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

Princeton University

As a professor of Jewish Studies, I feel responsible to the Jewish community to the same extent that I think any academic ought to feel responsible to the public, not more and not less. It should go without saying that universities and their faculties should be answerable only to themselves since this is our best guarantee of intellectual freedom. At the same time, however, since universities in the United States are part of a larger democratic culture, and contribute to this culture in important ways, I think that professors are obliged to make their work available to the public when appropriate. In my view, the proper relation between professors of Jewish Studies and the Jewish community is not unlike the proper relationship between the establishment and free exercise clauses of the American Constitution. On the one hand, the Jewish community (along with any other community or individuals) does not and should not have any authoritative standing with regard to Jewish Studies. But on the other hand, the Jewish community is and should be free to take an interest in Jewish Studies. When I look at this question from a personal rather than professional point of view, I do hope of course that the Jewish community takes an interest in Jewish Studies. I think that Jews of all stripes (as well as many other people) have lots to learn from the work that is done in Jewish Studies (I include myself here as a learner). I would assume that I speak for many if not most professors of Jewish Studies in saying that I think that more intellectual, critical engagement is always a good thing for the Jewish community.


On a personal level, the formulation of this question is troubling in that it conveys the notion that serving the Jewish People is construed as a byproduct of my service as a professor of Jewish Studies. In point of fact, the reverse is true. My decision to pursue an academic career as a sociologist of American Jewry—taken as an 18-year-old Columbia College junior—took shape as a direct consequence of my strongly held intention to serve the Jewish People. My entire career (except for a four-year interlude as an assistant professor when I wrote articles on ethnicity in pursuit of tenure) has been entirely devoted to exploring issues of policy relevance to Jewish communal life.

Thus, my research has been animated by, and enriched by, the most urgent questions being asked by Jewish communal leaders. These generally revolve around the central issue of the quality of Jewish life and how it can be improved. Accordingly, I've addressed my writings, directly or obliquely, to the most energetic areas of contemporary discourse in Jewish communal life. By way of illustration, I've sought to:

1. Demonstrate that which should be intuitively known (e.g., various forms of intensive Jewish education produce clear positive consequences).
2. Add nuance to our collective murky understanding of emerging trends (e.g., The Sovereign Jewish Self and The Jew Within).
3. Spark debate about vital issues (distancing of younger American Jews from Israel, largely due to intermarriage).
4. Develop innovative policy responses and rationales (e.g., on intermarriage, presenting myself as an "empirical hawk" and a "policy dove").
5. Advance thinking on practice and policy for leaders (as in Sacred Strategies for congregational leaders).
6. Promote particular ways of thinking about Jewish engagement (e.g., as a culture and nationality rather than a Western religious identity).

I see my "students" as located outside the classroom, with communal professionals, lay leaders, and philanthropists uppermost in my mind, along with colleagues and other social scientists. And, I've sought collaborative relationships, having co-authored works with at least sixty different colleagues over the years. In short, contributing to Jewish life is intrinsic to my academic mission.

University of California, Berkeley

As modern Jewish scholars, all of us, irrespective of our fields, are the heirs to a small band of German-Jewish intellectuals who gathered together in 1822 to found The Society for the Academic Study of the Jews. While we would no longer subscribe to the Society's goal of bringing the Jews "to the same point of development reached by the rest of Europe," we can and should still be guided by Paragraph 3 of the Society's founding statutes: "the society should work from above by promoting significant and rigorous projects, assuring their accessibility and interest to the largest possible audience." From the very beginning then, the founders recognized, in my opinion quite rightly, that scholars of Jewish Studies have a responsibility to the Jewish community, that the fruit of our labors was not merely to be passed from hand to hand among a small band of academics but that it be shared with the broadest possible audience.

There are several important reasons why this should be so. One of the most important features of Jewish Studies programs is that we take seriously the statute's demand for rigor. By adopting that as a guiding principle, Jewish Studies programs have avoided becoming advocacy programs—I am well aware of increasing pressures, especially when it comes to the subject of Israel—and we remain guided by the goal of producing rigorous scholarship. That pursuit of excellence has endowed Jewish Studies with credibility and has been of incalculable value in assisting with the proliferation of Jewish Studies programs because donors and university administrators alike wish to be associated with excellence. And it is here that we have a genuine partnership with the Jewish community. No small number among the readers of this piece, owe their positions to the generosity of Jewish philanthropists, whose commitment to Jewish Studies makes our work possible and ensures that will be the case for future scholars.

There is another reason that we should feel a sense of responsibility to the Jewish community and it is that we in Jewish Studies are in the happy position of having a curious and eager audience. In my own field of History, in a department of around sixty faculty, very few would ever have the opportunity to speak to people outside the academy. This is simply not true of Jewish Studies scholars and we should count ourselves as fortunate because of it. And as weak as the publishing market may well be, it is still the case that hardly any ethnic group in the United States purchases scholarly monographs to the extent that members of the Jewish community do. Jews thirst to learn more about their history, their culture, and their sacred texts and call upon us to teach them. I believe it is our responsibility to honor their call. There is no more eloquent testimony to this position than that articulated by Franz Rosenzweig. In his 1920 inaugural address to the Lehrhaus, the adult education school he founded in Frankfurt, Rosenzweig declared: "They [the students] have come together in order to 'learn'—for Jewish 'learning' includes Jewish 'teaching'."

Fordham University

Although I am not a Jewish Studies professor, all of my research as a cultural and linguistic anthropologist has been about contemporary North American Jews. My responsibility, as I see it, to the Jewish community is to have anthropology and research on Jews inform each other. The Jewish experience has much to offer anthropological theory building, and anthropology can make Jewish Studies relevant to a wider audience. I aim to put the study of Jews in a comparative framework, so that those who study religious life, for example, or language, or race might easily include Jews too. My responsibility is to clarify these points of intersection, where the Jewish community and others can have conversations.

An anthropological lens forces us beyond Jewish particularism, posing broader questions about difference and cultural relativism. Ethnography requires scholars to make their own positioning explicit, placing the politics of representation center stage. The Jewish experience pushes social theory building as well. For example, considerations of Jews reveal alternative models of modernity located in the heart of western urban centers; Jewish languages offer surprising counterexamples to assumptions about the relationship between language and identity; and the recent Jewish experience asks questions of how diasporas change over time.

I hope that my commitment to creating new conversations between Jews and anthropology challenges us, as academics and humans, to continue to struggle with all kinds of responsibilities to all kinds of communities.

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.

Brandeis University

Years ago, when extremists claimed that Jews bore disproportionate responsibility for American slavery, I was one of the academics who sought to set the record straight. A Jewish communal leader, knowing of my work, contacted me for an essay. "Can you send me 5,000 words proving that Jews had nothing to do with the slave trade," he asked. When I refused, protesting that that would be a lie, since some Jews were indeed involved in the nefarious trade even though their impact upon the history of slavery was miniscule, the leader exploded. "What good are you professors for the Jewish community," he shouted at me. "On the rare occasions when I need you, you disappoint me."

The episode helped to clarify for me my responsibilities as a Jewish Studies professor who is simultaneously a proud member of the Jewish community. I cannot, under any circumstances, compromise my professional integrity for the community (if I did, what good would I be?). But I can, if I choose, serve as a communal resource and activist. As such, I may inform, instruct, inspire, influence, innovate, incite, irritate, infuriate, and otherwise impact upon the Jewish community (restricting myself here only to verbs beginning with the letter "i"). I might do the same, as a citizen, on behalf of my country.

But I am in no way required to do so.

With the globalization of the academy and the normalization of Jewish Studies, there are many professors in the United States today who are not citizens of the United States, and likewise many members of the Association for Jewish Studies who are not themselves Jewish. They may well make other decisions than I do concerning their roles as community resources and activists. But if a Jewish communal professional asked them to lie on behalf of the Jewish community, I hope that they would still say no.

Loyola University Chicago

I teach Judaism at Loyola University, a Jesuit Catholic institution. I teach primarily courses that count for the Core requirement in Theology, and the vast majority of my students are not Jewish. As the first Jew that many of them have encountered, I have a responsibility to challenge any anti-Jewish preconceptions they have been taught. Many of them, for example, see Jews as "legalistic," which they see as the opposite of "spiritual." Others don't understand how Jews can have any concept of forgiveness without Christ. Part of my responsibility to the Jewish community is to interrupt anti-Jewish ways of thinking so they don't continue into the next generation of the Catholic world and to replace them with a more nuanced picture. I think this is my responsibility to the Catholic community as well.

I also believe that I am responsible for representing the Jewish world in all its diversity, including aspects of it that may be more challenging to my students. Students need to know about secular Judaism, for example, even though by not being faith-centered it challenges their ideas of what Judaism (or any religion) should be, because it is a form of Judaism that they are likely to encounter. I am similarly responsible for teaching the variety of Jewish denominations. Otherwise, students may simply take their anti-Jewish projections and apply them to a variety of Judaism to which they feel less connected. It is important to me, therefore, to expose them to a wide range of Jewish ideas. I am careful to never disclose what kind of Judaism I practice or where I stand on any of the debates, lest the students think that is the "right" answer, or the only one they need to know for the final exam, because as the only person teaching Judaism at Loyola I feel responsible to the entire Jewish community.

Amherst College

I understand the classroom as a collective brain, one made of smaller thinking engines that, in their interaction, enhance its aggregate capacity. This brain doesn't live in isolation. It is part of a larger body we call society with which it exists in communication. What happens in the classroom is a reflection of the patterns of society at large and vice versa. My responsibility as the driving force of that brain is, thus, a responsibility for society as a whole. Another way of answering this question is by saying that my Jewishness defines everything I do, including what I write and how I teach. It is never a database or an agenda; it's a sensibility. Teaching and writing, writing and teaching—the two go hand in hand.

But I'm not a professor of Jewish Studies or, for that matter, of any other discipline. Disciplines might be useful tools to understand the world but they are obnoxiously constraining, especially when it comes to articulating knowledge in the classroom. I don't even like to be called a professor; the noun is too pompous for me. It often serves as an excuse to falsify and pontificate. I'm simply a teacher. My obligation as a teacher is to inspire students, to make them think broadly, to deepen their curiosity. That obligation is done by erasing the borders of disciplines. What I hope students get isn't information but pleasure—intellectual pleasure. And the capacity to articulate questions.

University of Toronto

Like many colleagues in Jewish Studies, I hold a named position at the university. My e-mail signature reminds me every day that members of the Jewish community donated incredibly large sums of money so that I can have my job. While technically my title only means that the funds will always be there for my field of study, I assume that the named chair also suggests some level of responsibility to the Jewish community.

Jewish Studies would not be where it is today without the generosity of North American Jewish donors. They are the reason that scholars can indulge in discovering the details of Jewish lives in eastern Europe of the nineteenth century, study, and teach Yiddish language (which, some people say, survives in a secular Jewish world largely because of academia), and scrutinize Jewish philosophy. If not for the support of the community, Jewish Studies outside of Israel would probably be reduced to the fields of the Bible, the ArabIsraeli conflict, and maybe the Holocaust. (And even then, these subjects would not be taught at today's scope.) That is why I fight my initial inclination to dismiss any community responsibility. Instead I think about the ways to give back. Jewish scholars are blessed with an audience outside of their universities that is excited to hear about their work. We are invited to speak at synagogues, community centers, and book clubs. Community members come to the conferences that we organize. Local Jewish newspapers are eager to review and promote our books. Not many scholars in the humanities have a chance of getting detailed (sometimes, too detailed) feedback to their ideas outside of the ivory tower and their immediate family. Giving back, thus, is our privilege, not only our responsibility.If we are lucky (and smart enough), we might even have a chance to influence the way the Jewish community understands itself and its politics. Surely, our audience might disagree or sometimes even get angry with rather than inspired by us. But it is a responsibility of a Jewish Studies scholar to not give up trying.