The Jewish Contribution to Civilization

BookThe Jewish Contribution to Civilization

The Jewish Contribution to Civilization

Reassessing an Idea

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization


August 30th, 2012



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The biblical idea of a distinct ‘Jewish contribution to civilization’ continues to engage Jews and non-Jews alike. This book seeks neither to document nor to discredit the notion, but rather to investigate the idea itself as it has been understood from the seventeenth century to the present. It explores the role that the concept has played in Jewish self-definition, how it has influenced the political, social, and cultural history of the Jews and of others, and whether discussion of the notion still has relevance in the world today.

The book offers a broad spectrum of academic opinion: from tempered advocacy to reasoned disavowal, with many variations on the theme in between. It attempts to illustrate the centrality of the question in modern Jewish culture in general, and its importance for modern Jewish studies in particular.

Part I addresses the idea itself and considers its ramifications. Richard I. Cohen focuses on the nexus between notions of ‘Jewish contribution’ and those of ‘Jewish superiority’‚ David N. Myers shifts the focus from ‘contribution’ to ‘civilization’, arguing that the latter term often served the interests of Jewish intellectuals far better, and Moshe Rosman shows how the current emphasis on multiculturalism has given the idea of a ‘Jewish contribution’ new life. Part II turns to the relationship between Judaism and other monotheistic cultures. Elliott Horowitz’s essay on the sabbath serves as an instructive test-case for the dynamic and complexity of the ‘contribution’ debate and a pointer to more general, theoretical issues. David Berger expands on these in his account of how discussion of Christianity’s Jewish legacy developed in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Susannah Heschel shows how the Jewish–Christian encounter has influenced the study of other non-Western ‘others’. Daniel Schroeter raises revealing questions about the altogether Eurocentric character of the ‘contribution’ discourse, which also bore heavily on perceptions of Jews and Judaism in the world of Islam. Part III introduces us to various applications and consequences of the debate. Yaacov Shavit probes the delicate balance forged by nineteenth-century German Jewish intellectuals in defining their identity. Mark Gelber moves the focus to the present and considers the post-war renewal of German Jewish culture and the birth of German-Jewish studies in the context of the ‘contribution’ discourse. Bringing the volume to its conclusion, David Biale compares three overviews of Jewish culture and civilization published in America in the twentieth and twenty-first-centuries.

Author Information

Jeremy Cohen holds the Abraham and Edita Spiegel Family Foundation Chair for European Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, where he served as Director of the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center between 2002 and 2005. A specialist in the history of Jewish–Christian relations and three times a winner of the National Jewish Book Award, his various publications include The Friars and the Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism (1982); Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (1999); and Christ Killers: The Jews and the Passion from the Bible to the Big Screen (2007). Richard I. Cohen holds the Paulette and Claude Kelman Chair in French Jewry Studies and has served as the Academic Head of Revivim, the honours programme at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for the training of Jewish studies teachers. He is the author of The Burden of Conscience: French-Jewish Leadership during the Holocaust and Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe, and among the books he has edited are The French Revolution and its Historical Impact and Art and History. He has co-curated and co-edited (with Vivian Mann) From Court Jews to the Rothschilds: Art, Patronage, and Power, 1600-1800 and (with Laurence Sigal) Le Juif errant: Un témoin du temps.