LOS ANGELES, Sept. 6 (JTA) — The Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA has received one of academe’s highest recognitions, a $500,000 challenge grant for the study of Jewish civilization from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The NEH grant is the only one awarded this year for Jewish studies, the only one for UCLA and one of only seven awarded to American universities.
A rigorous evaluation by leading scholars found that the 7-year-old center’s “new emphasis on Jewish civilization will be comprehensive, of high quality, and significant to the humanities,” NEH Chairman William R. Ferris wrote to Dr. Kenneth Reinhard, director of the UCLA center.
The grant carries with it both considerable responsibilities and benefits for the broader Jewish community. The challenge grant calls for the center to raise $2 million in private donations over the next four years to reach the goal of a $2.5 million endowment.
Foremost among the benefits is a series of lectures, symposia and conferences, most open to the public, that will bring some of the keenest minds in the field — mostly Jewish, but also Christian and Muslim — to UCLA’s campus.
At the heart of the UCLA center’s planning is the relatively new academic concept of Jewish Civilization as the focus of its studies and research.
“We hope to study that which is both singular and universal in Jewish civilization, and its constant interaction — in harmony or in conflict — with the world’s other cultures,” Reinhard said. “Wherever Jews live, they have transformed the host civilization and been transformed by it.”
From that perspective, Jewish civilization goes well beyond religious or linguistic dimensions and becomes of universal, not just Jewish, interest.
A corollary to this approach is that Judaism and Jewish life have impacted most areas of human thought and activities, be they cultural, religious, philosophical, literary, social or political.
A curtain raiser to a three-year program of intensive intellectual examination of the field will be an international conference on “Jewish Civilization and its Discontents,” with presentations by some 18 scholars, held Nov. 3-5 at UCLA.
The conference derives its title and theme from two landmark books on Jewish thought, “Judaism as a Civilization” by the founder of Reconstuctionist Judaism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and “Civilization and its Discontents” by Sigmund Freud.
The two books, published within four years of each other in the early 1930s when fascism was on the ascent, examine the brighter and darker aspects of society.
Kaplan, father of the Reconstructionist movement, saw Jewish religion and history as a positive evolutionary process that would bridge the boundaries separating religion from society, community and culture.
Freud, on the other hand, looked at what he considered the darker side of religious Judaism and the often tragic consequences of Jewry’s interaction with other civilizations.
Also set is a public forum on “The Legacy of the Ten Commandments: Ancient Text and Modern Contexts.”
In each of 11 weekly sessions, starting Oct. 4, a rabbi or Christian minister will be paired with an authority on law, religion, philosophy or literature to explore a specific commandment.
For instance, in examining the prohibition against stealing, a legal expert on intellectual property rights might address issues raised by new media technologies and the Internet.
The Ten Commandments are “neither obvious nor irrelevant,” Reinhard said. “To either intone the commandments as universal principles for living or reject them as an emblem of trite moral sententiousness is to miss the very real challenge they present us with today.
“It is our hope to win back the Ten Commandments from their banalization by both the right and left in this country,” he said.
In dealing with UCLA students or interested laymen, Reinhard’s goal is to “integrate the study of Judaism into what it means to be a knowledgeable person.”
In present-day America, “Judaism is only vaguely understood by both Jews and Christians,” Reinhard maintained.
Some view Judaism as the poor elder brother of Christianity, while others find appeal in a vacuous “Seinfeld Judaism,” he added.
Although few professors enjoy asking for financial support, Reinhard is undaunted by the challenge of raising $2 million.
Since the recent announcement of the NEH grant, he has come up with $160,000, and has set a goal of $650,000 for next year.
“I am hitting the pavement and going after both the big money, through wealthy individuals and family foundations, and little money from people of average means,” Reinhard says.
Those interested in the center’s programs can phone (310) 825-5387, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or access the Web site at www.humnet.ucla.edu/cjs.