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Nurturers, emasculators or competitors? On the relation of Jewish Studies to Jewish thought

Should Jewish Studies strive to affect public discourse or should it focus only on research? Do the high standards that must be met for good research stifle philosophical creativity? And is it possible that scientific discourse is itself, this fact being the source of its power? Dr. Moshe Meir and Professor Adiel Schremer offer conflicting answers to these questions and express doubts as to the assumptions on which the questions are based

 

Should Jewish Studies strive to affect public discourse or should it focus only on research? Do the high standards that must be met for good research stifle philosophical creativity? And is it possible that scientific discourse is itself, this fact being the source of its power? In the conversation recounted below, Dr. Moshe Meir and Professor Adiel Schremer offer conflicting answers to these questions and express doubts as to the assumptions on which the questions are based.
 
Nurturers, Emasculators or Competitors? On the Relation of Jewish Studies to Jewish Thought: Shalom Hartman Institute Beit Midrash, Jerusalem, Israel
 
Dr. Moshe Meir
 
The problem with Jewish Studies and in particular, research into Jewish philosophy, lies in the anomaly to which it is subject. Let us compare the situation to the study of literature. In this field, there is a balance between its profuse creativity and the research that studies it, critiques it and nurtures it. In the study of the Jewish sources, in contrast, there is no such balance.
 
There is almost no Jewish philosophical creativity, and thus the subject of research consists of works created long ago. There is no active interaction in which research tries to catch up to creativity that has preceded it, in order to identify its focuses, clarify it and explain it. As a result, an additional distortion is created. In the field of literature, there is a razor-sharp distinction between the writer and the researcher.
 
In Jewish philosophy, the line is blurred. Since there is no creativity, researchers imagine that they themselves can fulfill this function, which in fact requires totally different skills and abilities. What is needed in the research of Jewish philosophy is a measure of modesty and the creation of space for creative individuals who can revive the field. Research should embrace these creative individuals, understanding that they are the living core of the discipline and that research should encourage and nurture the creative dimension of Jewish philosophy through its investigation.
 
Through this, research will then be fulfilling its public function. Creativity will reach the public by its very definition; research can follow it and through it also reach the audience.
 

Professor Adiel Schremer

 
The question of whether Jewish Studies should strive to influence public discourse is a misleading question, because it assumes that in the present situation Jewish Studies do not affect the character of Jewish life. But this is not the case. Jewish Studies have been a significant and influential creative factor during the last 150 years.
 
Apart from the Zionist movement, there has been no other force in Jewish culture whose impact has been as great as that of Jewish Studies. The very fact that disciplines such as philosophy, language, history, poetry and literature are part of the package called "Jewish culture" and that the student of Judaism does not restrict himself to Talmud and Jewish law, is an innovation brought about by Jewish Studies.
 
It is true that not all writing in Jewish Studies is accessible to the educated public to the same extent and not all research is directly and explicitly relevant to the problems faced by this audience – there is certainly room for improvement here.
 
However, Jewish Studies is making a significant contribution to the shaping of Judaism’s image, even if its influence is achieved through indirect channels. To start with, the achievements of Jewish Studies research are passed down through the schools’ curricula.
 
Moreover, through the encounter with Jewish Studies and the fruits of its research, the educated public is exposed to a special kind of Jewish creativity, which is characterized by a deep commitment to rational and argued discourse and presents an alternative to the populist and authoritarian discourse that is dominant in other cultural contexts. As a result, the nurturing of Jewish Studies is a task with the highest priority for those who cherish critical Jewish culture.
 
Dr. Moshe Meir
 
On the one hand, the situation of Jewish Studies is better than that of other liberal arts, which is a result of the study of Jewish sources by various segments of society. Much of the material and general methodologies in the reading and analysis of these sources is being internalized, both in the education system and in other educational frameworks that involve the general public.
 
In addition, the books written in this field have a relatively large readership and the various conferences and seminars are well-attended. Nonetheless, I would ask that you not ignore the vacuum that I have described: the lack of new philosophical creation. I view the members of the discipline of Jewish Studies to be responsible for this situation, though of course not exclusively so.
 
I would point to two major problems: The first is the attempt – both conscious and unconscious – to impose research standards on creative philosophical writing.
 
On the one hand, philosophical creativity – and Jewish philosophical creativity in particular – requires much more than what there is in research and on the other hand the standards that must be met in good research can only stifle philosophical thought.
 
Second, many of those with a creative passion in Jewish thought end up in the universities. Instead of identifying them and encouraging their creative dimension, there is a built-in assumption that research is the only serious field of endeavor. The result is a large group of individuals immersed in research activity that is foreign to their natures and inappropriate to their talents. As a result, they abstain from creative Jewish philosophical writing that is at the root of their souls.
 
Professor Adiel Schremer
 
The accusation that Jewish Studies is responsible for stifling creativity in Jewish thought is unjustified. It ignores the dilution of the liberal arts – a much wider phenomenon – which is the main factor in the lack of such creative activity.
 
It is sufficient to mention names such as Buber, Leibowitz, Goldman, and Hartman in Jewish philosophy and Leah Goldberg, Dan Pagis and A.B. Yehoshua in Hebrew literature – all of whom were lecturers in academia – in order to see that it is simply incorrect to claim that the scientific discourse does not allow the creative personality to develop. The reason that, in your words, "many of those with a creative passion in Jewish thought end up in the universities" is due to the fact that scientific discourse’s huge power of attraction is a result of it being a mode of spiritual creativity that seeks the truth.
 
To paint what is going on within the walls of academia as the imposition of a form of discourse is to ignore the simple fact that many talented young individuals are attracted to scientific discourse as a result of its internal quality and their healthy and correct intuition that other forms of discourse to which they have been exposed are shallow and not consistent with their self-consciousness as intellectual individuals.
 
The contribution of Jewish Studies (and of scientific discourse in general) to Jewish culture is the alternative they offer to modes of discourse that are charlatan, authoritarian, lacking rationality or populist and which certainly exist in contemporary Jewish society. And because of that, they must be carefully protected.
 
Professor Adiel Schremer is a lecturer in the Department of Jewish History at Bar Ilan University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is currently on Sabbatical in a program of the Tikvah Fund for the Study of Law and Jewish Civilization at the School of Law of New York University.
Moshe Meir is an educator and doctor of Jewish Philosophy. He is a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a leading figure in its School for Beit Midrash facilitators. He is director of the Kolot Beit Midrash and leads a workshop for Writing in Jewish Thought at the Van Leer Institute. His book, My Father, My Father was published by Toby Press, which will also soon publish his second book, Together: A New Religious Secular Philosophy.

 

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