Everyone Complains About the Weather… (Open Thread Sunday)

In a trenchant comment on my posted letter to Prof. Marc Shapiro, Aharon Rose made an interesting observation. In his opinion, the total dominance of some sections of Jewish Studies in Israel by liberal/post-denominational/non-Orthodox Jews (including Bar-Ilan) has led to corruption of scholarly study in these fields. To put not too fine point on it, at least some of their studies are glorified op-eds dressed up as objective research.

Personally, I find this charge to be somewhat exaggerated. Yes, there are scholars in these fields who answer to this description, and whose studies I find exasperating because of it. What’s even more exasperating is their claim to total objectivity and neutrality, a claim which is falsified by virtually every word they write. However, there are many scholars in these fields whose work is valuable, honest and fair, even if there are slants here and there. If you are aware of possible slants, one can learn much from this research, emulating Rav Meir’s adage of “eat the core (of truth) and throw away the (slanted) shell”.

Personally, my problem is not that the dominance leads to corruption of scholarship, but that it leads to an almost uniform front in terms of value positions. Put bluntly, the overwhelming majority of scholars, as part of the scholarly community, are compelled to either be neutral or positive to values and interpretations that are entirely anathema to Orthodox Jewry. Whatever their personal proclivities, simple social pressures dictate that their public positions and scholarship fall in line with the majority.

This is not a good state of affairs, certainly not in academia, where plurality of voices – from the right as well as the left – is necessary for a true exchange of ideas. Also, this state of affairs helps contribute to the extreme fear of the RW from Jewish Studies.

So I ask you, Mr. Rose, and anyone who might answer, what would you suggest?

1) Encourage more RW or at least non-relativist Jews to enter academia. There they can eventually serve as a corrective opposition, and most importantly, make academic study palatable and less threatening to a larger group of adult Orthodox Jews. The voluminous work of Dr. Binyamin Brown is a perfect example of how to do this.

Instead of being viewed as the “forbidden” and necesarily superior world, the world of academia will be seen as just another format for the study of the world – including the Jewish world.

2) Continue the isolation and argue that everything written is apikorsut because of the problems stated above! The idea that Orthodox Jews who enter Jewish Studies will hold fast is strikingly naive. More likely, they will simply “go native” and adopt a reductionist/relativist position and will be a Jew at home and a secular liberal humanist in public.

3) Set up independent fora – perhaps think tanks or groups attached to yeshivot – where advanced yeshiva students can calmly do scholarly work (philosophy, history) without the added social pressure of being in a university faculty where he is a “minority of one (or a few more)”. The Tanach group attached to Yeshivat Har Etzion would seem a good example to emulate.

4) Other (describe)

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About AIWAC

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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9 Responses to Everyone Complains About the Weather… (Open Thread Sunday)

  1. fred says:

    #1 comes at the risk of the fears of #2 — going native. there are 5+ israel yuvals to every benny brown. [tho my personal choice is 1, i cannot endorse it for the hamon am. it is a risk which my shoulders are not broad enough to sustain. are yours?]
    #3 will run the same risks as what you accuse academia: stagnation, one point of view to the exclusion of others, etc. i believe we have already seen this in the yeshiva system, no?
    you recognize that this entire conversation is elitist?

  2. Aharon Rose didn’t write about “the total dominance of Israeli Jewish Studies” by any one group or groups. To extrapolate from a few scholars who write about modern Jewish religious history and claim that there is massive distortion of historical reality in an entire field is a bit off target. Scholars in all fields probably focus too much on the influence of certain thinkers and movements, but writing about them is one thing, while claiming that they represented the norm is another.

    Orthodoxy is as bad for academia as is relativism. The system seems to be working is Benny Brown is writing away and Adam Fertziger is criticizing the fixation of other scholars on people who may have been historically marginal. I am not aware of anyone before Eliezer Schweid who seriously researched Hirschenson, so it was a secular Jew who started the trend. Also, there is a larger non-ivory tower question that this raises, and it is the potential future role of figures and movements who were marginal during their own lifetime.

    • AIWAC says:

      “Aharon Rose didn’t write about “the total dominance of Israeli Jewish Studies” by any one group or groups. To extrapolate from a few scholars who write about modern Jewish religious history and claim that there is massive distortion of historical reality in an entire field is a bit off target.”

      First, yes he did. Read the comment again (at the Marc Shapiro post). You’ll see that what I wrote was almost an exact quote. Furthermore, you are bursting through an open door – I specifically dedicated a whole paragraph of the post to giving this assesment a reality check.

      “Scholars in all fields probably focus too much on the influence of certain thinkers and movements, but writing about them is one thing, while claiming that they represented the norm is another.”

      OK, the question is why. My argument would be that they do so (at least partially) in order to make them the norm. To argue that this visible slant in studies is entirely due to disinterested scholarly pursuit requires a degree of naivete I do not possess. Also, while they may or may not concede their marginality, the opposing side is rarely given a fair hearing (usually its just because they were “conservative”, often they are the faceless “conservative institution”).

      “Orthodoxy is as bad for academia as is relativism.”

      I agree. I am against any monopolization of academia by any one attitude, as I wrote specifically in my post: “This is not a good state of affairs, certainly not in academia, where plurality of voices – from the right as well as the left – is necessary for a true exchange of ideas.” and “Encourage more RW or at least non-relativist Jews to enter academia. There they can eventually serve as a corrective opposition”. I want Orthodox Jews to serve as an opposition, not “take over the faculties”. The pendulum needs to swing back towards equilibrium.

      “The system seems to be working is Benny Brown is writing away and Adam Fertziger is criticizing the fixation of other scholars on people who may have been historically marginal.”

      As fred pointed out, they are a very small minority. I want that to change and have them be a large minority (which they will always be because of simple Jewish demographics).

      “Also, there is a larger non-ivory tower question that this raises, and it is the potential future role of figures and movements who were marginal during their own lifetime.”

      You seem to be conceding my point about one of the main purposes of these studies. The main problem is that there are not enough people to catch them on their excesses. The result is that, sans opposition, their studies are uncritically accepted as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    As long as university level Judaic studies requires either a reductionist attitude or worse towards many Ikarei HaDaas, and encourages a lack of Emunas Chachamim, as opposed to offering approaches, as opposed to answers, that would supplement Emunas Chachamim, it will not escape its own self created universe as a refuge for many whose views could be described in many ways as indicative of Ketanei Emunah , or worse. The views of the few successful academics who do not write with a preconceived academic agenda or historiography does not mean that such fields are now mandatory, does not mean that all who enter Pardes will exit with the same views as R Akiva.

  4. AIWAC says:

    Steve,

    1) What is “Emunas Chachamim”? There are different interpretations of the concept.

    2) I would counter that many of the intellectually curious are going to enter it anyway; better to help them and guide them by the hand than let them make the trek entirely on their own.

  5. I am still not convinced that Rose intended to describe “the total dominance of Israeli Jewish Studies,” unless his intention was limited to Modern Jewish History. It could be that I gave too much weight to his use of the word האיזוטריים, which I understood to limit it to certain areas of Jewish studies. If your interpretation is correct, then I think that he is even more wrong than I originally thought. Everyone has their biases and all scholarship is political and agenda-driven, just some more than others, but I do not think that Jewish studies in Israeli universities is as close-minded as you describe it to be, or that it is any more close-minded than most other academic communities. All of your examples are from one area of Jewish Studies, and until shown otherwise, I don’t think that it necessarily applies to “Jewish Studies in Israel” as a whole. Institutions and departments have their biases and the public doesn’t necessarily crave reductionism, just juicy topics. Academic opposition is important, but friends tend to hire their own friends.

  6. AIWAC says:

    “I am still not convinced that Rose intended to describe “the total dominance of Israeli Jewish Studies,” unless his intention was limited to Modern Jewish History. ”

    This was how I understood it, however, to be careful, I will change my statement to “some branches of Jewish Studies in Israel”.

    “Everyone has their biases and all scholarship is political and agenda-driven, just some more than others, but I do not think that Jewish studies in Israeli universities is as close-minded as you describe it to be, or that it is any more close-minded than most other academic communities. All of your examples are from one area of Jewish Studies, and until shown otherwise, I don’t think that it necessarily applies to “Jewish Studies in Israel” as a whole. Institutions and departments have their biases and the public doesn’t necessarily crave reductionism, just juicy topics. Academic opposition is important, but friends tend to hire their own friends.”

    Menachem, that it is just as agenda-driven with “friends bringing friends” as other departments brings me little comfort. As Chazal said, “צרת רבים – נחמת שוטים”.

    I don’t accept the “everybody else does it” argument, precisely because I expect better from academia and hold it to a higher standard. I want them to live up (or at least try) to their pretension to being a beacon of free debate. Surely you agree?

  7. I also want academia to be open to different opinions, it’s just that human beings are the ones making appointments and accepting students, and human beings don’t always live up to what they profess. I don’t think that it is right, I am just not surprised. At my first Association of Jewish Studies conference I saw a borderline shouting match between two important scholars of Jewish Studies, and I quickly realized that it is one crazy field with a lot of baggage and agendas.

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