Magazine article Cross Currents

What Does It Mean to Receive Tradition? Jewish Studies in Higher Education

Magazine article Cross Currents

What Does It Mean to Receive Tradition? Jewish Studies in Higher Education

Article excerpt

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. …

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