A University of Pittsburgh professor has just won the 2008 National Jewish Book Award for scholarship.
Adam Shear, an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies and the Jewish Studies Program at Pitt won for his work, “The Kuzari and the Shaping of Jewish Identity, 1167-1900” (Cambridge University Press). The Jewish Book Council sponsors the awards.
If the period 1167-1900 sounds to you like a long time to write about, according to Shear, you’re right.
“It was an ambitious idea to take on,” he said, noting that he actually began researching the book while considering dissertation topics in 1996.
The Kuzari is a philosophical novel written by Judah Halevi in 1140. It is essentially a dialogue between King Bulan of the Khazars — an eighth century Eastern European tribe — and a rabbi. According to Jewish legend, the king became troubled after having a dream in which an angel told him: “Your
intentions are desirable to the Creator, but not your deeds.” Based on this, Bulan endeavored to change his religion, but was dissatisfied with what he learned of Christianity and Islam.
Then Bulan debated with the rabbi, and finally conceded that Judaism was the one true and correct religion. History records that Bulan and much of the Khazar tribe converted to Judaism.
But Shear’s book is not about the Kuzari, or even the Halevi, who is better known as one of the great Jewish romance poets of Medieval Spain.
The book actually looks at why the Khuzari was popular among some generations and cultures of the Jewish world but not the others.
“I began to get interested in why the book was popular and why did Jews 500 years later keep coming back to this book,” Shear said.
Availability of the book in some periods may have dictated its popularity, which might explain why it didn’t have as much attention among medieval and post-Renaissance Ashkenazi Jews, but was very popular among 19th century Chasidic and other Orthodox Jews.
Zionists also gravitated to Halevi’s writing, seeing his as reflecting Jewish nationalism. They probably also related to the rabbi in the Kuzari who, by the end of the book makes aliya to the Holy Land.
Shear has been a member of the Pitt faculty since 2001.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)