A Debate Between Me and Myself on Academic Jewish Studies: Final Response

[Previous Posts: Intro, First Round, Second Round, Final Challenge]


I thought long and hard as to how to reply to your last letter. The deep pessimism which infused it left a deep and lasting impression on me. If I add this to the powerful feeling of malaise, cynicism and irony one gets when reading blog comments on the O-blogosphere, I get a clear-cut feeling of despair. For a while, I wondered whether to write this response at all.

I’ve no doubt that I could have written this response better if I had the time and the willpower to continue to deal with this. I am also certain that there are others more capable than myself who could respond more effectively. However, this is my blog, and as Hillel would say – ‘If not now, when?’

Let me start by turning your statement into a question: Does Academic Jewish Studies contribute to Talmud Torah and Orthodox Religious life? Does the benefit one gains from such works outweigh the cost of having to deal with fundamental challenges to the legitimacy and truthfulness of our religious faith and practice? Your response to both questions is of course a resounding NO.

My response is that by changing one word in the above two questions, the answer would become a resounding YES. We need to simply change the word ‘does’ to the word ‘can’. It is said of the Torah itself that Torah can be the elixir of life – or death – depending on the motivations and nature of the person studying it. Academic Jewish Studies is no different. Just as one can learn halacha only to learn how to abuse it, or study Torah only to demean it or belittle it, Academic Jewish Studies can indeed be a used as a powerful bludgeon against Orthodox Jewry.

By the same token, however, it can be of great benefit. Surely, I do not need to expound on the incredible contributions of scholarship to our knowledge and understanding of the Jewish world. From uncovered manuscripts, sociological studies to publication of long lost works of poetry, halacha and history, it has opened thousands of windows into our past. Where would we be, sir, without Lieberman’s Tosefta Kipshuta, the Daat Mikra series, or the many critical editions of rishonim and acharonim. Where would we be without the many works on the histories of Jewish communities – the baalei batim, the merchants, the families – done under the aegis of academia?

Collectively, the work of Jewish Studies Researchers has made that ‘foreign country’ more accessible, more understandable, more relatable than ever before. Surely, as Orthodox Jewish educators constantly struggle to ensure their students’ attachment to Jewish sources and life, we would be remiss to abandon this powerful tool?

I don’t agree that Academic Jewish Studies is necessarily more dangerous to religion than, say, philosophical issues like theodicy after the Holocaust or the permissive sexual atmosphere of western culture. Moreover, the benefits of the former are far greater than the usually (or entirely, depending on your POV) negative aspects of the latter two. You claim that the ratio of benefits to problems to Orthodoxy from Academic Jewish Studies is one to scores. For me, at least, and for many students and professors I have met (though by no means all), the ratio is reversed. The knowledge I have gained from these fields has deepened and strengthened my attachment to Judaism in ways that the most brilliant yeshiva Rav could never do.

Yes, there are challenges, but this is the case no matter what kind of Jewish life one leads. Part of being an adult is dealing with, nay grappling with questions and dilemmas, even without necessarily resolving them. I firmly believe that Judaism is just such a ‘religion for grown-ups’. Besides, if we were to shut down all intellectual avenues just because of the attendant risks, the result would be a horribly withered shadow of what Judaism once was. Surely we should all, each according to their ability and will, try to learn and understand His world, even though it sometimes means struggle. Would you deny yourself the ability to fly simply because you might crash? The same is the case here in the intellectual sense.

So come with me, and let’s fly.

Yours, Avi



Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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3 Responses to A Debate Between Me and Myself on Academic Jewish Studies: Final Response

  1. Shlomo says:

    Perhaps the question is at what point to introduce people to academic studies. Perhaps Judaism (and, more generally, all religion) is fundamentally an answer to the deep questions about one’s place and purpose in life that one cannot even begin to ask until reaching a rather advanced level of maturity. Upon reaching this stage, Judaism can become compelling regardless of where one thinks it came from. Conversely, people who have not reached this stage are incapable of really believing in Judaism even if they desire to, and thus are very capable of disbelieving in it. Yet, from a communal perspective, it is necessarily to keep these people “religious” at least in lifestyle, until eventually they are capable of arriving at a deeper understanding. Thus many people should not be exposed to academic studies, yet the rest of us should not feel threatened by the need to quarantine academic studies in this way. A possible parallel is the prohibition of studying kaballah until you’re 40, married, and so on.

  2. Pingback: Tidbits | QED

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