Education: Is this a subject just for Jews?

The growing popularity of Jewish studies courses prompts fundamental questions, such as what is the chief purpose of the discipline?
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Academic Jewish studies in Britain have undergone something of a boom in recent years. A directory of Jewish studies academics at British universities, published in 1995 by the British Association of Jewish Studies, included 249 names, with no fewer than 48 institutions represented. More than 100 undergraduates are pursuing formal degree programmes in Jewish studies in any given year.

The UK was seen as something of a backwater for Jewish studies - there are 100 endowed chairs in the United States and still barely a handful here - so this growth is both surprising and encouraging. But, being driven mostly by private donors - which cash-strapped universities have welcomed - it has proceeded haphazardly. Academics and sponsors alike are now stepping back to ask fundamental questions about where UK Jewish studies are going, and what purposes they fulfil. And the answers often show opposing conceptions.

One of the key questions is: what role do Jewish studies play in fostering the Jewish identity of young Jews? A comparable question asked of Chinese or Middle Eastern studies is barely conceivable, and yet it is central to Jewish studies because many donors, and many academics too, believe that maintaining Jewish identity should be a primary purpose of teaching and study in this area.

The issue is made more acute because of the perceived crisis of continuity in the Jewish community. If higher Jewish studies are effective in helping young Jews to maintain their Jewish distinctiveness, there is an argument that more communal resources should be devoted to them.

But not only is there a lack of research evidence that Jewish studies have a positive impact on this; some also argue that promoting Jewish studies on this basis is a mistake. For one thing, probably most Jewish studies students are not Jewish. If the identity objective were allowed to drive the growth in Jewish studies, it could result in ghettoisation of the subject as a whole. As Dr David Cesarani, professor of Jewish history at Southampton University, points out, Jewish studies must achieve the highest academic standards, attract academic staff with the highest academic and research qualifications and be seen as a modern, cutting-edge subject, central to the understanding of European civilisation.

The growth of the subject, which is occurring in other European countries too, takes place against a background of increasing interest in contemporary Judaism. Children all over the country have lit candles for the Jewish festival of Chanukah, as they have for the Hindus' Diwali, as part of their primary school religious education. In secondary schools, the Holocaust is now part of the national curriculum at key stage three. Matters affecting Jews are regularly covered by the media and are increasingly presented as a part of mainstream political and cultural life. It is therefore not surprising that many non-Jews take Jewish studies courses. In fact, some argue that the value of Jewish studies lies precisely in the awareness of Jewish culture and history which non-Jews gain.

There is also the question of what kind of Jewish identity should be fostered. The reality of Jewish life today is that there are many Jewish identities. Is it acceptable for Jewish studies to reinforce this pluralistic reality, or would Orthodox Jews object? And if they did, would it matter?

At a recent London conference on the relationship between Jewish studies and Jewish identity, organised by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, with the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and the Hebrew and Jewish Studies Department of University College London, Professor Bernard Wasserstein, head of the Oxford Centre, suggested that the relatively new growth of Jewish studies in Britain and Europe provided an opportunity to avoid some of the mistakes made in other countries, especially Israel and the US. He spoke of Jewish studies in Israel being often "poisoned by the dogmas that Zionism imprints on all aspects of the study of Jewish religion and particularly history"; there is a different "poisoning" in the US, he maintained, that arises from "ethnic celebrationism".

Another difficult issue is the relationship between religion and scholarship. Can those who practice Judaism also teach and research the subject from a strictly scholarly and academic point of view? Some Orthodox Jews involved in the field recognise the dilemma but believe it soluble. Dr Norman Solomon, a rabbi from the UK's mainstream Orthodox synagogue organisation, and now a full-time academic, says: "Faith cannot ever be built on falsehood. Truth and goodness must be one, and we will only accomplish that when we eradicate the dichotomy between the confessional and the academic study of Judaism."

More prosaic, but equally divisive, is the question of what subjects are essential for the teaching of Jewish studies. Is there a Jewish studies canon? Professor John Klier, head of department at UCL, says, quite categorically, that there is: "Jewish studies, properly conceived, can never be an easy option," he adds. Language acquisition, for example, is essential. Some argue, however, that since Jewish identities are varied and fractured, reflecting a post-modern reality, there need be no canon, no core subjects. But there is a difference between making students clear about a confused picture, and allowing them to remain confused about a confused picture.

The fact that these questions are being asked, and that there is lively disagreement, is a sign of the vigour which now characterises academic Jewish studies in Britain. Not that the problems are insignificant. Most teachers are isolated in departments devoted to other subjects; there is strong representation in some areas and marked weaknesses in others; and there is no co-ordinated development.

But the relative health of the field reflects the increasing integration of the Jewish experience into mainstream culture. Some may see this as leading to the dilution of Jewish identity; others may see it as offering an alternative route to maintaining Jewish distinctiveness by raising the status of Jewish history and culture in the academic world, and, by extension, in society at large. This may lead Jews who take Jewish studies or benefit from academic outreach programmes to conclude that continuity is a worthwhile option

Antony Lerman is executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the Jewish think-tank.