be more authoritative. Feminist, queer, and post-colonial critiques of canon rightly point out that canon obscures and excludes certain voices, and can privilege and reward unjust power dynamics. That is, when canonizers emerge from within unjust power structures to canonize the very texts and ideas that give them the power to canonize, the injustice is reproduced and the voices of the disempowered are lost. Canonizers should not claim that they are powerless in the face of forces beyond their control, especially when they know about these forces, and especially if they enable them and submit to them.

Nevertheless, we felt there was an opportunity to create a new kind of self-aware, self-reflective canon and to do so in a way that would take seriously the existence, for better or worse, of implicitly canonical texts; that would elevate other important texts into a conversation that would help us understand the zeitgeist of the past two generations as well as this moment; and that would cultivate and empower new and younger scholarly voices. Our cheeky language of offering a new Jewish canon was thus meant both to refer to the texts and authors who were being granted the privileged status of being evaluated as canonical; as well as to the extraordinary collection of commentators, with diverse disciplines, identities, and backgrounds, who we had convened over the span of this project as our virtual “canonizers.”

We also chose the term “canon” to convey significance, but not holiness. It was obvious to us, for instance, that we had to include some of the hate literature that emerged from radical Israeli settler ideology that led to the massacre of Muslim worshippers in Hebron in 1994 and that continues to percolate among Israeli and American proponents of a certain Jewish extremism, and that we had to engage with identity politics and with shifts in the understanding of gender and sexuality, sometimes contentious overlapping conversations that have shaped the past two generations.

As we worked, the #metoo movement overtook the Jewish community, and multiple Jewish scholars and intellectuals were confronted for their abusive behavior towards women, including some scholars and journalists whose work we had chosen for our book. Because of the relationship between the work of these figures and the goal of the book to chronicle and investigate major trends in Jewish intellectual life, it seemed obvious to us that a serious catalog of the period would still have to reckon with the legacy and suasion of these scholars. If anything, we felt that beyond our commitment to the scholarly goals of the project, there was a moral goal to the continued discussion of these scholars’ ideas and the force they had had for so long within the Jewish community: doing so would open a discussion of why and how sexual predators and fomenters of violence advanced their agendas and achieved prominence, and why it is so significant that individuals stood up to testify to their bad behavior. Power and charisma are a big piece of the story of intellectual history: they are drivers of success, and they can be tools for the manipulation of others.

This spring, we were reviewing the page proofs and getting ready for the thrill of a book release that we hoped would stimulate a grand conversation among both scholars and American Jewish laypeople. We were thinking about what this would look like during a summer when large gatherings will likely be prohibited in most places and how we might best encourage conversation using Zoom and other technologies. We were anticipating critiques of our choices, even pushback.

Then in mid-April, the publishing house unceremoniously added our book to its online catalog and made it available for pre-sale. In line with the publisher’s general practice, the listing has our incredible book cover, the book’s table of contents, and short blurbs about the book and about us. There was (and is) no actual content of the book available online, none of our carefully worded introduction, no background on the project or why we chose any of the included texts. News of the listing started to spread among the contributors, several of whom posted about it on their personal Facebook pages, and then Yehuda shared it on his Facebook page as well.

As the table of contents began to circulate, some of our friends and colleagues called attention to our decision to include work by individuals who were credibly accused of sexual assault and who had acknowledged that behavior. As the conversation unfolded online, this criticism developed to include a wide range of arguments: that the offending writers should be erased from the historical record as punishment for their misdeeds; that their inclusion in a “canon” causes additional pain to their victims; that we were not merely preserving and critiquing their ideas, but granting them increased status or honor, and perhaps then even exonerating them for their misdeeds; that we should be focused on new and more ethical voices, even if they were not as prominent in the period covered by the book; and the more limited claim that the work of such individuals should only be included if accompanied by direct reference to their misdeeds. And for the following several weeks, most of the discussion about the book online and elsewhere pivoted around these questions, ultimately prompting opinion pieces about the bookin Jewish media and in the Los Angeles Review of Books, a social media campaign to confront us about this issue, and a growing sense of insecurity among our contributors—and for us—about our choices.

A lot of good has come out of this, even as the process of discernment was often painful, and we think there is more good to come. First and most importantly, the public reception of our initial and defensive responses to these questions helped us improve and refine our own thinking on the issue at hand, and we edited the book’s introduction so that it now directly addresses the issues raised by #metoo. Several commentators chose to amend essays that had been written before the allegations against their subjects had been made, and we replaced one commentary entirely. The book as a whole is stronger, and inasmuch as we care deeply about this book project and wish for it to achieve its scholarly and educational goals, we are grateful for this process that led to its improvement, and especially to the individuals—friends, students, colleagues—who asked in probing and respectful ways about our decisions, and who in so doing allowed us to change and grow.

Second, we came to realize the extent to which what felt like critical scholarly or academic choices on our part were interpreted as acts of aggression towards the victims of the sexual violence committed by the authors included in the volume. These victims are real, living people; some of them are our friends and colleagues. Not anticipating this was a major mistake on our part, and we regret it. We strive to be allies to victims of sexual violence, and to call out misconduct in our communities. Each of us has endured harassment of one variety or another, and neither of us would ever make light of the integrity and dignity of those who stand up to hold their abusers to account in public. Moreover, we also recognize the authority we claim and wield as creators and producers of this volume. It is a big deal that others stood up to us, whether as victims themselves or as allies of victims; we feel chastened about our missteps and we are grateful that these challenges emerged at a time when we could still make meaningful changes to the book. We hope that our efforts will lessen any pain that our choices may cause. To be absolutely clear: we have included these writers because of the influence that their ideas had in the years in question, and not as an honorific.

We also realized through this short ordeal that our professional affiliations—and a lack of clarity on our part—were creating tremendous confusion about what kind of book this is, and by what standard we mean for it to be judged. We both hold academic credentials in Jewish Studies. Claire’s position at Northwestern University and the release of the book by an academic press suggest the book is intended as a contribution to scholarly discourse. Yehuda’s position of leadership at the Shalom Hartman Institute, meanwhile, a Jewish community institution which educates rabbis and other communal leaders, legitimately inclines readers to see the book as operating within a paradigm of education and advocacy. In reality, we hoped that our book would make waves in both spaces, and would ultimately sit between the two: a book with scholarly credentials capturing the intellectual milieu of a period, presented accessibly for public and communal consideration. This genre is limited in size and scope; and we see now that it is reasonable for our choices to have been subjected, as a result, to an emerging set of standards that is different in Jewish communal life than it may be in the academy.

In that same spirit, we are also drawing a distinction between featuring these writers in our volume and featuring them in person. Neither of us would host publicly accused and discredited abusers or harassers as speakers in our institutions; we agree with those that argue that barring a significant, public, and credible process of reconciliation and repentance, educational and communal institutions should not accelerate the whitewashing of such individuals’ reputations. In the context of the Jewish community, this is an especially important line to hold as it has been already publicly tested. Nevertheless, we maintain that there is a difference between inviting people as speakers and continuing to read their work – especially if the intellectual endeavor at hand is to try to understand a particular period in history when their ideas achieved prominence. We do not see the continued engagement with already-published ideas as a form of honoring the writers; we see doing so as a commitment to intellectual honesty.

Whenever authors or writers puts their ideas out there, they invite criticism; when they make audacious claims, they subject themselves to criticism that is harsher in nature. That is a risk, and a trade-off, and we understood it from the beginning. And without question, the topics of whose ideas are important or indispensable, whether we can separate the art from the artist, whether we can discuss these authors without elevating, normalizing, or exonerating them is not just worthy of public discussion, but such discussion would be pointless if carried out entirely in private. Frankly, the latter would be counterproductive to the aims of the book.

But something went wrong in the public conversation about our book. What began with legitimate questions and what led us to make the changes noted above shifted into a broad condemnation of the entire project and insinuations that we had undertaken it with nefarious intentions. Criticism of the book shifted into personal attacks on the two of us as people – on our personal biographies and our institutions – and we were utterly mortified.

We found ourselves on the wrong side of call-out culture, and we are not convinced that this collapsing of social commentary and personal attack serves its cause. Moreover, we believe that our critics collapsed two separate, substantive questions: first, was it legitimate to include these authors altogether? And second, how would we ensure that including them in the volume is not also an act of exculpation or rehabilitation? We believe that we have a strong answer to the first question, and we stand by our table of contents; the second question was the one we needed help in answering.

We still believe that this book matters, that ideas matter, that the period of time prior to this one matters, and that understanding its dominant trends, personalities, controversies, debates, and primary sources are critical to understanding the present and critical for our work in forging the future. As we say in our introduction: “We hope that the coming phase of Jewish history is characterized by greater integrity, morally and intellectually, than the period we are chronicling: to get there, we believe, requires an intimate understanding of the recent past, in all its complexity.”

The New Jewish Canon drops in just a few weeks. We hope readers will join us in making more, and better, arguments about the ideas and people of our time; and that we will all continue to hold ourselves accountable to be the best possible curators of our collective past, present, and future.

The authors are the co-editors of The New Jewish Canon (Academic Studies Press), forthcoming.

Dr. Claire E. Sufrin is Associate Professor of Instruction and Assistant Director of Jewish Studies at the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies at Northwestern University. Her research and teaching focus on German-Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber, post-Holocaust theology, biblical interpretation, the intersection of religion and literature, and gender and religion. She is the co-editor, with Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, of the forthcoming volume The New Jewish Canon, a collection of the most significant Jewish ideas and debates of the past two generations.

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. He is the author of Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past (Brandeis 2012); and the co-editor with Dr Claire Sufrin of the forthcoming volume The New Jewish Canon, a collection of the most significant Jewish ideas and debates of the past two generations.