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Goodbye Wissenschaft, Hello Relevance

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.

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