Monday, June 21, 2004

Jewish Studies & Jewish Identity

JH host a rather nice discussion about what "Jewish studies" courses should be taught at YU, sparked by King Richard's attempt to bring YU in line with the rest of the Jewish World.
The obvious point that I do not know if it has been stated is that in most Universities, Jewish studies is often the only sophisticated Jewish education that most Jewish students have. Furthermore, for many Jews it becomes a foundation for developing their Jewish identities. (I believe that a couple of years ago Chava Tirosh-Samuelson gave a controversial talk at the annual AJS meeting about using Jewish studies to develop Jewish identity, a topic which still sparks heated discussing among academics.)
As I have discussed my ideas about Jewish identity elsewhere, I would like to state the obvious: how different courses help to create different Jewish identities & create different narratives about who & what we are as individuals & as a community.
Elite Eastern European Jewish history: Orthodox Judaism is a continuation of the shtetl religious communities from before WWII & we should continue their traditions & their cultures of learning.
Western Eurore Jewish History: We continue a tradition, since the Enlightenment, of finding our place in the Western World and struggle to maintain identities both as Jews & as X (French, English, Americans, etc.)
American Jewish History: We are a continuation of a 350 year community beginning with Dutch Sephardim & then German merchants, despite the fact that we are unrelated to them. And despite the fact that before WWI Judaism in America was, for the most part, ignorant, non-observant, we are one tradition because we are both loyal Jews & loyal Americans.
Zionism: Somewhat different because Zionism is about Jewish nationalism. By learning Zionism one is establishing a connection to other Jews. Now one could say that one is already part of a larger Jewish community built around Torah. But it is hard to establish a Jewish identity as part of a Jewish community around Torah when 85% don't know & don't care about Torah. By teaching Zionism & cultivating a Zionist identity, one can establish a counter identity to a Halakha based identity.

What this discussion ignores though is that, unlike most Jewish students, most YC/SCW/SSSB have a fairly worked out Jewish identity before they step into YU. Many of them have worked out their issues in High School & in Israel, so that college courses have much less impact than they would elsewhere.

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