Book series bringing US, Mideast into Jewish canon

Project is opening doors to a new generation of scholars

Photo/Charles A. Radin

Eugene Sheppard, associate professor of modern Jewish history and thought, and Sylvia Fuks Fried, executive director of the Tauber Institute.

From the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life

Section of a painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim of an imagined meeting of Moses Mendelssohn (seated left), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Swiss theologian Johann Kaspar Lavater at Mendelssohn's Berlin residence.

With remarkably little fanfare, the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry and Brandeis University Press have launched a new book series that promises to alter profoundly the canon of modern Jewish thought.

Two volumes – one featuring the writings of Moses Mendelssohn, the other recapturing Jewish thinking on race – have already been published. Two more volumes, dealing with diaspora nationalism and Middle Eastern Jewish thought, are due out in the coming academic year. A half dozen more are in the pipeline. And this may be just the beginning for the Brandeis Library of Modern Jewish Thought.

“The idea was born out of frustration,” says Eugene R. Sheppard, associate professor of modern Jewish history and thought, who is co-editing the library with Samuel Moyn, a Columbia University professor of history. “Sam and I were working in these areas of intellectual history in which we could have conversations about texts, but we could only introduce them to our students in a second-hand way” because of a lack of translations.

The two editors collaborated with Sylvia Fuks Fried, executive director of the Tauber Institute and associate editor  of the Tauber Institute Series with Brandeis University Press, to conceive an ambitious set of goals for the project –  introducing new elements to the canon with volumes such as “Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought” and “Jews and Race,” reintroducing canonical figures, like Mendelssohn with new texts and perspectives, and opening participation in the library to a new generation of scholars in the field.

Mendelssohn, the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, suited several of these purposes nicely.

“There have been anthologies of Moses Mendelssohn’s  formal philosophical writings on aesthetics and metaphysics,” Sheppard said. “Part of what we’re doing is bringing to light not only his well known philosophical treatises, but his commentaries on the Bible, on what he considers a good translation of the Bible is…. It gives a deeper sense of who this individual is.

“Until now, most of what Mendelssohn wrote that’s been translated into English has been from German, but he wrote quite a bit in Hebrew” that was not available in translation, Sheppard said.

A prime example is Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur, in which he translated the Hebrew text of the Bible into German (written in Hebrew characters) accompanied by commentary in Hebrew.

[Read an introduction to the Bi’ur and selections from the text by Michah Gottlieb, editor of the Mendelssohn volume and a rising star in the field of modern Jewish thought who is on the faculty of the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.]

“Eugene and Sam have concentrated on finding younger scholars and allowing them to express their voices,” said Fried, who is assisting Sheppard and Moyn as associate editor of the series. The editors also are consulting with Brandeis President emeritus Jehuda Reinharz, the general editor of the Tauber Institute Series, who secured the book-publishing endowment from Fred and Ingrid Tauber that is financing the library.

While the Mendelssohn volume is a conventional choice for the canon of modern Jewish thought, albeit with new angles, the volumes on Jews and race, Middle Eastern Jewish thought and American Jewish thought all are topics not previously undertaken. [Read the introduction to "Jews and Race."]

“There’ve been specific volumes on specific movements in America,” Sheppard said. “You can buy a Heschel or an Arendt reader. But there’s never  been a text for the university environment that says ‘this is American Jewish thought.’”

“Most people have thought of Jewish thought as Euro-centric,” Fried said. “The Middle East volume will open up broad new vistas. So will the volume on nationalism. In memory, there’s only Zionism, but this volume shows thinkers involved in nationalism of many different stripes.”

Both the Middle East and nationalism volumes will be published in the coming academic year. Future volumes will explore Jewish legal theory, responses to Spinoza, Solomon Maimon and Hermann Cohen. The number of volumes that will eventually comprise the library has not been predetermined.

“It may look scattered, but that’s because we’re trying to open new doors and we’re not trying to duplicate what’s already out there, Fried said.

Sheppard says he hopes the contours of modern Jewish thought, especially the way it is taught in the university, will be changed by the library and that the volumes will also be used in related fields such as German studies, legal studies, religious studies and race and ethnicity studies.

For more information, see the publications page of the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry.

The Brandeis community may purchase these books at a 35 percent discount at   using the discount code WW91.

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