- Teaching the Modern Jewish Classics: A Pedagogical Postmortem
- Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies
- Purdue University Press
- Volume 13, Number 4, Summer 1995
- p. pp. 59-67
- View Citation
Teaching the Modern Jewish Classics FOCUS ON TEACHING Teaching the Modern Jewish Classics: A Pedagogical Postmortem Alan T. Levenson Cleveland College ofJewish Studies 59 In his recent tribute to the historian Salon Baron, Ismar Schorsch opined, "Ours is a politically secure generation hungry for the sacred ... The present temper prefers text to context, literature to history, meaning to significance.'" If one surveys the curriculum at Jewish Federations, lCCs, Elder Hostels, and even college classrooms, Schorsch's verdict seems beyond dispute. But there is a paradox here: if the search for meaning rather than significance is paramount, the antiquity or the perceived authenticity of the text ought to be an unimportant consideration. One would expect history to be a "loser" relative to purely literary or religious texts. But an unexpected "loser," despite intensitying efforts at Jewish literacy, is modern Jewish thought, which, when not ignored, is employed mainly to cast an occasional footnote on the "real" c1assics.2 Martin Buber memorably described his contemporaries' failure to encounter the Hebrew Scriptures as "paralyz[ing] the power, that, of all powers, is best able to save him.,,3 Obviously, Buber did not mean salvation from sin in the fundamentalist sense. True to his dialogical philosophy, Buber's view of the Hebrew Scripture's "power to save" derived from its ability to elicit interaction between the reader and the lIsmar Schorsch, "[Salo Baron) The Last Jewish Generalist," AJS Review 18:1 (1993), p. 49. 2An example would be the (deservedly) popular Barry W. Holtz, ed., Back to Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts (New York, 1984), which closes the canon with the 18th-19th century Hasidic masters. Contemporary scholarship is cited abundantly in the endnotes, but clearly in an auxiliary fashion: they are the secondary texts that serve to shed light on the "classics." 3Martin Buber, "The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible," On The Bible (New York, 1982), p. 4. 60 SHOFAR Summer 1995 Vol. 13, No.4 biblical text, and to fill life with meaning on the basis of this interaction. On the assumption that the relative neglect ofJewish modernists constitutes a comparable lacuna, I attempted to design a course in modern Jewish thought that would highlight creative engagement. Substantively, I chose topics that American Jews regularly wrestle with in the course of clarifYing their own Jewish identities. The authority of the Bible, the role of the mitzvot, Zionism, and Jewish-Christian relations are all issues that have called forth considerable reflection in the modern era and which have practical relevance for contemporaries. Psychologically, I wanted students to realize that answers can be tentative and developmental without being paralyzing.4 Consequently, we examined three modern Jewish thinkers on a biographical as well as on an ideational basis. My choice of individuals (Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Gershom Scholem) was determined by my interest in German Judaica, and by their fruitful discussions of the topics just noted. Certainly it added a dimension to this course that this trio engaged each other on a variety of issues, left a considerable paper trail to reconstruct their personal and intellectual development, and were magnificently idiosyncratic characters. The resistance generated in this course surprised me, and, unlike the appended syllabus, requires elucidation. To begin With, the wealth of biographical data sparked as much skepticism as intimacy. I regularly needed to address the tendency to dismiss particular claims as individually and subjectively motivated, and therefore invalid.5 For example: the knowledge that Buber was abandoned by his mother does not affect the, epistemological coherence of the I and Thou dichotomy, or make the quest for I-Thou relationships less valid, although it does, probably, have something to do with genesis of Buber's insight.6 Ilkewise, Scholem's realization that earlier practitioners of Wissenschaft des Judentums deliberately neglected kabbalah does not make his assertions about the Sabbatian movement more or less valid-they can be judged on their own merits. That the historical context interacts with the text proved to be 4Franz Rosenzweig's oft-quoted response "Not yet," to an interlocutor who asked him if he was laying tefillin, e.xemplifies this posture. .'In defending the halachah against such skeptiCism, Soloveitchik wrote, "Whatever be the psychological...