Charles Explorer logo

Jewish Studies: A Story of an Academic Discipline

Class at Faculty of Arts |


The aim of this course is to introduce students to the story of the emergence and development of the academic study of Jewish history and culture. We will discuss how the first attempts at understanding the Jewish culture were linked to inter-religious polemics of late Antiquity and later Middle Ages.

In the early modern period, the interest in Judaism occurred in the context of the early forms of ethnography and was closely intertwined with the formulation and propagation of many anti-Judaic stereotypes, which later nourished the modern forms of anti-Semitism. Not surprisingly, the first truly modern study of Jewish history and culture was promoted by Jewish scholars themselves.

But the adherents of the Wissenschaft des Judenthums – Science on Judaism, flourishing mostly in German speaking countries, were at the same time involved in the theological and political debates within Jewish society, which resulted in the split of one Rabbinic Judaism into various branches, all of which have different attitudes toward academic study. We will also trace the painful story of the animosity of the Western universities against institutionalization of Jewish Studies as an autonomous discipline and the emergence of modern Jewish rabbinical seminars with important research activities, such as the Juedisch-Theologisches Seminar in Breslau and later the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Hebrew Union College, and the Yeshiva University.

We will talk about the first attempts to establish chairs in Jewish Studies in England, USA, and the project of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the Mandate Palestine between the two world wars. With regards to the post-WWII development, we will concentrate not only on the major institutions and research trends in the West (Israel, USA, UK) but we will also include a description of the situation in the East-Central Europe on the examples of Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

The course will also deal with the recent trends and the challenges faced by the discipline in Czech Republic and elsewhere.