Monday, November 30, 2009

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

In the introduction to his translation of R. Bahya Ibn Paquda's Hovot ha-Levavot, R. Judah Ibn Tibbon sets out the three key criteria for responsible, accurate translation:

1) Total mastery of the language of the original
2) Total mastery of the language of the translation, and
3) Total mastery of the subject matter of the work being translated.

The same criteria could easily be applied to academics, generally, and Jewish Studies, in particular. One must be thoroughly fluent in the languages of one's sources and in the subject matter. Since the language in which one is writing mediates between the sources and the reader, then absolute precision in translating concepts, modes of thought and sources is so critical as to be obvious.

Unfortunately, in many places, it is not obvious. Now, shoddy scholarship is not limited to any one group, or to any geographic location. It happens in Israel, as much as the Diaspora. ( Film historian, Shlomo Zand's obscene excuse for historiography is a recent case in point among Israelis. Zand embodies the exact opposite of Ibn Tibbon's sober assertion. He doesn't understand his sources and he isn't trained.)

However, as an American trained historian, it pains me to see that the most egregious situation is to be found in North America (and, to a lesser extent, Europe). It's not just a question of individual writers. As time goes on, the problem becomes increasingly structural (justifying manuscript boy's bottom line).

Briefly put, far too many PhD's in Post-Biblical Judaism and Jewish History lack basic Jewish literacy both in languages and Jewish Literature (broadly conceived). The result is nothing less than tragic. Some simply produce shoddy, 8th rate studies that may show awareness of other fields, but which scream ignorance of the sources that they are, prima facie, explaining. (I recently came upon a published paper on liturgy by a professor of Jewish Studies who didn't know the difference between חצי קדיש and קדיש תתקבל. Similarly, a study of Nachmanides was recently issued that was so egregious that a reviewer had to really stretch in order to find something positive to day about it. In other words, the number of academics to whom Haym Soloveitchik's strong words of protest apply is ever increasing. These, then become the mentors of the next generation, with all too foreseeable results.

Alternatively, aware of their deficiencies (or, being simply uninterested in the more substantive areas of Jewish Studies) scholars of Judaica opt to teach and undertake research in which Jewish literacy is less of an obstacle. In such cases, students are instilled with a less than total, or balanced, view of what Jewish civilization and experience comprehends.

Now, there are wonderful, brilliant, creative, responsible and broadly read scholars of Jewish Studies in the Diaspora. Many could teach the Israelis a thing or two about scholarship, and how to go about it (e.g. here, here, and here). Over all, though, the American scene appears (increasingly) to be the mirror-image of its Israeli counterpart. Thus, the Israeli foundation is sound, while the superstructure is weak (if one ever gets to building beyond the foundation). Abroad, elaborate buildings are constructed on severly compromised foundations.

The weight of the future, therefore, lies in teaching Israeli-trained scholars to build, and to build with vision. After all, כי מציון תצא תורה.


Anonymous said...

your links to 2 out of the 3 worthy books are dead.
i do not see how this post has significantly advanced your position over your previous posts on the subject.
as i noted previously, the demands you make are virtually insurmountable [reminds of wolfsons response to twersky when he told wolfson about his engagement to soloveitchik: you cant be a scholar and married].
soloveitchks review article was over the top, in my opinion. i understand what he was trying to do -- fight for kavod hatorah -- but he horribly humiliated the guy.
i agree with your overall assessment.
but you forget -- there are virtually not jobs in academic jewish studies in israel...

Jeffrey Woolf said...

1) I'll try to fix the links.

2) As I will say in my next post, my standards are a gold standard. However, contemporary scholars could push themselves that much harder.

3) I will also argue that we need more inter-disciplinary work in Israel, to break down the disciplinary barriers.

4)If someone needs to go abroad to teach, OK. The lamentable lack of jobs in Israel is not an excuse for shoddy training abroad.

5) HS's comments were well taken (if very strong). No one would claim to study Shakespeare without learning Elizabethan English and its idiom, or Villon without fifteenth century French Language and Culture. How come Jewish studies can't have standards?

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>How come Jewish studies can't have standards?

Because most of the time people can fake it, without expecting a Haym Soloveitchik roasting in response. You didn't even name the scholar/ article which failed to realize what any 6 year old who goes to shul knows. I'm not saying you should, but presumably this person can and will continue to be able to fake it.