Commentary Magazine

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.

At the beginning of the 1950's, there were perhaps a dozen regular positions in Judaica throughout the country. (This and subsequent figures do not include positions at rabbinical seminaries and Hebrew teachers' colleges.) Over the last decade and a half, this situation has been changing at a geometrical rate of increase. By the mid-60's, when Arnold Band conducted the first careful study of the phenomenon,1 there were at least sixty-five positions in the field, and twenty-five universities offered programs, nominally at any rate, leading to a Ph.D. in some area of Jewish studies. Since then, the number of regular Judaica positions has increased by a factor of four or five: a conservative estimate is that there are now at least three hundred such positions in the United States and Canada. The number of graduate students in Jewish studies has grown to around 150, but well-trained people are by no means coming through fast enough to fill all the new openings. It takes longer to train a responsible Judaica scholar than one in most other areas of the humanities, both because of the highly complex linguistic skills required and because of the inherently comparative nature of Jewish studies, which demand a great deal of cross-cultural and sometimes even interdisciplinary knowledge simply to understand the most basic phenomena.

Let me illustrate this recent outstripping of supply by demand with some figures for which I can spell out the concrete implications from personal experience. About thirty-five new Judaica jobs became available in the U.S. for the academic year of 1974-75, with nowhere near that number of competent scholars to fill them, and with the distribution of specialities among job candidates in no way corresponding to the distribution of specialities sought by the various institutions. Judaica students tend to cluster in rabbinics, or rabbinics and history, while about a third of these new positions were in Hebrew literature, generally with a modernist preferred. Now, there are only three American universities that could even claim to offer a serious doctoral program in Hebrew literature—the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses of the University of California, and Brandeis. At the moment, the three schools combined are lucky to have three people professionally prepared to fill new positions in one year, and they certainly could not produce the eleven or twelve that could have been placed for 1974-75. (Israeli universities are not much help because their own production of Ph.D.'s in this area is unconscionably low, with very few of the certified scholars they do have willing to come to the U.S. for more than a brief visiting period.) What happens to these jobs is that they are either held open for a year or two until an acceptable candidate comes along, or they get swallowed up by other budgetary demands, or they are filled by an unqualified person—most commonly, an itinerant Israeli with dubious academic and intellectual credentials.

The best institutional index of the recent growth of Jewish studies is the existence of a serious professional organization, the Association for Jewish Studies, begun in 1968. The A.J.S. now has approximately 600 members, of whom about 100 are non-teaching associates, 150 graduate students, and the rest faculty members with either part-time or full-time appointments in some area of Jewish studies. The Association has been sponsoring a series of regional conferences organized around the appearance of distinguished senior Judaica scholars and their areas of research; in a variety of ways it has set about the difficult task of defining professional standards in a growing and in some ways amorphous field; and it is serving as a clearing-house for job applicants and for institutions seeking Judaica scholars with specific competences.


The definition and maintenance of standards have become especially crucial precisely because of the almost runaway expansion of the field. As long as there continue to be more positions than people to fill them, while in other sectors of the academy unemployment is a palpable problem, there will be job-aspirants who present themselves as Judaica experts on the basis of a command of Yiddish anecdotes, or an acquaintance with the novels of Bernard Malamud, or (what is not much better from a scholarly point of view) rabbinical ordination, or, as I suggested a moment ago, past residence in Israel. It is all too easy to inflate the growing interest in Jewish scholarship into a great cultural renaissance by using numbers alone, but it is often difficult to know what sort of intellectual quality the numbers reflect. Thousands of students across the country may well be enrolled in courses classified as Jewish studies, but one wonders what many of them actually learn when, in a catalogue of nationwide Judaica offerings,2 one finds courses like “Yiddish as Joy” and “Leftist Ideologies and Jewish Problems,” or when almost every course on modern Jewish thought seems to be restricted mainly to the writings of Martin Buber. It goes without saying, moreover, that the many dozens of undergraduate survey courses offered across the country under general rubrics like “Jewish Civilization,” “Jewish Thought,” “History and Literature of the Jews,” could be anything from models of rigorous humanistic inquiry to hodge-podges of confirmation-class amateurism dignified with university credits.

Altogether, there is an unfortunate split in Jewish studies around the country between highly specialized courses, perhaps admirable in themselves but accessible only to a tiny handful of students, and frequently superficial surveys that may promote some sense of the Jewish heritage without placing serious demands on the student or really contributing to his intellectual growth. Gerson Cohen's trenchant critique of this educational failing, first delivered at a 1969 colloquium,3 seems just as valid now as then: “By and large, Judaic studies today are either tailored for the most advanced students or for the most elementary and ephemeral dabblers.” (I would add that part of this situation, at least as far as I can judge from personal observation, results from a collusion between faculty “tailoring” and student desires, for if there is a good deal of interest, numerically measured, in Jewish studies, it often does not go very deep, many students in fact wanting nothing more than a taste of “the Jewish experience” that will make them feel good about their origins with little expenditure of academic effort.) In any case, Cohen goes on to argue that as a result of the imbalance he describes, Jewish studies have had no noticeable effect on the student body while graduate programs, lacking a population of undergraduate majors with the requisite “propaedeutic skills” to go on to advanced work, have been unable to produce sufficient numbers of trained scholars to insure the continuity of the discipline. These are both still grave problems. I suspect that some limited progress is now being made in training more graduate students, though severe difficulties persist in finding students who have acquired as undergraduates the needed linguistic and textual competence. (Fellowship funds from the Jewish community could be extremely helpful, especially when graduate students may need a year or more of extra backgrounding work.) One may at least hope that as more qualified teachers get into the colleges and universities, more challenging Judaica courses of general interest will be offered, and more coherent programs for majors will be developed, so that the solution of the problem of a native generation of scholars will move us toward integrating Jewish studies meaningfully into general education.

If these are, in rough terms, the contours of the new development of Jewish studies within the American academic system, it remains to be seen why this development has come about or what should be expected of it, especially outside the academy by the Jewish community. It is temptingly easy to link the new impetus for Jewish studies with the student agitation for ethnic studies at the end of the 60's and the beginning of the 70's, but the actual chronology of growth in Judaica suggests that militant ethnicity on the campuses could have been no more than a temporary contributing cause. There were in fact specific cases in which black or so-called “Third World” particularism directly moved Jewish students to demand more Jewish studies—one such instance occurred at Cornell—but as Band's 1966 study makes clear, the steady expansion of Judaica antedated the new campus ethnicity; and I think it is also showing strong signs of carrying on with its own momentum beyond the vogue of ethnic studies. The ethnic programs set up five years ago under the pressure of student strikes and sit-ins have in many instances survived only as token operations, not because of the devious design of the universities but because of their limited appeal, after the first flush of activism, to their own student constituency, and because of the general absence of graduate programs which could provide qualified faculty. In any case, the model of ethnic studies is basically inappropriate to Judaica, for reasons which I shall try to make clear presently.


Ethnic militancy may have given a boost to Jewish studies, but the more abiding causes of this whole development must be sought in a changing sense of self among American Jews, in a general opening outward of the whole universe of discourse of the American university since World War II, and in the presence of the state of Israel as an imposing new historical reality. It is surely no accident that the greatest spurt of interest in Jewish studies has been since 1967, after the threat to Israel's survival and the Israeli triumph in the Six-Day War made the Jewish state an important fact of consciousness for many of the college-age generation of American Jews. Even before that, the existence of Israel for two decades had given Jewish culture precisely what it lacked when the proponents of the Wissenschaft des Judentums tried to introduce it into German universities in the 19th century—a local place and habitation that would confer on it academic respectability, allowing it to fit into the conventional classifications of academic subjects. To be more specific, one of the important directions of growth within the American academy in the postwar period has been area studies, and with a visible Jewish state in the Middle East, Judaica could frequently be linked with area studies in terms of budgetary allocations, departmental affiliation, claims for federal funding, programs of exchange fellowships, visiting professorships, and so forth.

In regard to the intrinsic intellectual concerns of the academic enterprise, as universities came to recognize more and more that “high culture” was not limited to the Christian heritage and to Western European civilization, Judaism became a much more welcome subject of study than it had been before, together with Islam and the various civilizations of Africa, South Asia, and the Far East, and even evinced a certain advantage over the other exotic: cultures because its history was so complexly and instructively intertwined with that of the Christian West. It emerged, moreover, that Jewish studies had a highly developed tradition as a rigorous academic discipline that went back almost 150 years, so that the field was already endowed with the tools, the terms, the scholarly apparatus, to fit comfortably into American academic discourse. There was no need to limit Jewish studies to folklore and sociology, or to make them depend mainly on field work, for there was a vast body of Jewish literature and historical documents produced over three millennia, and a ramified body of scholarly work on that primary material.

Young Jews—for the most part, third-generation Americans—are also a good deal less self-conscious about their Jewishness than their parents were, and that explains something of their readiness to be seen on campus in Judaica courses, and more, the itch of curiosity about the Jewish past that some of them experience as the uncertain products of an incomplete process of assimilation. As for the adult Jewish community, it has shown repeated nervousness in the face of what it imagines as galloping assimilation, and that has a great deal to do with the material support it has offered for Jewish studies. Roughly a third of the Judaica positions in the U.S. and Canada are supported by funds recruited in one way or another from the Jewish community, or from individual Jewish donors, and so the entire expansion we have been considering could hardly have taken place on the scale it has without the backing of the community outside the academy. Such outside support then seems to have the effect of stimulating support from university administrations, money drawing money: even at this moment of scarce funds, several major universities are allocating budgets for new Judaica programs. In one recent instance, at McGill University in Montreal, the local federation of Jewish philanthropies funded a whole new interdepartmental program, with the understanding that the university would take over financial responsibility after five years. In another case, that of Ohio State University, a single patron both endowed a chair and helped set up an ambitious program, with the university providing a variety of supplementary positions.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that any of this was not money well spent, but I would like to raise a question about the expectations behind such donations (without, however, implying any particular allusion to the two specific examples just mentioned). It seems to me that anxiety over the assimilationist tendencies of the young is often a reflex of bad conscience on the part of their elders, who believe themselves to have failed in providing the younger generation with a viable sense of Jewish identity through the family, the synagogue, and what passes for Jewish education on the elementary and secondary levels. The university then becomes the great danger-zone of assimilation, where students bound to their Jewish origins by little more than the remembered taste of chicken soup and the oppressive feel of ethnic clubbishness will naturally opt for the universalist, post-ethnic culture which the campus world richly promises. Far too many “concerned” members of the adult Jewish community (and I have had occasion to hear them speak both privately and at public meetings) cherish the illusion that a Jewish scholarly presence on campus will turn this situation around, fill their children with Jewish knowledge and Jewish pride, save them from the Jesus Freaks, the Eastern gurus, the New Left, and (to be perfectly frank) from Gentile spouses.

It should perhaps be obvious that what might have been done and was not in the first eighteen years of a person's life will hardly be accomplished in three lecture-hours a week during a semester of History 234B—Jewish Thought and Institutions. But the unreal expectations by many in the Jewish community go deeper than this, involving a basic misconception of academic inquiry and of the American university. Jewish studies integrated into the American university can no longer be a matter of confessional concern or ethnic loyalty; by entering the academy, Judaica entered the public domain. Jewish studies courses clearly must be open to students of all backgrounds, and cannot be designed to meet the special religious, ethnic, or national needs of Jewish students. (At the moment, one of my most promising graduate students in Hebrew literature is an Israeli Arab; I have taught medieval Hebrew poetry to a Protestant Hispanist with a proficiency in Hebrew, to an ex-Dominican monk who had studied in Israel; and what has been true of my experience in teaching literature is likely to be even more common for those who teach history and religious thought.) Some distinguished scholars of Jewish history and rabbinics have been Gentiles, and the membership of the Association for Jewish Studies is not restricted to Jews.


Whatever the composition of the student body for such courses, the inculcation of group identity is simply not the business of the university, and partial concessions on this score made under duress for ethnic studies and women's studies have not proved to be shining successes, either for the university or even for the would-be inculcators of identity. Two principles are compromised, one political and the other academic. On the political side (I am thinking for the moment of the public universities), one is struck by the irony of seeing the same professional Jewish liberals who are elsewhere passionate advocates of separation of church and state here prepared to give over to the state the responsibility for the Jewish education—whether conceived religiously or ethnically—of their children. The contradiction is more than a formal one. In respect to the Jewish community, it ultimately implies a real surrender of autonomy, and certainly an admission of the bankruptcy of the community's internal educational institutions. In respect to academic interests, a university Balkanized into exclusive parishes in which Jews, blacks, Chicanos, Asian-Americans, women, homosexuals, and other as yet unidentified “minorities” seek to reinforce their respective senses of group solidarity is a prospect that would mean the destruction of the university as an open institution dedicated to the free pursuit of knowledge.

There is, I think, almost complete unanimity among teachers of Judaica that college courses in Jewish studies must not in any way follow the pattern of many ethnic and women's courses in using the classroom situation for what the new political jargon calls “consciousness-raising.” Academic inquiry is essentially critical in nature, seeking, in the case of historical materials, to discover through careful probing what is the social, political, ethical, aesthetic, even textual reality often masked by the official version, the treasured stereotype, the ideological simplification. Such inquiry can be bracing, liberating, and instructive, but it may have a troubling, fragmenting, or corrosive effect on the very consciousness of connection with a group that many would like to see raised. Against the vague expectation that Jewish studies might impart Jewish tradition to the new generation of students, Gerson Cohen aptly observed, in his 1969 paper, that the effect of the explosion of Jewish historical research in the last few decades has been precisely to break down the idea of a single, coherent tradition. Half a century ago, he notes, scholars like Solomon Schechter, Louis Ginzberg, George Foote Moore, could still assume a basic distinction between normative and deviant Judaism; now, after the elaborate research on the Dead Sea Scrolls, on gnostic and apocalyptic currents in Judaism, on Karaism, the Kabbalah, Sabbatianism, and much more, this once self-evident distinction dissolves.

My own somewhat peculiar teaching situation might serve as a test-case for the question of differential classroom treatment of Jewish materials because my course-load is more or less equally divided between Hebrew literature and comparative literature. The languages and the historical contexts involved are obviously different, but I find it hard to conceive how my basic perspective as a teacher could differ from one group of courses to the other. If, say, I am discussing with a class in Hebrew literature a novel by Mendele, because his medium is the novel, whatever the insistence of his national concerns, I raise the same order of questions about the manipulation of narrative viewpoint, the effects of style, the nature of imagery, the larger implications of the grotesque vision, as I would in considering a novel by Dickens or Balzac. Indeed, without a critical awareness of Cervantes, Gogol, and Dickens (in addition to the Bible, the Talmud, and later Jewish sources), it is hard to talk coherently at all about a writer like Mendele. Helping students in this way to read a novel by Mendele with some amplitude of critical appreciation may raise their literary I.Q. but not necessarily their Jewish consciousness. Sometimes, in fact, the contrary might be true. The documents of any body of historical experience, scrutinized closely, can reveal the most unpleasant or disturbing undersides. Modern Hebrew literature, for example, offers in some of its profoundest writers a long, unsettling chronicle of anguished alienation, and it is not without its documents of scathing self-hatred, while contemporary Israeli literature is rich in expressions of radical doubt about Israel that no Zionist organizer, if he could possibly help doing so, would want to put into the hands of the recruitable young.

I do not want to say that Jewish studies in the universities will have no effect at all, or a negative effect, on the issue of group survival that so concerns the Jewish community, only that the effect will be much more oblique and complicated than many in the community imagine. To begin with, it is bound to be salutary not only for some Jewish students but for the intellectual enterprise of the humanities that visible inroads are being made on the old parochially Christian conception of the Western tradition. Maimonides may never loom as large as Aquinas in surveys of medieval thought, but the very fact that Maimonides begins to be a figure seriously contended with in some courses on our campuses tends to modify the available vision of European cultural evolution and the role that Jews—in this case, Arabs, too—have played in it. Such a widening of horizons should make the university a more comfortable place for intellectual development and interchange to all its members, whatever their origins. Moreover, even allowing for the necessarily critical perspective of academic inquiry and for the decidedly modest numbers doing any advanced work in Judaica, one must say that the presence of small groups of students across the country trying to achieve at least some scholarly knowledge of Yiddish language and literature, of the Bible and its tradition of exegesis, of the Talmud and its impedimenta, of medieval Jewish institutions, of modern Jewish thought, means that the multi-faceted historical experience and cultural expression of the Jewish people are in some degree being perpetuated as they were not being perpetuated before.


It is also important to keep in mind that any instruction in the humanities, though ideally critical and disinterested, is never value-free. Certain fundamental intellectual allegiances, aesthetic and perhaps moral preferences, surely come into play when a teacher decides on a curriculum, when he chooses emphases and approaches in the presentation of his materials, simply when he devotes himself to a particular field of study.4 This obvious fact has been seized on by some political militants as justification for converting the classroom into a workshop for the propaganda of “liberation,” but one may hope that the glare and flare of recent activism have not blurred the crucial distinction between using study-materials to inculcate dogmatic views of society and history, and an open-ended exploration which is committed rather to the general value of the materials arid, optimally, to the open-endedness of the exploration. Thus, a teacher presenting selections from the Zohar to a college class is by no means free to use it apologetically as a textual reinforcement of Jewish identity, to show through it the inherent superiority of Jewish mysticism, the loftiness of Jewish ethical values and national ideals, or the adaptability of the text for contemporary devotional needs. He will in fact have to explain why the 13th-century author should have attributed the book to a Tanaitic sage who lived over a thousand years earlier; he will probably want to discuss early gnostic, medieval Spanish, and other influences; the artificially concocted nature of the Aramaic and the hybridization of literary forms; some of the ways in which the Zohar is an intermingling of imaginative flashes, theological profundity, and intellectual mishmash. Any reinforcement of identity that may occur for Jewish students through such study will be a byproduct of instruction rather than its purpose. Teachers who care about teaching generally love what they teach (even if in the case of some materials the love may be highly qualified, or ambivalent), and this aspect of intellectual intercourse is surely transmitted to students, though they need not be expected simply to duplicate the attitudes of the teacher. A work like the Zohar, given serious academic exposure, should certainly impose itself on the imagination of sensitive students as one of the great medieval documents of spiritual quest, deserving a place alongside Augustine's Confessions, Wolfram Von Eschenbach's Parzival, Dante's Comedy, and other Christian texts that have become canonical in humanities curricula.

The intrinsic value of the particular material as an object of disciplined intellectual concern—which implies in some degree the value of the culture that generated the material—is in this way communicated in the classroom, but always, we should remember, through the personal mediation of the teacher. Without the slightest hint of preachment, the teacher, as a person deeply engaged in the study of Jewish culture and at the same time a full participant (one hopes) in the university community, in the contemporary world, can hardly avoid appearing as an example to many of his Jewish students. He is an example, of course, that might be followed, modified, ignored, or (perhaps most fruitfully) resisted, but the exemplary function will operate whether he intends it or not. “We cannot ignore the fact,” Michael Fishbane has said in a contribution to a 1972 colloquium at Brandeis University, “that teachers, like the texts studied, disclose new possibilities and modes of being-in-the-world, new points where speech is present. . . . We . . . are complex combinations of our studies and of modern culture. As such, we are models of various possibilities of contemporary synthesis, even as we point the way to understanding older models of personal and cultural synthesis”5 That, it seems to me, is as apt a summary as one could want of the existential values implicit in the humanistic teaching of Judaica. To be sure, the “Jewish humanities” will not save Judaism, for the obvious reason that belonging to a people with a deep sense of common historical fate (for many still a divinely covenanted fate) involves so much more than intellectual analysis. What Jewish studies can do is to ventilate the tradition, illuminate its obscure and contradictory facets, keep alive its ongoing claims on our most finely attentive faculties of understanding and reflection. Community support for such an endeavor is surely well-placed, but it should be proffered without illusory expectations, without any attempt to influence that academic process which, whatever its actual failings and gross inconsistencies, remains one of our society's most sustained efforts to seek the truth.


1 “Jewish Studies in American Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities,” American Jewish Year Book, 1966.

2 Jewish Studies in American Colleges and Universities, ed. Alfred Jospe, B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundations, 1972.

3 “An Embarrassment of Riches,” in The Teaching of Judaica in American Universities, ed. Leon Jick, Association for Jewish Studies, 1970.

4 Jacob Neusner has answered Gershon Hundert along these lines in an interesting, if somewhat testy, exchange on Neusner's article, “Jewish Studies After College,” Response (21), Spring 19V4. One must grant the justice of Neusner's observation that the notion of pure detachment in scholarship is chimerical, but that does not, I think, really refute the basic distinction for which Hundert argues: “Scholarly investigation of Jewish history and literature ought to be located in the university. Engaged, personal study of Torah belongs elsewhere.” texts that have become canonical in humanities curricula.

5 Jewish Studies: History and Perspectives, mimeographed texts of the papers presented at Brandeis University, April 16, 1972.

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