In recent years students and parents have demanded that undergraduate programs produce graduates who can earn a "decent living." Enrollments in STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, math) have exploded. These majors have reduced or altogether eliminated the foreign language requirement. This trend is understandable amidst the quest for a more efficient undergraduate experience, but it is also regrettable because language is how humans communicate, and people speak a plethora of languages. Mastery of a foreign language takes considerable time and effort, but it pays a tremendous dividend: it enables us to communicate with people from different cultures. Today's world is diverse and interdependent, so reduced foreign language requirements ultimately will limit our students' chances to have an impact on and to succeed in the global marketplace.
Foreign language competence is essential to student success in Jewish Studies because it enables them to engage with aspects of Jewish civilizations across vast linguistic boundaries. In a graduate seminar at the Hebrew University years ago, I witnessed a telling exchange between the professor and a student. The professor had assigned readings in a few languages, and one student noted that he could read only Hebrew and English. The professor's response was direct and firm: "What, you think Jewish civilization exists only in Hebrew and English? How do you expect to engage with the ideas of Jews who speak other languages?" Foreign language competence enables us to examine events and ideas through others' eyes, an absolutely essential skill in today's world.
Jewish Studies also has a temporal dimension, reaching back over three thousand years. Jews at various times used Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Ladino, Yiddish, and other languages. Inscriptions, administrative records, and vast literary works reveal aspects of Jewish life from biblical to modern times. Competence in foreign languages pertinent to Jewish Studies enables us to study the literary records of past generations. In a very real sense, we preserve their memory as we understand how they expressed their unique take on Judaic culture.