This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Higher Education *

Up here in the sublime halls of Academia, my colleagues and I are becoming increasingly apprehensive about the state of advanced education. The authorities who control the purse strings seem determined to transform universities into professional training institutions and technical schools, and university degrees are treated as marketable commodities to be mass-produced as if on assembly-lines. Most disturbingly, the liberal arts and sciences, that once formed the core of the traditional curriculum, are being pushed to the periphery.

Amid all this malaise, I find it instructive to read how earlier generations defined the ideals of their academic institutions. A fascinating testimony has been preserved in the form of a proposal that was published on 19 Nisan 5324 (April 1 1564) and circulated by Rabbi David Provençal, a prominent scholar and preacher in Mantua, Italy. Rabbi Procençal was soliciting support for the creation of a new Jewish college. In this project he would be assisted by his son Abraham who was billed as a qualified teacher in the areas of Torah, philosophy and medicine.

The prospectus justified the need for such an institution in light of the predicament facing the Italian Jewish communities at that time. The Talmud had recently been banned and burned, leaving glaring gaps in the education of Jewish youth, who were left to choose between a life of indolence or attending Christian schools where they risked being subverted by alien values.

As a solution to this dilemma Rabbi Provençal proposed his new institution in which young students might acquire wisdom and vocational skills in a Jewish setting. The program would last five years, with a more limited three-year option available to less gifted students. To out-of-town students they would provide dormitory facilities consisting of basic furnishings and housekeeping services, and the collegial meals would be enlivened by words of Torah and edifying discourses. Rabbi Provençal alluded to similar institutions in the land of Israel that would serve as his models. More tangibly, his institution was clearly intended to be a Hebrew version of one of the preeminent European universities of the time. Mantua’s first short-lived Christian college was not  established until 1625.

The Hebrew document refers to the proposed Jewish institution as an “academy.” It is probable that the use of this Greek term, though it was enjoying considerable prestige in Renaissance Italy, provoked objections from Jews who preferred an authentic Hebrew word. This would be analogous to the fierce opposition voiced by David Ben-Gurion and others when Israel’s official bastion of linguistic purism decided to call itself the “Akademia” of the Hebrew Language. It is therefore noteworthy that Rabbi Provençal was also the author of a treatise (no longer extant) titled Dor HaPelagah (The Generation of Separation) in which he endeavoured to prove that some two thousand lexical items in Greek, Latin and Italian were in reality loan-words from the Hebrew. Included among these was the word “academia” that had evolved (so he claimed) from the biblical expression “‘eḳed adam,” which he understood as “a gathering of people.”

Like the eminent medieval and Renaissance universities, the Jewish college would be built upon a foundation of theology. Students would be instructed in the Torah and rabbinic lore, which would hopefully reinforce orthodox beliefs, diligent observance and upright moral behaviour. The intensity of the religious curriculum would be contingent on the future repeal of the interdiction of Talmud texts, and on the success of the program: if it should attract large enrolments (leading to a corresponding increase in tuition income), then additional faculty could be recruited— “even from the Ashkenazic community, and even for salaries.”

Courses in sacred scripture would span the entire Hebrew Bible (as distinct from some religious schools that limited themselves to learning the five books of the Torah) according to a broad spectrum of classic and more recent commentators. The academy’s founders believed that the study of “divine philosophy” should lie at the heart of Bible study. And the program would not be confined to academic textual studies—students would also be encouraged to compose their own original homiletic expositions, and thereby to participate in the ongoing tradition of Judaic scriptural creativity.

The new institution would strike a balance between academic and practical components. The curriculum was to include a full range of the same Liberal Arts subjects as were offered in the finest Christian universities, and these would be taught by qualified specialists. The prospectus mentions scribal arts, arithmetic, geometry, cosmography and astrology. The students would also be trained in the arts of rhetoric, public speaking and debating—applied to halakhic questions as well as academic topics—as an effective means for honing their intellects.

The school’s founders also insisted on a solid grounding in Hebrew grammar, without which they believed it is impossible to arrive at a sound comprehension of a text. In the spirit of Renaissance humanism, the students were expected to master the crafts of rhetoric and prosody, including the ability to compose scanned poetry. Penmanship and Hebrew calligraphy were also counted among the essential skills to be instilled at the Mantua academy, thereby enabling the graduates to serve as copyists of manuscripts and documents. Their elegant scribal skills would also be applied to Latin and Italian, in acknowledgment of the fact that they would likely be involved in written correspondence with non-Jewish authorities.

On the professional side, the Provençals’ academy would also include its own medical school. Though the aspiring physicians would still have to spend some time in non-Jewish “studios” in order to receive their certification, thereby exposing them to threatening theological influences (several Jewish medical students had actually abandoned their religion under those circumstances), most of their training could now be obtained in a more wholesome Jewish setting. While« competence in Latin was normally considered an essential precondition for full medical certification, the Mantua Hebrew academy would offer a more limited option based on Hebrew texts, which they justified on the premise that “wisdom lies chiefly in the content, not in the languages, and what is important is the proper intention.”

All in all, Rabbi Provençal’s ambitious venture into higher education compares quite favourably with our current trend toward impersonal degree-granting factories, as well as with the narrow parochialism that characterizes many yeshivas.

If you should feel tempted to apply for admission to the Hebrew Academy of Mantua, I regret to inform you that we have no evidence that the project was ever implemented. Apparently the proposal remained purely academic.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Chronicles and Commentaries
Chronicles and Commentaries

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, June 28, 2013, p. 12.
  • For further reading:
    • Assaf, Simcha. Meḳorot le-toldot ha-ḥinukh be-Yiśraʼel. Edited by Shmuel Glick. Vol. 2. 6 vols. A new edition Edited and annotated. New York and Jerusalem: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2001
    • Bonfil, Robert. Rabbis and Jewish Communities in Renaissance Italy. Translated by Jonathan Chipman. The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
    • Halberstam, S. Z. Ḥ. “Iggeret MeRabbenu David Provençalo.” Ha-Levanon / Le Libanon. July 8, 1868.
    • Marcus, Jacob Rader. The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book, 315-1791. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1990.
    • Roth, Cecil. The Jews in the Renaissance. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1959.
    • ———. “The Medieval University and the Jew.” The Menorah Journal 19 (1931 1930): 128–141.
    • Shulvass, Moses A. The Jews in the World of the Renaissance. Translated by Elvin Kose. Leiden: Brill, 1973.
    • Simonsohn, Shlomo. History of the Jews in the Duchy of Mantua. Publications of the Diaspora Research Institute book 17. Jerusalem: Kiryath Sepher, 1977.