- The Blessing of Gerson D. Cohen
“The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History” was surely not Gerson Cohen’s most important piece of scholarly writing. Unlike many of his classic academic essays which are still assigned in university courses in medieval Jewish history—his insightful overview of the gaonic age; his creative reconstruction of the story of the four captives; or his typological study of the varieties of Jewish messianism, to name only a few—it was meant to be no more than a public address, in this case offered to the graduating class of the Hebrew Teachers College in Brook-line, Massachusetts in June 1966.1
Yet the essay left an enormous impression on me when it appeared as a pamphlet soon after its oral delivery and was made known to the small circle of Cohen’s students and admirers. I was about to become one of this privileged group, having graduated from college in exactly the same month and having just received the incredible good news that I had been awarded a five-year fellowship to begin my graduate work in Jewish history at Columbia University under Cohen’s direction. In my euphoric state of self-congratulation, I rushed to read the essay of my future mentor, delighting in the expectation that I would be studying with so creative a scholar and teacher in the near future. I was to learn only months later that Professor Cohen was about to leave Columbia for the Jewish Theological Seminary of America to become its chancellor, or as he often put it, “to cease to write history in order to make history.” Reversing the beginning of a trend already visible in the late 1960s of seminary professors opting to teach in secular universities, as Ray Sheindlin once pointed [End Page 459] out, Cohen returned to his roots to teach rabbinical students and to guide the primary institution of Conservative Judaism that had nurtured him throughout most of his career.2
Cohen was a relatively young man of forty-two when he wrote this essay, full of optimism about the future of Conservative Judaism, and at the height of his career as a historian and educator. He had replaced the retiring Salo W. Baron at Columbia only three years earlier; his magnum opus, the critical edition of Sefer ha-kabalah was soon to be published,3 and he was about to make the momentous decision to lead the Conservative movement. “The Blessing of Assimilation” fully displayed Cohen’s mastery of the historical past in the service of understanding the present, or as he put it, using one of his favorite rabbinic expressions: Dibra Torah behoveh; dibru ḥakhamim behoveh (The Torah spoke in the present; the sages spoke in the present). In this case the historian Cohen chose to impart to a class of future Jewish educators that the alleged dirty word of American Jews—“assimilation”—actually had a positive valence when understood within its proper historical context. From Philo’s Alexandria to Saadia’s Baghdad to Maimonides’ Fustat and beyond, Cohen eloquently explained, diaspora Jewish communities not only survived but flourished by translating their culture into the idiom of their day. Assimilation and acculturation acted as stimuli to original thinking and expression, as sources of new vitality, making the tradition continually relevant and meaningful for future generations.
For Cohen, the lessons of the past seen from the perspective of a historian thinking about the present could point to the promise of a positive American Jewish future. Contemporary Jewish leaders could bemoan the perils of cultural assimilation by withdrawal and ghettoization or they could preferably embrace the new challenges of American culture by appropriating “new forms and ideas for the sake of growth and enrichment,” so that “assimilation properly channeled and exploited could become a blessing” (p. 155). As the great sages of the past—dor dor vedorshav (each generation and its scholars), evoking another of his favorite rabbinic expressions—had creatively responded to the challenge of assimilation in their respective ages, Cohen charged the young graduates of Hebrew Teachers College to respond to the challenge with equal vigor: [End Page 460] “You will recognize that some...