Jewish Studies in North American Colleges and Universities: Yesterday , Today , and Tomorrow

By Baskin, Judith R. | Shofar, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Jewish Studies in North American Colleges and Universities: Yesterday , Today , and Tomorrow


Baskin, Judith R., Shofar


Academic Jewish Studies refers to the systematic and analytical study of the Jewish experience using modern research tools and methodologies.1 Schol- ars of academic Jewish Studies use a range of disciplinary approaches from the humanities and social studies to investigate and teach aspects of Jewish religion, history, thought, and culture, as well as associated languages and literatures. Academic Jewish Studies research and teaching at their best are nondoctrinal, nonparochial, and nondenominational; they take place in secular public and private institutions of higher education and in some seminaries, both Jewish and Christian. Some of these institutions offer only undergraduate courses, sometimes with a major or minor in Jewish Stud- ies; others have graduate programs at the M.A. or doctoral levels. Scholars specializing in academic Jewish Studies are not necessarily Jews and their students do not fit a particular profile. Academic Jewish Studies instruction offers access to a body of knowledge and potential for intellectual growth to all interested students, regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds. There are no absolute data on the number of positions, programs, and de- partments in Jewish Studies in the United States and Canada. In 2013, the website of the Association of Jewish Studies (www.ajsnet.org) listed more than 200 Jewish Studies programs or departments and 230 endowed posi- tions at North American colleges and universities.

JEWISH STUDIES IN NORTH AMERICA

The substantial expansion of Jewish Studies in North American universi- ties is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although Hebrew language and literature was included in the curriculum of several of the earliest colleges to be established on the North American continent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was taught as part of a theologically oriented cur- riculum designed to assist potential Christian clergymen in understanding their religious heritage. Some instructors of Hebrew, such as Judah Monis, who taught at Harvard University between 1722 and 1760, were Jews or of Jewish background.2

Jewish Studies at American universities were truly established in the 1890s under the influence of German Jewish scholarship, specifically the Wissenschaft des Judentums (scientific study of Judaism) movement. In the late-nineteenth-century United States, some positions in academic Jewish learning were established at secular universities, most often with the active communal and financial support of members of the American Jewish com- munity. In the early twentieth century, Jewish scholars held at least sixteen subsidized positions in Semitic Studies at major universities. Many of the donors for these positions hoped that this recognition of the centrality of Judaism and Jewish literary, philosophical, and cultural achievements in the development of western civilization would also hasten acceptance and appreciation of Jews in the United States. Certainly, the establishment of positions in Semitic languages and literatures legitimized the Jewish and Judaic presence in the American university at a time when being a Jew could disqualify a candidate for an academic post. Most of the courses in Semitics that these scholars offered appealed to advanced students in biblical and related subjects, both Jewish and non-Jewish; they were generally beyond the interests and ability levels of most undergraduates. Still, their very existence delivered the message that the Jewish intellectual heritage belonged in the university curriculum and this was reinforced by the establishment of the American Academy for Jewish Research (AAJR) by a small group of Jewish Studies scholars in 1920. By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, however, communal support for university positions diminished as Jewish philanthropists focused on the multiple needs of the large hosts of immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe.3

American academic Jewish Studies took a new direction in the in- terwar era when several elite institutions, again with generous financial support from American Jews and Jewish communities, established posi- tions in areas such as Jewish history and Modern Hebrew language and literature. …

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