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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Transformation of Jewish Knowledge over the Decades: The New Edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica

Filed under: Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Changing Jewish Communities

No. 27,

  • The new edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica gives many insights into how Jewish life and Jewish knowledge have been transformed since the first edition came out in 1972. Jews contribute in every sphere of human knowledge and endeavor including arts, music, architecture, science, medicine, and so forth. Jews nowadays feel more able, freer, and more empowered to create-as Jews. They no longer fear that doing so confines them to a cultural or intellectual ghetto.
  • Comparing the two encyclopedias reveals how much communities and attitudes have changed over the past thirty-five years. So has the perception of where power resides. This is in part reflected by the rise of the Internet at the expense of printed material.
  • Some fields have developed dramatically since the 1970s. These include Holocaust studies, Hebrew law, and women’s studies. A conscious decision was made to give the latter much more attention in the new edition. Difficult decisions had to be made about addressing controversial issues such as whom to include as a Jew, the Israeli settlement movement, and homosexuality.
  • The economics of the encyclopedia have changed dramatically. Far-superior productivity has greatly reduced the number of people involved on the technical side. Important decisions remain to be made as to how to update the encyclopedia and what its future byproducts will be.

“The new edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica gives many insights into how Jewish life and Jewish knowledge have been transformed since the first edition came out in 1972. The sense of the distance traveled by the Jewish people, as well as the conquest of so many fields of knowledge, is both astounding and humbling. I was privileged to be one of the midwives who brought this forth.”

Michael Berenbaum is executive editor of the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica. He is also director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and professor of Jewish studies at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism).

He observes: “Whoever works on a project of this magnitude finds proof for things that are generally known and seem self-evident but still require substantiation. The new Encyclopaedia shows first and foremost how much the Jews are a fascinating people. They contribute in every sphere of human knowledge and endeavor including arts, music, architecture, science, medicine, and so forth. Jews nowadays feel more able, freer, and more empowered to create-as Jews. They no longer fear that doing so confines them to an intellectual or cultural ghetto.

“A generation ago many were afraid to be known as Jewish authors. They feared that they would be seen as on the periphery of society. Now many Jews embrace that specific identity. One interesting example is that several of the most outstanding American novelists are women who are ultra-Orthodox or of ultra-Orthodox background-for example, Tova Mervis, Allegra Goodman, Pearl Abraham, and Rebecca Goldstein. They write more interesting books than almost anybody else. This was unheard of and unpredictable ten years ago.”

A Change of Mood

Berenbaum mentions that much more has changed than knowledge alone. “My colleague Fred Skolnik, who worked on both encyclopedias, said that what struck him was the gap between the extraordinary achievements of the Jewish people over the past thirty-five years and the current mood of pessimism. Nineteen seventy-two was a euphoric moment of Jewish unity. We wonder about the current combination of feelings of endangerment and simultaneously those of empowerment and achievement. Only psychologists can explain this.

“The 1972 encyclopedia was written with the great confidence that characterized Israel in the post-Six Day War period. It was produced in Israel and was perhaps the last and best manifestation of German Jewish scholarship that had migrated to Israel. The publishers of the new edition, however, decided that they needed an American editor as the function would require a greater sense of the reality of the Diaspora. That is how I was appointed. I am today one of the very few people who has read both editions. Taking into account what I have not forgotten, I have learned a great deal.

“There are other aspects of how much things have changed over the past thirty-five years. When the first edition came out, Israel was the actual dwelling place of only a small percentage of the Jewish people.”

Basic Choices

“One gets an even better perspective if one goes back to the origins of the encyclopedia. The prewar edition was initiated by Nahum Goldmann in the 1920s in Germany and by the time Hitler came to power and the project was stopped, ten volumes had been published in German.

“In the 1960s the project was renewed. The new Encyclopaedia Judaica was published in English, which by then had become the Jewish world’s dominant language. It was named one of the most significant works of humanities scholarship of the twentieth century.

“More generally, one major impact of World War II may be the replacement of German as the universal intellectual language by English as the universal language. The Internet will reinforce that even further. Yet the Jewish people have multiple languages. To have more impact the new Encyclopaedia should also appear in Hebrew.

“There is much to be said for having it appear in Russian as well. That cannot be a commercial venture, but perhaps a wealthy Russian Jew will see it as the undertaking of his life. One also has to keep in mind that the first English edition was produced as a philanthropic venture, whereas the second edition is a commercial one.”

Changing Views

“The original encyclopedia was a product of German Jewry. That had a very important impact on the way things were viewed. History was entirely dominant; there was less use of the social sciences including psychology, sociology, anthropology, and political science, among others; and there was less interest in personal rather than intellectual biography.

The new encyclopedia is written primarily by American and Israeli scholars. Almost all the American scholars have studied in Israel. The Israeli scholars have almost all studied, worked, and certainly published in the United States. This means that the authors in any given field have read each other’s works, spoken at each other’s conferences, been in each other’s presence, and taught at various universities. This leads to major cross-fertilization.

“Another important choice is the type of scholarship one emphasizes. We decided not to give final authority to the historians’ perspective. Some of our authors view their topics through the prisms of psychology and sociology.”

Communities have also changed greatly. Says Berenbaum: “In the early 1970s the suburban New York area had roughly 45 percent of the American Jewish community. The Association of Jewish Studies had perhaps twelve or fifteen members. Jewish studies were found primarily in seminaries. There were also the remnants of the once-dominant generation that was trained by German Jewish learning of the 1920s and 1930s. They were making, as it were, their last extraordinary statement.”

Another World

“When the first encyclopedia came out, Golda Meir was the Israeli prime minister. It was before the Yom Kippur War, Camp David, the First Lebanon War, the First Intifada, the Oslo agreements, the Second Intifada, and the Second Lebanon War. In Eastern Europe the Soviet Union was the dominant power. In short, it was another world.

“Since then we have had two more generations of rabbis; two additional generations of scholars and thinkers. We have seen the emergence of the university as the locale for Jewish scholarship and learning. We also have witnessed a vivid and dynamic growth in Orthodoxy.

“Jewish attitudes have changed dramatically as well. In 1967, the sociologist Eric Rosenthal-a teacher of mine-claimed that someday there would be a 25 percent intermarriage rate in the American Jewish community. Because of his research, he was scorned and humiliated and considered a major enemy of the Jewish people. Today one would wish it was only 25 percent.”

The Shift of Power to Managing Information

“Change is everywhere-for instance, in the perception of power in general. When the previous encyclopedia came out the perception was that power in the world resides in the control of natural resources or manufacturing. Nowadays it resides in the ability to manage and get on top of the vast quantity of information that is available. Several of the world’s largest fortunes have been made in this way. A number of Jews are important players, despite the smallness of the Jewish people and the seemingly marginal nature of its resources.

“The Jewish world has over the past decades also become more interactive. One might say that it is perceived as having become flat again. This found expression, for instance, when the Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua spoke at a gathering of the American Jewish Committee. What he said there can be summarized crudely as: ‘Israel is the drama and the American Jewish community is the audience.’

“Another important change is that before we had ‘to learn.’ Now we have ‘to learn to learn.’ Knowledge has become much more dynamic and transforming. When conceiving the new edition of the encyclopedia, we had to take into account that people today search for information first and foremost through the Internet. In a print edition, a written text is frozen and soon becomes out-of-date.

“My daughter says that she only wants a copy of the printed encyclopedia for use on Shabbat. Otherwise she would prefer a license to enter the site on the Web. One implication is that the index of the written book, which refers to a certain volume in the printed edition, will hardly be used.”

Berenbaum explains that key issues in producing the new encyclopedia were not only its content and economics. “It was also important that it was interesting and it had to put matters into context for a younger generation of readers.” He adds: “Taking this into account we assigned all our writers the same conceptual task: ‘When you write think that when someone picks up this text several decades from now, he or she will understand this as a snapshot of what was known at the beginning of the new millennium.”

What to Preserve?

“A critical choice was: what does one preserve so as not to destroy what has been achieved? What does one do away with and what does one update? This translates into the question: how does one deal with what was assumed knowledge one generation ago and is no longer assumed knowledge now?

“For example, Gershom Scholem’s major essay on the Kabbalah we left untouched. Moshe Idel filled in what had been learned since. We have done this in a number of other areas.

“In another case, we realized that since Salo Baron no one has done a good economic history of the Jewish people. When the research work has not been done, there cannot be a full update of the original quality work.

“Some fields have developed dramatically since the 1970s. Menachem Elon, a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice, pioneered the field of Hebrew law. Since then it has been migrating into Israeli secular law for more than thirty years. There are fields of inquiry that hardly existed before. An evident one is that of medical ethics.

“Elon wrote the essay on ‘Hebrew Law’ in both encyclopedias. Reading the two essays side by side gives a unique perspective on how secular law has been transformed in Israel and how Jewish religious law has been applied to it and also transformed by it in turn.

“Talmudic scholarship has been influenced by the passing of a generation of historians. The previous one investigated the Talmud with the aim of finding its historical kernel. The present generation is more interested in the evolution of interpretation, the flow of narrative, and thus the transmission of tradition. Jacob Neusner has clearly influenced Talmudic scholarship so that we can no longer assume that what was attributed to a Talmudic sage was actually said by him. It makes writing entries on individual sages far more difficult.

“In an essay on the Talmud, one also has to answer a question such as: do we have to say every time that what is attributed to Rabbi Akiva may or may not have been said by him? This is heresy to some and manifest to others. Yet how many times does one have to say it in order to be comprehensible but not redundant?”

Holocaust Studies

“Another important area concerns the transition in Holocaust studies. This field was in its infancy in the 1970s and was then taught in two American universities only. When Raul Hilberg did his doctorate in the 1950s, his professor said that he could go ahead but it would be his academic funeral. Indeed he could only find a publisher for The Destruction of the European Jews in 1961, if its publication was subsidized.

“Hilberg posited six stages of the destruction process of the Holocaust: definition, expropriation, concentration, deportation, mobile killing units, and death camps. Expropriation, the process by which Jews were deprived of their economic possessions, the very possibility of their economic survival, was originally described with a beginning date of 1933 and an end date of 1945. Nowadays the end-year is left blank because it has turned out, since the major restitution debates of the past ten years, that expropriation continued many years beyond the end of the Shoah.

“When we received the first entry on Hilberg by his greatest disciple, Christopher Browning, I told him that he had to tell why Hilberg is controversial. I thus deliberately gave Hilberg a large entry of 1,800 words because of the central role he played in the emergence of Holocaust studies.

Yet I also ensured that the controversy surrounding his writing would be included. He never backed away from his assessment that Jewish resistance was of symbolic but marginal importance.

“One insightful entry concerns ‘Holocaust and Law.’ Those who wrote it in the previous edition described the Nazi deeds as an outlaw phenomenon. The transition in this edition is dramatic because it tries to show laws as instruments of persecution. The Nazis tried to give the façade of legality to everything they did. Consequently one had less of a prosecution brief against them. Instead, we present an extended essay on how legal means and the legal profession were used as an instrumentality of destruction.

“Dealing with Holocaust memory was also a crucial issue. One had to address a broad area of creativity by Jews and others in response to Holocaust memory, including art, film, music, and so on. There had to be entries not only on the events of the Holocaust but also on its memorialization.


“Another important issue was Israel’s place in the encyclopedia. In an encyclopedia, words are like real estate. What is important is the location and the size. How much prominence is given to a subject is determined by the length of the articles, the nature of the illustrations, and the variety of entries devoted to a subject. Israel occupies an entire volume with six hundred thousand words. It is central and important, but different approaches had to be used to address different audiences. The Diaspora is also given adequate emphasis.

“Women were yet another subject that we felt merited much more attention. One might call it an affirmative action program. It was necessary, however, in order to complete the experience of the Jewish people. The previous essay on the mikveh [ritual bath] dealt with what men-sages and rabbis-had written about it and its halachot [religious laws]. No attention was given to women’s experience of entering the mikveh and what it represented for them. There are entries on techinot [women’s prayers], women’s commentaries, women leaders, and on women’s studies itself.

The Ultra-Orthodox

Berenbaum adds that also on some individual items substantial decisions had to be made. “The old essay said that Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, never went to Israel. We felt that had to be put in context, as he only once left New York City after he arrived there. Schneerson then went to a Lubavitch camp one hundred miles from the city. The only other time he left the borough of Brooklyn was to go right over the border to Queens to visit the grave of his wife and of his father-in-law and predecessor.

“Everybody came to visit him instead of him visiting anyone-from presidents of Israel to prime ministers to princes and kings. Also part of this context is what he said on the eve of the first Iraq war-that no harm would befall Israel-as well as the fact that he encouraged his disciples, his Hasidim, to come to Israel. We painted a broad and generalized portrait and not a categorical one.

“Boundaries have blurred. The lingua franca of the ultra-Orthodox community in the United States has also become English. The ArtScroll series brings this community the traditional texts in English in a way that is visually compelling, in line with the higher graphic standards of today.

“The entries on this community have to discuss, for example, the Lithuanian center in Lakewood, and Kiryas Yoel where the Satmar Hasidim live. One also has to elaborate on the division in Rockland County where the highway cuts off the ultra-Orthodox community from the non-ultra-Orthodox community. One must also discuss, for example, the tensions involved in the issue of eruv.[1] In many American cities a controversy erupts when an eruv is to be created, as it changes the character of the neighborhood by enabling Orthodox-and ultra-Orthodox-Jews to live there. The opposition is often led by Jews.”

Controversial Issues

“There were several strongly controversial issues. The editors had to decide how to tackle homosexuality. One had to go beyond the traditional Jewish teachings-but how far? Should we mention the services on the High Holidays in New York at the Jacob Javits Center, which draw six thousand gay and lesbian Jews who want to observe the High Holidays and do not regard themselves as sinful? It is the largest Jewish service in the world for the High Holidays. Gay and lesbian congregations did not exist thirty-five years ago.

“How does one describe the Israeli settlement movement? We had a long  discussion about it. The important thing is to present the controversy without taking sides. The encyclopedia is designed to be a neutral, objective, and authoritative work.

“Also, who should be included as Jews? Many who are not halachically Jewish see themselves within the context of Jewish discourse and Jewish faith. Many of these, who have achieved international prominence, are included, with that being indicated. This is the only responsible approach. On the other hand, some people who were identified as Jewish in the first encyclopedia turned out not to have been.

“The one person who had objected to being included in the first encyclopedia, and threatened to sue, was former world chess champion Bobby Fischer. We wondered how to treat him. I suggested that we should publish the letter he sent us, in which he explained why he refused to be identified as Jewish, because it was a historic document in itself. I lost that argument.”


On the encyclopedia’s economics Berenbaum says, “I was the project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Then I also had to raise the money to build it. On the encyclopedia I only had to spend the money, which was much easier.

“The economics of the encyclopedia are that the publishers must be prepared to make a vast investment before they can reap any profit. Keter Publishing House, a publicly traded Israeli corporation that produced the first edition, could not afford to undertake a new one. So Macmillan in the United States was approached instead.”

“When looking at the economics, first of all productivity has changed radically. The world of 1972 was one before the fax, FedEx, computers, Internet, and email. Books and libraries were dominant as far as knowledge is concerned. Hence a publisher produced books that he hoped would find their way to libraries.

“Today publishers have to ask themselves how they should invest their money in a world in which students expect everything to be on the Internet and everything on the Internet to be free. This has already affected the music and film industries as well as many other creative fields, and must be considered when undertaking a major project such as an encyclopedia.

“The production of the first edition took many years. Everything had to be typeset, and more than 150 people were involved on the technical and production side. It seems that some five hundred people worked on the project in one form or another.

“The staff of the second edition consisted of nine people, which indicates the hugely increased efficiency. As far as the content is concerned, there were 2,100 individual contributors all over the world. Modern communication means made this possible. They wrote six million new words.

“Part of what we are now investigating is how to update the encyclopedia over time on the online version. The publishers made a decision that affects everything that is done in the creative world today: to make the Encyclopaedia available as a restricted website instead of distributing it on disks. Access to the former can be controlled; disks are copied by students and given to their friends.

“As to the future, a major question will be what byproducts will come out of this encyclopedia. A children’s encyclopedia seems among the most logical. Another, even more fundamental question is whether the encyclopedia can make enough money for the publisher to continue to fund it.”

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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[1] A symbolic boundary that allows Orthodox Jews to carry certain items on Shabbat.

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Michael Berenbaum is executive editor of the new edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, which has just been awarded the Dartmouth Medal as the best reference work of 2006 by the American Library Association. He is also director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust, and professor of Jewish studies at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism). He is the former project director of the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, first director of its Research Institute, and former president of the Survivors of the Holocaust Visual History Foundation.