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.