A Threat to the Academy

By Jacob Neusner

Published January 30, 2004, issue of January 30, 2004.
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It has been 40 years since universities began to make faculty appointments in Jewish subjects in their departments of religious studies, history, literature and language. In the decades that followed, the field of Jewish studies has flourished on campus.

The latest testament to this fact is the recently released finding by the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 that 41% of Jewish college and university students report having taken courses in Jewish studies. This finding has prompted much excitement in the larger Jewish community. Along with this excitement, however, comes a great danger to the future of Jewish studies in the academy.

The danger is that these findings will fuel the already prevalent tendency to view Jewish studies courses primarily as a means for connecting Jewish students to their heritage, a medium comparable to Birthright Israel for carrying the Jewish message to unaffiliated and estranged young Jews. Some imagine that a 15-week semester, with three hours per week of class, plus time spent reading and writing papers, can make up for what was not accomplished in the first 18 years of a student’s life.

But the academy has little in common with the yeshiva — or, for that matter, the Bible college or madrassa — even though they all are called schools. To expect the university to do the work of the yeshiva is to violate the compact of the college classroom, to subvert the academy and violate its rules.

The academy does not work well when it attempts to promote the political and cultural agendas of special interest groups. The academy’s purpose is not to indoctrinate, but rather to instill in students an attitude of criticism and analysis. Fields of study in the humanities and social sciences exist not to conduct special pleading and turn out ethnic cheerleaders but to contribute to a shared public discourse, to enrich society with the experiences of particular groups interpreted according to an agenda common to humanity at large.

Whenever the ethnic studies classroom turns to special pleading and advocacy, it becomes an object of contempt. When black studies, women’s studies and Jewish studies attract mainly blacks, women and Jews, they languish. But when black, women’s and Jewish studies address a common human experience, they thrive.

The vision of Jewish studies as a vehicle for nurturing Jewish identity violates the compact of the academy in three ways: First, it presupposes that all the students enrolled in such classes are Jews, fair game for efforts to promote greater Jewish identification. Second, it takes for granted that the facts and knowledge the course sets forth bear self-evident implications for how the Jewish students are to respond. Third, it assumes that the professor is an advocate not of propositions of an analytical character, but rather of particular political positions and cultural commitments. Fifty years ago, rabbis teaching university courses on Judaism thought it acceptable to ask their students why they don’t keep kosher. Thankfully, that is not the case anymore.

The Jewish community correctly seeks a place for Jewish learning in the university, where the Jews and their traditions of knowledge belong. But doing the right thing for the wrong reason corrupts. When the purpose of Jewish studies is understood to be serving parochial ends, we invite outside meddling in areas such as faculty appointments and discredit the very subject the Jewish community seeks to make an integral part of the academy. When I taught at the University of South Florida, our religious studies department approached the local Muslim community for support to bring in a lecturer on medieval Islamic law. The answer we received was, in essence, “Bring him and we’ll listen. If we like what he says, we’ll pay his fee.” The Jewish community has better manners, but often no deeper grasp of the nature of the academic enterprise.

The threat to the academy from the Jewish community is not a matter of mere speculation. When Queens College of the City University of New York in 1996 chose a gentile, with the highest qualifications in Jewish scholarship, to chair its Jewish studies program, some Jewish faculty organized against him. One professor protested that the department’s chairman should be a “role model” for Jewish students. This disgraceful controversy effectively called into question the right of a gentile to teach a Jewish subject and along with it the academic integrity of the field.

Jewish identity is built by nurturing emotion and sentiment based on authentic experience. Only the Jewish home and family, the synagogue and school, can produce a Jew devoted to Judaism and loyal to the Jewish people. This is important work. But it is not the work of the academy.

Rabbi Jacob Neusner is a research professor of religion and theology at Bard College. His latest book is “Judaism: An Introduction” (Penguin, 2003).

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