American Jewish Historical Quarterly
Vol. LXII, No. 2 (December, 1972)
Jews are wont to say that it is difficult to be a Jew. Everything they achieve requires more thought and effort than must be exercised by other peoples. From this interesting volume it appears that the introduction of Jewish studies into American universities is another such instance. More problems are emerging with regard to methods and goals than one is ever likely to encounter in connection with the addition of any other academic discipline to the curriculum of either a graduate or undergraduate school.
The volume consists of a brief introduction by the editor and thirteen papers on the teaching of Judaica in American universities, most of which were presented in September, 1969 at Brandeis University. Among the authors of the papers are many of America’s most respected Jewish scholars. And the range of their concerns is great. They deal with the very meaning of the term, “Jewish Studies”; the manpower needs and the diverse backgrounds of the students who will be interested in the subject; and, above all, with the Jewish existential situation which makes Jewish Studies not only an area for legitimate academic development but also an instrument for Jewish survival. It is this last point that was of greatest interest to this reviewer. More than any other problem with which the book deals, this one pinpoints how different is the matter of introducing Jewish studies to American universities from the introduction of any other subject. The introduction of Hellenistic studies is of little interest even to present day Greeks. Certainly it will not affect Greek politics. But the introduction of Jewish studies is of vital concern to a vibrant Jewish community not only in America but also all over the world.
The leadership of the Association of Jewish Studies, which sponsored the colloquium, has heretofore maintained one stand vis-a-vis the Jewish community. They insist that the American Jewish community should give financial and moral support to the cause but, in order to safeguard the academic integrity of the programs, the American Jewish community shall keep hands off faculty appointments, the subject-matter of the courses, the priorities in course offerings, etc. However, if — as so many of the published essays reveal — the survival of the Jewish community is also a legitimate goal of the program, by what right does one estop the community from expressing its needs and its priorities? In that area it is at least as competent as the cloistered academicians.
In this connection, the brilliant essay of Professor Irving Greenberg is relevant, but the equally brilliant essay of Professor Marshall Sklare is virtually a lamentation. He writes on the unique situation of “Contemporary Jewish Studies” not only vis-a-vis the academic family as a whole but also vis-a-vis what has always been deemed the proper scope of Jewish scholarship. Yet who but the Jewish community will be able to promote the very activities which will result in a highly respected goal of the time-honored academic discipline called philosophy — to “know itself”! And this the Jewish community has a right to achieve.
The tension of the Jewish scholar himself, as he is ambivalent about his objectivity in scholarly enterprise and his personal loyalty to his ancestral heritage, is beautifully described by Professor Samuel Sandmel. And Professor William Hallo, in his approach to Biblical Studies, is very much aware of what Biblical scholarship can do to the religious commitment of many students who will opt that particular field. To what extent must faculty members be sensitive to the possibility that they will alienate students from, rather than inspire them to, Jewish loyalty? This is a responsibility professors of a new natural or social science hardly have. Here again, we have a unique element associated with the introduction of Jewish studies to American universities. Even Professor Nahum Sarna, in dealing with the same subject, cautions against iconoclasm.
With regard to the teaching of Talmud, it is unfortunate that the prejudices of the Professors of Talmud against the Roshei Yeshiva (teachers of Talmud in Yeshivos) are not only explicit in the essays but also adversely affect their reasoning. Thus, Professor Baruch A. Levine makes a specious distinction between the study of Talmud as a religious and as a secular discipline (p. 52). If your objective is to ascertain what the Halacha demands of you or the community, you are pursuing a religious discipline, but if you want to penetrate the thought world of the Sages without regard to its practical applicability, you are pursuing an academic discipline! If, as a political scientist, I study and teach the duties of public officials and/or citizens, have I thereby become a teacher of religion? Or, if I teach law — its norms and its mandates, do I move from the law school to the seminary? As one who teaches Talmud in a state and city supported university, I am ever mindful of the limitations on me. No matter how enthusiastic I am about my subject, I must not indoctrinate. However, a session in Talmud given by Dr. Joseph B. Soloveichik in a university would be at least as legitimate an intellectual undertaking as any I can conceive. Professors of Jewish studies need not denigrate their own mentors. They admit that they have a long way to go before they can even define their own subject. And they need the Jewish community as the Jewish community needs them. There must be less professional pride and exclusiveness. In working together with all interested people and organizations lies the hope for greatest achievement.
Professor Jick’s volume is a “first fruit” and a very heartwarming one. The experiences of the next few years will yield many more interesting analyses and self-studies. We may be on the threshold of a new era in Jewish scholarship. But we must proceed with humility and as few pre- conceptions as possible.