Jewish Studies, Once and Future

By Adina M. Yoffie
Thursday, August 23, 2012

It’s that time of year again—not just the High Holidays but the time when Jewish college students pore over online course catalogues and make their choices for the fall semester. Will they take Jewish Studies courses? If so, does it matter which ones?

Courses in Hebrew language, “Judaism 101,” the Holocaust, and the contemporary Middle East are ubiquitous.  Some colleges and universities provide menus ranging from rigorous, sacred-text-based courses on the Bible and Talmud to more literary and cultural offerings.  The rest of the approximately 100 Jewish Studies programs in American colleges emphasize more recent Jewish culture and history—Yiddish theater, Israeli literature, or the role of women and gender in American Jewish life.

While students decide, adults debate.  Is the field of Jewish Studies in decline?  Is a course called “Harry Potter and the Holocaust” (University of Florida, Fall 2012) a sign that standards are low and getting lower?  Will “real,” text-based Jewish Studies ultimately be limited to rabbinical seminaries and yeshivot?

The debate has gone on for years, but events of this spring and summer have added some new twists.  Several recent stories have described the decline of the Reform and Conservative movements and the rising numbers of Orthodox, particularly the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim).  First came the Jewish Community Study of New York, documenting the decline in non-Orthodox synagogue affiliation and the rise of intermarriage.  Then, on August 1, New York's Siyum ha-Shas brought out more than 90,000 Orthodox men, mostly Haredi, to celebrate the completion of the seven-year cycle of studying the Talmud.  Non-Orthodox Jewish learning has no comparable mass event.

The concern about non-Orthodox engagement with Judaism, particularly with Jewish learning, has raised the stakes for Jewish Studies at non-denominational colleges and universities: That is where most young non-Orthodox Jews are to be found.  The college years might be the only time when most liberal Jews in their late teens and early twenties voluntarily engage with the Jewish tradition.  If so, Jewish leaders and parents fear, Jewish Studies could make or break young Jews’ relationship with Judaism for the rest of their lives.

But is it really the role of Jewish Studies to make Jews?  What are the proper goals of Jewish Studies?  It is instructive to ask these questions by looking at the history of not just Jewish Studies but Religious Studies in general in the United States.

The study of Christianity originated as a religious endeavor with a religious purpose.  It was only in the mid-19th century, as James Turner shows in his erudite but accessible Religion Enters the Academy: The Origins of the Scholarly Study of Religion in America, that scholars of Christianity began to use more critical methods, and Transcendentalist contemporaries of Ralph Waldo Emerson, mostly non-academics, sought similarities between Christianity and other religions.  Though almost all were practicing Christians, they did not believe Jesus Christ was the only path to truth.

By 1875, these scholars were conscious that they were forming a new discipline.  Universities and divinity schools created professorships in comparative religion.  Some scholars in the area studied the Hebrew Bible in great detail, but they did not include Judaism among the “World Religions” that they explored along with Christianity; they viewed Judaism not as a separate faith but as a precursor to the Christian faith.

The watershed moment for modern Christian studies, Turner says, occurred in 1902 with the William James lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience.  James’s purpose was not to compare the Christian faith with other religions but to examine the subjective experiences of religious persons, regardless of their individual paths. James’s lectures were instant classics, and prominent American universities began to teach Religious Studies as an academic discipline with critical methodologies.

The origins of Jewish Studies in the American academy were very different. From the start of Jewish Studies as we know it today, it was accepted that Jewish Studies would be an academic enterprise, like other major disciplines in the modern university.  Jewish Studies never was—and, given the context, could not be—intended to promote Judaism.

What we now think of as Jewish Studies—the study, often by and for Jews, of the history, sacred and secular literature, and culture of the Jewish people—took root on a large scale in the 1960s and 1970s. In the late 1960s the academy exploded with new disciplines, including Jewish and other “ethnic” studies. At the same time, the American professorate became open to Jewish men, who had previously been almost entirely excluded. Prominent Jewish donors established chairs and scholarships, a practice that continues today. The Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), the discipline’s primary scholarly and professional organization, was founded in 1969. The AJS emerged out of the recognition that Jewish Studies was changing, and that the American Academy of Jewish Research, founded in 1920 by scholars from the rabbinical seminaries, was unable and/or unwilling to address those changes. 

Jewish Studies rose with the humanities and has seen its fortunes fall along with theirs.  These are difficult economic times.  There are far more jobs in technology and the sciences; the number of students majoring in humanities fields like history or English is at an all-time low.  Even at the most elite colleges, professors are forced by their deans, departments, or both to choose between offering rigorous courses that attract few students and teaching classes that are popular—and watered-down.  Jewish Studies has not escaped these pressures.

But Jewish Studies is not under special attack.  Its goals remain the same as its founding goals in the mid-to-late 1960s: teaching Jews and non-Jews about Judaism in a manner consistent with the mission of a secular university. As an additional benefit to the Jewish community, Jewish students are given a better understanding of their Jewish heritage, even if that understanding is more popular than scholarly.

But today, when Jewish students are more likely to arrive at college with little knowledge of Jewish tradition and little inclination to take humanities courses, it is important to strike a balance between academic rigor and popular appeal. In the absence of respectable enrollments, a discipline that aims only at the elite may find itself headed toward irrelevance.  More popular courses help Jewish Studies fulfill its mission because they get more people into the classroom to learn about Judaism.  Such courses won’t make Jews; but, then, that was never the intention.

Adina M. Yoffie holds a Ph.D. in European History from Harvard University. She is a writer and teacher living in New York City.

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