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Rabbi Neusner Charges Jewish Studies Program with Stressing Ethnicity, Not Religion

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March - April 2005

Jewish Studies programs across the country stress ethnicity and culture, not Judaism as a religion, states Rabbi Jacob Neusner, research professor of religion and theology at Bard College.  

Writing in National Jewish Post and Opinion (Feb. 23, 2005), Neusner points out that the “academic study of religion” demands that “Judaism is a religion to be studied like any other religion, compared and contrasted as well.”  

In fact, however, he notes that, “The generality of Jewish scholars of Jewish topics, whether personally religious or secular, in the Diaspora (America and Canada in the field called ‘Jewish studies’ for example) regard the Jews as an ethnic group, possessing a culture, e.g. a literature, a politics, a tradition of art, music, philosophy, mysticism, and so on and so forth — but deny that Judaism is a religion subject to study like any other.”  

Neusner reports that, “Brandeis University has no department of religious studies of any standing, Yeshiva University has none, the various Hebrew colleges, e.g., in Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles, none regularly offers courses in Judaism comparable to the religion courses on Judaism that are routine in universities (including, we must note, Tel Aviv University and Jerusalem); culture, history, but not religion defines the norm.”  

Balancing faith and scholarship has posed a problem for many in the field of Jewish studies, writes Neusner: “Some colleagues ... came to the academic study of religion as a default position, having given up the faith in which they were raised, and whose dislike of Judaism and practicing Jews was exceeded only by their contempt for the religion in which they were born and raised, Christianity of one kind or another. Having no religion, they had no use for those who did. One, at Brown University, ridiculed Christian belief in Jesus in his classroom; another, at Dartmouth College, detested me for unashamedly keeping the dietary taboos of Judaism. In my first position, at Columbia University, in the autumn of 1960, I did not teach on the holy days of Judaism ... providing make up sessions. I was told by Jakob Taubes, ‘We at Columbia do not declare private holidays for ourselves.’ I replied, ‘Don’t blame me, blame Moses,’ and got fired a week later ...”  

Discussing current Jewish Studies programs, Neusner concludes: “Everything is ethnic. Foundations give prizes for Jewish literature and history and ‘thought’ and ‘scholarship’ but not for religion-scholarship. The Association of Jewish Studies neglects the academic study of Judaism as a religion. Having made a commitment from the very beginning to study Judaism as religion is studied in the English-speaking academic world, I have found difficult the context of Jewish studies, which has been uncomprehending. The intense secularity and complete ethnicity of the Jewish scholars of Jewish subjects — secular despisers of religion whether practitioners of Judaism or not — presents a more formidable challenge to the young academic scholar of Judaism than does the conflict between faith and scholarship that preoccupies the mainstream of the academic study of religion.”  

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