When people in the academy study “Judaism,” they tend to pursue the history of the ethnic group, the Jews, rather than describe, analyze, and interpret the religion, Judaism. In the realm of high culture, the Judaic religious tradition, beginning with the revelation at Sinai, is deprived of its rightful presence alongside the world’s other great religions, Christianity and Islam.

Turning on its head Karl Earth’s insistence that Christianity is not a religion among religions, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s appeal for a “religionless Christianity,” scholars of Judaism are drawn to the subject by ethnic affiliation—Jews studying and teaching Jewish things to Jews. So they end up ethnic cheerleaders, telling Jews why they should be Jewish (stressing “the holocaust” as a powerful reason) or rehearsing the self-evident virtue of being Jewish (“nicer, smarter. more sensitive”).

Jewish studies are dumbed down and amateurized; the principal qualification for advertising opinions on Jewish topics is ethnic affiliation. Jewish professors of anything—philosophy will do, or chemistry in a pinch—qualify as experts by virtue of ethnicity. The universities want the Jewish money that comes with the celebration of Jewish ethnicity. Jewish culture is not interested in religion, as Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has underscored, and the universities follow the money.

What is wrong with the ethnic model is illustrated by Norman Cantor at New York University, who produced a vile, shallow, and ignorant caricature of ethnic culture. Because he is Jewish and also a professor of medieval history, he felt entitled to proclaim his opinion, full of disdain and disrespect for the very sources of Judaism. That is something he never would have tolerated in his own field. He exemplifies the galloping amateurism of Jewish scholars of Judaism who feel qualified by Jewish birth but are of only marginal professional achievement.

Why do some university officials feel that Jewish ethnics in any field are certified as experts when it comes to Jewish studies, inclusive of religion? Because Jews, they assume, know pretty much the same things when it comes to “the Jewish thing.” (Just as, some suppose, we really all do know one another and look alike!) Princeton University’s Froma Inselbuch Zeitlin is a case in point. A classicist who practices Judaism, she accepted the chairmanship of the Princeton University Jewish studies program offered to her by the Jewish president of Princeton University. In that role, lacking any professional qualifications, she directed ill-informed dissertations on first-century problems involving rabbinic texts on which she herself has published nothing much. She appointed as the first professor of Jewish studies in a named chair a German Catholic, Peter Schaefer of Berlin, a philologist and collator of textual variants in ancient manuscripts whose scholarship on Judaism carries forward the German academic nihilism that, from the time of Immanuel Kant, has dismissed Judaism as a religion.

Paradoxes abound. The Harvard program in the study of religion does not encompass professors of Judaism, who make their academic home in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. The Yale Department of Religious Studies includes in its Jewish studies anything Jewish, regardless of its bearing on the study of the religion. So when universities do organize the subject, either they leave it out of the study of religion altogether or they define it, within the study of religion, in a way utterly incongruent with the way they study other religions. When Protestant divinity schools make appointments in Judaism, they want Orthodox Jews to teach the Old Testament but exhibit remarkably slight interest in the history of Judaism beyond the advent of Christianity. Whether or not Judaism died at Golgotha, interest in Judaism as a living religion of integrity and autonomy has not survived among Christian professors. So the Harvard Divinity School used its Jewish-funded chair to appoint Jon Levinson, and Chicago used its counterpart for S. Michael Fishbane, both of them skilled exegetes of the Old Testament, but neither a distinguished scholar of Judaism beyond Scripture.

When the ethnic-Jewish scholars of “Judaism” hold scholarly meetings, they study everything but the religion: its traits, structure, ethics, theology, impact upon the social order, and the way of life of its faithful. Judaism, in contrast to Islam or Christianity or Buddhism, finds no hearing. When the European Association of Jewish Studies met in Toledo, Spain, last summer, 300 people assembled to conduct a jamboree of ethnic culture. When the Association of Jewish Studies (U.S. and Canada) meets annually in Boston, its wildly incoherent program accommodates every discipline, every topic, every theory and attitude—except religion, to which no section is devoted. The World Union of Jewish Studies, in its regular meetings in Jerusalem every four years, has no section on the history of Judaism. When the data of Judaism are addressed, the parts—mysticism, philosophy, theology, law, institutions, liturgy, and literature—never coalesce.

So much for academic societies. What about Jewish institutions of higher learning? Here, the ethnicization of Judaism finds enormous impetus. Jewish-sponsored and financed universities and research centers make room for everything but religion and the comparative study of religions. Brandeis University, the secular-Jewish university near Boston, has no department of religious studies, nor does the Orthodox Yeshiva University in New York City. The Oxford Centre for Jewish Studies emphasizes research in Jews’ histories, languages, and literatures; religion rarely comes to the fore, even in the form of theology. In Israel, departments and programs of religious studies, such as they are, occupy a marginal position in their own universities; topics pertinent to Judaism are treated principally in departments of Jewish thought. Israeli study of Judaism as a religion is carried on by a handful of academicians, only two of international standing. Jews College, London; the Jewish Theological Seminary of America; Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion—none of the principal English-language centers for the education of rabbis encompasses within its curriculum the academic study of religion, and very few professors in the rabbinical schools qualify with doctorates in religious studies.

Why is all this so? Because the Jews in charge of the politics of Jewish culture, and therefore in control of scholarship—those that give the money and those that take and spend the money—insist that “Judaism” means anything Jewish but nothing religious. Above all, they do not want the Jews as a group to be defined as a religious community. A nation (for the state of Israel), an ethnic community (in the Canadian and U.S. mosaic of “peoples”), a community of fate (including anyone the Nuremberg laws called a Jew and anything such a person ever thought, said, or did): To be a member of “the Jews” involves everything except believing something or obeying religious rules.

The moneybags and the windbags concur. So the money goes to Jewish history, especially holocaust studies, and the academic jobs go to those that study something—anything—about the Jews but Judaism. Scholars, whether Orthodox or ethnic in private life, simply dismiss the category “religion” as irrelevant to Jewish learning. Judaism in the comparative study of religions? Whatever for?

Professor Stephen T. Katz, who holds a Cambridge University doctorate and is a professor of Jewish studies and of religion at Boston University, recently asked Cambridge University Press to commission him to edit a volume, The Cambridge History of Judaism, to be devoted to “Judaism” in the first six centuries A.D. Cambridge Press has already published two previous volumes, but the second of the two, which appeared a decade or more after the chapters were written and therefore was obsolete on the day of publication, created a huge scandal. Some of the chapters simply ignored not the prior ten but an entire 50 years of scholarship. Over the next decade and a half, Cambridge could not manage to publish the planned third and fourth volumes. After more than a decade of waiting, I withdrew the five chapters I’d written for volumes three and four, since by that point they were woefully out-of-date. Research had moved on—including my own.

But Katz has asked Cambridge University Press to revive the project. When we review the topics he proposes, we see that he and his co-editors, ordained Conservative rabbis all—Reuven Kimelman, Shaye J.D. Cohen, and David Halivni, who teach at Brandeis University, Brown University, and Columbia University, respectively—envision a volume of Jewish history, not the history of Judaism.

The topics tell the story: “Jewish status in the Roman Empire after 70,” “Jewish revolts and Roman persecutions,” “the Bar Kokhba Revolt,” “the diaspora from 70-235,” “the political and social history of the Jewish community of Palestine,” “the economic history of Palestine,” “the institution of the Patriarchate and Jewish self-government,” “Emperor Julian and the Jews,” “Jews in Byzantium,” “Justinian and the Jews,” and on and on. Others do encompass critical issues in the study of religion (for instance, “the synagogue and the liturgy”), but these are a small part of the whole. More important, not a single entry addresses the theology of Rabbinic Judaism either as a whole or on any specific topic, nor is there anything on ethics, the practice of Judaism, the rites and rituals of the day, the disputes and debates, or the intellectual life of the faith. How Scripture is received and transformed; how the rabbis viewed Israel among the nations; how they interpreted Israel’s history from Scripture forward, let alone their eschatological and messianic doctrines and the principles of their creed—none of these critical issues of the religious life is examined. If, in late antiquity, a Judaism other than the Rabbinic kind flourished, or if diverse modes of practicing a single Rabbinic Judaism developed, we will learn nothing about it from this volume. When it comes to the gentile world, antisemitism is covered, but not the views of Judaism set forth by Christian, pagan, and Zoroastrian writers—again, the ethnic is in, the religious is out.

So the proposed Cambridge History of Judaism uses the word “Judaism” to refer to an ethnic group: its material culture, its politics, institutions, demography, its “life” (whatever that means). A Cambridge History of Christianity that dealt with Roman imperial politics and foreign policy, pagan anti-Christianity and persecution of Christianity, but not with Nicaea and Chalcedon, the formation of the New Testament, the invention of the Bible, the theology of Augustine, the history of Eusebius, the councils and creeds and martyrs and saints and Gnosticism and Orthodoxy—such a secular history of Christians would not bear plausibly the tide of a “history of Christianity.”

When Jewish scholars of Judaism define Judaism as air ethnicity, not a religion, what is lost is any conception that Judaism has a statement to make to the human situation—and a cultural claim and a theological judgment to set forth concerning the intellectual life of humanity.