Books: Scholarship, Accessibility, and American Jews

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March 4, 2004
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Sh’ma

To assess recent trends in reading and publishing, Sh’ma convened a cyberspace roundtable discussion with several noted scholars: Norman Cohen, Provost of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and author most recently of Hineini in Our Lives: Learning How to Respond to Others Through 14 Biblical Texts and Personal Stories; Ellen Frankel, Editor-in-Chief and CEO of the Jewish Publication Society; Frances Malino, Sophia Moses Robison Professor of Jewish Studies and History at Wellesley College and author of The Sephardic Jews of Bordeaux and A Jew in the French Revolution: The Life of Zalkind Hourwitz; Jonathan Rosen, Editorial Director of Nextbook and author of Eve’s Apple, The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds, and a forthcoming novel, Joy Comes in the Morning (September 2004); and Barry Levy, Professor of Biblical Studies and Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University, whose most recent book is Fixing God’s Torah: The Accuracy of the Bible Text in Rabbinic Law.

JONATHAN ROSEN: There has always been a tension between the wish to make ideas accessible and the fear of diluting them. Maimonides wrote the Mishnah Torah so people could have easy access to what is found in the Talmud, but of course he was accused of trying to eclipse the Talmud with his own simplification. Even he decided at the end of his life to go back and add references to that book. But the real Jewish solution in the end, the proper and natural one, was to have both the Talmud and Maimonides. And now, of course, we need someone to make Maimonides accessible.

The tension seems as old as Judaism and is even a theological problem in the Bible. God makes Himself accessible, He introduces Himself to people, and immediately there’s the (divine) anxiety that people will get God wrong; that He simplified Himself too much. But without that act of popularization, there would have been no revelation. There would be no writing of any kind. There would be nothing. An enhanced sensitivity to popularization among some Jews may stem from an unspoken anxiety that Christianity is Judaism for dummies, a form of popularization that liberated certain ideas from the anchor of law and made them accessible in a way that denatured them or undid the need for Judaism. Or it may just be that there’s always been a scholarly elite made anxious by the popularizing impulse. Even Joshua in the Bible gets upset when the elders start prophesying in the camp — it’s Moses who has to say, “Would that all the people were prophets.”

ELLEN FRANKEL: To understand why Jewish laypeople and rabbis remain uninterested in what Jewish scholars study and publish, we need to ask a fundamental question that seems absurdly obvious: Why do we Jews study our own past? Several years ago, in a brilliant book entitled Zakhor, Yosef Yerushalmi suggested three ways that Jews relate to our past: as historiography, as history, and as memory. At the risk of oversimplifying, I would like to suggest that these three attitudes demarcate the ways our community relates to the Jewish books we read.

Scholars are interested primarily in historiography — that is, how the past is known and represented. How do we know what we know about Jewish texts? What were the agendas of those who wrote them? What influence have other cultures had on ours? How can we recover lost voices, especially those of Jewish women? Scholars who seek to answer these questions do not grant the past authority over their own academic methodologies.

Rabbis and other Jewish professionals, on the other hand, are interested primarily in history — that is, how the Jewish story is transmitted and sustained. By and large, this history is an official sanctioned version, formalized in the prayerbook and makhzor, school textbooks, and rabbinic handouts, and reinforced on the pulpit and in the classroom. Even though many of the ideas taught by rabbis — about the Bible, rabbinics, halakhah, Jewish history, theology, and other religious traditions — have been discredited by contemporary scholarship, rabbis and other Jewish teachers continue to teach what they themselves learned in seminary or even earlier, hoping that such larger-than-life myths will command their congregants’ loyalties more compellingly than the nuanced complexities and ambiguities of scholarship.

And, finally, lay people are bound to Judaism primarily by memory — that is, by how their families taught them to be Jews, how their rabbis and communities modeled what Judaism is, how they internalized both the positive and negative experiences that happened to them because of their being Jews. Such Jews read Jewish books to find meaning in their lives, to find out why Jewish beliefs and practices make sense for them. They read to learn how to be better people and to understand what God demands of them. They also read to meet other Jews, fictional and real, to see if they can recognize their own face or those of friends or relatives in these vicarious worlds.

So it’s not surprising that Jewish scholars have had so little influence on rabbis and lay people. Scholars have yet to demonstrate that what they’re up to is good for the Jews. The only meeting ground where true teaching — and learning — will take place among these three constituencies will be where scholars, rabbis, and laypeople sit together to share conversations around texts, and together dare to confront the unsettling contradictions between the study of history and its religious re-enactments.

NORMAN COHEN: The gulf between scholars in the academy and Jewish professionals and the Jewish laity stems from one major source, which also explains why it is very difficult to bridge this chasm: the reality of time. Even those lay people today who search for opportunities for Jewish learning and text study — and surely this phenomenon has increased dramatically — generally want to study in small “sound bites.” For most of us who are caught up in our own professions and in the material, Jewish study at best takes the form of a four-session course, an hour-a-week study group, or a weekend study retreat. Time is also the issue for Jewish professionals who, because of the multiple roles they are expected to play by their own congregants and students, are trained as generalists. There isn’t sufficient time during their seminary training to master particular aspects of the Jewish scholarly tradition, nor is there time during their professional lives for serious Jewish study.

The only way to bridge the chasm is to demand higher levels of Jewish literacy and Hebrew knowledge of those entering the seminary. By raising the entrance bar and then capitalizing on it within the curriculum, it is possible to produce an educated professional who is more at home in Jewish scholarship and serious text study. As well, we must continue to raise our expectations of what it means to be seriously involved in Jewish life. To be a serious Jew demands knowledge of Hebrew and familiarity with the tradition that will enable the individual to begin to ask the question of how Jewish scholarship can help us understand the relevancy of the Jewish tradition for our lives.

FRANCES MALINO: Will the enterprise of Jewish Studies, in this more accessible form, have a greater impact on the way Jews think about issues in Jewish life? Will there actually be a larger readership? If so, who will constitute it? The answers, of course, are difficult to predict. But they rest, at least in part, on what we believe lies behind the assumed chasm between communal leaders and scholars, rabbis, and academics.

I agree with Norman Cohen that the tempo of our lives leaves little time for leisure study and that only by raising “the entrance bar” at the seminaries as well as the expectations of what it means to be involved in Jewish life can we expect Jews to become more familiar with Jewish scholarship and more at home with text study. I would suggest, however, that contributing to the gulf between scholars in the academy, Jewish professionals, and Jewish laity is an uneasy relationship between academics and those in the rabbinate, specifically in the area of Jewish scholarship.

This relationship is no doubt fueled by a legitimate need to protect the academic integrity of Jewish Studies, which requires a critical distance that might be threatened by the commitments and priorities of the rabbinate. But I also think something more profound is going on and that the tenuousness of the relationship speaks as well to a chasm between rabbis and academics themselves. To be sure, some scholars lecture in synagogues and participate in adult study. But a relationship must go both ways, and these same scholars rarely include rabbis in scholarly sessions. Why not? Why not also think imaginatively of ways in which rabbis might even play a role in the classroom? If we truly wish for the “huge body” of Jewish scholarship to be successfully integrated into contemporary Jewish life, we cannot focus only on the education and expertise of Jews. We must also turn our attention to barriers between Jews themselves that have been erected and sustained by personal and communal dynamics. Only then can we attempt to bridge what is becoming a widening gulf.

BARRY LEVY: Jewish writers have always been challenged to bridge the needs of readers with greatly varied backgrounds. For example, think of the manifold ways Rashi’s Torah commentary and Maimonides’ Mishne Torah have served the needs of different types of readers. Today, with the array of misguided and erroneous material available in print and on Websites, scholars should make much, if not all, of their work accessible to a general readership. Their work must provide the assumptions, sources, and methods underlying their analyses and conclusions, so that university students, Jewish and non-Jewish lay readers, and academic specialists in other fields, as well as specialists in the field under discussion, can benefit from the scholars’ presentations. Judicious use of footnotes and excursi permits one to accommodate a range of readerships without compromising depth and reliability. Many writers might identify with Maimonides’ preference to address one educated person rather than a thousand fools, but there is no virtue in being obtuse, and most writers will take their readers wherever they find them.

COHEN: I learned early on in my teaching at HUC-JIR that what differentiates study in a seminary is that it is bound up with a search for personal meaning; it is not sufficient to simply master critical scholarly textual skills. Each member of our learning community must ask how a particular text applies to our lives and to the lives of those whom we are blessed to teach. This approach is at the heart of our curriculum, which seeks to integrate the academic, professional, and spiritual growth of our students, and help them shape an engaging vision for Jewish life that touches those whom they will serve. Our students’ authenticity as rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal workers is dependent on their honing of textual skills and their knowledge of the breadth of the tradition. Yet their effectiveness is determined by their ability to assist their future congregants and students in their search for meaning as Jews and as human beings. My own research and writing flows from this perspective. My goal is to bring serious textual analysis of biblical and rabbinic traditions to bear on our own life journeys — in essence, to demonstrate to the readers that immersion in our text tradition can help each of them find personal meaning.

MALINO: The timeliness of my present research topic, Teaching Freedom: Jewish Sisters in Muslim Lands, as well as the treasure trove of personal letters on which it is based, have led me to think about how to write a book that would maintain scholarly integrity, interest my fellow academics, and be meaningful to a general readership. However personal my reasons for choosing to do this, I am not alone in setting these goals. Increasingly, frustrated by the paucity of readers for works that often take a decade to complete, scholars are now experimenting with subject matter and writing styles designed to appeal to a wider reading public. I think it a positive trend, although we risk having the pendulum swing too far in one direction.

FRANKEL: The heart of the JPS mission is to popularize Jewish scholarship for lay readers. Our readers are lifelong students of Judaism, probably not fluent in languages other than English nor in the study skills and idioms of a yeshivah-educated reader. Our books aim to open doors for such readers and provide them with the tools they need to stride confidently through those doors.

ROSEN: I’m editing a series of books now for a project called Nextbook, the purpose of which is to make Jewish subjects accessible to a broad readership by getting writers who aren’t scholars to write about Jewish subjects. These books aren’t intended to replace scholarship; they’re just a way in. As long as they’re done in that spirit, not as displacement but as supplementation, they remain part of a tradition of interpretation that’s as old as the oral law.

I really don’t know if Jews are reading less widely than in previous generations. I suspect when most Jews in this country were poor immigrants struggling to feed large families, they didn’t do a whole lot of reading. But ideas have a funny way of sinking into the marrow of a culture. I’ve no doubt that Jewish intellectuals thinking and writing well about Jewish subjects will have an impact on our culture, and I’ve no doubt that college students will indeed be affected by Jewish studies courses in unexpected ways. I certainly was. But it may be that scholarship alone isn’t what affects people. Of course ideas can change the world — think of Zionism! — but it’s scholars who take on the mantle of something extra-scholarly — an unabashed commitment to Jewish life and culture — that will really change Jewish culture. And that is perhaps a role that some academics feel is at odds with their academic responsibilities. And maybe it is at odds.

Frankly, I think that life, even Jewish life, isn’t primarily intellectual. Without addressing the whole selves of the people in our community, scholarship isn’t going to have much impact.

COHEN: Wolfgang Iser wrote in his important work, The Art of Reading, that meaning occurs at the moment when the reader and the text become one. Reading is all about the reader seeing the text through the prism of his or her own life and being touched and transformed by it. When we come to the text, we bring all of our life’s experiences, challenges, and questions with us, and in the process of immersion, the text not only reflects to us who we are, but also who we can become.

As we read, we not only learn about the narrative line, but in identifying with the characters who stand at the crossroads of their lives in situations that parallel our own, we learn about ourselves and our own relationships. And since we change over time, it is possible to return to texts that we have previously studied and know intimately, and find new meaning in them. Reading is wrestling, not only with the challenging ideas and questions latent in the text, but with ourselves at the very same time. And, often, the meaning that we find in a particular text is not one that was necessarily intended by the writer, though it is important that we start by trying to understand the text in its own context. When we become one with the text, its power to touch us can extend far beyond its original message.

FRANKEL: Personally, I find myself drawn to Jewish texts that are in conversation with other Jewish texts — old and contemporary commentaries, midrashim, folktales heavy with allusions to older Jewish stories. I am also stirred and energized by writings I would loosely categorize as musar, that is, wisdom that spurs ordinary people to strive to lead more than ordinary lives. And I am always excited to be startled by what I read out of my familiar ways of thinking about Jewish history, theology, and interpretation. To quote Cynthia Ozick: “I read mainly to find out not what it is to be a Jew — but to find out what it is to think as a Jew.”

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