We live in a rancorous age. I'll admit that I am writing this in the late summer, and that, by the time this issue of AJS Perspectives arrives in your conference totes, it will be early winter. The Talmud teaches that, since the destruction of the temple, only fools and children prophesy. Nevertheless, I suspect that my opening statement will still ring true when you read this at the end of the year: We live in a rancorous age.
This issue of our magazine presents thought-provoking perspectives on the complicated notion of freedom and how different conceptions of freedom can produce rancor. Marvin Sweeney affirms that "concern with freedom, particularly the challenges and responsibilities that freedom entails, runs deep in Jewish history and thought. . . . " Maxim D. Shrayer writes evocatively of a verbal, nearly physical, collision in his past as a refusenik. Jane Kanarek sees that studying Talmud teaches students to "acquire the freedom to innovate." But we can all think of innovations that sparked debate, dissent, acrimony, and anger. My own scholarship on the history of women's entrance into the rabbinate offers one prooftext.
The complexities of freedom confront our colleagues directing and leading Jewish Studies programs, departments, and institutes. Kudos to editors Jonathan Hess and Laura Lieber on the new "Directors' Forum" in Perspectives. It raises the issues of challenges to freedom of speech and academic inquiry. In the imaginary world of the ivory tower, we have, as David Freidenreich's department chair told him when he was a new faculty member, "great freedom to teach—and research—whatever and however you want." In the real messy world of the university down on the rough-and tumble quad, we discover that those freedoms can clash with institutional priorities and student interests. If we build it and they don't come, we may need to rethink what we have built. Other challenges arise from relations with donors and advocacy groups outside the university.
As much as many of us may long for the idyllic escape to the ivory tower, the realities of the world intrude. We are scholars trained in research, but in running Jewish Studies programs, we often assume the role of diplomat, navigating among diverse, sometimes diametrically opposed, constituencies. Programs raise money; donors have demands and ideas that need to be negotiated. We organize forums on Israel, Zionism, BDS, racism, and antisemitism to bring together divergent voices and promote understanding, but, as Brett Ashley Kaplan's "Director's Forum" contribution attests, we receive late-night phone calls asking "What is wrong with you?" Protestors disrupt talks by Israeli scholars we invite even though the topic has nothing to do with Israel, Palestine, or the conflict.
As Jewish Studies faculty, students, and scholars, we respond to these politics of disagreement. We worry in advance: Will a program that we have planned be disrupted? Will events spiral out of our control? We seek to promote freedom of expression, at the same time that we feel the weight of campus and national politics, and wonder if the program is a good idea after all. We seek advice from those with experience handling such matters: our deans, administrators, colleagues, and our friends in AJS. No one prescription works for all.
History reminds us that this is not the first time that questions about Jews and Jewish matters, donors and opposing interests, have challenged academic freedom and tested campus civility. In The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Jerome Karabel quotes an alumnus who had no compunction writing Harvard's president to protest, in 1925, that his school had become "Hebrewized" with the "skunks of the human race." It is instructive to remember, as Paul Ritterband and Harold S. Wechsler recount in Jewish Learning in American Universities: The First Century, that, when Linda Miller endowed Columbia University's Nathan L. Miller Professorship of Jewish History, Literature, and Institutions, she expected to choose its appointee from a short list provided by the university. While she did not get her way, Columbia's president Nicholas Murray Butler, some ninety years ago, agreed to show her the list in confidence and listen to her "suggestions and criticisms" before making a final decision. Her responses to the candidates, including the initial first choice, were essentially a "de facto veto."
The difference between then and now is that those exchanges took place behind closed doors, in the genteel forms of letter writing and private conversations. Today the click of a mouse, the strokes of a keyboard, and the ping of an alert bring our rancorous age onto our desktops and into our palms instantaneously. The language of the current debates over Israel and expressions of antisemitism on campus are probably not much worse than that of the Harvard alumnus who also called the Jews "the Damned of God." But, today, it takes place in public. And this language impacts all of us in Jewish Studies even when our fields of scholarship—be they Bible, rabbinics, or linguistics—are far removed from these very contemporary topics. In his "Director's Forum" Todd Presner calls on Jewish Studies scholars to defend academic freedom against all encroachments. I wager that most of us agree. As this issue of AJS Perspectives affirms, freedom is open to many interpretive possibilities. I hope this very powerful issue of Perspectives helps you interpret freedoms and face the provocations of this very rancorous age on your campus.
Pamela S. Nadell