What Jewish Studies Can Do
“AT A TIME of gathering-in, spread out”-a suggestively enigmatic pronouncement of one of the early rabbis-is peculiarly applicable to the present situation of Jewish studies in the American universities, though the other half of that pronouncement might also be kept in mind as a guide to Jewish academic planning: “At a time of spreading-out, gather in.” Since the late 60′s there has been a general shrinkage in academic programs, as government support for higher education dwindled and as the college population boom of the earlier 60′s began to fade. The dismaying spectacle of thousands of job applicants appearing at the academic marketplace meeting of the Modern Language Association to scramble for only a few hundred positions provides a vividly monitory image of what has been happening in almost all the disciplines for the past five or six years. In this very period, however, the study of Judaica in our universities has undergone an extraordinary expansion, for a combination of reasons that will need some explanation, with results and future prospects that are still far from clear.
Until the post-World War II period, Jewish studies barely existed in the American academy. There was Salo Baron, the great synoptic historian, at Columbia; Harry Wolfson, the masterful expositor of Philo and Spinoza, at Harvard; a very few anomalously endowed single chairs at other universities; but no real programs spanning the field, and only the thinnest trickle of students. Biblical studies, to be sure, had been accorded a place of honor in the old-fashioned Christian humanism of our originally Protestant universities (it is instructive to recall that Harvard College retained a Hebrew commencement address until 1817); but a narrow philological scrutiny of the Hebrew Bible, or the interpretation of it as a prelude to Christianity, does not logically lead to an understanding of the Bible as the matrix for the theological, legal, ethical, and imaginative development of the living Jewish people from the Hellenistic period to modern times.
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