From Rashi’s Shir ha-Shirim to Jewish-Christian Tensions to the Contemporary Academy: Revel Yom Iyun Addresses the Value and Relevance of Academic Jewish Studies

Over 100 people congregated at The Jewish Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on Sunday morning, March 18 for a unique Yom Iyun (“day of study”) entitled “New Perspectives on Jewish-Christian Relations” jointly sponsored by Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and The Jewish Center. Some of those in attendance have a professional interest in Jewish studies—students, professors and rabbis—but most did not, and came primarily to learn from the featured speakers. Indeed, this Yom Iyun was designed to bring academic Jewish scholarship to the awareness of the broader Jewish community as part of Revel’s celebration of its 75th anniversary. The Yom Iyun included four lectures dealing with a range of topics spanning from biblical times to the modern age, each showcasing how academic Jewish studies complement talmud Torah (religious study).

In addition to marking Revel’s 75th anniversary, the event celebrated the publication of New Perspectives on Jewish-Christian Relations: In Honor of David Berger, a collection of studies edited by Elisheva Carlebach and Jacob J. Schacter.

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David Berger assumed his current role as Dean of Revel in September 2008, at which point he turned to Revel Professor of Bible Mordechai Cohen to serve as his Associate Dean. Sunday’s Yom Iyun reflects the efforts of the Berger-Cohen Revel administration to make YU’s graduate school of Jewish Studies a resource to the broader Jewish community.

Yosie Levine, Rabbi of the Jewish Center and Cohen’s former student at Revel, explained why he regarded this event as an important milestone for his congregation: “The Jewish Center is delighted to partner with the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Part of our goal is to build a bridge between the academy and the broader Jewish community by engaging the talents of leading scholars and inviting them to teach us about their respective fields. It is our hope that this will be the beginning of a wonderful partnership that will give us entrée into an academic universe brimming with possibility.”

YU President Richard Joel attended the Yom Iyun and addressed the audience prior to Berger’s keynote speech. As Cohen noted in his introductory remarks, it was President Joel who recognized the need to bring Berger to YU on a full-time basis in 2007. Although Berger has long been teaching at YU part-time, his full-time academic post for over thirty yeas was at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he achieved renown as a leading Jewish historian and thinker. Joel described Berger’s appointment as “one of [YU’s] great achievements of the last decade” since he has assumed a leading role in the direction of academic Jewish studies at Yeshiva University.

Both Carlebach and Schacter were Berger’s students as undergraduates at Brooklyn College. Schacter, a former Rabbi of The Jewish Center, expressed his appreciation to Berger as he addressed his former congregation. “He has influenced my life in extremely deep and profound ways,” Schacter said about the Dean. “I was mesmerized by his brilliance, his humanity; I wanted to be like him.” For Schacter, working on New Perspectives was “a labor of love and expression of hakarat hatov,” he continued. “…I really can’t thank Dr. Berger enough for his influence in my life.”

Joel spoke proudly about Revel’s achievements over the past few years since Berger took the helm—especially the dramatic growth of Revel’s PhD program, from 9 students in 2008 to its current 26. Additionally, the school’s MA program remains vibrant, and increasing numbers of non-degree students and auditors attend Revel courses purely out of interest in the range of subjects taught there. Joel also mentioned the expansion of the Revel faculty, with 7 new appointments (some directly to Revel and some undergraduate faculty who have become a part of the Revel faculty as well) in the last 9 years, which greatly enhance the scope of the program. “[Revel] is a resource for the community on multiple levels, permeating modern Orthodox life and literacy,” emphasized Joel.

The first lecture, Exile, Redemption, Human Love and National Saga: Peshat and Ideology in Rashi’s Song of Songs Commentary” was delivered by Associate Dean Cohen and explored the literal versus allegorical interpretations of the biblical Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim).

Cohen noted the substantial innovation of  the great eleventh-century exegete Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (commonly known as Rashi) in Song of Songs interpretation: in a move unprecedented in Jewish tradition, Rashi formulated a comprehensive interpretive approach to the literal sense of the Song of Songs as love poetry, and not just as allegory.  The lecture was based partially on a fourteen-member collaborative research project on Jewish, Christian and Muslim interpretation that Cohen directed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute for Advanced Studies last year.

Cohen noted that the Song of Songs is “challenging from an ideological perspective.” Both Jewish and Christian interpreters grappled with the question of why this work, seemingly a collection of love poems, was included in the Bible. What, indeed, is its theological message? The answer given in midrashic tradition was that the text has a deeper allegorical meaning: it reflects the love between God and the people of Israel. According to this approach, the beloved’s beautiful eyes described in the poem (Song 1:15) are interpreted as the righteous ones of Israel, and her two breasts (Song 7:4) as the two tablets of the Law containing the Ten Commandments. As Cohen noted, an analogous sort of allegorical reading was adopted by the Church Fathers, who interpreted the Song as the love relationship between Jesus and the Church. Even the Karaites, who generally reject rabbinic tradition, interpreted this biblical text allegorically—about the history of the Karaite sect.

Following the midrashic approach, the Orthodox Jewish publishing company Artscroll translated the Song of Songs into English according to its allegorical sense, emptying the text of its literal meaning. The authority they cited for doing so was Rashi, who does indeed cite the midrashic interpretations faithfully. But, Cohen observed, Rashi actually argued for the importance of the

peshat (literal) level of the Song of Songs—that is to say, the love story.

“Rashi accepts the allegorical interpretation,” stated Cohen, who quoted from Rashi’s introduction to the work. “But that was not Rashi’s innovation, because it was well entrenched in midrashic tradition and targum [Aramaic interpretive translation]. When you ask what Rashi’s contribution was, it was the emphasis on peshat…Rashi in reality stated you need the peshat as a foundation for the allegory.”

As an example, Cohen drew the audience’s attention to Rashi’s comments on Song of Songs 2:10-13. This passage describes the lover’s call to his beloved that invokes the beautiful colors and scents of the blossoming springtime. Rashi comments that “this entire passage, according to its peshat, is said in the language of a young man enticing his betrothed to join him.” Thus, argued Cohen, Rashi perceived the Song’s literary qualities as manifested in the literal plot of the story, and didn’t view it purely as an allegory.

Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), Rashi’s grandson, furthered developed the peshat approach of literary appreciation, comparing the literal sense of the Song of Songs to the love stories recited by the jongleurs in his own twelfth-century France. This, argued Cohen, “deepen[ed] the relevance of this biblical text for his generation.”

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and Senior Scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University, presented “A Surprising View of Christianity in the Eighteenth Century: The Perspective of Rabbi Jacob Emden.”  Rabbi Emden was the focus of Schacter’s 1987 PhD dissertation which, incidentally, he worked on while serving as rabbi of The Jewish Center.

Schacter framed his lecture around a particular letter written by Emden regarding a group of Sabbatians (followers of the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi) in Poland. In June 1756 all Sabbatians in Poland were excommunicated, further deepening the existing persecution of the Sabbatians in Poland and beyond. Those persecuted turned to Christian authorities, arguing that they, the Sabbatians, were being persecuted because they shared the Christian belief in Jesus and other matters of faith. The Church responded favorably to the Sabbatians, interpreting their persecution as an attack on Christianity itself. “The Jewish Council of the Four Lands was prepared to argue that Sabbatianism had nothing to do with Christianity,” explained Schacter, “and that in fact Sabbatianism must be seen as an entirely new religion. However, there was a danger in this argument, because according to Christian practice at that time, no new religions were allowed; anyone guilty would be killed. So the leaders of the Va’ad Arba Aratzot [Council of the Four Lands] understood that a lot was at stake. They turned to Emden and asked whether they should do this. Emden pens this very sharply worded essay, and writes that it’s not only [permissible] for them to do this, but they are [obligated to]…And if the Sabbatians are to be killed then so be it.”

What comes next in Emden’s essay is novel. In the course of this essay, said Schacter, Emden presented his most explicitly favorable—and unprecedented—assessment of Jesus and Christianity  including Christianity and Islam under the rubric of “kenesiyyah le-shem shamayim” [a gathering for the sake of heaven]  Emden credited the two later Abrahamic faiths  with a number of accomplishments, for which he gives them great respect. Chief among them: spreading a monotheistic tradition to the nations of the world. Secondly, Emden credited these faiths with protecting the Jews from their would-be destroyers.

Ultimately, argued Schacter, Emden’s attitude toward Christianity must be viewed in light of his attitude towards Sabbatianism. By establishing a contrast between the two that favored Christianity, Emden delegitimated Sabbatianism and distinguished it as incompatible with both Judaism and Christianity.

However, “all this is theoretical in the world of Jacob Emden,” emphasized Schacter, pointing out that in Megillat Sefer Emden expressed frustration and feelings of persecution related to Christians he encountered personally. “If Jacob Emden had a tolerant attitude to Christians in theory, when looking out the window it was a different thing entirely.”

Dr. Elisheva Carlebach, Salo Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society at Columbia University, who also serves as Senior Adjunct Professor at Revel, lectured on “Jews, Christians and the Conflict Over the Calendar.” “We all look at a calendar in different ways,” noted Carlebach. “When you look at a calendar, you see that this is a place where Jews and Christians diverge.”

Carlebach noted that in antiquity, Christians designed their new calendar specifically to compete against and supersede the existing Jewish one.  By the third century, the Church Fathers had replaced Shabbat with Sunday, “The Lord’s Day.” They also fixed Christian holidays specifically so as not to coincide with Jewish ones—notably, Easter was not allowed to fall out on Passover.  “There was tremendous discomfort on both sides,” said Carlebach.

At end of the sixteenth century, the Church replaced the Julian calendar with its newly created Gregorian calendar and also reconfigured the calculation of Easter. These developments once again placed the calendar in the forefront of the consciousness of all Europeans.

Living daily life organized according to the Christian calendar proved uncomfortable for many Jews. Throughout the medieval period, said Carlebach, Jews were highly aware of the fact that as society Christianized, everything that they referred to in the framework of the general calendar could be seen as the adoption of a semi-idolatrous, forbidden culture.

Yet even though acknowledging the Christian calendar was inescapable, Jews sometimes incorporated anti-Christian sentiment and even polemics in their dual Christian-Jewish yearly calendars.  Carlebach described the duality as a “subtle system of reference.”

For example, one such calendar marked all Christian holidays to do with the Virgin Mary before the Annunciation with the word “betulah” (“virgin”). However, it marked the Annunciation Day itself as “isha” (literally “woman” or “wife,” implying loss of virginity). “When it comes to the day that she is conceiving her child, she’s isha,” said Carlebach. “I believe that these three letters constitute the shortest anti-Christian polemical text in the entire history of Jewish anti-Christian polemics.”

The final presentation of the day was Jewish Studies and Judaism: Personal Reflections on a Career in Academic Jewish Scholarship,” the keynote of the Yom Iyun, delivered by Berger. While some religious individuals purposely avoid academic inquiry, fearing that their studies might shake their faith, Berger asserted that academic Jewish scholarship “must play a role in the consciousness of the educated layman as well [as the academic].”

“Setting aside issues of methodology, there is the enterprise of simply studying materials that clearly fall under the rubric of Torah but are not part of the curriculum of the yeshivas,” Berger continued. He went on to recount a conversation that he had with a Jew who teaches a Talmud class in Boro Park.  This learned Jew was unaware that Maimonides’ thirteen principles printed in the prayer book do not represented the full, original text.  When he was showed that text in the back of the standard edition of the tractate Sanhedrin, he expressed surprise and asked how Berger knew about this.

Berger also addressed the issue of objectivity in the academic study of Judaism. Some academics, for example, assert that their observant colleagues allow “their religious sympathies to affect their scholarly conclusions.” Yet Berger argues that just as secular scholars have an obligation to examine arguments on their merits, religious scholars have an obligation to draw conclusions that they believe will pass muster by objective criteria—and the best of them do precisely that.

Berger spoke about his earliest exposure to academic Jewish studies—beginning with his father, and continuing through his education at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, Yeshiva College and Columbia University. He also described some of the projects of importance to the modern Jewish community he has undertaken—and was especially qualified for as a result of his academic studies.  For example, in 1978, Berger, an expert on the Jewish-Christian debate in the Middle Ages, teamed up with Dr. Michael Wyschogrod to write a booklet entitled Jews and ‘Jewish Christianity’ on behalf of the Task Force on Missionaries and Cults of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

In the winter of 1989, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz received permission from the Soviet government to open a yeshiva in Moscow— the first legal yeshiva in the history of the Soviet Union.  It was necessary that at least one of the four projected faculty would have academic credentials in addition to the ability to teach in a yeshiva, and Berger was recruited for this position. For 7 weeks, he taught his Russian students and in some instances the community at large Bible, Talmud, Jewish history, Pirkei Avot, Torah reading, and Jewish thought, including Maimonides’ twelfth-century Iggeret Teiman, a letter of consolation addressed to the persecuted Yemenite Jewish community.  “No one can say that this is not a Torah text in the broad sense, but it is not even on  anyone’s radar screen in the yeshiva world,” said Berger, who was moved by the experience of teaching the letter, over 700 years after its composition, to another beleaguered Jewish community just beginning to reclaim its heritage. “Teaching it was a challenge primarily because it was next to impossible to suppress tears.”

Finally, Berger touched on the tricky question of whether and how to apply knowledge garnered through academic study to halakhah (Jewish law).  “Say you are convinced that the Ethiopian Jews are not descended from the [biblical] Tribe of Dan,” said Berger as an example. “That has serious halakhic implications. Rav Ovadia Yosef’s basis for saying they do not need conversion is based on a position that an academician would not accept. So the question is whether the halakhic process is independent of such knowledge.”

Several students—from Revel and elsewhere—attended the Yom Iyun and expressed appreciation for the opportunity to hear Revel faculty members’ views on how academic Jewish knowledge is vital to the Jewish community.  “I enjoyed the unique opportunity to hear Revel professors not only lecture on areas of their expertise in a non-classroom setting,” said Emily Belfer, who earned her Revel MA in 2011, “but also to hear them speak about why they value the academic study of Jewish texts and history among educated laypeople.”

Ira Tick (University of Wisconsin ’11), who is now seriously considering applying to Revel’s MA program, was similarly impressed. “Listening to Professor Cohen and Dean Berger reflect on the impact of their research on their understanding of Torah and Jewish life and the importance of a ’broad curriculum’ in the education of the faithful, I felt a profound sense of homecoming,” said Tick.  “…The representatives of the Bernard Revel School explained the meaning of their life’s work, bridging the gap between the cloisters of the academy and the reality outside of them. They echoed my own hopes to contribute not only to my own knowledge and to the world of Jewish scholarship, but also to the understanding and appreciation of my fellow Jews and the rest of humanity.”

Article by Yaelle Frohlich; photos by Judah Harris



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