Goodbye Wissenschaft, Hello Relevance

Now and Then

By Jonathan D. Sarna

Published May 26, 2010, issue of June 04, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Jewish Theological Seminary’s chancellor, Arnold Eisen, recently unveiled a bold new strategic plan aimed at transforming the school’s curriculum, redefining its purpose and setting forth its future direction. The plan called to mind a story that my late father used to tell about a modest change that he proposed to the JTS curriculum as a young professor there in the 1950s.

Dad had been asked to teach the school’s traditional course on the Book of Psalms. Looking through past syllabi, he came up with a new idea that he proposed to his senior colleagues at a faculty meeting. “How about revamping the class so that we teach those Psalms that appear in the Siddur,” he suggested. “That will make the class more relevant to rabbinical students. Down the road, they will be able to use what we teach them to instruct their own congregants in the meaning of the prayers.”

The members of the faculty, my father reported, were aghast. The very idea that the content of JTS courses should be influenced by what might be relevant to rabbis greatly troubled them. Besides, a senior faculty member pointed out, “we have taught the course this way since Schechter’s day.” Evoking the name of Solomon Schechter, the legendary scholar who reshaped and reorganized the seminary during his tenure as its president from 1902 to 1915, effectively ended the discussion. Dad’s proposal was tabled.

Schechter envisaged a Jewish Theological Seminary that focused on the “advancement of Jewish scholarship.” The seminary, when he arrived, was already housed in the largest Jewish community in the world. Yet from the perspective of Jewish culture and learning, New York ranked far below the leading Jewish communities of Europe. America as a whole, as Europeans saw it, was a Jewish scholarly backwater.

The seminary worked to change all that. Over the course of two generations it assembled one of the greatest Jewish libraries that the world has ever known and a faculty in Jewish studies that was second to none in the entire Diaspora.

At “Schechter’s seminary,” as European rabbis continued to call it long after Schechter himself had passed from the scene, scholars specialized in rigorous textual research: critical editions, translations, commentaries and reference aids. The seminary’s commitment to “scientific” Jewish scholarship, known in German as Wissenschaft des Judenthums, was expected to have profound social consequences. “Wissenschaft,” former JTS chancellor Ismar Schorsch has explained, “furnished the tools to restore or remake a Judaism cut loose from its moorings by unimagined new knowledge, enemies and alternatives.” The hope was that, as he put it, “research would lead to respect and finally acceptance, setting Jews free.”

These lofty goals help to explain why only a small minority of seminary faculty took hours away from their precious research to focus on timely issues and popular presentations of Judaism. Faculty members like Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel, who did wrestle with the great questions of their day, may have inspired legions of students and won admiration from the larger public, but they failed to achieve the respect they craved from their immediate colleagues. Behind their backs, those colleagues questioned their commitment to “real scholarship.”

Now, however, the tables have turned. The seminary’s new strategic plan brings down the curtain on the long Wissenschaft era in the history of JTS. It speaks not of the “advancement of Jewish scholarship,” but of “scholarship in service to Judaism and the Jewish community.” Instead of eschewing relevance, the seminary’s new plan embraces it. Henceforward, it announces, “priority in the hiring of new faculty will go to gifted individuals… capable of combining rigorous academic scholarship with the application of that scholarship for the betterment of the community.”

The reasons for this change are not difficult to discern. “Once upon a time,” Chancellor Eisen recently explained to the Forward, with only slight hyperbole, “there was no academic Jewish studies in colleges and universities.” Today, by contrast, the professional association of Judaic scholars, the Association for Jewish Studies, boasts more than 1,800 members. JTS, as a result, need no longer carry the torch for the “advancement of Jewish scholarship.” Students interested in the scholarly study of Judaism can attend the finest secular universities in the land.

What, then, is left for JTS to do? It can focus anew on what most secular Jewish studies programs can never hope to provide: relevance and passion. It can be a place where enthusiastic instructors trans- late ancient texts into timely and inspiring wisdom. It can be a place where budding Jewish professionals become enraptured with Jewish values, sources, history, culture and the Jewish homeland. It can be a place where (as the new JTS mission statement puts it) Judaism “is thoroughly grounded in Jewish texts, history and practices, and fully engaged with the societies and cultures of the present.”

The scholars who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1950s would certainly not have approved of the seminary becoming that kind of place. My late father, though, might feel vindicated.

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and is currently serving as senior scholar at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem. His “Jews and the Civil War: A Reader,” co-edited with Adam Mendelsohn, has just been published by NYU Press.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.