Deena Aranoff is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program and an assistant professor of medieval Jewish studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.  Deena is also a community educator and teaches Bible, Rabbinics and Jewish mysticism in a variety of adult education programs. She can be reached at 

Over the past few months I have begun to work on a book manuscript: an introduction to Judaism. This project is the result of my increasing appreciation of the ways in which the study of Jewish history, rather than undermining a relationship to Judaism, can actually help to forge one.

But let me explain. Since its inception, the study of Jewish history has been regarded as somewhat at odds with a more personal engagement with Judaism, as if a historical approach to Judaism threatens to break the magical spell of timelessness that must hover over the religion. Without such timelessness, the religion crumbles like a garment without a body, or a body without a soul. Indeed, the Jewish historians of the nineteenth century were at times accused of doing nothing other than providing Judaism with a proper burial. The fabled story is told of Leopold Zunz, who, when visited by a famous Hebrew poet from Eastern Europe, inquired, “When did you live?” In other words, the historical study of Judaism relegates its texts and traditions to the dusty archive of human experience. More generally, scholarly inquiry into the historical origins of religion, its sacred texts and practices, is considered to be one of the principle instruments in the dénouement of religion in modern times.

The condemnation of the historical study of religion has been softened somewhat by the reflections of Yosef Yerushalmi, who, while cognizant of the ways in which historical inquiry runs against the grain of collective Jewish memory, wondered mournfully whether history had become “the faith of fallen Jews.” For Yerushalmi, Jewish history may be the last, thin, remaining fiber of the formally robust rope of Jewish memory and cultural transmission.

I have spent the last thirteen years teaching Jewish history at universities, high schools, synagogues, JCCs, and living rooms. These years of instruction have led me to believe that history may no longer be the broken path towards Judaism that it was only a generation ago. I have begun to believe that perhaps Yosef Yerushalmi’s personal attraction to historical inquiry, an attraction described in a regretful tone filled with pathos, may now be part of a widespread shift in sensibilities, the maturation of Freud’s way of understanding people and phenomena, namely, through their temporality, kind, and condition, their constant commerce with earth and air, the patterns of their past and present. In fact, I would argue that Judaism can be understood precisely as such a phenomenon: three thousand years of lived human experience, a great repository of practices and wisdom that have collected over time. To be sure, over its long history, recurring historical experiences have led to certain recognizable “traits,” and the reification of such experience in ritual, narrative and theology. This is the process I hope to chart in my study: the process by which certain historical factors have transitioned from contingent features to abiding characteristics of symbolic force in Judaism.

It seems to me that studies of Judaism tend to fall into two categories: Essentialist or historical in emphasis. Essentialist approaches seek to define the spiritual essence of Judaism, sifting its historical forms for its more universal and abiding aspects. (Ironically, many of the first modern Jewish historians sought to uncover Judaism’s timeless essence beneath the shifting layers of its historical forms). Such studies tend to arrive at a definition of Judaism that resonates with the reader, emphasizing aspects of Judaism that are familiar and valued, defining Judaism along shared points of cultural understanding and affinities.

The historical approach presents Judaism diachronically, as it has developed over time. In contrast to the essentialist approach, historical studies of Judaism rest upon the assumption of difference, installing a great gap, regional, cultural and temporal, between the reader and the subject. In fact, this is Yerushalmi’s point in Zakhor: the historiographic narrative is at odds with the collective sense of continuity with the Jewish past. If the history told in such a volume resonates with the reader, such resonance must be artfully achieved, with terrible pains taken to avoid anachronism, sentimentality, or distortion. 

In my own reflections about Judaism, I have cast my lot with the historians. However, it has been my experience that an understanding of the historical development of Judaism, what I am calling “Judaism over time,” rather than having an alienating effect, can provide a path towards intimacy and connection with Jewish life. In other words, an encounter with the changing forms of Jewish civilization can provide a more firm foundation for a relationship with Judaism than the more distilled variety. Rather than peel away the layers of experience in order to find a timeless essence (an operation that tends to obscure more than it reveals), perhaps one might get to know Judaism as one would come to know a person or a friend, by listening to their stories and memories, witnessing the shifting terms of their past, and in so doing, coming to understand who they are in the present.

“Tell me about your childhood.”

“Tell me about your loves.”

“Tell me about your past.”

“Tell me who you dream of becoming.”