Monday, November 23, 2009

American Academics in Israel: Misfits in the Promised Land (Part I)

I've long considered writing about, what I see as, a central frustration that I've encountered in my professional life in Israel. I've held off, I suppose, out of a mixture of professsional anxiety mixed with the feeling that I need to 'get it right' before I 'put it down' in writing. Yesterday, though, a heartfelt conversation with a fellow Harvard expatriate made me realize that I should start putting the issue on the table. Clarity will, hopefully, follow repeated attempts at expression.

There is, it seems to me, a fundamental disconnect between the way that Israeli and American trained historians go about their business. Israeli scholars, at least those in Jewish Studies, are trained to be first rate philologians. Manuscripts, text reconstruction, and philological analysis are their bread and butter. That, surely, is as it should be. After all, how can one possibly say anything about the past if the supporting evidence is not firmly determined? In other words, if you don't know what the past said, how can you report it, much less evaluate it?

That having been said, I can't shake the feeling that many of my Israeli colleagues (who I hold in the highest regard) pay a very high price for their heavy emphasis upon manuscript work. Somehow, it seems to manacle them. So much effort goes into philology, that there is not enough time to acquire other, equally important, skills that would allow them to properly interpret the sources over which they pore. To begin with, there is not enough of a sense that one must read widely and deeply in order to develop the kind of literary and historical sensitivity that texts require. That demands fluency in languages other than Hebrew (and a bit of English). For medievalists, it requires German, French, Italian and Latin (at least). The reading material requires primary sources in those languages, not only skimming some scholarly articles.

In other words, one needs to cast a wide net, in order to comprehend the text in front of you. One needs intellectual and cultural perspective, openness to other disciplines. If one confines oneself, to iron-clad time frames and specific literary genres, one runs the risk of being trapped in a methodological box, when scholarship actually demands that one think out of the box, in an attempt to see the larger picture. That type of box also leads to less than deep thinking and analysis, and a subsequent misrepresentation of the past. [Everything, of course, has its limits and those who go to the opposite extreme (e.g. nefarious PoMo'ists like Shlomo Zand) also miss the point. Media aurea, you know.]

Now, obviously, no one can know everything. That does not, however, excuse scholars from becoming literate in field outside of their area of specialization. Yet, that it exactly the problem with the way that Israeli scholarship is organized, to everyone's detriment. Talmud is not allowed to mix with History; Literature with Philosophy; Economics with Education and so on. Whoever organized this system forgot that while one must obviously pick one's focus, life itself is integrated and complex. The result is very much like the Indian fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. The only difference is that scholars with blinders don't really share ideas and insights. So they're not only blind, but deaf and mute, as well.

I believe that the Israeli academic emphasis on text is essentially sound. It certainly is better than the abject lack of Hebrew literacy and textual skills that mark far too many Jewish studies professionals abroad. Nevertheless, it's time to remove the blinders, open our ears and mouths.

The ones to help with this, are those of us who were trained abroad and moved here. Of that, I will write, IY"H, next time.


YMedad said...

"it seems to manicle them"

manacle, no?

Jeffrey Woolf said...

Oops...Corrected. Thanks.

treppenwitz said...

I also have some pet peeves/theories about the Israelis I encounter in professional life... and like you, I have been hesitant to share them out of concern that it would be perceived (correctly) as seeming to have a 'them and us' attitude.

I freely admit that both the Israeli and American way of thinking and doing business each certainly have their merits. But I can't help see my new countrymen's actions and intellectual mechinations through the lens of my own life experience.

That having been said, I notice that Israelis seem much more inclined to seek out (i.e. 'cherry pick') sources of information that support their theories rather than letting theories develop naturally from a wide range of available sources.

To be clear, I am not in academia and have no experience in that rarefied world. However, in business and in 'real life' I find a frustratingly consistent tendency on the part of many of my Israeli colleagues to actively seek out news and data that supports their selected course of action.

I'd be curious to know if you find this to be prevalent in Israeli academia as well.

Kenneth said...

We must also take note of the 'knowledge explosion'. When I was a doctoral student in the Talmud Dept at the Hebrew Univ. 30 years ago, there was a relative paucity of 'scholarship'. How many articles, or full books, dealt with the History of Post Talmudic Halacha [my area]? Seminal then were the work of Abramson, Urbach, Twersky, Chavel, Benedikt. There were a few quality Journals: JQR, HUCA, Revue, JJS, Tarbitz.

We now have highly specialized Journals [Sidra for example], annuals [Jewish Law; Shenaton HaMishpat HaIvri] and a huge array of developed scholarship [one need only sample the Dissertations at Bar Ilan to get a taste] and even syntheses [the revised collected works of Ta-Shema for example].

This is not to obviate the need for broad learning [yes I had French, German and Latin along with the relevant Semitic languages]. And it was Isadore Twersky who insisted that I broaden my base with extra coursework in Piyyut and Poetry, Philosophy and Mysticism. Rather, when the box gets very full, it must sometimes be subdivided into managable subdivisions.

The same has happened in the Sciences: whole fields have been transformed. My college Biology I text is infantile in comparison to that used by my daughter.

None of this,of course, negates the biases that are brought or the willful ignoring of current scholarship. But as fields develop and narrow in order to remain managable it seems only natural that the practioners will become more expert in narrower confines.

When this is overlaid on a predilection for a particular approach [philology and critical text editing for example] it seems inevitable that the results will be narrow in the extreme.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that broadly trained scholars will be able to create a managable synthesis while remaining 'on tap' with scholarship in the field.

Certainly, we must also be aware that the Israeli University system, maintained as a post-Tzahal program, does not place any emphasis on broad general learning. Can you imagine the uproar of adding an extra year to the curriculum for a first degree that required two courses in the arts, languages and world literature, science physical and social, math, and the humanities??

Is there hope?? Of course! More Israelis working in Jewish Studies need to do part of their training at centers such as Harvard, Penn, Oxford, the Sorbonne. And when I win the big lottery it will be near the top of my priorities to facilitate such programs.

Edit out:
Kol Tuv,

R. Ken Leitner - It was a pleasure sharing lunch with you this past summer during the WCJS conference.