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Jewish Studies Rises, but We Pay the Price

The flourishing of Jewish studies at secular American universities in recent decades is a remarkable and profoundly important development. As students return to their campuses, it is not only those who attend Yeshiva University, Hebrew Union College or the Jewish Theological Seminary who will have access to high-level teaching and scholarship on Jewish topics.

A Seminary Overshadowed? The Jewish Theological Seminary had to cut its budget. Image by file photo

Secular academic institutions have gained unprecedented endowments for their professorships and programs in Jewish studies. The tens of millions of dollars that have supported the new professorships, programs and post-doctoral study centers in Jewish studies have bought a place in academia for anything Jewish, with the priorities set by the secular university.

But at what cost has Jewish learning entered the academy?

The other side of the coin is that Jewish sponsorship of Jewish learning has languished. Endowed chairs in the secular academy have attracted the best and the brightest because they pay better salaries than do Jewish educational institutions and offer superior working conditions and prestige. The faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary has served as a recruiting ground for Columbia and Harvard.

More than simply being a shift in venue, this sea change has profound implications for the future of Jewish scholarship — and of American Judaism itself.

When believing and practicing Jews decide who will teach what to whom, they take for granted that some things are more important than others. They affirm the cogency of the subject and know how things fit together. The Judaic system governs the things that are learned. To teachers and students, the classical texts convey truth. What follows? The Talmud is more important than a cookbook. The Jewish sponsors of Jewish learning derive the scale of values from the received canon and tradition.

Universities, by contrast, have no stake in according to Scripture or Midrash and Talmud a superior position in the curriculum. Learning in every topic and discipline defines its own priorities, and reason is not governed by revelation. So the curriculum is a mishmash of this and that — discrete details of a main point that does not register. Anything that is Jewish is as worthy of study as anything else that is Jewish. At my own college, the history of the bagel and the status of women in Jewish law have served equally well as topics of graduation essays.

Of course, the change in sponsorship has its positive attributes. Fresh perspectives and a broad range of interests have endowed Jewish learning with vitality. A whole new set of topics claimed standing and warranted specialization.

Yet overall, the change in venue marks the decline in classical learning. The Jewish studies programs and departments have yet to define a coherent curriculum, a well-considered program of texts, skills and requisite knowledge.

I am not exaggerating the cost exacted from Judaism by the academy’s secularization of Jewish learning. The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is contemplating closing one or more of its campuses. The Jewish Theological Seminary is reorganizing to cut costs, trimming the sails of its scholarly purview and ambitions.

The sums needed to balance the modest budgets of the Jewish-sponsored institutions of higher learning are embarrassing — a few million dollars annually would make a huge difference. But with the millions flowing to secular academia, the leaderships of the seminaries have had no choice but to cut back.

Yet even as they struggle, these classical centers of learning are necessary to guaranteeing the future of Judaism. That is a goal to which Yale and Stanford, Princeton and Brown, Purdue and the University of Michigan simply do not aspire.

It is the Jewish-sponsored institutions that will produce the next generation of rabbis and Jewish educators — not merely the knowledgeable people turned out by the secular academy’s Jewish studies curricula. Students in the Jewish-sponsored academies gain knowledge through the concrete experience of learning in the model of their teachers, who are often rabbis themselves. Academic professors do not — and cannot be expected to — embody a personal model of piety for their students.

As endowment funds have flowed to the Jewish studies programs in secular colleges and universities, the normative institutions of Jewish learning have paid the price. What has been gained in vital scholarship is outweighed by the charge against the future of Judaism as a tradition of religious learning and religious action. It is time to right the balance in favor of our Jewish institutions of higher learning.

Rabbi Jacob Neusner is the Distinguished Service Professor of the History and Theology of Judaism and a senior fellow of the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College.

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