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Universities and the Jews: It’s a More Important Mixture Than You Might Think

March 15, 2012 By:
Yoram Hazony
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Most people don’t think the fate of Judaism will be decided in the universities. When people talk about “the fate of Judaism,” they usually think about the survival of Israel or about Jewish education at the elementary or high school level.

But the universities are more important than we think — so important that they may be where the fate of Judaism in our time is ultimately decided.
To understand why, consider two facts. First, there’s no institution in the world so associated with the discovery and dissemination of truth. For most educated people, what counts as the truth — what is considered debatable, legitimate opinion and what is out of bounds — is worked out at the universities.
And universities arbitrate legitimacy in countless disciplines. What historians, philosophers, political theorists, scholars of religion and law professors see as acceptable opinion on whether it’s worth reading the Bible, or the legitimacy of the state of Israel, or whether something is or is not a universal human right will be in children’s schoolbooks and the media tomorrow.
Most professors try to include a range of opinions in their courses and care about helping students learn to think independently. The problem isn’t the professors. It’s human nature. The reason we so value “out-of-the-box” thinking is because most of the time we think in the box, even at universities, where a free exchange of ideas is heartily encouraged.
That brings us to our second fact: There are probably half a million Jewish students in universities at any given moment. Anyone who will go on to be an important Jewish leader — in government, business, education, art, science, even the rabbinate — will spend years in this environment. This makes the university not only the most important arena for educating Jews and acculturating them into adult society — but also the single most important institution in the Jewish educational system.
Given the university’s importance and ubiquity in Jewish life, we give little thought to the construction of this formative intellectual experience. I don’t mean that no Jews are thinking about the universities at all.
Birthright Israel, the proliferation of kosher kitchens, Hillels and Chabad houses, and, of course, Jewish studies programs — all these indicate growing concern over “what’s happening on campuses.” When done right, they each contribute something significant by opening the university to Jewish experiences of different kinds.
These efforts are primarily about cultivating certain feelings —the sense of homecoming evoked on a first trip to Israel or that extraordinary moment on Friday night at Hillel when one of the kids says kiddush. The university, however, operates on a completely different playing field. Its ability to set the bounds of legitimate opinion on just about any subject grows out of the presumption that what professors do better than anyone else is get the truth straight.
So, the great work these Jewish programs do remains on the sidelines of the central issue — whether the universities, which are modern society’s engines for the discovery of truth, can accommodate the ideas and texts of Judaism as a legitimate source for potentially true ideas and principles.
What would it be like to get serious about the standing of Judaism at the universities? For starters, it would mean asking questions like: Who created the modern university and why? What are the main academic disciplines that affect the ideas taught at universities? Which disciplines most deeply influence how we think about the Hebrew Bible, Judaism, ethics, the Jewish role in the story of the West and Israel? What’s the range of academically legitimate opinion in these areas and does it make sense? 
To cut to the chase: Is a university or college education, as currently constituted, really something appropriate for educating Jews? Or, for that matter, for educating non-Jews on subjects touching on Judaism? And if not, what could be done about it?
Yoram Hazony is founder and provost of the Shalem Center, an academic research institute in Jerusalem. His blog is “Jerusalem Letters,” where a longer version of this piece first appeared. Hazony will speak on Sunday, March 18, at the Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station. The 8 p.m. lecture is free and open to the public.

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