Torah and Western Thought Across the Pond

From Jan. 13 to Jan. 16, 2020, the Straus Scholars of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought participated in a winter break trip to England, which featured seminars, site visits and exhibition tours centered upon the intersection of Torah and history, art, politics and philosophy.

On the historic campus

On Tuesday, Jan. 14, following a morning lecture by Dr. Chaya Sima Koenigsberg, a resident scholar at the Straus Center, on the Cairo Genizah, the students were led by Dr. Theodor Dunkelgrün, the Senior Research Associate and Academic Coordinator in the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University, on a tour of the historic campus. Dr. Dunkelgrün recounted Cambridge’s many Jewish connections, including how the Regius Professorship of Hebrew, an academic chair at Cambridge, was established by King Henry VIII in 1540 after he received guidance from rabbinic sources in his efforts to divorce Catherine of Aragon; more recently, Cambridge provided refuge for persecuted academics during the Holocaust.

The students then visited the renowned Wren Library, the library of Trinity College, where they examined rare books including first editions of the Bomberg Talmud and the personal Mishna of the Amsterdam religious leader Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel. A visit to the Cairo Genizah collection was a particular highlight for many, where students viewed Dead Sea Scroll fragments as well as letters and manuscripts from medieval scholars Sherira Gaon, Judah HaLevi and Maimonides. The campus visit culminated in a lecture on the history of Judaism and Hellenism by Dr. Nicholas de Lange, emeritus professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Wolfson College, Cambridge.

On Jan. 15, Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik, the director of the Straus Center, delivered a lecture on the political, social and economic history of Jews in England, drawing on the works of Gertrude Himmelfarb, which covered topics including England’s philo-Semitic strand, Shylock and Shakespeare, the birth of political Hebraism and its impact on America and the history of England’s relationship to Israel.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in a Facebook Live conversation at his home with Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik

The students then visited the House of Lords on an exclusive tour led by Lord Stuart Polak, a Jewish member of the House, who dedicates his time to strengthening the current England/Israel relationship. There they sat in on a session and met multiple Members of Parliament, including one who left the British Labour party over its anti-Semitic leanings. Rabbi Dov Lerner, also a resident scholar at the Straus Center, gave a seminar on British Jewish intellectuals and the debates over the contributions of British Jews to larger British society.

Meir Soloveichik at the National Gallery
At the National Gallery

The students then visited the home of Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and visiting professor at YU. Rabbi Sacks, in a Facebook Live conversation, was interviewed by Rabbi Soloveichik on topics ranging from the current wave of anti-Semitism in Europe and America to Rabbi Sacks’ upcoming book on morality, and the students participated in a Q&A following the formal interview. The next day, Jan. 16, Rabbi Soloveichik lectured on art in Jewish thought and led the students on a tour of the National Gallery, focusing on paintings by Rembrandt of biblical scenes.

“The trip was a tremendous success,” stated Dr. Stu Halpern, senior adviser to the Provost and senior program officer of the Straus Center, “as the students combined historically minded seminars with dynamic discussions with thought leaders impacting the contemporary Jewish and global community. We look forward to our continued work with the Straus Scholars as they bridge the works of Torah and the West both within and beyond the classroom.”

Front row (l-r): Straus Scholars Ezra Wildes, Elimelekh Perl, Ben Atwood, Eliana Wagner, Abigail Pinchot and resident scholar Dr. Chaya Sima Koenigsberg
Back row (l-r): Straus Scholars Baruch Lev Kelman and Michael Weiner, Dr. Stu Halpern, Lord Sacks, Rabbi Soloveichik, Straus Scholar Avishai Samouha, resident scholar Rabbi Dov Lerner and Straus Scholar Yehuda Goldberg