EAJS Programme in European Jewish Studies 2016/17
E Pluribus Unum? Multidisciplinarity in Jewish Studies Programmes and Teaching
Venue: Museum of the History of the Jews in Girona (Museu d’Història dels Jueus)
Date: 28 – 29 May 2017
Organisers: Dr Javier Castaño and Dr François Guesnet
Report by: Dr Javier Castaño and Dr François Guesnet
The EAJS held a workshop dedicated to an exchange between colleagues from nearly a dozen European countries (Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, Ukraine, and United Kingdom), as well as from the United States and Israel, to discuss the potentials and challenges of the pluridisciplinary character of Jewish Studies. This event, entitled “E Pluribus Unum? Multidisciplinarity in Jewish Studies Programmes and Teaching,” was held on 28 – 29 May 2017, in the beautiful setting of the Museum of the History of the Jews in Girona (Museu d’Història dels Jueus), located in the former Jewish quarter in the heart of the medieval old city of this centre of Iberian-Jewish history. A grant from the Foundation “Memory, Responsibility, and Future” (“Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft”, Berlin) enabled the EAJS to offer many participants a travel bursary.
The contributions from a great variety of programmes reflected the different challenges programmes in Jewish Studies currently confront across Europe (and beyond). One striking feature was the co-existence in one city of a variety of institutions offering structured academic teaching in Jewish Studies, leading to multiple opportunities for engagement, but also to overlap in a context of diminishing student numbers – a phenomenon related to a general current challenge to the Humanities, and exacerbated by shifts in students’ preferences. Another challenge to the field is misconceptions about the nature of Jewish Studies and Judaism in the wider public and among political and academic decision makers. Many colleagues deplored their relative isolation in their institutions and the lack of exchange among colleagues, as well as a lack of enthusiasm among students for the acquisition of necessary linguistic skills (especially demanding in European Jewish Studies). The limited employment opportunities for graduates of Jewish Studies programmes is another basic problem. A last matter of concern was the danger of Jewish identity being restricted and defined through the lenses of a particular Jewish regional culture.
In the first panel of the opening section (Promises and Pitfalls of Multi-Disciplinarity), two examples of integration of university and rabbinical training were discussed. Myriam Silvera (University of Rome-Tor Vergata) explained the case of Rome where the rabbinical school partially merged with the university in order to create a Programme in Jewish Studies open to non-Jewish students. This has originated some situations where as result of a sense of growing Judeophobia, a Jewish teacher unconsciously attempted to “protect” and “to defend” the good image of the Jews, stressing the importance of some episodes of Jewish history, but minimizing others, and thus sacrificing objectivity out of a misguided sense of collective responsibility. She suggested requiring outside “supervision” as it happens for other sciences like psychoanalysis. Balasz Tamasi (Jewish Theological Seminary, Budapest) outlined the main phases of development, from its foundation in 1877 and its historical turning-points, of the teaching and the Wissenschaft des Judentums at the Budapest Rabbinical Seminary (since 2000, the Budapest University of Jewish Studies, Hungary). He also referred to recent problems and challenges for the teaching in the Jewish Studies programme with special regard to the requirement of multidisciplinarity. A short intervention by Matthew Kritz (BA student, Princeton University) complemented these presentations with observations about the challenges and successes in organising Princeton’s Undergraduate Judaic Studies Conference.
The second panel of the section demonstrated the divergent approaches in teaching a core subject of Talmudic literature. Yehuda Brandes (Herzog College, Israel) presented a close reading of a sugya (Talmudic portion) as practiced by him, demonstrating the multiple layers and ramifications of meaning, the intertextual references and the varieties of past interpretations. This stood in stark contrast to Federico dal Bo‘s (Autonomous University, Barcelona) feminist approach to a Talmudic tractate, illustrating the impact of Gender Studies on the study of the Babylonian Talmud and the need to integrate this theoretical framework for a comprehensive understanding of the Jewish textual tradition. He called attention to the implicit resistance of some scholars to this perspective, and exemplified it’s importance with the most eloquent case of gender issues applied to modern Jewish life, that of ʿaguna (literally: “chained woman”), a woman who is unable to remarry until the husband eventually agrees for divorce. Recent publications have examined this social issue, but have tried to propose a solution without taking into account any Gender Studies assumptions.
The second section (Senior Institutions and Programmes: Achievements and Challenges) contrasted academic programmes in different university settings. In his presentation, Michal Galas (Jagiellonian University, Kraków) discussed experiences from over three decades of modern Jewish Studies at Poland’s oldest university, and the only one where students can obtain a BA and a MA in Jewish Studies. A once small research centre created in the mid-1980s, it developed into one of the most influential academic institution of its kind in Eastern Europe (and beyond). With hundreds of students learning Jewish history, culture, and languages, and a strong integration into the academic structures of the Jagiellonian University, the Institute of Jewish Studies has a lot to share regarding teaching programmes in a non-Jewish milieu, international cooperation, as well as future plans for the discipline. Alessandro Grazi and Irene Zwiep (University of Amsterdam) called attention to the recent developments in their own Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, where due to a reallocation of the university’s financial resources, they have faced the challenge of reducing (again) the costs of the BA and MA programmes without affecting their final attainment levels. For the BA, they have developed a business model aiming at sustainability through interdisciplinary collaboration, the crux of the model lying in the identification of common themes and approaches across a variety of local programmes, while staying committed to the skills and standards of international Jewish Studies. For the MA, they rely on a tailor-made programme of individual tutorials and traineeships combined with collective multidisciplinary teaching. It allows students to design their own curriculum in accordance with their specific professional needs, while being exposed to a broad range of perspectives, sources, and methodologies. In his presentation, François Guesnet (University College London) reflected on an attempt to bring the various disciplines in a Jewish Studies Department into conversation with each other. By identifying perspectives which Guesnet defined tentatively as “lateral research areas,” shared areas of expertise outside of the traditional disciplinary silos are reflected upon. These lateral research areas include, in the case of the UCL Department, strong involvement with visuality and visual cultures, translation in the broadest sense of the term, knowledge transfer, political culture and diplomacy, and the relationship between religion and politics. While there was general agreement that such discussions were worthwhile, their integration into the daily routine of a university department remains as significant a challenge as transdisciplinarity itself.
The third section (New Horizons: Institutions and Challenges) of the workshop looked at other existing programmes across Europe and the current challenges they are facing. Pablo A. Torijano (University Complutense, Madrid) introduced the Hebrew and Jewish Studies programme at his university. The programme is rooted in a centuries-long Hebraist tradition, and indeed, Hebrew and Bible have been uninterruptedly taught at the University Complutense from its inception. However, it only merged into Jewish Studies in the middle decades of the past century. He also explained the troubles experienced by the Department of Hebrew and Aramaic Studies: despite being the oldest academic department in the country, the programme currently offers only a BA in Semitic Philology. Along with the university, and at a post-doctoral research level, students can continue advanced training and a scholarly research career at the Spanish National Research Council, where Jewish History and Sephardic Studies are cultivated alongside Bible and exegesis. Ricardo Muñoz Solla (University of Salamanca) presented the past and the present of Hebrew Studies at the University of Salamanca, a traditional programme in one of the earliest European universities to include Hebrew as one of the sacred languages in its curriculum. However, Hebrew Studies disappeared over time, and were re-established barely two decades ago. He presented the current strictly philological curriculum, including other Oriental languages such as Aramaic and Syriac, and also the forthcoming challenges of these studies, sharing some reflections on the future and means of enhancing these studies in the context of Spanish universities. The New Horizons section also included two presentations about programmes by colleagues from Ukraine: Vitaly Chernoivanenko (National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Kyiv) and Vladyslava Moskalets (Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv). While both are relatively newly established programmes, they include undergraduate and graduate teaching, and research, with a comprehensive range of disciplines and languages, and have considerable success in recruiting ambitious students. Also, both programmes have established international cooperation with academic Jewish Studies programmes including an exchange of students and faculty.
A different perspective was offered by Katja Šmid (Network for South Eastern European Jewish Studies). She explained the establishment, on the occasion of a conference that took place in Belgrade in 2016, of a network of Jewish Studies scholars from South Eastern Europe, intending to encompass the former Yugoslavia and other surrounding countries. One of the goals behind the establishment of this network was the strengthening of the scientific relations among local scholars that, as result of the regional political instability that followed the Balkan Wars, were forced to continue their research under conditions of distress and isolation. In addition, the network contemplates the specificities of the regional Jewish cultures, and the effects these have had on the developmental delay of a Jewish Studies curriculum within the academic setting throughout these countries. Pavel Sladek (Charles University, Prague) talked about the new programme of Jewish Studies established in 2016 at his university. Arising from a previous programme of Hebrew Studies formally established in 1991, it takes its roots in the Hebraist tradition, in parallel to what we have seen in other European universities. The Charles University offers nowadays a MA four-semester programme in Jewish Studies. This poses a particular challenge since students arrive with a limited knowledge of anything “Jewish,” and also they have not absorbed what may be called (with some simplification) the Western Canon (or at least the notion and the related habits). Because of this, the study of a minority is decontextualized and ultimately the picture of Jewish civilization might get profoundly distorted and deprived of its meaning. As a remedy, the programme intends to introduce a core course, which will require the students to develop their acquaintance with select major works of Western culture both with and without direct link to Judaism and the Jews.
Shani Tzoref (University of Potsdam) concluded this section and talked about Biblical Studies in the interdisciplinary context of the recently founded School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam, which comprises seven professorial chairs (History and Philosophy of Religion; Bible; Talmud; Halakha; Liturgy; and Hebrew and Aramaic Philology). The School works closely with the Institute of Jewish Studies at the University, and provides the academic portion of the curriculum for the students of two rabbinical schools (Abraham-Geiger-Kolleg and Zacharias Frankel College). She discussed some of the ways in which this configuration of the School has shaped the multidisciplinary agenda of the Hebrew Bible chair, contextualizing it against the background of the historical and cultural landscape of Jewish engagement in Biblical Studies in Germany. She addressed three main spheres: a) Intra-disciplinary research, especially bridging Theology/Judaistik and Jewish Studies; b) research and practice, putting biblical scholarship in conversation with contemporary fields, such as clinical pastoral care and cultural studies; and c) religious research and cooperation, particularly with “Abrahamic faiths.”
This last part of the workshop provided the occasion for open-ended discussion on Multi-Disciplinarity and Cultural Diversity as Contexts of Teaching Jewish Studies in Europe, and took place at the patio of the Museum during a beautiful Mediterranean May afternoon. One of the subjects addressed was the establishment of Hebrew Ulpanim outside Israel as a way for dealing with the challenge of language teaching in Jewish Studies. Following her personal experience, Nomi Drachinsky (Ulpan Hebreo Sefarad, Madrid) offered practical solutions to this challenge in a non-Hebrew environment. Following her previous experience as a Hebrew Instructor and Programs Coordinator in the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she has become co-director and teacher at an Ulpan in Madrid, which has a cooperation agreement with the Hebrew University. This experience has enabled her to examine the differences between teaching the language in its native country and doing so in a place which lacks opportunities for practical application, or the normal daily situations that force a student to react quickly to find creative solutions. While reading, comprehension and grammar can be adjusted, listening and speaking skills are easily neglected in a non-Hebrew environment. She developed a set of strategies to create a native Hebrew speaking microcosm, suitable for all levels, “wrapping” students in Hebrew. As a result, students report better comprehension and reaction abilities, gain confidence, and their improvement is significantly noticeable.
It was followed by a public event introduced by a presentation by Javier Castaño about the place of Jewish civilization in Spanish academia, showing the merger of Jewish Studies within the Hebraist and Biblical Studies tradition, as well as the evolution of the field in the academic setting throughout the most recent decades. The discrepancy between the proud and long tradition of academic Hebrew Studies in Spain and the requirements of a multidisciplinary approach to Jewish Studies difficult to integrate in the existing academic structures served as a fitting concluding example for the situation of Jewish Studies in early 21st century Europe.
At the end, the participants expressed their enthusiasm for the setting and the relevance of genius loci for a productive discussion. Participants from a wide range of disciplinary and geographical backgrounds also enjoyed the opportunity to engage in informal conversation in the courtyard of the Museum, near the place where the last medieval synagogue of the Catalan city of Girona had once been located. The setting helped to create a collegial atmosphere for participants that was instrumental in the success of the event.
The EAJS Executive Committee has taken note of the success of this event, and hopes to raise funds in the near future to support a series of annual meetings devoted to specific aspects of academic teaching in Jewish Studies. Tentatively entitled Nachmanides-Forum, these events should strive to involve colleagues from a large number of European (though not excluding non-European) countries and regions, and to encourage exchange between practitioners in the field and the conversation between academics of different degrees of seniority.
The presentations offered multiple prompts for thought about how to ensure that progress in research is integrated in a timely and productive way into syllabi along with elements which constitute the disciplinary core of Jewish Studies programmes. Participants were impressed by the successes and popularity of programmes in Eastern Central and Eastern Europe, where Jewish Studies programmes enjoy considerable popularity and, by no means less important, structural institutional support from universities.
Beyond the fascinating insights offered by the speakers, the event was a welcome opportunity to meet colleagues, exchange ideas and find inspiration. This was much helped by the hospitality of the Jewish Museum, and the facilities provided by its director, Ms. Sílvia Planas, who also offered a guided tour through the former Jewish quarter of the city, and also the warm welcome the event received from the municipality of Girona.