A colleague of mine, one of the most mild-mannered and likeable people I know, finds himself this morning in the midst of a raging controversy because he ejected a student from his Talmud class, because the latter stridently refused to cover his head. The reactions have been, more or less, as one might expect. The always loaded question of religion in the public square of the Jewish State explodes with vehemence, vitriol and viciousness. Secularist politicians are trying to cynically capitalize on, and exacerbate those tensions. In order to cover itself, the university (everybody's favorite religious punching bag), is waving its by-laws which everybody signs but nobody reads, to wit: students agree to wear kippot during their text courses in basic Jewish Studies. The bottom line is that today, on the fourth day of the Festival of Lights there's a huge amount of heat and very little light.
As a twenty year veteran of Bar Ilan's faculty, and one who is admittedly lax in enforcing the kippa rule, I'd like to try to inject some food for thought into the discussion.
1) There is something terribly disingenuous (and, perhaps, hypocritical) about the attacks on my colleague. The same people who scream 'Religious Coercion' would not hesitate to remove their hats if so requested, when entering a lecture hall at Gregorian University in Rome. If required by Oxford to wear an academic gown to speak from the podium, I suspect that they would jump at the opportunity to do something so exotic. If a woman were requested to dress conservatively in a foreign university setting (as they often are), no objection would be voiced. After all, one must respect the venue in which one finds oneself. However, when a professor requests a student to offer respect to Jewish sacred texts by donning a kippa (and its legal standing is quite irrelevant), all Hell breaks loose.
2) In the film of Ben Gurion's reading of the Declaration of Independence, there is a brief scene (which is usually omitted) in which the venerable Mizrachi leader, R. Judah Leib Fishman-Maimon, recites the blessing 'Sheheheyanu.' Surprisingly, many of our aggressively secular, founding fathers are seen covering their heads (with hats, hands etc) out of respect for the moment. The point is that while not personally observant, they retained the sensitivity to respond to a situation that still resonated with millennia of Jewish Tradition. The militant response of this student (and those who support him), not to mention the manipulative response of politicians, suggests that for some Israeli Jews (at least as far as Torah Study is concerned) this sensitivity is gone.
This circumstance is, in my opinion, nothing short of tragic. Reverence for tradition is an essential element for national identity and Jewish continuity (something with which our enemies seem to have no problem). The only way to secure this is through knowledge; clearly, respectfully and respectably imparted. And there is an ever expanding audience for that knowledge. My experience has taught me that such students are in the minority. As I have said many times (in print, on the radio, in public fora, and two days ago on this very site), and as has been borne out by the most recent studies, Israeli Jews are in the midst of a renaissance of Jewish identity and searching that is nothing short of wondrous. I have consistently found that my students in Basic Jewish Studies are overwhelmingly eager to obtain the type of sophisticated Jewish Cultural and Religious Literacy that they were denied in Elementary and High School.*
3) What does this have to do with wearing a kippa? Both precious little and everything. Obviously, one can teach Judaism without a kippa. The question is one of ambiance and attitude. Even for those who do not define themselves as Orthodox or Traditional, covering one's head when studying Torah is the authentic Jewish way of showing reverence for the 'fountain from which your ancestors drew such incredible fortitude' (to quote Bialik's אם יש את נפשך לדעת). Wearing a kippa is a statement on the part of the student that this material is not the same as Dante's Divina Commedia (which, by the way, I constantly hound my students to read). It has more valence, more resonance, more warmth. Classroom ambiance is an integral part of the educational process. When the student leaves the classroom he may remove the head covering, just as he may do with that which he has learned as he wishes. The existential moment in the classroom, though, becomes part of his cultural literacy. He will understand what others intuit (and will have learned a lesson in co-existence with those of his fellow students who did cover their heads).
Let me make this clear, though. The university classroom is not a yeshiva or a seminary. The scientific method reigns. The student is encouraged to probe and question, challenge and debate (courteously). The teacher is duty bound not to preach, but to teach; not to dismiss but to respectfully engage the student's queries and challenges. Debate should lead where debate will lead.
4) Academic integrity is not in the least impugned if a lecturer actively seeks to infect students with his/her enthusiasm and awe, love and pure enjoyment of the subject matter. Not unrelated to the present brouhaha, there is something unhealthy about a world of public discourse where a Professor of French can wax rhapsodic about La Belle France, but Jewish Studies Professors have to be as sterile and detached as clinical pathologists.
Of course, I fully understand that the question of Religion and State is one of the hot button issues of our day. Indeed, it may be more important for Israel's future than our on going war with the Muslim World. Yet, it is precisely for that reason that requiring a minor in Jewish Studies (the use of the word 'Basic' is unfortunate), and requesting acknowledgement of the fact that for Jews these studies have a reverential aura about them, is so critical. How else will we create a common cultural language, based on mutual understanding; mutual understanding not only of source material but of its underlying emotional charge?
In the present cultural climate, the tools to achieve this common cultural-historical (and, for many, religious) language are primarily found in the academy. As an institution that is officially under religious auspices, that should be an essential part of Bar Ilan's raison d'etre. Objections that this is illegal for a public institution are silly, or disingenuous. Core Curricula characterize the best universities in the world. Implementing an educational-cultural vision is the privilege of every academic institution. Requiring a minor in Academic Jewish Studies and inculcating an appreciation for one's heritage is a legitimate educational goal. So long as one does not actively catechize, there is no problem. There should be no need for Bar Ilan to hide behind regulations. A principle is at stake and adopting a principled stance is indicated.
In fine, the (to use the colloquial term) aleihom on my colleague is not only out of place, it represents a fundamental lack of understanding of the issues at hand. Rather than abuse his teacher, the student would have been better served by meeting with him respectfully, and opening himself up to a different point of view. That, after all, is what higher education is about.
*For the record, graduates of the Religious School system have many lacunae in their education that we fill, as well. That, however, is the subject for another column.
[This column was first published on the Times of Israel site on December 11, 2012.]