By: Aaron Koller | Opinions  | 

An Improved Judaic Studies Education

As reported in The Commentator on March 14, the Beren Department of Jewish Studies voted last month to overhaul the Jewish Studies requirements for Yeshiva College. While this still needs the approval of the rest of the Yeshiva College faculty, I wanted to communicate some of the thinking behind the changes, and share some of my personal thoughts on this new era of Jewish Studies at YC.

The requirements exist because, for many decades, Yeshiva University has believed that educated Jewish adults have to know not only the Jewish texts most commonly taught in yeshivot, but a broader range of sources and methodologies. This has largely focused on Tanakh and Jewish History. Many decades ago, the yeshiva carved out two hours each week for the instruction of Tanakh – a radical move in the context of yeshivot – and students took a course on Tanakh every semester of their four-year college careers, eight courses in total. Over the years, the nature of those courses and their quantity changed, but the core belief remains: a Modern Orthodox Jew has to know not just “the Bible as quoted in the Bavli,” but Tanakh on its own terms.

For many decades, too, the College insisted that a graduate be acquainted with the broad sweep of Jewish history. A two-semester course on the subject was mandatory; beginning roughly with the Second Temple period, and continuing to the rise of modern Israel, the course admirably familiarized generations of students with many of the eras, communities, and movements within the broad and rich millennia-long history of the Jewish people.

But times, students, and academic methods all change. The Bible classes were supplemented by an “Introductory” course, which addressed method in studying Tanakh from a historical and thematic perspective, including both traditional Jewish sources and modern methods illuminated by our new knowledge of the ancient Near East. The requirement shrunk from eight courses to four – of which three were texts, conceding that we would not cover large swaths of Tanakh. The faculty also long ago conceded that it was increasingly challenging to cover all of Jewish history, so the requirement was replaced by two courses on various eras of that history. We privileged general intellectual sophistication alongside (and sometimes in place of) sheer quantity of content. I think this was and is a defensible move, maybe the only defensible move. It comes with new challenges, however.

Yeshiva College has also changed along with the broader landscape of higher education. We still have impressively bright, industrious, passionate students. But as the culture of the mid-twentieth century was replaced by that of the ‘90s and then the next century, the notion of students grappling with their yeshiva and college educations, in which Jewish Studies provided a hinge, producing a grand synthesis called “Modern Orthodoxy,” seemed increasingly quaint. Students are happy to learn the history of Jews in the medieval and modern periods and become acquainted with Isaiah and Ezra, but this has not been central to their identities. I say this with sadness because I am describing the demise of a vision of Modern Orthodoxy that I still find inspiring.

I also write be-dema‘ because to some extent, these changes reflect that we, the department, have not succeeded in transmitting to our students the beauty and significance inherent in grappling profoundly with the text of the Bible and its eternal message; we have not convinced them that this is worthwhile. As former Dean Dr. Barry Eichler put it, “How many students appreciate the necessity of studying Tanakh and religious literature and liturgy in their original languages? How many value the ability to understand and appreciate the nuances and interpretive differences of the text as well as its beauty of expression?” This failure is one shared by us along with the broader Jewish educational system, and we take this responsibility seriously.

On the other hand, I am excited about the real educational benefits that will come from the changes. This new structure has immediate benefits in terms of the range of courses being offered. One ironic result of the way the requirements used to be structured was that a course on the history and culture of Modern Israel – clearly a topic of central importance and deep interest to our student body, for good reason – did not fulfill a requirement, and so did not attract students. Under the new structure, such a course counts for Jewish History, and Professor Olson will be teaching a course on the cultural history of Modern Israel in the fall.

The new requirements allow the faculty to teach in areas about which they are passionate and knowledgeable. Other new courses planned for the fall semester include Death, Dying, and the Good Life in Jewish Thought; Biblical Responses to the Hurban; and Derashot as a Window on Eastern European Jewish History. We also have a course on Talmud planned, to be taught by Dr. Ari Bergmann, who will be teaching in the department as an adjunct after teaching Talmud very successfully at Penn and Columbia over the past few years. We are very excited to have Dr. Bergmann on board. Obviously, besides the excitement for the faculty, the real beneficiaries are the students, who will have many more options to choose from.We are quite confident that these increases, quantitative and qualitative, in the Jewish Studies offerings will lead to more overall enjoyment on the part of the students. What we really hope, though, is that this enjoyment leads to improved education. We hope that students discover the joy and fulfillment in studying Tanakh, the challenge and gratification of wrestling with problems in Jewish thought, the excitement and satisfaction in encountering and understanding aspects of the Jewish past. We hope that these, in turn, inspire our students to go on and learn more, quest more, read more, study more. We will encourage students to find the areas of Jewish Studies that excite and inspire them, and pursue them. There is no maximum of Jewish Studies credits allowed. Take an extra elective or two, lishmah, to deepen your Jewish knowledge and engagements. The Jewish Studies faculty will continue to open the door to thrilling and sophisticated study of Jewish texts and historical experiences in their broader cultural contexts. We invite students to walk through with eyes and mind wide open.


Photo Caption: This new structure has immediate benefits in terms of the range of courses being offered.