Wednesday, November 25, 2009

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

I recently heard the following story from a colleague: A student, specializing in one department, submitted a research proposal that involved subject matter that is generally identified with different department. The proposal was rejected on the grounds that topics associated with other specialties don't belong in that specific department.

Now, if the argument had been that the student did not possess the skills to deal with the two areas under discussion, there might have been room to talk. Even then, why not require the student to take 'x' courses or, in some other manner, gain the necessary expertise to undertake the project?
There is something fundamentally wrong with this type of academic 'territorialism.' Why, for example, was a prominent scholar of Halakhah once pilloried for having the temerity of addressing the interface between Halakhah and mysticism, on grounds that were reminiscent of R. Eleazar b. Azariah's retort to R. Aqiva (B. Sanhedrin 38b): 'Akiva, what have you to do with Aggadah? Confine yourself to Nega'im and Ohalot!' If one acquires the necessary skills, why not?

Specialization is a fact of contemporary academic life. However, there is a difference between specialization and compartmentalization. When I was growing up, a well known piece of advice was: 'Be a Jack of All Trades, and a master of one.' I believe that this should be the guiding principle of scholarship. This was one of the most important lessons that I learned from the late Prof. Isadore Twersky ז"ל. Knowledge is unified, and thus inter-related. Typically, he based this contention upon the encyclopedic nature of the writings of Maimonides (along with other medievals, to be sure). The central point is well taken. Jewish literature and history are fundamenally inter-textual and inter-contextual, respectively. Similarly, the the lines between genres of writings that Jews created, and between the Jewish and Gentile societies that they inhabited, were eminently permeable. While a person certainly needs to specialize, he equally needs to acquire as wide an awareness of the broader historical and intellectual context of his subject. Moreover, if one writes about Rashi and Ramban, for example, that should require learning the basics of medieval Hebrew poetry (and, or, piyyut). Or, perhaps, a dip into contemporary French and Catalan poetry too.

This lesson was driven home to me recently when I ended up finding something (not yet published) of significant Halakhic and historucal significance, in a collection of medieval poems. I was able to read and crack the poems because I spent a year studying medieval Hebrew poetry with the unforgettable, Prof. Yisrael Levin (a recent israel Prize winner), when he was on sabbatical in Boston. Literacy, yes. Specialization, not necessarily. It is enough, though, to undertake a study of halakhic implications in the poems of certain medievals. On the other hand, the article would have been rejected as a thesis topic because of כלך לך אצל נגעים ואהלות.

And that, in fact, is why I described myself and many of my American compatriots, as 'misfits.' It's not just a question of responsible scholarship obliging one to 'think out of the box.' It's that we take such broad view, intellectual history as a given. (In a sense, it's an academic חומרא). Unfortunately, far too many of our colleagues here don't really understand what we do, never mind the methodologies we employ (e.g. History of Ideas). Instead, because we are a bit less centered upon manuscripts and archives, we can be made to feel, well, inferior and dismissed as such.

This situation can certainly be rectified, to the benefit of all involved. That, however, requires another posting.


Anonymous said...

so far your posts on the differences between american and israeli scholarship are on the money. problem is, you are setting up an impossible goal: to master both mss./philology and have a broad sense of history. it seems hard enough to do either one or the other competently. if i understand you correctly though, you just wish israeli scholars valued your approach, if not necessarily to embrace it. as i undestand it, israelis value deep understanding of mss. as absolutely fundamental, a sine qua non.
i look forward to your post on how to rectify the situation.

and for rashi you would need medieval poetry?! even for ramban you are pushing things...

Ariel Serra said...

Catalan literature appeared during the XIII century. Ramon Llull was this kind of encyclopedic sage you mention. But Catalan poetry started two centuries later, because Catalans, including Catalan Jews, used to write and sing their poems in Occitan (abusively called Provençal) until the great poet Ausiàs March, a contemporary of François Villon, appeared. March, notwithstanding, was not a judeophobe (as Villon was), perhaps because his family was presumably a Jewish family that converted to Christianity in the aftermath of the pogroms of 1391.

As a member of the only Catalan-speaking family in Israel I am very happy with your post.

Anonymous said...

i wonder if ariels post demonstrates jeffreys point -- only that it can be true even for american academics ;)