Those at the Center of a Constant Tension in Judaic Studies
By Yishai Schwartz
Professor Christine Hayes’ lecture series on the Hebrew Bible has been taped, uploaded onto the internet, and watched tens of thousands of times worldwide. Her book on ritual and moral impurity in the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zara has been widely praised by scholars of ancient Judaism. The students that take her courses on Rabbinic literature, the Bible, and the development of Judaism all describe a professor that inhabits her subject matter, who is genuinely passionate about the ancient texts and long-dead sages and authors to whom she gives voice. This is high praise for any teacher, but it is particularly powerful when describing a professor of Judaism who neither was born into nor practices the faith.
At the heart of Professor Hayes’ apparent passion lies a paradox. Rejection of the text’s ultimate authority and readiness to challenge its assumptions are the hallmarks of critical study. Academics view themselves as external observers and analysts of the tradition, while rabbis view themselves as part of the tradition itself. Unlike any other field of scholarship, academic religious studies automatically contrasts itself with a distinct scholarly community which operates with radically different assumptions about a text’s authority and intrinsic worth. The simple existence of religious communities that still live by their traditions necessitates a stronger dichotomy between critical study and passionate reverence than that which exists in literature departments. There seems to be no danger in drawing lessons from Shakespeare that reverberate in the human soul, but with Bible and Talmud, the stakes seem higher. Yet professors like Hayes engage with religious texts in similar fashion. However, beyond the simple blurring of that religious-academic distinction, there is an added layer of incongruity when the professor who sometimes seems to walk among the Talmud’s sages happens to be a gentile. So the questions pose themselves: how strong is academic- religious dichotomy to begin with, and what has been the place of non-Jewish academics in demarcating or deconstructing that divide?
With an eye to history, it becomes clear that the presence and success of these “outsiders” in the Judaic Studies is only the most recent step in the gradual opening up of a field. The questions that these scholars embody are only the latest manifestations of a centuries-long battle over the degree to which this insular living tradition can and should be studied academically. The history of this conflict, and the ways in which the desire to preserve religious authenticity alongside academic validity has played out, indicate some of the pitfalls of this balancing act. The place of non-Jews in this history can serve as a sort of weathervane for the limitations of this balancing act. Their presence and passion serving as an indicator of a synthesis achieved, while their absence and exclusion signifying a miscalculation.
Ever since the first Jewish texts were written and redacted, they have been studied. The rabbinic tradition emphasized the importance of the study of the Talmud and the classic codes, and generations of rabbis have reverently pored over their books, fully believing that they are reading the word of the living God. As each generation studied the works of the previous generations, the corpus of rabbinic literature expanded. These scholars were the quintessential insiders; their scholarship resulted from a tremendous command of the breadth and depth of the scholarship that predated them, a knowledge that itself could only be the product of a time-swallowing, colossal effort. And in truth, it is difficult to imagine this kind of effort by so many inspired by anything other than intense religious devotion. Moreover, these rabbinic scholars believed their own futures to be bound up with the canon; one day their commentaries, too, would be studied, just as assiduously as those which came before.
This traditional study stands in sharp contrast with the academic, critical study of these texts, a form of study which did not really begin until the middle of the 19th century with the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement in Germany. These early Wissenschaft scholars, such Heinrich Graetz, Zecharias Frankel, and Leopold Zunz were nearly all rabbis – both Reform and traditional – who had been exposed to the new and critical methodologies of the modern university. Inspired by what they had learned, these scholars felt a dual desire: First, they sought to incorporate the tools they culled from their secular education into their own religious life, thereby gaining a better understanding of historical Judaism as they debated how to enhance their own practice. And second, these men desired to bring the texts into the world of mainstream academia, thereby asserting that their heritage was a serious business meant to be studied with rigor. In Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, Frankel makes this first motivation, the desire to use critical study to improve Judaism, explicit, writing that his critical study of the history of Judaism revealed “a manifestation of the divine, a revelation of religion.” And though the second motivation is less explicit in their writings, the efforts of these early figures to earn doctorates, assume teaching positions, and join scholarly societies all point to a desire for acceptance, credibility, and cooperation within a wider scholarly community.
These twin motivations can be seen as the guiding forces in academic Judaic Studies up until the present day. They reflect compelling needs in the hearts of those who seek to practice their faith while living with the truths presented by the modern world. These motivations are not, therefore, a mere historical item of interest. Rather they represent the markers by which a modern religious insider must continue to judge the project of Judaic Studies. For the committed modern Jew, Judaic Studies are part of the response to the realization that we cannot affirm a Judaism which is fully true if we abandon the historical and literary tools that endow texts with meaning in all other areas of our lives, a recognition that Judaism which flees these tools is an imperfect thing. At the same time, Judaic Studies continues to provide a solution to those who fear that Judaism might not survive if the intellectual elite views the tradition as empty and its practitioners as nostalgic and backwards. In this sense, Judaic Studies is a recognition that a Judaism without respect is doomed to irrelevance, obscurity and then non-existence.
However, despite profound reasons motivating their desire to join the secular Academy, most Wissenschaft scholars struggled to bring their work into the mainstream (overwhelmingly liberal Christian) environment of the modern university, and so the academic study of Judaism remained primarily a Jewish affair – conducted by Jewish scholars in Jewish universities funded by Jewish donors. It was in this environment that Jews’ College, the Lehrer seminary, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the Jewish Theological Seminaries in New York, Breslau, Vienna, and Berlin were born and began to thrive. Those Jewish academics that left the narrow confines of purely Jewish communal institutions for the large, elite universities studied physics or literature.
In America, that situation began to change in the middle of the twentieth century. Jews rose to greater social prominence and grew in strength financially. Jews became more integrated into academia and began to feel a certain degree of self-confidence and security, and greater numbers were drawn by the call of the secular university. Columbia’s Salo Baron and Harvard’s Henry Wolfson pioneered an era of Jewish scholarship at these elite universities, and mentored another generation of Jewish Studies professors. The movement was small, but growing.
Then the Holocaust struck, shattering European Jewry and calling into question the future of Judaism itself. The somewhat secular Jewish establishment responded with a renewed commitment to the study of Judaism in the Academy and the development of the Jewish tradition. The horrors of the Holocaust and the triumphs of the civil rights movement began to chip away at the traditional anti-Semitism of the academic patrician elite. Post-war thinking in academia also began to embrace area studies, and new trends spawned specific academic programs in African American studies, gender studies, and other programs that sought to investigate these traditionally less-studied groups and fields.
Here, the modern period shows the Wissenschaft motivations bursting through. The very fact that Jews saw funding Judaic Studies as a response to the Holocaust reveals that they viewed academic study as an element of Judaism and Jewish civilization. Moreover, universities’ acceptance of area studies also reflects a blurring between objectivity and advocacy. By opening themselves to the politicization and agendas in these areas, universities also proved willing to accept the Jewishness and insider-ness of Judaic Studies.
The time was ripe for Jewish studies to make the leap from Jewish theological seminaries to the Academy. In the late 50s and early 60s, the number of Judaic studies programs exploded. In the 1960 American Jewish Year Book, Arnold Band, a professor of Hebrew Literature at UCLA, an article appeared which described “a spread of Jewish studies as an accepted academic discipline in the American liberal-arts colleges and universities.” This article triggered a flurry of interest in the apparent expansion and proliferation of Judaic Studies programs and positions. Later, in the aftermath of Israel’s dramatic and overwhelming victory in the 1967 war, Jewish pride and self-confidence began to soar. This expanded pride, interest and awareness led to a trailblazing international conference at Brandeis in 1969, and then to the founding of the Association for Jewish Studies.
However, even as this conference symbolized a leap into the mainstream, the conference also represented a certain degree of provinciality. At this first colloquium, only scholars who were themselves Jewish and practicing Judaism were invited to discuss the future of the field. This was no doubt largely due to the fact that there were barely any non-Jews in the field and that the vast majority of scholars had arrived at academic Jewish studies from the world of rabbinic training and scholarship. Salo Baron was himself ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, as were many of his students. But this trend and decision were also representative of a larger phenomenon and a holistic vision of Judaic studies. There was, in the words of Irving Greenberg, a participant at the 1969 colloquium, “recognition that more is at stake in Jewish studies than increasing research and teaching efforts in the field.”
Scholars saw their work as a holy endeavor and a fulfillment of the commandment to immerse oneself in Torah “night and day.” This was a generation of scholars such as Harvard’s Isadore Twersky, a man who simultaneously served as the rebbe of a Hassidic dynasty from Chernobyl and as a Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard. These were men who were steeped in traditional religious training and practice, but who were also fluent in the secular discourse of contemporary religious studies.
For these scholars, the religious nature of the field also had serious practical consequences regarding who could learn what. Beyond the absence of the non-Jews from the 1969 Brandeis Conference, there were further repercussions. Professor Twersky concentrated on the work of Maimonides, never teaching courses in Talmud or early rabbinic literature, and struggling within the department to block efforts to do so. In the 1990s a new Harvard position in Judaic Studies was left unfilled for years as the faculty struggled to resolve conflicts over what area of Judaism the new professor should study. Here as well, the questions of scholarly openness and approach were enmeshed. A struggle to make Talmud accessible to secular and gentile students was also an affirmation that Talmud should be studied critically and that the religious implications could be set aside. Similarly, the traditionalists who pushed back were both taking a stand on the inextricability of religious implication from Talmud scholarship and cutting these texts off from their gentile students.
The nativism among Judaic scholars at the Brandeis conference was not only based on theoretical ideals and religious ideology but also on practical concerns stemming from a tendency among mainstream Christian scholars to view, and teach, Judaism in the light of supercessionist theology. Jewish scholars were legitimately suspicious of their gentile counterparts and of the lens through which they viewed Jewish holy texts. This was a world of scholarship heavily influenced by Hegel and German intellectual assertions of progress, and the anti-ritualistic dismissals of liberal Christianity permeated the academic study of religion. Even in recent years, these fears can create difficulties for non-Jews in the field. In a 2004 issue of the periodical Religion, Bard’s Professor Jacob Neusner accused Princeton’s Peter Schafer (a self-identified Christian) of harboring “theological contempt for the religion set forth out of Scripture by the Rabbinic sages of antiquity,” and “German academic anti-Judaism” that began with “Martin Luther and survives the Third Reich.” (This was not the first time that Neusner had attacked Schafer in this way, and throughout, Schafer has been vigorously defended by the vast majority of scholarly community). So though some Jewish scholars avoided the perspective of true outsiders on religious principle, there were also those concerned with the dismissive and typological perspective of an insider to another tradition.
These twin hesitations are again representative of the first, internal motivation attributed earlier to the early Wissenschaft scholars: the desire to study Jewish texts as part of a re-creation of Judaism, as part of a chain of tradition that always sought renewal through reinterpretation and scholarship. But we have also seen to where this motivation can lead: a conference which non-Jewish scholars do not attend, and a department where a subject cannot be taught and faculty not hired, where students lack the opportunity to experience the study of a text because of a professor’s ideological commitments. These acts of exclusion necessitate reevaluation, because ultimately, the denial of access is the red line that reveals the end of objective academic discourse. Personal investment and commitment to an academic subject matter may be defensible, but they have gone too far when the wagons are circled and outsiders are excluded and subjected to accusations of Orientalism.
The second motivation the Wissenschaft scholars, the desire for external validation and respect, is also reflected in recent American Judaic scholarship. As opportunities for Jews expanded and anti-Semitism subsided, passionate practitioners of Judaism who were also serious scholars often wanted to be recognized as such. The same Jacob Neusner, a professor for many years at Brown University, may perhaps have worked hardest to bring Judaic Studies into partnership with the larger academic world and bolster its imprimatur. Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, he too was very much a product of the world of Jewish faith and practice. But with momentous energy, passion, and will, he worked desperately to make Judaic Studies visible and relevant to a wider audience of laypeople and standard religious studies faculty. His vision was both startling and ambitious, and he embarked on a career of translation and publication of mammoth proportions. To date, he has published over 900 volumes, many of which are written in a language, style and level that make them accessible to outsiders who never before had access to Jewish texts. He has also translated most of the rabbinic corpus, including the Mishna, Tosefta and both Talmuds, and has thus allowed conversation and partnership with non-fluent scholarly counterparts on a level never before imagined.
Neusner and other scholars wanted their tradition and heritage to be granted the legitimacy associated with serious academic disciplines, and so they knew they needed to create a clearer line between the world of yeshivas and the academy. In doing so, they set themselves up for a head-on confrontation between the two motivations that we have traced from the start of Wissenschaft. Often, they rejected those who were engaged in Judaic Studies in order to shape Judaism in the process of bolstering their own acceptance. In 1969, Leon Jick wrote in the The Teaching of Judaica in American Universities that a legitimate Judaic Studies professor could not be religious in such a way that “a priori commitments severely limit the range of problems or alternatives that [he is] able to consider.” Neusner himself instructed his students at Brown to write extended analyses and evaluations of earlier scholars. He later published these collections, compilations of polemical denunciations of perceived “traditionalist” tendencies and confining orthodoxies among these academic pioneers. Although extremely strongly worded and somewhat off-putting, this bold criticism of traditional scholarship was extremely influential. And though his writings and translations are controversial and their scholarly value hotly debated, his granting of access to outsiders created an acceptance of Jewish Studies in the wider academic community of which his predecessors had only dreamed.
Through the following decades, this battle for the soul of academic Judaic studies would play itself out within study halls and colloquia, through hiring decisions and funding choices, and even in the decision of whether to recite grace after communal meals or include times for candle-lighting at academic conferences. And though the dust has mostly settled, the conflict is still occasionally brought to light – but usually without the stridency of earlier times.
It is on this scene, in the Jewish Studies departments of the 70s and 80s, that we find, for the first time, scholars of Judaism produced exclusively by the world of secular academia. If until the middle of the 20th century the study of Judaism was a specialty field funded through, controlled by, and operated exclusively within, the Jewish community, there simply was no opportunity for people who were not Jewish to become involved in the field. In the subsequent decades, there was a clear hesitation to include them. But with the creation of strong Judaic Studies departments, faculties, and committees within major universities, and with the faculty’s desire to operate as legitimate and recognized members of a secular academic community, non-Jews were for the first time exposed to Jewish texts and tradition. What’s more, its study constituted a real field of research, and even a potential career option.
The situations of people like Yale’s Professor Hayes or Princeton’s Professor Peter Schafer are therefore fairly recent developments. They are definite outsiders in a field that has a history of ambivalence about its own status on the threshold of the yeshiva, at the border between the shtetyl and the university. And like outsiders anywhere, they can be attacked not only for alleged ignorance and contempt of the tradition which they teach, but also for being overly accommodating in a search to belong. Jacob Neusner, in his efforts to open up access and gain external credibility for the field, has also attacked colleagues on these grounds. In 1996, Neusner authored a book titled Are the Talmuds Interchangeable? Christine Hayes’ Blunder, accusing Hayes of bending over backwards to adopt traditional Talmudic viewpoints. Although Hayes, like Schafer, was widely defended by colleagues, the episode highlights the problematic extremes that this second Wissenschaft motivation can take us. A thirst for validation that creates paranoia whenever anyone says anything remotely resembling tradition is a sign that the search for legitimacy has crossed the line.
The arrival of these scholars represents a real victory for the Wissenschaft desire for validity. If the tradition interests outsiders who have no connection to Judaism through faith and blood, then surely there must be worth and significance to it! And in their essence, the anxieties and discomforts that some older scholars may have about outsiders in the field are really expressions of the excesses of the original motivating desires of academic Judaic Studies whose presence we have traced throughout. Exclusion and accusations represent religious motivation gone too far and a desire for validation run amok. In essence these excesses are the bubbling up of old tensions, and internal Jewish communal ambivalence, over the academic study of Judaism.
But these scholars’ presence does open one last powerful question: Does the presence of gentiles in the discipline merely mark a backing off of the extreme and exclusionary tendencies associated with Wissenschaft desires, or does it also represent an abandonment of those original motivations altogether? Has the desire for a Judaism renewed and validated been banished from any relevance to academic study?
The scholars in the field, Jews and gentiles, give the ultimate answer to that question. Millennia’s worth of Jewish texts were written to be studied with passion and awe, and so a dry reading would be as inauthentic academically as it would be religiously. There is a point of commonality between the projects of religious study and historically authentic academic study: feeling and respect. A religious text read without passion and without a heart open to its messages is a missed opportunity to experience a text in its intended manner, and is, in some very real sense, a misreading. Thus, it is important to note that there is not simply tension in the relationship between the “Jewish motivations” of Judaic Studies and the traditional goals of secular scholarship. The secular world benefits from the fluency of traditional insiders. Moreover, the reverent yet critical scholarship of the gentile atheist may be as religiously inspiring as the teaching of the pious rabbi. But through the exclusion of the former, some of the latter may never even come to exist. Faith and practice can be self-taught and self-motivated, but there is no replacement for the passionate intellectual commitment of a legitimate scholar.
The twin Wissenschaft beliefs – that religious value and importance should be ascribed to the scholarly work being done in the secular university, and that through that work validity might be granted to the entire project of Judaism – can only be realized with a conscious attention to who is included in those projects. The passion of the outsider is what ultimately teaches us that religious worth can be achieved without sacrificing the academic validity, and his or her absence marks when we have gone too far in embracing either. Though that is not the lesson most professors actively teach, it is one that the practicing Jews among us would do well to learn.
 Many of the historical details of what follows are taken from Kristen Loveland’s The Association for Jewish Studies; A Brief Overview, delivered at the 40th Annual Conference of the AJS, December 21 – 23, 2008.