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Arts & Humanities

Jewish Studies Today

Aaron Hughes, Bernstein Lecture

Jewish studies is the academic and interdisciplinary study of Jews and Judaism across time and geography. Jewish studies is also, according to Aaron W. Hughes, standing at a crossroads.

In a March op-ed for The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “Jewish Studies is Too Jewish,” Hughes writes that the field “can go down the path of ethnic politics… Or it can become a field of research that checks politics, identity or otherwise, at the door.”

Hughes favors the latter option. But he also recognizes the complexities and nuances of disentangling politics from research. Case in point: himself.

Hughes is a scholar—currently the Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester. His research covers three distinct, but often overlapping, areas:

  • Jewish thought and philosophy
  • Islamic studies as well as the study of Islamic-Jewish relations
  • Theory and methods in the academic study of religion

Although a Jew, Hughes stresses that he refuses to toe traditional party lines or to serve as a Jewish spokesperson on campus. In fact, his own liberal views on identity, politics, and Israel often alienate him from mainstream Jewish opinion. He readily admits that his academic interest in Jewish-Muslim relations stems in part from his personal experiences and perspectives.

In other words, Hughes is both an insider and an outsider within the field of Jewish studies. And he embraces this limbo with gusto.

A faculty member in the department of religion and classics at Rochester, Hughes’ scholarship deploys the tools of historiography, philosophy, linguistics, literary theory, translation, and political science.

“The goal of any good scholar of religion should be to study and research his or her subject as an outsider and as a critic,” Hughes says. Only then, he contends, can you really question and deconstruct the ideas, interpretations, and terms that the field has inherited over the years. Rather than take intellectual or community opinions as axioms, he seeks to show their investment in ideology.

“Religious studies is prone to the quest for authenticity, and it is not up to the scholar to adjudicate so-called ‘good’ religion from ‘bad,’ even though many want us to. So when we talk about, for example, the ‘Golden Age of Muslim Spain’ or ‘Jewish-Muslim symbiosis,’ we need to ask where these tropes (e.g., ‘golden age’ or ‘symbiosis’) come from, and what sort of intellectual work they perform. We should not just recycle them as if they are natural descriptors.”

Meanwhile, Hughes continues on his own quest—to critique the status quo, to push boundaries, to question assumptions, and to defy expectations.

Hughes has written extensively and his recent book publications include Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularism and Universalism (Oxford, 2014), The Study of Judaism: Identity, Authenticity, Scholarship (SUNY, 2013), Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam (Columbia, 2013), and Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford, 2012).

And not content to rest on his laurels, he has just finished a manuscript entitled Noble Lies: Religious Studies, Islam, and the Rhetoric of Authenticity. He is currently working on a biography of Jacob Neusner, an American academic scholar of Judaism who, Hughes writes, has “done more than anyone to bring the study of Judaism into the mainstream.”