WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO RECEIVE TRADITION?
Jewish Studies in Higher Education1

by Martin Kavka

Y'all might assume that a paper on the relationship between a college education and Jewish studies takes on a topic that is oh-so-very last millennium, and should thereby be deplored. Indeed, you'd have good reason to make this assumption. After all, to take on such a topic is to engage in a project of defending the field of Jewish studies. But why should Jewish studies have to be defended? There is a wide breadth of subject areas in the university, and there is no good reason for this breadth not to include Jewish studies. However, the issue that I want to address today is not that of what a college should or should not offer its students. It's that of an institution's goal in making such offerings. What is Jewish studies for? What does the purpose of a liberal education have to do with the subject matter of Jewish studies? Today, I want to persuade you that the answer to these questions has everything to do with the work of Judah Goldin (1914-1998), the scholar of rabbinics after whom this lecture is named, as well as that of the early twentieth-century German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929).

The title of this paper may give a misleading impression as to what I think the answers are. You may reflexively think of "tradition" as that which is opposed to the modern; after all, people who call for a return to tradition are implying that at the moment, we're situated somewhere else. And so the association of Jewish studies with receiving tradition may conjure up for you an image of the Jewish-studies classroom as a place where teachers pass on some kind of esoteric knowledge that has nothing to do with what happens in other classrooms. Such an image should be alienating to y'all; it's not how we think of what goes on in North American colleges and universities. A liberal education, as currently understood, trains students in various ways of knowing, and gives students the skills of awareness and critique that makes them good citizens and good persons in an increasingly globalized and depersonalized society. If it studies religious traditions, it is not to receive them as sets of facts, but as examples of how societies create meaning. Therefore, a liberal education that studies religious traditions does not simply receive them for their own sake; it receives them in order to shape them in the light of what we mean by "liberal education." This is one of the things that separates the academic field of religious studies from traditional religious curricula.

It would nevertheless be foolish of me to try to persuade you that the study of Judaism in the American university has always had a structure that is the diametric opposite of what goes on in Jewish academies (yeshivot). They're more alike then we may think at first glance. In passing down tradition from teacher to student, a yeshiva curriculum tells the student what Judaism is; it constructs the boundaries of Jewish identity. The study of Judaism in the American university has also been engaged in the construction of Judaism.

This is evident from even a brief and choppy history of Jewish studies in America.2 At their origin, courses of instruction that would overlap with what we now call "Jewish studies" had nothing to do with actual Jews; in some sense, it didn't even have anything to do with Judaism as an independent field of study. The story begins—as so many things unfortunately do—at Harvard, which required Hebrew instruction as part of its curriculum for first-year students from 1640 to 1755. None of the instructors publicly identified as Jews. (Judah Monis [1683-1764], who taught Hebrew at Harvard from 1722 to 1760, had served as a rabbi but converted to Christianity before taking up his post; the sincerity of his conversion has remained an open issue.) The Hebrew requirement had everything to do with the Puritan context of American Christianity at this time. It assumed that the education of a gentleman necessitated his immersion in a strict religious discipline that could asst him in reaching what at that time was considered to be the goal of a university education—the increased knowledge of God. Of course, one could not know the will of God accurately unless one knew the Hebrew Bible, as well as the New Testament, in their original languages. The knowledge of Hebrew, then, was necessary for the cultivation of good Christian gentlemen.3

The narrative shifts quite dramatically after the Civil War, when universities began to create what at that time were known as "Semitics departments"—linguistics departments that focused on Hebrew and cognate ancient languages— and, for the first time, hired Jews (usually rabbis or their sons) to teach in them.4 These departments arose for a variety of reasons, all of which had to do with the attempt of elite universities at the time to steer American culture away from what was seen as the dangers of capitalism. The president of Harvard in the late nineteenth century, Charles William Eliot, wrote that "a true university stands for intellectual and spiritual forces against materialism and luxury."5 But universities also needed students at this time—once the industrial revolution had begun, a college degree was no longer a prerequisite for financial success—and so the elite universities, mostly affiliated with various Christian denominations, began to market their intellectual and spiritual forces to this newly materialist age. Semitics departments assisted this project in three ways. The first has to do with the subject matter taught there. Instead of teaching theology, they largely taught philology as part of the so-called "higher" biblical criticism.6 Teaching biblical criticism allowed universities to navigate a middle road between those American clergy who thought that universities were terribly godless places (because they were teaching evolution in their science departments), and those proponents of evolution who thought that universities were too God-centered, on account of their denominational affiliations. The second has to do with both the subject matter taught and the people who taught them. At a time when intellectuals' understanding of rationality led to a humanist ethic, scholars began to understand the New Testament primarily in terms of a "social gospel," as an ethical teaching and not in terms of speculative dogma about the nature of God or the requirements for salvation. The hiring of Jews as instructors in Semitics departments allowed universities to "set an example of religious toleration," as Eliot had charged that they must.7 The third had to do with protecting Christianity. With the rise of antisemitism in Europe in the late nineteenth century, university presidents thought that the critical study of the Hebrew Bible by Jews could counter the arguments made by contemporary European linguists that Israelite culture simply was not all that important in the context of the Ancient Near East, arguments that American elites feared would soon be turned against Christianity itself.8

The rise of "Semitics" in the nineteenth century helped universities navigate the various culture wars of their time so that they and their students could perceive themselves, and be perceived by others, as being at the forefront of cultural progress. However, they weren't the only beneficiaries. Local Jewish communities, as the donors of the funds necessary to create these positions, also benefited. In 1887, when some members of Temple Emanu-El in New York City donated money to Columbia University to hire Richard Gottheil to teach rabbinic literature and Jewish Biblical interpretation, they did this in part to confirm themselves as modern cultured individuals. Gaining representation on the faculties of major universities was part of the process by which Jewish immigrants began to come to feel at home in America.9

The stress on languages and texts at this time, as opposed to history or philosophy (much less something such as what we today call "cultural studies"), reflects a pattern of thinking that strikes us today as strangely ahistorical. The tendency at this time was to see Judaism as equivalent to rabbinic Judaism and ancient Israelite religion. The wide range of this body of literature that begins with the Book of Genesis and ends with the Bablyonian Talmud in the seventh century CE could be gathered together to give an adequate representation of what Judaism was in its essence. At Gottheil's death, Joshua Bloch of the New York Public Library (where Gottheil oversaw the collection of "Oriental" texts) wrote that Gottheil's work served to give a "more accurate knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures"; his work in Semitics enabled him to pass on the "transvalued estimate of the surviving literature of the ancient Hebrews which modern scholarship had arrived at . . . [to] intelligent people without any disturbance of faith."10 To put it another way, Jewish studies in the nineteenth century assumed that there was this, this . . . thing—a stable, unified, meaningful entity called "Judaism"—that could be carried out of the ancient world and applied to modern culture. For Gottheil, it was indeed his scholarly knowledge of how to read and interpret ancient manuscripts that signified his modern and enlightened status. The Egyptians that are geographically more proximate to these manuscripts, but do not live with them as Gottheil did, are from another, more primitive age. This is readily apparent from the opening of his 1905 article "Some Hebrew Manuscripts in Cairo."

In addition to the treasures drawn out from the Cairo Genizah, there are a few other MSS. to be found in that city which do not seem to be well known, and yet deserve some attention. Reference has been made to them by various travelers, but no one, to my knowledge, has looked at them with some care. I have gone to the trouble of making a short list of these MSS., if only with the result of bringing them to the ken of scholars. To describe them accurately would have occupied more of my leisure than I was able to give to such work: it would have been attended with peculiar and almost insurmountable difficulties. Persuasion, bakshish and limitless time are needed to overcome the peculiar circumstances attending upon such a labour in Egypt. I found this to be especially true among the Jews. I continually encountered a deadweight, against which everything seemed powerless except one or more of these forces. In most cases I had to work with a motley horde of sluttish, unkempt, and unwashed men, women and children peering over my shoulders and into my face. My haste to get away may have been indelicate—but very necessary in view of my natural wish to carry away no more than I had brought.11

This belief that ancient Judaism could teach Americans—say, students at Columbia University—how to be modern, or the belief that ancient Judaism actually was modern, should strike y'all as odd. I am sure that some of you at this point are shaking your heads in disbelief, sarcastically telling yourselves, "It's so obvious! The inability to women to initiate divorce proceedings in classical Jewish law is modern indeed!" (If one is a cultural conservative who thinks that ancient Jewish marriage practices are desirable in contemporary society, it is not because such practices are "modern" in the sense of forward-thinking, but precisely because they are premodern). A sentence such as "ancient Judaism is modern and cultured" makes about as much sense as the Mona Lisa watching an episode of Desperate Housewives on her iPod.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2006, Vol. 56,  No 2.