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Enlivening Jewish Tradition

At the Center of Jewish Studies, the classical and the contemporary come together, producing new articulations of ancient themes.

By Deena Aranoff 

From the Spring 2016 issue of Currents, View PDF 

The GTU’s Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies is an academic hub devoted to the critical examination of Jewish history, literature, and culture. For some, talk of such work conjures up images of scholars wading through the dustbins of history, making small and mostly irrelevant observations regarding minutia of the past. But the work that happens at CJS is anything but irrelevant—and that’s one reason I am excited to be the Center’s new director.

CJS degree programs provide students with an understanding of Jewish civilization that empowers them in their professional and personal lives, inside and outside the academy. CJS offers a PhD, an MA, and a certificate in Jewish Studies, and also provides faculty and resources for GTU students pursuing doctoral work in Rabbinic Literature, Hebrew Bible, and numerous interreligious concentrations. Our graduates often take up leadership roles in local Jewish community; some continue on to rabbinical school or further graduate work. CJS public programs host hundreds of people each year and contribute to the advancement of popular understandings of Jewish phenomena throughout the Bay Area. Something magical happens at CJS—a kind of intellectual alchemy in which classical Jewish sources meet contemporary perspectives, producing new articulations of ancient themes. I am honored to be a part of this enterprise.

The scholarly work we do at CJS is a form of transformative inquiry. I often tell students that academic research has three phases. The first phase begins in the student’s mind and springs from his or her passion for a particular subject. This first phase—humble, understated, and prolonged—is the most subjective phase of the academic process, a function of the curiosity of the inquirer.

The second phase of research usually involves an extended encounter with primary materials: literary, archival, published, or manuscript. This is perhaps the most important part in academic research; it is both demanding and fragile. It is demanding because access to a source requires familiarity with its language, genre, and context. It is fragile because the specificity of the source material can easily be lost, swallowed up by researcher’s assumptions. If handled well, however, this encounter is transformative. The researcher’s questions change as a result of the scholarly attunement to the material itself.

In my view, the metric of good scholarship is not only whether it is engaging or interesting, but also the degree to which it emerges from this authentic encounter between the researcher and the material. How this encounter unfolds is different for each scholar. Some scholars present work that is a thinly veiled unfolding of a scholar’s own interiority. Others present scholarship that privileges the primary sources at the expense of an authorial voice. I believe the best work strikes a balance between these two extremes.

Like many of the students at CJS today, I have sought to navigate these tensions in my own scholarship. My Jewish learning began in the traditional Jewish environments of my childhood. Those environments cultivated a devotional posture toward classical Jewish sources; the goal in studying biblical and rabbinic materials was simply to understand them. Toward this end, one relied upon the guidance of the authoritative readers of prior generations. The reader was encouraged to relinquish the value of his or her perspective in order to access the text without contemporary distortions.

This type of devotional study was a tremendous source of delight for me and drew me closer to the tradition. The call to relinquish my own personal perspective and voice, however, was complicated by my status as a woman. I came to realize that male readers, especially those granted a measure of authority as teacher or rabbi, often came to confuse (or were invited to confuse) their own perspectives with that of the sources. Mastery of the sources allowed one to speak for the sources. Such teachers wove their own readings into the texts; their readings became the authoritative meaning of the text itself. As a woman, I did not undergo this process. Instead I remained in the early phase, locked in a posture of devotion and subordination. The invitation to the next phase, issued wordlessly and unconsciously to my male peers, never came.

I share this personal history because, in many ways, I transferred this traditional posture to my academic life. My decision to pursue a PhD in Jewish history was an extension of my earlier passion for Jewish learning. My teacher, Yosef Yershalmi, embodied the ways in which the study of Jewish history can help one forge and clarify a relationship to the tradition. But as I took my first, tentative steps towards becoming a scholar, I found it very difficult to move into the final phase of research—that stage in which the scholar puts forth an argument, summoning the materials toward a particular perspective. I could only make my way through the texts in devotional style.

Luckily, there were a few people who enabled me to find my voice. First, the series of scholars who helped me in the final stages of my dissertation: J.W. Smit, Jennifer Greenfield, and Benjamin Gampel. Second, I credit the support of my friend and colleague, former CJS director and current professor Dr. Naomi Seidman, who throughout my ten years at the GTU, has truly invited me to speak. Thank you, Naomi.

I offer these reflections about my own scholarly path as a way of illuminating the profound transformations that we hope are part of the academic process for all who study at CJS. Studies at CJS constitute nothing short of a transformation of the student. To be sure, our program includes “devotional” aspects, by which I mean the dutiful acquisition of the languages and major trends of Jewish history. At the same time, however, students cultivate their own perspectives and arguments. They acquire the theoretical tools that enable them to make their contributions to the world of Jewish Studies.

The academic study of Judaism that takes place at CJS has the capacity to enliven contemporary Jewish life. This might sound strange, since it has long been assumed that the critical study of the Jewish past, certainly of biblical and rabbinic materials, puts one at a distance from the heart and meaning of the tradition. I believe, however, that the conflict between historical study and the pursuit of religious meaning has begun to fade.

The great clash between history and religion has given way to a worldview in which a historical understanding of religion, and its ruptures and changes over time can be readily assimilated by individuals seeking to strengthen their religious commitments. The contemporary Zeitgeist favors the notion that people and cultures can best be understood through their temporality, kind, and condition, through an inquiry into the past and its role in shaping the ever-shifting present. Indeed, historical inquiry has become a constructive mode of religious inquiry, a means by which an increasing number of individuals find meaning in Jewish practice, literature, and ideas.

This shift in sensibilities is everywhere apparent at CJS. Though the study of history may have signaled alienation from Judaism a mere generation ago, it has become a rich and viable point of entry for some who seek to deepen their relationship with it. We have arrived at a cultural moment in which postmodern perspectives have become a fertile means by which an increasing number of individuals make meaning out of both their own experience and out of the contingent, historical development of their religious tradition.

As director of CJS I am honored to be the custodian of this process—enabling CJS students and the broader Bay Area community to cultivate critical, analytical perspectives, facilitating a true encounter with classical and contemporary Jewish formations and the articulation of new perspectives. Far from foreclosing an enduring connection to Jewish life, the scholarly work happening at the GTU and its Center for Jewish Studies is a powerful and productive force shaping Jewish culture today.

Deena Aranoff is the director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies