Ana Bondžić, "Do not cross, do not", via Wikipedia Commons

Jewish Studies and Local Communities

[pullquote align=right] Jewish studies ought not, as Neusner recognized, be shaped to meet the parochial interests of the Jewish community.
[/pullquote]In December of 1984, Jacob Neusner interviewed for the Koshland Chair in Jewish Studies, a newly created position at Stanford. He was invited to campus for an inter­view and was told that, in addition to the usual deans and other administrators, he would have to meet with both Hillel and faculty members involved in the local Jewish fund-raising effort. When he returned home, Neusner wrote the following to the chair of the search committee:
“While I personally share the goals of Hillel, on the one side, and the UJA and Jewish community organizations, on the other, I do not believe that it is appropriate to join these activities to a candidacy for an academic professorship. Perhaps in your context I take too strict a view of the severely academic definition of the work of a professor of Judaic studies, and, on that account, I believe I would not be a suitable can­didate for your consideration. In any event I have to conclude that the interests of those involved in defining the chair involve matters inap­propriate, in my view, to the tasks of an ordinary professor and scholar, and that my goals in building Judaic studies as an academic field do not entirely cohere with the goals of yourself and your colleagues for the position at hand.”
[pullquote align=left] Faculty may well be expected to continue in the classroom the advocacy of Judaism and of Israel that begins in the Sunday school and continues in the synagogue.
[/pullquote]Neusner did more than anyone to distinguish Jewish studies as a valid academic field of study in the modern, secular academy. To do so, however, he had to avoid the usual pitfalls so common to area studies: insider knowledge that was neither testable nor verifiable, common experiences shared by group membership, and celebrations of ethnic pride. The development of Jewish studies in universities ought not, as Neusner so acutely recognized, be shaped to meet the parochial interests of the Jewish community, which often has very conservative ideas about what Judaism is or should be and which patrols the discourse on Israel. When Jewish studies gets too close to the local community its faculty may well be expected to continue in the classroom the advocacy of Judaism and of Israel that begins in the Sunday school and continues in the synagogue pulpit. The scholar of Judaism ought, by definition, to be a critic, a personality trait that necessarily removes him or her from the community. Were this not the case, Neusner warned throughout his career, Jewish Studies would cease to be intellectually rigorous or responsible, and would be little more than the extension of local Jewish organizations.
Neusner spent his entire life fighting to open up the study of Judaism, specifically rabbinic texts, to a larger audience, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Today we may well take this for granted. One can now go to college and take a course on Jewish texts taught by someone with a PhD in religion with a specialization in Judaism, as opposed to the local rabbi. In order for this to have happened, however, real intellectual battles had to be fought. Today we owe it to his legacy to remember those battles and to patrol the borders between the academic study of Judaism and local Jewish communities.
[pullquote align=right] Jewish Studies would cease to be intellectually rigorous or responsible.
[/pullquote]What are the consequences if we do not? Just this week, I was “long-shortlisted” for a position in which the search committee included a non-academic from the local Jewish Federation. What, I ask, was his role on the committee? Who placed him there? And what are the repercussions of such an appointment on the study of Judaism more generally? Not even Neusner’s Stanford fiasco witnessed a member of the local community actually on the search committee.
We forget at our own peril.

4 thoughts on “Jewish Studies and Local Communities

  1. A couple of comments:
    1. It’s fair to ask how real a problem this actually is. How many professors are changing what they do in class to serve the interests of the local community?
    2. To my mind, there is just a large, if not a larger, risk that Jewish Studies professors may also fall into the political groupthink that sometimes prevails in campus humanities departments. If a professor decides to join the BDS movement and encourages his students to join because his lefty professor friends are doing it, is it really that different from a professor who teaches a certain way because of engagement with a community member?

  2. I’m looking forward to reading your book on Neusner. However, 3 possible counterexamples come to mind in the field of Rabbinics (unless I’m missing your point). Aside from Neusner arguably the three of the most transformative figures in the academic study of Rabbinic literature in the past half century are Shaul Lieberman, Daniel Boyarin, and Yaakov Ellman. Lieberman embedded, in many ways, the study of Rabbinics within the study of Greco-Roman culture; Boyarin intertwined the study of Rabbinics with the study of early Christianity; Ellman pioneered the study of the mutual influence of Zoroastrianism in the Sassanid period and Rabbinics. Lieberman spent most of his career at a Conservative seminary and Ellman still teaches at Yeshiva University, while Boyarin self-identifies in his scholarly work as an Orthodox Jew. Does this not raise questions about how much influence is actually deployed by one’s faith community upon one’s research? Or am I missing something?

  3. Aryeh, I think Lieberman and Ellman are stronger counter-examples than Boyarin, because I think the most plausible construction of Hughes’s argument is about institutional constraints, rather than the influence of personal ideology or belief.

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