Jewish Studies and Jewish Identity: Some Implications of Secularizing Torah

By Cooperman, Bernard D. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Jewish Studies and Jewish Identity: Some Implications of Secularizing Torah


Cooperman, Bernard D., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


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. …

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