Final chapter in a pandemic’s shadow

Historian David Ruderman was set to publish a new book and celebrate his retirement. Then the pandemic hit.

Person in glasses is surrounded by bookcases.
David B. Ruderman, the Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History. (Image: Omnia)

Historian David Ruderman was set to have a big finish this spring.

After 25 years at Penn, where he founded and directed the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and was the Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History, Ruderman was retiring in June. And amid this milestone, he had a new book, “Missionaries, Converts and Rabbis: The Evangelical Alexander McCaul and Jewish-Christian Debate in the Nineteenth Century,” coming out with launch parties and talks scheduled in Europe and Israel. 

Then the viral pandemic hit. The book launches and retirement parties were canceled, and the distribution of his book was delayed as everyone transitioned to working from home. Despite these disappointments, Ruderman is taking it in stride even making room for some humor. 

“They will reschedule that retirement party, maybe in the fall, maybe in the spring, or who knows, it could be posthumously,” he jokes. “It’s not the biggest disaster in the world. But I’m essentially done.”

His scholarly legacy at Penn, however, isn’t going anywhere, says Steven Weitzman, the current director of the Katz Center.

“There is David’s own scholarship, both luminous and voluminous, which has pioneered a whole field of research focused on Jews’ earliest encounters with modernity. There is the Katz Center, described in a recent review as the preeminent postdoctoral research center in Jewish studies in the world,” Weitzman says. 

“And there are literally hundreds of scholars—former students, Katz Center Fellows, authors published in the Penn monograph series that he edited—who have benefitted from his knowledge, discerning intellect, and generous spirit. He is truly one of a kind, and there will be no replacing him, but his influence runs so deep and broad that his presence will be felt for many generations to come.”

Now, Ruderman’s book, which looks at the life and works of 19th-century evangelical missionary Alexander McCaul, has made its way out of the warehouse and into bookstores. The book, published by University of Pennsylvania Press, has been called by one reviewer “fascinating, original, and pathbreaking.”

Book cover
Ruderman's new book "Missionaries, Converts, and Rabbis: The Evangelical Alexander McCaul and Jewish-Christian Debate in the Nineteenth Century," published by University of Pennsylvania Press.

Of the book’s topic, Ruderman says, he felt at first that studying the 19th century was “way beyond my field of competence,” having focused most of his academic career on Jewish history from the Renaissance until the Enlightenment period. But two aspects of the book were familiar to him: the history of Jewish-Christian relations, and the concept of what he calls “mingled identities,” with people combining elements of both Christianity and Judaism.

“It is very close interaction and borrowing and appropriating, both on the part of Jews and on the part of Christians,” he says. “It’s both love and hate.”

McCaul was sent to Warsaw by the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Amongst the Jews. He and his family lived there for nearly a decade, and he became a scholar of Hebrew and rabbinic texts. Returning to England, he rose through the ranks of missionaries to become a leading figure and educator in the organization and eventually a professor of post-biblical studies at Kings College, London. In 1837, McCaul published “The Old Paths,” a powerful critique of rabbinic Judaism that, once translated into Hebrew and other languages, provoked controversy among Jews and Christians alike.

The book first examines McCaul as someone who is affectionately supportive of Jews while opposing the rabbis. Then Ruderman focuses on a larger network of McCaul’s associates, both allies and foes, who interacted with him and his ideas: two converts who came under his influence but eventually broke from him, two evangelical colleagues who challenged his aggressive proselytizing among the Jews, and, lastly, three Jewish thinkers—two well-known scholars from Eastern Europe and a rabbi from Syria—who refuted his charges against the rabbis and constructed their own justifications for Judaism in the mid-19th century.

It reconstructs a virtual transnational conversation between Christians, Jews, and those in between, and looks at Jewish and Christian thought and the entanglements between the two faith communities that persist in the modern era. 

The book does have lessons for today, says Ruderman.

“The evangelical story still has relevance, and the whole history of what we might call Christian Zionism or an interest in Israel emerges out of the same circles that I’m studying in the 19th century,” he says. 

Evangelicals play a key role in supporting Israel these days, which goes back to the theology about the place of Israel within the economy of Christian space and what will happen when Jesus comes back to the world, he says.

The other relevance he suggests is the idea of mingled identities. 

“We live in a world where we have more than one identity, particularly in the Jewish community where 70% of non-Orthodox Jews marry outside of their faith. We are dealing with many couples who are raising their children both within the Jewish and Christian faith simultaneously, deciding one or the other, or ignoring all faiths,” he says. 

The book explores the notion of the porousness and equivocality of religious and ideological boundaries in the 19th century, where murky entanglements often replace clear adversarial positions. 

"My interest as a historian is not to see things in black and white terms. The ambivalence and ambiguity of the subjects in this book are perhaps larger reflections of the human condition in general,” he says. 

And perhaps, in this sense, he adds, "our own contemporary situation of passionate disagreements and divisions similarly requires a deeper and more nuanced understanding of commonalities as well as differences, shared values as well as fiercely contested ones."