Sunday, August 07, 2005

A Word to the Israeli Academic

This week we heard about Eilat Mazar's thrilling find, which might be King David's Palace. My son, who's a student of Dr. Avi Faust at Bar Ilan, mentioned that the latter is about to publish a book discussing the anthropological implications and meaning of finds such as these. Faust is a real pioneer in bringing the tools of current anthropological analysis to bear on Biblical archaeology.

That got me to reflecting on the type of tunnel vision that afflicts the Israeli Academy (a point raised at the closing session of the World Congress of Jewish Studies, last Thursday evening). Around the world, archaeologists dig for finds in order to create a meaningful reconstruction of ancient life (a 'Thick Descriptive Model' in Geertzian terms). In Israel, however, we're all too often stuck with the material of our finds, and fail to ask what they mean on a larger plane.

The same is true in Talmud and Medieval Jewish Studies. We are the masters of manuscripts and philological reconstructions. But how much time do we really spend asking ourselves what all this means? How many of my fellow scholars use sociology, anthropology, cultural history, intellectual history and a plethora of other disciplines to take our work to the next level (as it were)?

I think it's high time for taking off the blinders, emerging from the tunnel and building a world on the material and textual finds we're so proud of.

(BTW, you can ignore the so-called archaeologist/propagandist from Al-Quds U. who was quoted by the Times article I linked to. OTOH, if you can tell me what he said, I"d appreciate it. It doesn't read like English.)


MJ said...

A world built on the foundation of academic j. studies would be inherently anarchistic and therefore untenable.

Jeffrey said...

What has that got to do with what I wrote?

MJ said...

Hmmm, I seem to have misinterpreted your post. I thought that "building a world on the material and textual finds we're so proud of" was refering to a contemporary world enriched by a "thick" understanding of the past. I guess you were refering to keeping things solely in the realm of academia, which in the end will not matter for anyone but academics.

Jeffrey said...

No, that's not true either. Once we look at the reconstructed world as an integrated whole, we can compare it to our own and learn from that comparison.

On the contrary, I think Jewish History is part of Torah and should be treated and taught that way.

MJ said...

Yes, but what do we really learn? If we are already dogmaticaly commited to a definition of Judaism, then history will not reveal that much to us.

Some people in the past were more like us, perhaps we will consider them our spiritual forbears. Others were very different, we will see them as having fallen off the bandwagon of history. We will simply be studying history to judge it.

The alternative is a non-dogmatic approach which does not appear to me to be amenable to Orthodoxy as it is currently manifest as a mainstream entity. In this case we would have to see the plurality of history's voices as more or less equally valid. How do you reconcile this with a strong tendency to see orthodoxy as "historically authentic"?

As far as Jewish history being a part of Torah, that can be taken in many ways. The least controversial would be to say that studying history provides us with a way of understanding how we came to exist now and how we are authentically connected with the pat. But this gets us back to dogmatism.

Other interpretations are less easy to swallow from an Orthodox perspecticve. Is revelation manifest through, or even a part of history? Is torah incomplete without seeing its various interpretations throughout history? etc.