writer is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community
Research. This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily
(www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted
Reports prepared recently for the Council of Higher Education have brought
depressing news about the condition of the humanities in the country’s
Especially dispiriting is the report on Jewish studies,
once the crowning glory of 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
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 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.
PARTLY, HOWEVER, the decline of Jewish
studies represents another, more complicated trend. 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 huppa 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 highschool 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 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.
If Israel should
lose its place as the center of academic Jewish studies, can America step into
the breach? The Association for Jewish Studies (the field’s professional
organization) boasts more than 1,800 members; more than 150 individual programs
at public and private American and Canadian universities offer everything from
introductory survey courses to advanced degrees; endowed chairs, funded in
almost every case by Jewish donors, number more than 200. Recently, new programs
in Israel studies have been launched across the country, compensating for the
systematic exclusion of Israel from Middle Eastern studies.
and dedication, scholarly and institutional, devoted to these endeavors cannot
But here, too, the downward spiral in the liberal arts as a
whole – national enrollments, at 18 percent of students in 1960, are now at 8%
and falling – is amply on display and taking a toll across the board. At one
large East Coast university, for example, the number of students concentrating
on history has fallen by half; Jewish studies, never a front-runner at the best
of times, has suffered proportionately.
The same university’s investment
in the sciences has, commensurately, grown.
It is true that, thanks to
endowments and other forms of financial support by local Jewish communities,
Jewish-studies programs may be somewhat more insulated than others from
financial shocks. It is also true that large centers of Jewish studies continue
to exist at Harvard, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania and
elsewhere, although these, too, are hardly immune to university-wide
Meanwhile, as in Israel, intensive religious learning is
vigorously pursued in yeshivot from Lakewood, New Jersey, to Los
It hardly helps matters that American universities have, in
general, long since swapped their traditional role as nurturers of national
identity, cohesion and integration in favor of an ironic and politically correct
cosmopolitanism. Forthright defenders of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition,
and of the civilizing role of the liberal arts, are few and far between.
Defenders of the great Jewish texts that stand at the center of Western
tradition are fewer still.
ONE MIGHT hope that Jewish academics would see
a place for themselves in leading a countermovement to the prevailing ethos, but
of this, too, there are few signs. As for providing a route (back) to Jewish
tradition, or to the Jewish people, the field of secular Jewish studies was,
properly, never intended to serve such a purpose – though, again as in Israel,
it may well have done so in individual cases.
Most importantly, Jewish
learning itself no longer plays the same role in the life of the Jewish people
that it did when law, history and memory pulled together the threads of past and
present and tied all Jews everywhere to one another.
this prolonged moment of transition, secular Jewish studies still has a key role
to play: offering instruction, enlightenment and perspective on the foundational
Jewish texts. For without these, there is precious little else.
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