Jewish Studies as Counterlife

A Report to the Academy

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Adam Zachary Newton
  • New York, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , June
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Jewish Studies as Counterlife: A Report to the Academy, Adam Zachary Newton takes on the task of both working to define, and to “re-form” (200) the meaning and possibilities for a field of Jewish studies (JS). As JS stands, it is a field of affiliation, a conglomerate in the broadest sense of the word, including different fields, approaches, modes of research, differing sources of authority (9). He ultimately seeks to invent a “new rhetoric for Jewish Studies” (ix) over the course of the book. He seems to do this, on one level implicitly, the other more explicitly: Implicitly, his book and its methods are polyphonic; they engage in readings of Aramaic texts from the Talmud, 20th-century British literary critics, and postmodern film; the types of interdisciplinary, interfield, intergenre interaction Newton strives for, he exemplifies. He compares Seamus Heaney and Ibn Gabirol, unabashed calling it an “improbable dialogue” (80). More explicitly, he says as much about his vision for the field: He advocates for people in JS to read one another’s work, beyond disciplines. He advocates for sense of fellowship (196). Newton wants to “refashion the ruins,” to ask how different topics fit together—not if they do, but how they do (199).

What, then, does the language of a counterlife denote for Newton? In a sense, it is both what JS is currently, has been historically, and can be in the future. It  “began its life as a kind of counter to prevailing institutional norms,” making it an Ausweg (a way out) of sorts (8–9). The field defiantly resisted categorization as a historical discipline, or one of literature, or of philology; it could be, and was, many things at once. Significantly, its modern origins are in Wissenschaft des Judentums, a phenomenon of German origin that nonetheless indexed JS to a “science,” to historicism. The fields straying from this phenomenon is found in an examination of its Hebrew equivalent: Newton notes that Jewish studies is often referred to as mada’ei hayahadut, which Newton translates as “knowledge practices of Judaism,” instead of mad’a hayahadut or “science of Judaism,” the latter (and perhaps German) of which “denotes a fiction of unity” while “the plural almost by definition discloses, even stipulates, fault lines and variegation” (38). It is this multiplicity, this polyphony, perhaps this cacophony, that to Newton is both present in JS and also not fully realized.

One area to which Newton alludes multiple times without taking a more definitive stand is the place of Jewishness in Jewish studies, and specifically the place of the scholar’s religious affiliation. He notes that it is hard to pinpoint what makes Jewish studies “Jewish” (10), without tending to the individual scholar’s identity. Instead, Newton analyzes the ways in which a given scholar’s work is categorized, sometimes from without, as “Jewish,” an incidental affiliation based “simply [on] the contingent choices of the institutions with which one’s lot gets thrown” (31). At the same time, however, Newton also validates Edward Said’s notion that disciplinary affiliation can come only in part from the exterior but largely comes from one‘s own “tribal” or “libidinal” aspects (192). Thus, the tension remains as to who does the Jewish-ing of one’s Jewish studies affiliation, and what it might mean for both individual and academy alike when one or the other is the driving force behind said disciplinization.

Jewish Studies as Counterlife can at times become discombobulating in its fanciful language that is inconsistently unpacked. For example, in his discuss of Franz Rosenzweig, Newton focuses on the term, and the practice, and the locative nature (or lack thereof) of the German Lehrhaus (house of learning) (128), calling it an example of “heterotopology” (131), which he rightly anticipates that “skeptically minded readers may wonder” about. Thus, it is a relief to encounter the last chapter because of its comparatively accessible and tangible nature. Its use of textual analysis and film studies engages in a reading of both Genesis 24 and the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man.

Adam Zachary Newton provides a compelling study of Jewish studies as a field spread across disciplines and approaches, and across time and space. His modest proposal for its “re-founding” (200) is nuanced and powerful: for Jewish studies to be a broad affiliation held by those in disparate fields, as it currently stands, but with a consciousness about its very nature as such, and an active attempt by JS scholars to live within the field and cultivate the polyphonic relationships and academic breadth offered by such a large field. Thus will Jewish studies become singular in its diversity, alive in its counterlife.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachel Slutsky is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University and the 2022–2023 Monsignor John Oesterreicher Visiting Assistant Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish-Christian Relations at Seton Hall University.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adam Zachary Newton is Professor Emeritus, Yeshiva University.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.