Alex Joffe: Jewish Studies in Decline?

Jewish Studies in Decline?

Source: Jewish Ideas Daily, 3-28-11

Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, Hebrew University.

Reports prepared recently for Israel’s Council of Higher Education have brought despairing news about the condition of the humanities in the country’s universities. Especially dispiriting is the report on Jewish studies, once the crowning glory of Israel’s flagship Hebrew University—and, in the report’s inadvertently nostalgic words, “an investment in the nurturing of the deep spiritual and cultural structures of Israeli public and private life.”

On the Future of Jewish Studies Tomer VelmerYNet.  Just as global interest in Jewish thought has been surging, Israel’s universities, once the leaders in the field, have opted to invest their funds in more “lucrative” disciplines.

What Price Jewish Studies? Jacob NeusnerForward.  The flourishing of Jewish studies at secular American universities has come at the cost of a decline in the sort of classical religious learning that is necessary to the future of Judaism.

That investment has been producing ever smaller returns. While Israel is still the world center of Jewish studies, the field’s decline has been visible for years. Retiring faculty are not replaced, less and less research money is allocated, fewer and fewer students appear interested in pursuing a degree or a career in this or related disciplines.In part this is a story of shifting resources. Faculty, students, and money go where they are needed and where there are opportunities. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, the opportunities are in the various fields of science and technology, where Israeli research and teaching are world-class. A recent book called Israel the “start-up nation“; who would not want of be part of that success story? In a sense, the utilitarian Israelis are not only in step with but a step ahead of the rest of the developed world, where the need for trained scientists and science teachers is pressing.

In part, though, the decline of Jewish studies in Israel represents another, more complicated trend. Israeli national identity—those “deep spiritual and cultural structures” of which the report speaks—is already nominally Jewish: Hebrew is spoken, the Jewish holidays are celebrated nationwide, most marriages take place under a huppah, and so forth. Why then, a student might well ask, do I need to seek reinforcement at the university level? (This is to put aside the issue of how much the average Israeli high-school graduate really knows about Judaism or even Zionism.)

The answer to that unspoken question is that although the orientation of academic Jewish studies was never either explicitly religious or explicitly nationalist, the field did usefully inform, supplement, and, in certain cases, provide a cultural substitute for those qualities as well as an intellectual meeting ground of Judaism and Zionism. Now, with the exception of a few secular “study houses,” much of serious Jewish learning is increasingly left to the religiously and/or ideologically motivated—notable among them the ultra-Orthodox (haredim), who in principle reject the approach that sees Judaism in the context of the eras it has traversed and the cultures with which it has interacted….READ MORE

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