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Vol. LXV, No. 34
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
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New Book on Judaism and Its History Tackles Difficult Questions of Identity

Ellen Gilbert

In addition to mentioning the philosopher Immanuel Kant several times in her new book, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought, Princeton University Religion Department Chair Leora Batnitzky’s association with Kant seems to be clinched by a papier-mîché-representation of the philosopher hanging behind her office door. Multiple stars dancing around Kant’s head recall his claim that the two things that awed him most were “the starry sky above me and the moral law within me”

As a result (of the citations, not the piñata) the book, which comes out at the end of September, has been classified as academic/trade. Ms. Batnitzky quotes Fred Appel, her editor at Princeton University Press, as saying that “any book that talks about Kant isn’t trade/trade.”

The bifurcated designation of Ms. Batnitzky’s new book seems appropriate: while it talks about Kant (among many others), it is also intended for “anyone who has an interest in ideas.” An examination of the historic, philosophical, and political underpinnings of Jewish identity, the book was described by Columbia University Professor Samuel Moyn as “an outstanding achievement that will consolidate Batnitzky’s reputation as “the most incisive and remarkable scholar of modern Jewish thought of our time.”

“I would say that knowing and not-knowing Jews have something to learn from it, as well as people who are interested in Christ,” the author observed in a recent interview.

Inspiration for the book came during a class she gave at Princeton, where she has been teaching since 1997. “Lots of relevant and timely questions came up; it speaks to modern issues,” she said of the book.


The ability to bring various disciplines to bear in her work is critical to Ms. Batnitzky; this extends to being part of the Religion Department. “I like it,” she observed. “It’s extremely integrated into the Humanities.” A stint as a visiting scholar at New York University’s Law School was, not surprisingly, very satisfying for her.

The South African-born scholar describes her husband as “observant,” and reports that they have sent their three sons to the Solomon Schecter Jewish day school in New Brunswick. She came to this country when she was five because her European-born mother had little hope for the end of apartheid in South Africa and “really disliked living there.”

In addition to chairing the Religion Department, Ms. Batnitzky is co-editor, with Peter Schäfer, of Jewish Studies Quarterly, as well as the Director of Princeton’s Tikvah Project on Jewish Thought. The Project’s aims are “to bring Jewish ideas and thinkers into conversation with the broader historical, philosophical, and theological traditions of the West and beyond.” It draws on faculty and students “from North America and around the world.”

Ms. Batnitzky, who received Princeton’s President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2002, is also the author of Idolatry and Representation: The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig Reconsidered (Princeton, 2000); and Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas: Philosophy and the Politics of Revelation (Cambridge, 2006). Her new book will hopefully help to understand Israel’s current plight, she said, by historicizing why ideas of Jewish nationalism and Zionism “developed again” in the late 1960s as a result of Europe’s “failed Socialism.”

“What does a Jewish state mean?” she asked, noting the discomfort and lack of clarity that often characterize answers to this question. Although Zionism was “historically a secular movement,” Ms. Batnitzky questions the “naive idea that you can be one thing in public and another in private.” As evidence of overlapping identities, she points to the political power of Israel’s Orthodox Rabbinate, which she describes as “a historical accident.”

“Different parts of the book will make different people uncomfortable,” allowed Ms. Batnitzky. “I used to have people come up to me and ask who I think is really right,” she said of the tender feelings that usually go with discussions about Israel’s existence. “I think everyone is a little right.”

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