Jewish Studies in Decline?

By Alex Joffe
Monday, March 28, 2011

Reports prepared recently for Israel's Council of Higher Education have brought despairing news about the condition of the humanities in the country's universities. Especially dispiriting is the report on Jewish studies, once the crowning glory of Israel's flagship Hebrew University—and, in the report's inadvertently nostalgic words, "an investment in the nurturing of the deep spiritual and cultural structures of Israeli public and private life."

That investment has been producing ever smaller returns. While Israel is still the world center of Jewish studies, the field's decline has been visible for years. Retiring faculty are not replaced, less and less research money is allocated, fewer and fewer students appear interested in pursuing a degree or a career in this or related disciplines.

In part this is a story of shifting resources. Faculty, students, and money go where they are needed and where there are opportunities. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, the opportunities are in the various fields of science and technology, where Israeli research and teaching are world-class. A recent book called Israel the "start-up nation"; who would not want of be part of that success story? In a sense, the utilitarian Israelis are not only in step with but a step ahead of the rest of the developed world, where the need for trained scientists and science teachers is pressing.

In part, though, the decline of Jewish studies in Israel represents another, more complicated trend. Israeli national identity—those "deep spiritual and cultural structures" of which the report speaks—is already nominally Jewish: Hebrew is spoken, the Jewish holidays are celebrated nationwide, most marriages take place under a huppah, and so forth. Why then, a student might well ask, do I need to seek reinforcement at the university level? (This is to put aside the issue of how much the average Israeli high-school graduate really knows about Judaism or even Zionism.)

The answer to that unspoken question is that although the orientation of academic Jewish studies was never either explicitly religious or explicitly nationalist, the field did usefully inform, supplement, and, in certain cases, provide a cultural substitute for those qualities as well as an intellectual meeting ground of Judaism and Zionism. Now, with the exception of a few secular "study houses," much of serious Jewish learning is increasingly left to the religiously and/or ideologically motivated—notable among them the ultra-Orthodox (haredim), who in principle reject the approach that sees Judaism in the context of the eras it has traversed and the cultures with which it has interacted.

If Israel should lose its place as the center of academic Jewish studies, can America step into the breach? The Association for Jewish Studies, the field's professional organization, boasts over 1,800 members; more than 150 individual programs at public and private American and Canadian universities offer everything from introductory survey courses to advanced degrees; endowed chairs, funded in almost every case by Jewish donors, number over 200. Recently, new programs in Israel studies have also been launched across the country, compensating for the systematic exclusion of Israel from the field of Middle Eastern studies. The resources and dedication, scholarly and institutional, devoted to these endeavors cannot be doubted.

But here, too, the downward spiral in the liberal arts as a whole—national enrollments, at 18 percent of students in 1960, are now at 8 percent and falling—is amply on display and is taking a toll across the board. At one large East Coast university, for example, the number of students concentrating in history has fallen by half; Jewish studies, never a front-runner in the best of times, has suffered proportionately. The same university's investment in the sciences has, commensurately, grown.

It is true that, thanks to endowments and other forms of financial support by local Jewish communities, Jewish-studies programs may be somewhat more insulated than others from financial shocks. It is also true that large centers of Jewish studies continue to exist at Harvard, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere—although these, too, are hardly immune to university-wide trends. Meanwhile, as in Israel, intensive religious learning is vigorously pursued in yeshivas from Lakewood, New Jersey to Los Angeles.

It hardly helps matters that American universities have, in general, long since swapped their traditional role as nurturers of national identity, cohesion, and integration in favor of an ironic and politically correct cosmopolitanism. Forthright defenders of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, and of the civilizing role of the liberal arts, are few and far between. Defenders of the great Jewish texts that stand at the center of the Western tradition are fewer still. One might hope that Jewish academics would see a place for themselves in leading a counter-movement to the prevailing ethos, but of this, too, there are few signs. As for providing a route (back) to the Jewish tradition itself, or to the Jewish people, the field of secular Jewish studies was, properly, never intended to serve such a purpose—though, again as in Israel, it may well have done so in individual cases.  

Most importantly, Jewish learning itself no longer plays the same role in the life of the Jewish people that it did when law, history, and memory pulled together the threads of past and present and tied all Jews everywhere to one another. Nevertheless, in this prolonged moment of transition, secular Jewish studies still has a key role to play: offering instruction, enlightenment, and perspective on the foundational Jewish texts. For, without these, there is precious little else. 

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.


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