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A tribute to E.E. Urbach.

Ephraim Elimelech Urbach was, in the last forty years, the central figure in Jewish studies in Israel, and served as the model and the standard-setter for Jewish studies all over the world. This period was one in which the academic study of Judaism increased ten-fold in Israel, and fifty-fold in North America and Europe. During this unprecedented period of rapid expansion, his influence and the values that he represented became universal throughout Jewish academia, and contributed most meaningfully to the concept of modern Jewish knowledge and self-awareness among all who sought an enlightened adherence to Jewish tradition. He was probably the best-known scholar in Jewish studies, after Gershom Scholem, and his scholarship, as well as his ideas and initiatives, were respected and served as an example to follow.

The decades when he served as the president of the World Union of Jewish Studies were those in which the number of universities in Israel offering Jewish studies increased from one to five, and in which the number of such universities abroad increased from a handful to several hundreds. In this position, as well as in the numerous other positions that he held, from the Chairman of the Institute of Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, up to and including the presidency of the Israeli Academy of Arts and Sciences, he contributed, directed and shaped this rapid expansion. Yet, despite his deep involvement in public affairs and the demands of these positions, he never stopped his scholarly work, and the constant, direct study of the ancient Hebrew sources. His prestige relied, first and foremost, on his scholarly achievements.

Two fields in Jewish scholarship were central in his academic achievements. The first was the study of Jewish culture, especially the halakhah, in central Europe during the High Middle Ages. Two great, multi-volume books represent the results of his work: Ba'alei ha-Tosafot, the school of the tosafists, the teachers of the halakhah in northern France and in Germany between the 11th and the 13th centuries; and Arugat ha-Bosem, an encyclopedic work written by Rabbi Abraham Berabi Azriel of Bohemia in the first half of the 13th century, which Urbach published in a three-volume scholarly edition, accompanied by a volume of introduction, surveying and analyzing all aspects of Jewish culture in medieval Germany. The second field, probably first in importance, was the study of the Talmud and the Midrash, including the halakhah and its methodology, the Midrash as a literary genre, and, his best-known work, the study of theology, ideology and ethics of Judaism in Late Antiquity, his book, Hazal (The Sages) - Their Concepts and Beliefs, which has already served for a quarter-century as the standard presentation of the Jewish spiritual world as expressed in the Talmud, Midrash and other ancient sources.

His public position was, to a very large extent, the result of his ability, in his scholarly works, to combine traditional, talmid-hakham erudition and depth, with modern norms of meticulous, uncompromising methodology in the unrelenting quest of historical truth. The ability to hold fast to basic Jewish values, while whole-heartedly adopting European scholarly norms and methods, and to use both to seek an empathic, but, nevertheless, accurate and true understanding of the processes of Jewish life and thought, was accepted by his contemporaries as the model of modern Jewish scholarship at its best.

For a generation, Urbach's office at the Hebrew University and the Academy of Science was the meeting-place of leading scholars and administrators from all over the world, who were seeking advice, suggesting projects, formulating co-operation between institutions and countries. His prestige, his administrative ability, his clear-mindedness, and his realism, stand behind almost every viable project in Jewish studies in the last thirty years. Not least among these is the International Center for the Study of Jewish Civilization. He was privy to the earliest consultations concerning the establishment of this center, he recommended co-operation with it to other institutions, and he made available the resources of the World Union of Jewish Studies in assisting it to achieve its successes.

Urbach's voice was heard, often, loudly and clearly, in the affairs of the State of Israel and the central problems of Israeli society and culture. He commented on major developments, and did not hesitate to confront the political leaders and the media when he believed that wrong was being done. Unlike many others, his voice was heard, and people in positions of power respected his views, even if they did not accept them. The respect with which those views were received by the Israeli public was the result, first and foremost, of his academic prestige, but I believe that there was a more profound source for the impact which he had. People felt, even if they did not realize it, that he was the voice of traditional ethical values, but that, at the same time, he accepted, and integrated his world-view with, the structure of a modern, democratic society. The prevailing gulf between Jewish religious ethics and the realities of a modern, vibrant, secular society was bridged within Urbach's world. He refused to see a contradiction between adherence to the old values and the secular structure of a modern state and society. Therefore, his criticism was accepted as constructive, rather than as a demand to change the foundations of a democratic society and transform it into a halakhic state. His Orthodoxy did not, in any way, diminish is loyalty to democratic ideals.

One aspect, which is inherent both in Urbach's personality and in his scholarship, should be emphasized. I believe that this aspect was very seldom - if ever - discussed in detail in Urbach's scholarly studies or his essays on contemporary problems, yet it is central to his unique impact on Jewish studies in the last forty years.

Ephraim Elimelech Urbach was an Orthodox Jew, strictly observant, who constantly followed the letter and the spirit of the Jewish commandments. His complete identification with Jewish culture, Jewish tradition and Jewish national aspirations, cannot be doubted. An Orthodox physicist can create a barrier between his religious beliefs and his scientific pursuits (though there are some difficulties inherent even in this, but they are relatively easy to overcome). A scholar of Talmud, Midrash and halakhah cannot. Every day and every hour, in a scholarly manner, he has to analyze texts and ideas to which he cannot be indifferent. These are not just historical texts, but the very values which direct his life and thought. It is very difficult to analyze the historical circumstances in which ideas were created, when these ideas are regarded by the scholar, as a religious person, as an eternal truth. It is even more difficult to describe in detail the history and development of the halakhah, when one follows all its demands as Divine commandments to be obeyed without hesitation and inquiry.

The greatness of Urbach rests, I believe, in the fact that, as far as I could judge from his behavior and his writings, this tension, inherent in his scholarly work, did not become a problem, a paradox. He refused to see in it any destructive power. He stated his belief in the ability of an Orthodox, faithful Jew to follow scientific methodology in an uncompromising manner by the very fact of his existence, by his loyalty to tradition and by his energetic pursuit of scholarly truth. Instead of preaching the possibility of uniting the two, he was this unity. Instead of explaining, philosophically, how it can be done, he did it.

Thus, when writing his The Sages, he unhesitatingly analyzed and compared Talmudic and Midrashic texts with the works of the Church fathers and with various sections of the New Testament. He utilized ancient gnostic writings and magical pagan texts - all in the quest of the historical background and precise origin of ideas. He never saw any threat in finding a Platonic or gnostic origin to a Jewish Talmudic statement, which is supposed to be a tradition given to Moses on Mount Sinai. He never did it brutally or deliberately, never sought to undermine Jewish originality, nor did he apologize for the existence of non-Jewish, pagan and Christian influences on, or parallels with, the spiritual world of the Sages. All sources were legitimate, all information relevant, in the attempt to establish the historical background and development of the most basic ideas of Jewish tradition.

Urbach did it in a period in which there were great difficulties in pursuing such a course. Jerusalem of the 1950s and 1960s was the center of various institutions which preached "Orthodox science," trying to "save" Jewish studies from the hands of unbelievers and create external criteria of behavior and belief for the study of Jewish traditions. Many of the people involved in these efforts were Urbach's personal friends, and some of them commanded his respect by their scholarly achievements. Yet, Urbach did not feel that the scholarly study of Judaism endangered Jewish traditions in any way, as long as it was done faithfully, methodologically, with empathy and with an honest quest of truth. His faith in Judaism was such that he could not believe that the truth - even scientific truth - could ever hurt it. Censorship, falsification, dishonesty - these were the common enemies of Judaism and of Jewish scholarship alike.

The personal example presented by Urbach influenced at least two generations of scholars, who also saw no conflict between their personal Orthodoxy and complete dedication to scholarship. A norm has been established that scholars in Jewish studies include people whose ways of life differ considerably from each other, who come from variegated religious backgrounds and who adhere to all varieties of ideologies and political affiliations. The Institute of Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which Urbach headed in the 1950s, was a clear expression of this attitude. The two scholars of this field who became presidents of the Israeli Academy of Arts and Sciences - Gershom Scholem and Urbach - represented this fact in their persons. The non-Orthodox Scholem and the Orthodox Urbach did not differ from each other where scholarship and science were concerned.

The Hebrew University, when Urbach joined it, was the only comprehensive institution of higher learning in the world which presented its students with the vast panorama of Jewish history and culture without preparing them for a rabbinic career. Today, there are hundreds of such universities, all trying to follow this basic concept of separation between, and simultaneous loyalty to, personal faith and practice and unrelenting dedication to the quest of truth. The fact that this is possible is due, to a very large extent, to the personal example set by Urbach and the great achievements which resulted from this attitude.

Past success, embodied by the life and work of Urbach, should not hide from our eyes present and future dangers. The Jewish world is undergoing a severe process of polarization. Enlightened Orthodoxy is losing ground, while extreme ultra-Orthodoxy, on the one hand, and ignorant enmity to Jewish heritage on the other, seem to be ascending and acquiring strength. The external characteristic of scholarly study - extensive bibliography, the use of manuscripts, quotations from ancient and modern sources, the use of footnotes - have acquired universal respectability as representing an honest quest of truth, and these are used today by people who do not share the methodology of scientific work, who know the results of research before it has begun, and use the external paraphernalia in order to enhance the prestige of their preaching. The academic world is not immune, and finds it difficult to confront such phenomena. There is a tendency to regard what looks like a scholarly study as if it were, indeed, a scholarly study, even when it is used for completely different purposes. The respect that Urbach's achievements earned for scholarly enterprise is being used now, by imitating only the external aspects, to undermine its spirit of the sincere quest for scientific truth, by using it to "prove" pre-determined ideological and religious norms.

For me, the figure of E.E. Urbach represents the possibility of uniting, in the same person at the same time, full and sincere adherence to Jewish values, a determined and honest quest for historical truth in scholarly, scientific methods, and complete dedication to the ideals of a pluralistic, democratic modern society and state. The fact that he existed and worked among us until two weeks ago is the proof of that. I do not, however, have any proof that this will be possible in the next year or the next decade. Urbach's example is very meaningful, but it does not guarantee the successful implementation of his ideals. This is up to us, the ones whom he left behind.
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Title Annotation:Ephraim Elimelech Urbach
Author:Dan, Joseph
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity.
Next Article:Perspectives on truthfulness in the Jewish tradition.

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