A Landmark in Jewish Scholarship [1]

The North American Jewish community did not take much notice of a gathering that took place in Boston last month. Nevertheless the occasion marked a significant milestone in the development of Jewish intellectual life on this continent.

The event in question was the 20th annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), the academic organization of teachers and researchers of Judaica at post-secondary institutions in the U.S. and Canada.

The gathering had all the trappings of a typical academic conference. The main activities involved exchanges of scholarship, as some two hundred papers were presented on a remarkable assortment of topics relating to Jewish history, literature, ideas and social studies. In the background booksellers were exhibiting their wares, candidates were being interviewed for positions, organizational meetings were convened and--what many would consider the most important purpose of such conferences--a venue was provided for informal contacts between scholars to exchange opinions and discuss projects.

This characterization could apply equally to any scholarly conference, whether it be devoted to anthropology or zoology. And indeed it was precisely the normalcy of the conference that was singled out as a significant phenomenon. Twenty years ago when the founding conference of the AJS was convened at Brandeis University, there were many who could not imagine that a viable organization could be established.

European Scholars

At a special session devoted to the commemoration of the AJS's 20th anniversary some of the previous presidents of the organization reminisced about the founding meeting in 1969.

The 60 people who had participated in that meeting accounted for virtually all the teachers of Judaica in North American academic institutions at the time (20 years earlier the number had been 12). Though an interest in Jewish studies had blossomed on many campuses, inspired largely by the wave of Jewish consciousness sparked by the Six Day War of 1967, there were few serious academic programs in existence.

The previous generation had been dominated by a handful of European-trained scholars concentrated around the larger east-coast universities and seminaries. Much of the actual teaching on campuses elsewhere was relegated to local rabbis or sympathetic Jewish faculty members who might agree to offer a course in a Jewish aspect of their principal field of expertise (e.g. "Jewish-American writers," "Middle Eastern politics," etc.).

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star
As usual, the established Jewish institutions opposed the new organization, at least until they could find a way to control it.

New American Scholars

Of great concern to the founders of the AJS was the disturbing lack of an American scholarly tradition of Jewish studies. European Jewish scholars could presume a familiarity with classic Jewish texts and languages--an assumption that was obviously not valid in 1969 America. A real fear was felt that it might prove impossible to train a new generation of Judaica teachers who would uphold acceptable scholarly standards.

The 1988 conference was the finest proof of the groundlessness of the fears--though, to be sure, similar trepidations were still being expressed about the coming generation.

About 400 individuals participated in the conference, representing a cross-section of the state of Jewish studies in North America. Most were young scholars and many of these had already authored important contributions to Jewish learning. Particularly among those dealing with the more traditional textual subjects, it seemed that the great majority had done some of their studies in Israel. In all, they offered impressive testimony that Jewish studies are alive and well on the North American campuses.

The variety of subjects dealt with at the conference can serve as an index to the present concerns of academic Jewish scholarship. Predictably, sessions were devoted to such traditional topics as Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah. Many of the papers were concerned with applying to Jewish literature of all periods (including Bible, Yiddish and everything in between) the methodologies current in general literary studies. Similarly, the approaches of contemporary social-scientific research were being applied to topics in Jewish history, and especially to the study of the North American Jewish community.

Feminist Presence

As has been the case for a number of years now, many sessions were devoted to exploring the place of women in Jewish society, literature and religious tradition. This pre-occupation reflects the power of feminist ideologies throughout the contemporary academic world, but of course is of special concern to Jewish tradition, whose "official" formulations have almost exclusively been composed by and for men.

Female scholars do in fact play a role in the AJS (the outgoing president is the noted Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse of Montreal). While much of the feminist scholarship tended to be shallow and doctrinaire, it also inspired fascinating sessions on such topics as "The Experience of Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Women," as well as an interest in popular and folkloristic aspects of Judaism that might otherwise have been overlooked.

The feminist presence also created some "extracurricular" complications--for example, the meals were arranged so as to avoid the recitation of Birkat Ha-Mazon, the blessing after the meal, in order to avoid tension between the feminists and traditionalists over the inclusion of women in public prayers.

Clearly much progress in Jewish scholarship has occurred over 20 years. This landmark in the intellectual history of North American Jewry offers much hope for the quality of Jewish learning in coming years.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca

First Publication: JS, Jan. 20 1989.