We are now nearing a critical moment for Jewish learning and ideas, an opportunity that has been grasped at repeatedly in the past century, and for which the Jewish community has long been preparing.
For a brief time in the 1920s in Germany, the future looked as bright as it ever had for the possibility of a new ethic of Jewish learning. Disenchanted with the tone and tenor that characterized the proliferation of Jewish ideas in academic scholarship, Franz Rosenzweig founded the extraordinary Lehrhaus: a unique academy for Jewish scholarship that was oriented towards application, and for the teaching of these ideas towards broader audiences. The list of faculty and students is legendary: Scholem, Agnon, Buber…
History and biology conspired to end Rosenzweig’s moment. Jewish life in Germany ended in tragedy, and ALS prematurely stole Rosenzweig’s life. His conviction, however, survived: that serious learning and ideas were among the great legacies of the Jewish past; and that these ideas, if taught and learned in the right frameworks, could stimulate Jewish engagement in an increasingly complicated modern world.
Especially powerful about Rosenzweig’s vision was that it did not root Jewish learning in a lament about Jewish ignorance or inadequacy, nor in an attempt to “save” contemporary Jewry that actually forebode its failure. As the historian Michael Meyer writes, Rosenzweig dignified the encounter with texts and ideas, and in so doing honored the Judaism of his acculturated students. By using a starting point of the modern Jewish experience, and then returning to texts and ideas to inform that condition, Rosenzweig’s model wedded the transforming of the Jew to the transforming of the tradition itself.
Some 50 years after the demise of the Lehrhaus, Rosenzweig’s plaintive call found an unlikely echo in the writings of Columbia University Professor Yosef Yerushalmi, particularly in his famous short work, “Zachor.”
Like Rosenzweig two generations before him, Yerushalmi also feared what he saw as a missed opportunity for the flowering of Jewish ideas.
His immediate frame of reference was the university, where he watched these ideas suffocate in conventional academic forms. Even as Yerushalmi valued the scholarly setting for advancing the level of sophistication in which Jewish texts were studied, he described the lost opportunity for Jewish texts and ideas to find public reception. On one hand, Yerushalmi wrote, historians and scholars are the custodians of the Jewish past; on the other, their fixation with the arcane caused them to underestimate the power inherent in this weighty responsibility. Yerushalmi tracked the ways in which the experience of the modern condition reshaped the Jewish mind, and he then sought scholars and students who would see in their scholarship the work not just of the dusty past — but also of the promising present.
It would not be Yerushalmi’s call alone that would prepare us for today, but the work since, and until now paves the way for a new/old engagement with Jewish ideas. The place of Jewish studies in the academy is secure, more so now than ever before. More and more young Jewish studies scholars emerge from, and also teach in, Jewish leadership programs and Jewish educational contexts, and the gifts of postmodernism have helped break down the false wall between scholarship and the relevance of its implications.
From the world of scholarship there now emerges an intellectual elite eagerly/warily ready to jump into the fray of a new academic culture, a move towards an “applied Jewish studies.” And from the pews and boardrooms of Jewish life, there now emerges a Jewish community prepared more than ever before for a resurgence of ideas and learning that both defines who we are and makes us better at the same time.
Jewish learning, then — deep learning, with the power and force of scholarship and the conviction of its applicability to citizenship and responsibility — not only manifests in ideas changing us, but in making us better capable of bringing new ideas forward as well.
The most profound Jewish visionaries and innovators have been those who felt empowered enough and authentic enough to imagine themselves writing primary rather than secondary texts.
If this an epoch for the proliferation of Jewish leadership — and countless training programs suggests that it is — then this conceptual literacy, this language of empowerment, is an important a tool for our leaders to possess.
Now the Jewish community sometimes tends to think in troublesome binaries. So some have argued recently that Jewish trending towards the universalistic ethic of working on behalf of the world, of bringing about meaningful social change, even when that work involves moving outside our core communities — entails some rejection of the particular Jewish self. And others claim that Jewish learning enables us to live only in text, without regard to homeland, as though Jewish learning was meant to sever the Jewish mind from the Jewish people rather than to empower one in service of the other.
Neither of these limited worldviews gets us to closer to the complex of choices that characterize our lives as moderns and that should attract our priorities as Jews. A great gift of the Jewish tradition has been the complexity of its ideas, and its ability to challenge us to live above extremes. True Jewish learning should empower the particular in service of the universal, and should combine all aspects of the Jewish polity towards a stronger sense of peoplehood, community and self.
Our next big task is to navigate a hopeful Judaism of ideas that does not replace our core commitments but provides a language that helps us both understand who we are and what we do, and also makes demands of us to be bigger and better.
How we as a community create the architecture around the explosive possibilities inherent in this encounter with texts, towards this return to ideas … this is the greatest challenge for this upcoming moment, and one that I believe we are — at long last — ready to embrace. n
Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.