As a professor of Jewish Studies, how do you perceive your responsibility to the Jewish community?

Paul Mendes-Flohr

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The question posed by this symposium has haunted the proponents of the academic study of Jewish Studies ever since the founding of the discipline in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The overarching objective of the early generations of Wissenschaft des Judentums, which is technically a field of study rather than a specific discipline, sought to have the study of Judaism included in the university curriculum, where it would be acknowledged as an integral component of the intellectual and spiritual heritage of educated humanity. As such, the academic study of Judaism and Jewish civilization should be open to all, Jews and non-Jews alike. Just as there are Jews who are scholars of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and, indeed, of Christianity, there should be non-Jews who study Judaism. This vision of course is in accord with the cultural and axiological premise of the modern university. To be sure, the pursuit of this objective met resistance on the part of the custodians of the German universities, and it was not until after the Shoah that the academic study of Judaism took firm root in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe and North America.

It is in the shadow of Auschwitz that Jewish Studies has found an honored place within the discourse of the humanities. The question posed by the symposium cannot be readily extricated from this existential context. On the one hand, as an academic discipline Jewish Studies is beholden solely to the Owl of Minerva, whose sapient gaze transcends specific ethnic and religious concerns. On the other hand, one cannot ignore the existential reality that in its present historical configuration, Jewish Studies is intricately bound with Jewish memory and hence a responsibility to the Jewish community.

I fear I have no easy prescription to deal with the attendant dilemma. As an academic I am a member of a universal community bound by an uncompromising allegiance to rigorous codes of scholarly inquiry. At the same time, the imperatives of Jewish memory—as well as abiding cultural and social commitments to the people of my birth—do not allow me to maintain a studied detachment from the Jewish community. To the degree that I am involved in the life of the community, I am hesitant to do so under the mantle of a professor of Jewish Studies. Without elaborating here, I am not certain whether my academic learning constitutes the type of authority needed by the community. I am willing to share my knowledge, of course, but not as a sage who speaks ex cathedra; and certainly not in order to undermine the normative authority of the rabbinate.