This afternoon, Bar Ilan's Talmud Department held its end of year Faculty Meeting. As with most such gatherings, the tone was subdued, the discussion grim. For many different reasons, Jewish Studies (along with the Humanities and many Social Sciences), finds itself at an extreme disadvantage with the Natural Sciences (I refuse to call them exact sciences) in funding, budget lines, faculty hires and even promotions.
We're not unique in that. The same prejudice for body over soul, physical over spiritual, quantity over quality, the So-called Primary over the so-called Secondary characteristics (a la Descartes, Hume, Berekeley etc.) increasingly threatens to overwhelm all of the Israeli universities. There is something both tragic and infuriating in this, since it is specifically now that Israel needs its academic scholars of Judaica, as much as it needs its scientists and its rabbis.
Check that. Israel needs its positively commited Jewish scholars more. It needs them more because it needs values, while science is (at least ostensibly) value neutral. It needs them at least as much as its rabbis, because the latter don't know how to communicate the precious heritage of Judaism and Jewish History to the non-observant, or to the skeptically observant. I know that of which I speak. Fifteen years of teaching at Bar Ilan has driven that home to me.
For a lot of the time, I saw the kind of deep and abiding interest in Judaism that marks the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis in the unique Basic Jewish Studies Minor that is required of all students. In recent years, though, this has spilled over into my home department, the Talmud Department. This is a remarkable development, because one might have thought that non-observant, non-yeshiva trained students might find us a bit forbidding. That, however, is not the case. In the past three years I've seen a steady increase in the number of non-majors who register for courses in our department. In those classes they meet and interact with Orthodox students (Often for the first time); they challenge and are challenged in turn, by those fellow students. What emerges is a moving, intellectually stunning interaction which gives birth to the common Jewish cultural language that this country desperately needs to survive.
This phenomenon is faculty-wide. As I looked around the room today, though, I had a chance to understand why our department is a particular draw. It is an unusual department. Its faculty members are incredibly diverse; Men and Women, Haredim and National Religious, American and Israeli, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Rabbis and Laypersons, Leftists and Rightists; and every shade of gray. It is also unique, in the world, in the breadth of its interests.
Nowhere else in the world can a student register in one department and study: Dead Sea Scrolls, Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, Rabbinic Thought, Talmudic Interpretation, the History of Prayer, Rabbinic Historiography, Jewish Popular Religion and Customs, Jewish Intellectual History, the Interaction of Jewish Law and Spirituality, the impact of the Encounter with Christianity and Islam on Rabbinic Culture and Literature, Mishpat Ivri, History of Halakhah, Contemporary Halakhic Issues, Codes, Responsa Literature, the History of the Jewish and Hebrew Book and a dizzying number of other disciplines. At Hebrew University, for example, one would need to enroll in three to five different departments (in two different faculties), to have the same opportunity.
More importantly, my colleagues are menschen, a rare enough commodity in the terrarium that is academia. They care about their students. It's no wonder that we draw students from around the university. Class acts usually do.