Printer Friendly

Jewish studies and Jewish identity: some implications of secularizing Torah.

A Success Story

OVER THE COURSE OF THE LAST TWENTY OR thirty years, one of the dreams of modern Jewry has apparently been realized: Jewish culture has become a recognized and accepted part of the general university curriculum. Of course, the Hebrew Bible and, to an extent, the Hebrew language, have always enjoyed a prominent place in Western education because of their position in Christian history. But young Jews entering the university often discovered that post-Biblical Jewish history and culture were addressed only slightingly, if at all, in the curriculum. In country after country, therefore, these students organized to promote Jewish Studies at the university level. A direct line connects the efforts of the German students who established the Verein fur Kultur und Wissenschaft des Judentums (Society for the Culture and Science of Judaism) in 1819 with those of their American counterparts who created the Harvard Menorah Association in 1906. Still, the first regular professorship of Jewish Studies at a secular university would not come until the 1920s, when Harry Wolfson was appointed at Harvard and Salo Baron at Columbia. In the last two or three decades, the situation has changed remarkably. There has been an extraordinary rise in the number of courses dealing with post-Biblical Jews, with their history, their religion and their literature. Not only has content changed; the orientation of these courses is also radically different from what it was a generation ago. Jewish Studies courses are now taught largely by and for Jews, and they approach their subject from the point of view of a living Jewish culture seeking self-understanding, not from that of a Christian society interested in its so-to-speak "pre-history."

Jewish Studies have become a "growth industry," and the signs of prosperity are everywhere. There is at least one, and usually more than one, full-time instructor in Jewish Studies at almost every university in this country. The Association for Jewish Studies, the basic professional organization of academics in this area, counts well over 700 full members -- that is, individuals who are employed in a recognized academic institution. Every major academic press in the country has an active list of Jewish Studies books, on topics ranging from Palestinian archaeology to the Holocaust, and from medieval philosophy to Yiddish literature. International conferences abound, new journals appear with alarming frequency, and the voice of the "distinguished scholar" is heard at synagogue weekends throughout the land.

From many points of view, these developments must be counted an unqualified success story. This is certainly true for the Jewish academics themselves. Not so very long ago the only jobs that were available to Judaica scholars were in afternoon schools, day schools or, at best, Hebrew colleges. I, myself, was educated as a boy by a fine group of dedicated European-born teachers who all held advanced university degrees but were, nevertheless, forced to spend their days drilling ten-year olds in how to translate Humash-Rashi. On the one hand, I wish such teachers were available for my children; on the other, I am grateful that I am not forced to make my living as they did. My colleagues and I can reasonably aspire to positions in universities and to all the benefits that come with such appointments -- a decent salary, health insurance, sabbatical leaves and, most of all, considerably enhanced status in the community at large. Proof positive of the change in attitude towards Jewish Studies came to me just a few days ago at the wedding of one of my former students, who had gone on to a promising career with a large New York law firm. His mother confided in me that she was somewhat disappointed: she had hoped he would become a professor of Jewish Studies!(1)

The development of Jewish Studies must also be counted a success from the point of view of the Jewish community. For one thing, it represents a tremendous net saving. It is obviously far cheaper to give a million dollars or so to some university to establish a position in Jewish Studies and let that institution worry about the day-to-day bills for classrooms and libraries, pools and gymnasia, building maintenance, secretarial help and office supplies -- that is, in other words, for those thousand and one things that are the really expensive elements in running a school and which otherwise would have to be paid for out of the already stretched resources of the Jewish community. True, we may be perturbed by the "alienation" of Jewish charity dollars to secular institutions, but I suspect that these funds would never have reached Jewish coffers in any case.

From a pedagogical point of view we may also greet this development with satisfaction. Present realities dictate that the vast majority of Jewish young people will attend universities where they will pursue areas of study largely removed from Jewish concerns. Most of these young people have only an elementary knowledge (if that) of Judaism, Jewish history and Jewish thought; most have virtually no functional knowledge of Hebrew. When they think of Jewish things, they think in the very elementary terms that they remember from Hebrew/religious school or in terms of youth-group and synagogue experiences which aimed not at educating them but at enthusing them and making them "identify" with things Jewish. Inevitably, many of these young people dismiss Judaism and their Jewish roots as simply unequal to the intellectual excitement and rigor of the university world. By making Jewish Studies available at the university level, we have given these young people another chance to appreciate the positive and sophisticated aspects of Jewish culture. We have provided a forum within which our children can pursue Jewish subjects on a level beyond that of elementary school. We have legitimized those subjects and made them attractive by "neutralizing" the environment in which they are taught.

How Successful are Jewish Studies?

But there is also a disturbing side to the removal of Jewish Studies from under Jewish auspices and their transplantation to a secular environment. I, at least, am not sure that this development is completely positive. For one thing, enrollment figures are still discouragingly low, and, although I have no firm data, my impression is that they are getting lower.(2) Certainly we are failing to attract Gentiles to our courses. At Harvard, where I taught for many years, even the four or five non-Jews who used to take my Hebrew or modern Jewish history courses have disappeared in recent years.

It is difficult to pinpoint a reason for this drop-off. Some would point to the decline in support for Israel: Israel is no longer "in" and few care about its history or culture. Others point more specifically to the recent unrest there which has made travel to Israel less attractive: if students don't intend to spend a summer there, why learn the language? Sometimes we can point to structural features of university curricula which are totally beyond the control of students and Jewish Studies faculty and which make our courses less attractive: the abolition of a language requirement or increased "great books" requirements, for example, make our own courses less useful to students trying to amass enough credits to graduate. Yet others point to the radically utilitarian attitude that supposedly prevails on university campuses. If you are bound for business school, you don't stop en route to smell the daisies or to study Maimonides, especially if the Maimonides course is not a guaranteed "A." Whatever the explanation, with rare exceptions Jewish Studies courses do not attract large number of students. The field remains a "parochial" subject appealing primarily to the already converted. This is not, of course, to condemn the enterprise; raising the level of discourse among involved Jewish young people is obviously to be desired.

But there is worse news yet. While it is undoubtedly true that we raise the level of our students' understanding of the Jewish past and present, it is equally true that the overwhelming bulk of our courses remain, nevertheless, at a distressingly introductory level. Because there are very few majors in Jewish Studies -- the field leads, after all, almost nowhere professionally -- most students will take only one course with us over the course of their four years in college. Inevitably, they will pick a broad survey course or an introductory language course.(3) In other words, the overwhelming majority of students in our courses will remain at a beginner's level.

So what? After all, this is true in all fields. Indeed, it is an underlying principle of American higher education that we aim to give students an introduction to many different aspects of human culture, rather than encouraging them to specialize, in the European fashion. And, as noted, even an introduction at the university level is much more than was available previously.

In the case of Jewish Studies, however, we have reason not to be satisfied with merely an introduction. A university may be perfectly content to give a business major a smattering of medieval art, or a journalism major one year of Chinese. But insofar as Jewish Studies programs aim at giving students the ability to participate in Jewish culture and contribute to it, a survey course on Jewish history or a year of Hebrew are simply not enough. And the very universalism of the American academic world and its insistence on diversity actually make it quite difficult for even an interested student to take more than a course or two unless he or she chooses to major in the field.

"Basic" and "introductory" Jewish Studies courses may also be unacceptable because they have to be much more elementary than parallel courses in other parts of the university. My colleagues and I daily pay the price of the Jewish community's failure to educate its young. Many, if not most, students taking Spanish or French at college already have studied those languages for a number of years. When we hear calls for two years of required foreign-language study in college, the intent is two years beyond high school level. Almost all students taking Hebrew in college have to start from alef bet (whether or not they attended Hebrew school as children). More generally, every course in American history at a good university can assume that the students already know the basic outlines: who the colonists were, when the Revolution took place, what the Civil War was all about, and so forth. The students are not only fluent in English. They will also have considerable familiarity with the American cultural legacy, both through the classics that they were assigned in high school and through the mass media which they encountered in their daily lives. The Jewish Studies teacher can assume none of this. Quite to the contrary, he (or she) must assume that his students know next to nothing about the Jewish past, that they have only the vaguest idea of what Torah is, that, for them, Talmud is terra totally incognita, and that, indeed, they are functional, and more likely total, illiterates in the language and culture of contemporary Jewish civilization.(4) And when we recall that Jewish Studies are inherently more complex and difficult than many other popular majors, we realize that there is much reason to feel that the present state of affairs is not yet satisfactory.

Jewish Studies in a Universal and Critical Setting

Still, even if the situation is not perfect, surely it is a definite improvement. But an improvement over what? Over total ignorance? That is obviously correct but also trivial. The fact is that the rise of Jewish Studies at secular universities has been accompanied by the demise or, at least, the serious decline, of many Jewish-sponsored colleges and institutions of higher education. Did the one cause the other? I don't know. But I cannot help but briefly tell a personal anecdote. When I was applying to graduate school in Jewish Studies I made the grand tour of a number of institutions, hoping to speak to heads of programs and to learn into which program I would best fit. At one institution, the professor asked me an apparently innocent question: why was I interested in entering this field? I mentioned that I had a strong personal Jewish background and that I wanted to pursue my interests further at the university level. To my astonishment, I was then mercilessly tongue-lashed for what seemed forever; the purpose of the university, I was told, was not to solve my religious problems but to make me a scholar. Were I to get a Ph.D., the university would be declaring that I was competent, not religious. And so on ... Needless to say, I never finished filling out the application for that terrifying institution. But that is not the end of the story. Some years later, that same professor had become the head of a prominent, Jewish-sponsored institution and, at a major professional meeting, he told his colleagues that it was only Jewish institutions which kept alive the spirit and the content of Jewish civilization! So much for scholarly objectivity.

But, in fact, that professor was right both times. The university is not devoted to promoting the ideals of Jewish civilization: it is, at least in theory, devoted to a dispassionate analysis of culture per se. And if we, as a community, put all our Jewish educational eggs into such a universalist basket, we are running the risk of losing the kind of enthusiasm and commitment which created our culture in the first place.

The university is not only a pluralistic cultural setting; it is also often inherently critical of established Jewish values. Some years ago, a student showed me a copy of a crudely drawn poster which, if I remember correctly, he had taken off a bulletin board at Brooklyn College. The poster showed the path to college passing through a graveyard. On the stones we read: "Yiddishkeit;" "Torah;" "Mitzvos," and so on. It is easy to dismiss the less-than-sophisticated cartoonist with epithets and labels. It is more difficult, however, to deny that there are fundamental assumptions and principles in the scholarly method of the Jewish Studies professor which are at odds with the attitudes and positions of his/her rabbinic and communal colleagues.

The professor understands the Jewish experience in categories and terms often not shared by many in the community. Whereas historians, for example, must take change as a given, many Jews, whether Orthodox or Reform, limit change to the outside, "secular" world, but never imagine it in the Jewish holy of holies.(5) The scholar treats the past as critically as the present -- thus offending the nostalgia buffs (whether Yiddishists or neo-Hasidim) who make up much of his audience. For the scholar, the Jews' past ideological, spiritual and political choices were conditioned by events and circumstances and are intelligible in the context of human history. The scholar may believe in the idea of Divine intervention in history, but it is essentially irrelevant to the scholarly endeavor per se.

It is the rabbi's most important task to advocate and promote identification with a specific philosophy or way of Jewish life. The academic, on the other hand, is interested in training students to think critically, to stand apart from society rather than to join it, and to challenge, rather than bolster, accepted truths. Both the rabbi and the academic turn to the past in their teaching, but for very different purposes. The rabbi will try to demonstrate that his (or her) understanding of Judaism has its roots in the past. Thus, the Maccabees, for example, are presented each year as heroes who resisted pagan culture or (in a slightly newer version of the tale) fought for freedom of religion. In other words, Hanukkah is important because it reminds us of values which, not coincidentally, we already happen to hold. The academic, however, might stress that the Maccabee "rebels" were indebted to Syrian rulers for their post-revolt political power, that these "civil libertarians," when they became rulers, forced conquered peoples to convert to Judaism, and so on. The professor might even point out that the same Hasmoneans who are credited with purifying the Temple from Greek idols and idolatry also introduced many Hellenistic conventions and concepts into the very fabric of Judaism.

It is the academic's job to stop students from uncritically accepting the nostalgic longings for an idealized past through which society promotes its own values. Some years ago, a Harvard student, who had just completed my survey course on modern Jewish history, made an appointment to see me. The young man brought me a copy of the text on which his home-town rabbi had based a Yom Kippur sermon. The text was a maudlin song by an American Jewish singing group in which the Jewish past was recounted in terms of pogroms in Russia, Judaism was represented by an old grandfather, and contemporary Jewry was equated with a family that, after the grandfather's death, had forgotten all. The song, of course, advocated a return to making kiddush on Friday nights, on the grounds that "who will be our zeydies if not we?" The sermon was apparently a big hit; not a dry eye was left in the house. Said my student: "Isn't this just what your course was about?"

I didn't have the heart to tell this student that he had missed the point of my course completely, and that, unlike his rabbi, I am not in the business of advocating nostalgia or a grandfather's religion. In the course, I had tried to make the students understand, and empathize with, the agonizing and traumatic challenges which the modern world presented to the Jewish people. I tried to show them how different Jews responded in radically different ways to the trauma of modernity -- how Orthodoxy and Reform, the Bund and the Zionists, modern literature and the yeshivah -- all represented efforts to rebuild the Jewish identity after an older, "organic" and unselfconscious link with the past had been irreparably shattered. I tried to demonstrate that all of these responses were equally valid and equally tempting for different parts of the Jewish population. To the extent that some failed, it was my task to discover why, but it was not my privilege to dismiss any as inherently illegitimate. It was certainly not my right to equate modernity with pogroms or to advocate a return to an imagined world of the shtetl.

To return to the original question -- is the rise of Jewish Studies at the secular university a positive development? -- the answer is not clear. The rise of Jewish Studies in the university has also meant the rise of a critical approach to Jewish sources and the Jewish past, and it is not necessarily true that this is the best way for the Jewish community to encourage positive affiliation among its young. It can be argued that affiliation is encouraged far better by the yeshivah than the university. Two years ago, Professor Ruth Wisse and I, both on sabbatical in Jerusalem, were remarking about the recently reduced hours of service at the Jewish National Library on the Givat Ram campus. Professor Wisse noted, only half in jest, that each day, as she rode on the bus home after a frustratingly short work day in the library, she passed many yeshivot in whose study halls the lights shone brightly until the early hours of the morning, and whose desks were filled with eager students. Even in the library itself, most of the seats in the Jewish Studies reading room were occupied, it seemed, by very traditional figures in long black coats and broad brimmed black hats eagerly tracing down unknown rabbinic texts, rather than by more "modernized" or "Westernized" university students bent upon critical analysis. Of course, images can be deceiving, and there is some debate, even in Israel, as to the extent or import of these changes in the world of Jewish scholarship. But this contrast between the unquestionably growing world of the yeshivah and the not-so- populous world of advanced Jewish Studies does lead us to question the utility of academe for instilling strong Jewish identity.

The Ambivalence of Jewish Studies Professionals

Another, possibly unexpected, result of the rise of Jewish Studies has been the emergence of a cadre of academically based professional intellectuals who, in many sectors of our community, have supplanted the traditional Jewish intellectual leadership. In many circles it is the university professor -- and not the rabbi -- who is now regarded as the expert on Jewish law and lore, on Jewish history and Israeli politics, on the Jewish community and its future.

The prominence of this new group of academic intellectuals is not, per se, a bad thing. I am far from echoing the sentiments of those like Russell Jacoby who bemoan the institutionalization of American intellectual life generally.(6) Quite to the contrary, I believe that for the Jews, at least, "professionalization" has led to raised standards and a far more sophisticated discussion of Jewish cultural issues. Those well-known writers, literary critics and social thinkers who, because they were Jewish and had established themselves in other fields, were once sought out as interpreters of the Jewish present and predictors of the Jewish fate, have been, for better or worse, largely displaced by expert scholars who are -- one hopes -- less likely to inflate personal ignorance into specious arguments for links between Judaism and the alienation of modern man.

And yet, for all the raising of standards, we may wonder about the promotion of this new group of Jewish academics into positions of influence within our community. Though they are the major contact that most of our young people will have with Jewish thought and history on a sophisticated level, these academics owe neither institutional nor intellectual loyalty to any part of the Jewish community. Indeed, at least some of them are not even practicing Jews. I well remember a recent case in which Jewish money had funded a new chair in Jewish Studies and the university offered the position to two well-known scholars, both of Jewish parentage, one of whom had been for a time, and one of whom still was, a practicing Christian! Please understand me: I do not believe that Jewish Studies at the university level can, or should, be taught only by Jews. Quite to the contrary, I am delighted whenever I see the field opening up and attracting new students of whatever faith or persuasion. My purpose now, however, is to discuss the ambiguities of the relation between academic Jewish Studies and the Jewish community. On this level, it seems obvious that it is in the interests of the Jewish community to ensure that its children are educated by people committed to Jewish group survival. The community, therefore, must question the value of Jewish Studies courses in achieving that aim.

Of course, the vast majority of Jewish Studies teachers are, indeed, personally committed to Jewish life and Jewish continuity in one way or another. Granted the tremendous amount of background training required for most areas of Jewish scholarship, it could almost not be otherwise. Only those with deep personal concern for the issues involved are likely even to think of entering such a demanding field.(7) The very high number of hovshei kippah among the members of the Association for Jewish Studies is a good indication of the true state of the field. But self-selection can guarantee only so much. Professor Gershon Hundert of McGill University has recently suggested that a number of structural factors actually lead the Jewish academic -- no matter what his or her personal orientation -- to be uninvolved or only minimally involved with parochial Jewish concerns on campus.(8) Hundert suggests, in fact, that Jewish Studies professors were paradoxically "in the academy precisely in order to avoid becoming engaged."

The issue is not merely the individual psychology of professors. Jewish Studies, by its very nature, has been rooted in ambivalence from the very beginning. The high-sounding words and lofty ambitions of those young, university-educated, German Jews who established the Verein fur Kultur und Wissenschaft des Judentums in 1819 pointed simultaneously in two directions, one inward and one outward. On the one hand, they were hoping to educate the Jewish people and purify Jewish tradition; on the other, they hoped to spread information about the Jews among Gentiles and thus increase respect for Judaism. On both levels, these young intellectuals were trying to resolve a deep-seated problem of personal identity. Like all modern diaspora Jews who live, in some sense, in a state of permanent but partial alienation from their Jewishness, these founders had to try to "recreate" the Jews and Judaism in their own image and, thus, make a place for themselves in their people. In their outwardly directed efforts, too, they were seeking to legitimize themselves as Jews in the eyes of their non-Jewish neighbors. Nahum Glatzer described the situation well when he pictured the Jewish scholar as "a homo novus in search of a home in a world that was not yet ready to grant him this privilege."(9)

As is well known, the Verein itself must be counted something of a failure; many of the early members, including the jurist Eduard Gans and the poet Heinrich Heine, would soon convert to Christianity at least in part to further their own academic and professional careers. But this very "failure" highlights for us what has proven to lie at the heart of the effort to introduce Jewish Studies into the university. This effort is not a "neutral" and "objective" support of scientific research; it is an integral part of the struggle to redefine Jewish identity -- and this is the essential point -- in purely secular terms. In Jewish Studies, Jewish intellectuals are seeking to legitimize themselves in their own eyes and in the eyes of their peers. Several scholars have recently written about the dual loyalties of Jewish Studies professors, and of the mixing of the sacred and the secular in the field.(10) What I would like to stress is that the professor is not just personally torn between two worlds; his (or her) discipline is, of necessity, ambivalent for it is that ambivalence which gave it birth. If the growth of Jewish Studies has made very little practical difference to Jewish life on campus, as Gershon Hundert suggests, it may well be because of the nature of the field itself.(11)

New Agendas for Jewish Historians

I have tried to raise questions about the manner in which the Jewish Studies professor articulates and creates Jewish identity, but I do not doubt that he or she does, in fact, serve many students as Jewish mentor and model. Though the thought of it frightens me, I know that I have changed the direction of my students' Jewish lives because they have regularly told me so. And if I am a Jewish mentor, I am obliged to investigate my own assumptions about Jewish identity and the Jewish future. What is the content of the Jewish identity which I project?

Certain elements in the academic's sense of Jewish identity are obvious. First, this identity is squarely centered on literacy. Ignorance is the major enemy of all academics, Jewish or not, and I suspect that most of my colleagues would prefer a learned apikoros to a pious am ha-arez any day. In the specific context of Jewish Studies, literacy implies intimate knowledge of Hebrew and at least reading knowledge of Yiddish, Aramaic and three or four other languages that Jews and Jewish scholarship have used over the centuries. The crucial test which defines whether someone is a legitimate member of the profession or a mere "interloper" in Jewish Studies is whether or not that person has a working knowledge of Hebrew.

Literacy also implies familiarity with the texts of Jewish tradition, although this will obviously vary with the specific field. There is a tendency among some "old timers" to believe that if you haven't spent time in a yeshivah and can't read a page of Talmud you can't possibly be a Jewish scholar. This stance is gradually fading, contradicted as it is by the facts of Jewish scholarly life, but familiarity with traditional texts remains one of the strongest elements in Jewish Studies and forms a major dividing line between those in the field and those general historians, archaeologists, linguists and so forth who are only incidentally interested in Jews.

Neither of these elements -- not linguistic facility nor textual literacy -- will appear particularly startling. After all, must one not be familiar with German to do German history, with French to do French history, and so on? But, in fact, there is a significant cultural claim and methodological assumption which lies behind these prerequisites for Jewish Studies. It might be argued, for example, that a specialist in American Jewish history need not know Hebrew, or that a student of modern literature written by Jews in non-Jewish languages need not be familiar with the Hebrew text of the Bible. But Hebrew and the Bible are prerequisites, not so much because of the content of one's research, as because of its context. The Jewish Studies professor requires this linguistic and textual background because he or she chooses to view American Jewish history and modern Jewish literature and all other sub-specialties as part of a cultural and historical continuum known as the Jewish experience. Hebrew and the texts of tradition provide the common thread which links and defines that continuum.

It is this assumption that justifies the existence of the Association for Jewish Studies, an organization which includes in its membership specialists from a host of disciplines and methodologies. Most, if not all, of the Association's members belong to other professional societies which focus on a specific period, area, text, or scientific methodology. But they also belong to the Association for Jewish Studies because they see themselves as part of an effort to study the Jewish people per se. In other words, they make the assumption that the Jewish people in America cannot be understood as simply a group of Americans who incidentally happen to be Jewish. Jewishness is not merely an accidental quality; it is of the essence.

The salient characteristic of modern Jewish Studies, therefore, is an intense and passionate effort to discover and delineate an authentic and independent Jewish society and culture through the ages. The field of Jewish Studies assumes that, no matter how much Jews took from surrounding civilizations, they also addressed Jewish concerns in the terminological, conceptual and often institutional vocabulary of the Jewish past. Demarcating the contours of this "independent authenticity" is the cardinal task of Jewish Studies today.

This was not the case a century ago. Modern Jewish scholarship emerged in large measure from the effort to demonstrate the positive results of tolerating Jews. Historians therefore regularly churned out volumes on "Jewish Contributions to Civilization" and "Great Jews in Medicine."(12) Such apologetics are still, of course, on the agenda of many. I am still reprimanded by Jews if, in a lecture, I deviate from the old program and suggest that Jews may not have all been pious scholars, honest merchants and upstanding citizens who, through no fault of their own, were the victims of blind fanaticism on the part of their ignorant neighbors. Such concerns exist even in the university. After a recent academic lecture on Jewish moneylending in the Renaissance, I was asked by a colleague if I was not worried about promoting anti-Semitism by focusing on such activities. My answer to all such complaints and queries is the same: Jews have reached a point where, thank God, simplistic apologetics are no longer needed. More to the point, we have learned that they are futile. It is counter-productive to portray the Jews of the past as "all righteous, all wise, and all knowing the entire Torah." It is ultimately more useful to portray the Jews and their relations with the outside world as these really were, not as we wish they had been.

But, most important, apologetics are simply not a significant part of my goal as a scholar, and I do not care very much what an anti-Semite might make of my work. I am, for example, interested in the moneylenders because they dominated the Jewish society of Renaissance Italy, because their careers defined the parameters of Jewish existence, and because their perceptions determined the aspirations and limits of Jewish culture for the rest of the community. Since I am interested in understanding the dynamics of this Jewish world, I must try to understand the basic experience of the moneylenders, how they ran their businesses, how they competed with each other, and how they profited from the Gentile society around them. I do not, however, have to begin my analysis by demonstrating that social prejudice had driven these Jewish moneylenders into an unsavory profession against their will.(13)

The turn away from apologetics in contemporary Jewish historiography is a direct reflection of the changing agenda of contemporary Jewish life and the changed nature of Jewish identity. Because nineteenth-century Jewry was deeply engaged in a struggle for emancipation and social acceptance, its historians naturally emphasized the extent of Jewish participation in Western culture, or the antiquity (read: legitimacy) of a local Jewish presence. Nowadays, on the other hand, the Israeli state legitimizes Jewish nationality in new terms, and historians seek to delineate an un-hyphenated Jewish society in the past, one which could confront, and stand in opposition to, surrounding cultures.

The desire to establish independent authenticity for Jewish society has freed contemporary historians to appreciate aspects of Jewish culture which had once been embarrassing. There is a general refusal to dismiss any part of Jewish culture as mere credulity, as mere traditionalism, as merely minhag avoteinu be-yadeinu. Rather, scholars insist that all of Jewish thought is worthy of analysis and that it all can, and must, be treated with the same sophisticated analytical categories applied elsewhere. Kabbalah, folklore and halakhah have all joined philosophy as valid areas of research. Moreover, the study of Jewish culture has become an end sufficient unto itself. We speak not about the contributions of Jews to outside culture nor even, at least in the same way as we once did, of cultural symbiosis. (Scholem has warned us about symbioses which exist only in the minds of one of the parties.) Rather, we speak of active polemic, of a Jewish society aware of its surroundings and in a constant confrontational or, at least, dialectical, dialogue with them.

Similarly, the new search for the contours of independent Jewish existence has led historians to investigate parts of the Jewish past which had once been dismissed. The historian engaged in describing the tax structure of the medieval community, or the size of a typical pre-modern Jewish family, is participating in the search for an independently functioning Jewish world informed by, and in turn shaping, an autonomous Jewish culture. The fact that a Jewish financier helped develop the railroads of Russia seems no more important, from this perspective, than the manner in which millions of poor East European Jews made their daily living.

What I have traced here is, I supposed, less an agenda than a mood, less a programmatic statement than a description of the atmosphere within which Jewish Studies are carried out. To me, at least, that mood and atmosphere seem positive, both personally and academically, and they have allowed for tremendous strides in the field. There is no guarantee that the new scholarship will be more objective than the old; I can point to any number of recent works which are just as tendentious as those issued a century ago for all that they have eschewed apologetics. But the very willingness --indeed, eagerness -- with which Jews have entered the university world seems to bode well for the future. The rise of Jewish Studies may appear, at first, as a concession to the secularization of our age and an unfortunate result of a decline in Jewish communal bonds. But, in its underlying assumptions, the scholarly endeavor known as Jewish Studies may represent an effort to articulate and legitimize a positive Jewish identity within the pluralistic and secular world of today. The very fact that Jews have agreed to compete in the open marketplace of ideas is, I believe, a positive sign.

BERNARD D. COOPERMAN is Louis L. Kaplan Professor of Jewish History at the University of Maryland.


1. There is an old debate about the motives behind American Jewry's dedicated pursuit of a university education and entry into the liberal professions. Was it out of respect for learning or a desire for upward social mobility? This is a largely sterile question: parents' proud boasts about "our son the doctor" imply both a desire for monetary comforts and a respect for education. We should also remember that, however much they valued Torah, even Eastern European Jews did not necessarily want their children to become professional rabbis and teachers. No doubt thinking about his own bitter experience with a wealthy father-in-law, Joseph Baer Soloveichik (1828-92) complained about Jews who sought to marry their daughters off to the sons of scholars but refused to entertain the thought of marrying these same daughters to boys who were scholars themselves. "It is clear," he wrote, "that Torah |i.e., learning~ is an important value to |the father~, but it gives no pleasure .... He wants his daughter ... to enjoy this world with a carriage, etc." (Beit ha-Levi to Genesis 24, 37-38 and cf. EJ 15:131.) I don't know about the rabbinate, but these days a professorship of Jewish Studies is definitely an acceptable "job for a Jewish boy."

2. A subject which deserves analysis and which, unfortunately, cannot be treated in the present context, is the emergence of the yeshivah as a successful alternative model of Jewish higher education both in America and in Israel. Suffice it to say that the yeshivah world, which once provided the best candidates for graduate school, is increasingly able to hold on to its elite students and give them acceptable jobs and status. The relevance of this change to our entire perception of the present and future development of Jewish culture cannot be underestimated.

3. I am ignoring the question of whether the extremely popular courses in such fields as war in the Middle East or the Holocaust qualify for Jewish Studies. I will point out, at least, that they add little to a student's understanding of Jewish civilization.

4. To my knowledge, the relation between Hebrew-school training and the Jewish college student's courses in Jewish studies has not yet been studied. But every one of us in the field has heard, time and again, from our students that they take our courses out of frustration with the low level of academic achievement in Hebrew school. I do not believe that this type of "negative incentive" should be the goal of our communal schools.

5. The ostensible difference between Orthodoxy and Reform (to take two examples) on this very issue of change is not to the point here; many adherents of both movements ignore historical development, differing from each other only in what they perceive as the unchanging Jewish core.

6. The Last Intellectuals. American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: Basic Books, 1987).

7. The historian, John Marino, once joked that medievalists are all lapsed Jesuits,lapsed Calvinists or lapsed Orthodox Jews. Of course, this sort of lapse never implies unconcern.

8. Gershon David Hundert, "The Impact of Jewish Studies on Jewish Life on Campus," Association for Jewish Studies Newsletter, 2nd series, 1 (Fall, 1988): 6 f.

9. Nahum N. Glatzer, "The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Studies," Studies in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Intellectual History, ed. Alexander Altmann (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 45.

10. Arthur Green, "Jewish Studies and Jewish Faith," Tikkun 1 (1986); Susan Handelman, "The State of Contemporary Literary Criticism and Jewish Studies," Association for Jewish Studies Newsletter, 2nd series, (Fall, 1988): 3-5 and 16.

11. My own teacher, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, explored the implications of the "ironic awareness that the very mode in which |the historian~ delves into the Jewish past represents a decisive break with that past" in the last chapter of his Zakhor. Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1982).

12. See the insightful remarks of Bernard Lewis, "The Pro-Islamic Jews," reprinted in Islam in History, pp. 123-137 and idem, History Remembered, Recovered, Invented (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), part III. In a field with which I am particularly familiar, the history of Italian Jewry, nothing illustrates the tendentiousness of this type of scholarship better than Moritz Gudermann's idealized picture of the relations between Italian Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors in his Die Geschichte des Erziehungswesens und der Cultur der abenlandischen Juden (1880-88). Gudermann cited such positive relations as a model for contemporary treatment of the Jews in vienna where he was Chief Rabbi. (It is not coincidental that Gudermann was instrumental in keeping the first Zionist Congress out of Vienna; the rabbi felt that Herzl's nationalist goals undermined the Jewish struggle for acceptance into general society.) His views were echoed by Cecil Roth and by virtually every other historian who dealt with the period. See most recently Robert Bonfil's important analysis of "The Historian's Perception of the Jews in the Italian Renaissance. Towards a Reappraisal," Revue des Etudes Juives 143 (1984): 59-82.

13. I am not trying to suggest that the new historiography must occupy itself with socially less "palatable" members of past Jewish society per se. Indeed, recent efforts by both novelists and historians to glorify Jewish participation in the American underworld seem quite old fashioned and apologetic to me, since they accept the current romantic fascination with the criminal and then try to prove that there were "Great Jewish Contributions to Crime."
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Jewish Congress
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:A Success Story
Author:Cooperman, Bernard D.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:Job, or the suffering of God.
Next Article:American values and Jewish tradition: synthesis or conflict.

Related Articles
Standing Again at Sinai.
Jewish Social Ethics.
Taking hold of Deuteronomy.
Decentering Judaism and Christianity: Using Feminist Theory to Construct a Postmodern Jewish-Christian Theology.
Tzeidah la-derekh: textual content for our Jewish journeys.
Gadol kvod habriot: placing human dignity at the center of Conservative Judaism.
The sacred center.
The search for a usable future.
Celebrating Jewish culture.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters