Jewish Studies Sans Religion?


The latest skirmish in the halls of Jewish academia has, surprisingly, nothing to do with Israel. But the new discord over academic grants made by the Posen Foundation concerns a charged topic just the same — the growing trend of teaching about Jewish culture through an exclusively secular lens.

Six years ago, the British energy magnate Felix Posen created a foundation to fund, at universities worldwide, courses that focused solely on secular Jewish culture. The mission of the Posen Foundation was to engage secular Jews, who represent about half of the Jewish population, by explicitly teaching about the 400-year history of the Jewish people’s entry into the modern world — which is to say, their history.

The academy, Posen felt, was ignoring that history.

This fall, the foundation added four new American universities to its roster, including The New School in New York and one prominent Jewish school, Brandeis University.

But as the foundation’s reach grows — it will award grants to about 25 American universities this year, up from five in 2003 — also likely to grow is the debate about the foundation’s mission, its potential for skewing the teaching of Jewish studies and whether Jewish studies departments should even take grants with such ideological strings attached.

Teaching secular Jewish culture without a strong emphasis on the religious tradition, is “an incorrect way to categorize Jewish phenomenon,” said Lawrence Schiffman, chair of New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. “We have declined to participate in [the Posen Foundation] and oppose its participation elsewhere at NYU.”

Schiffman’s comments underscore a growing tension within the academy about how to teach contemporary Judaism in light of the fact that so few Jewish students, and Jews at large, consider themselves religious. The debate is in part about whether secular Jewish culture is distinct from the long religious tradition that precedes it.

And it is also about the extent to which donors can influence academic curriculum, highlighting the pressure academic departments feel to compromise their principles during a worsening economy.

Critics see the Posen Foundation as an ideologically driven organization that threatens the independence of the academy by mandating what gets taught in classrooms. And while the foundation has an independent academic advisory committee that administers the grants, criticism persists. Earlier this year, a Jewish studies professor, using a nom de plume, published an angry essay on a prominent history Web site run by academics, the History News Network.

“The money comes with ideological strings attached,” the professor, who is Orthodox, wrote. “Call me old-fashioned but academic integrity is seriously compromised when somebody with such an overt agenda starts throwing money around.” The author added: “I wouldn’t take money from Chabad/Lubavitch. Why should I take it from Posen?”

Jewish studies professors at two Ivy League schools, Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, essentially agree.

“Certainly, the Posen Foundation has a certain agenda,” professor Steven Fraade, chair of Yale’s Judaic studies department, told The Jewish Week. “They’re not interested in just studying a certain field, they’re advocating one. When [grants] gets mixed up with who gets hired or who gets taught, it seems to be directly counter to the academic mission.”

And Fraade added, “The premise that you can teach secular Jewish culture that somehow filters out religion … that seems to me to run against the grain of even a secular [academic] approach.”

The Penn Jewish studies department “took [Posen’s] proposal very seriously,” said Benjamin Nathans, who teaches modern European Jewish history. But it eventually rejected the money, Nathans said, because it would have “substantially altered our [course] offerings” and distorted the teaching of Jewish history.

Supporters say the Posen Foundation is hardly unique in its aims.

“Look, every foundation has an agenda and the Posen Foundation is no different,” said David Biale, a professor at the University of California-Davis, who heads the foundation’s advisory committee. “But the programs can vary widely within the parameters, and we encourage a wide range of creativity.”

The Posen Foundation began awarding grants to Israeli universities, but quickly spread its largesse across the Atlantic, attracting prestigious universities like Harvard and Brown. Institutions receiving grant money say the advisory committee maintains its integrity because of a peer review system, and that the parameters for a course’s curriculum, which must be approved annually, are sufficiently broad.

Still, many schools admit that financial pressures have forced them to reconsider their initial apprehension.

“The [Jewish studies] department was not going to accept the money if Posen dictated the curriculum,” said Eugene Sheppard, an associate professor at Brandeis who will teach a course funded by the foundation next spring. He said he and his colleagues looked at the sample curricula posted on the foundation’s Web site, but decided to build their own courses instead. “We didn’t take the recommendations so easily.”

Suggested core courses included “Secular Jewish Ideologies and Identities,” taught at Binghamton University, and “Secular Jews From Spinoza to Seinfeld,” offered at Dickinson College. But Sheppard designed his own course that will show how Jewish thinkers contributed to secularization within the broader Western world.

Titled “World Without God: Theories of Secularization,” the Brandeis course will give center stage to thinkers like Baruch Spinoza and Simone Weil, who were born Jews but did not consider themselves Jewish (Weil even converted to Catholicism). Sheppard said some might disagree with his choices, but he and others contended that the social experiences of these thinkers left an undeniable mark on their thought.

“I have no problem with Jewish converts,” said Antony Polonsky, another professor at Brandeis who is teaching the university’s first Posen-funded course this fall. Polonsky includes figures like Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler in his course, too. “The first four symphonies [by Mahler] are a search for a religious view,” he said, though that religious view was more pantheist than Jewish. “The marginal figures are really the most interesting,” he added.

Many schools receiving the grants admit that they applied for the grant, after considerable debate, because they needed the money.

“There was pretty healthy debate for a few years whether we should participate,” said Sheppard. But when the economy went south last year, he said, the university decided to apply. “It would be naïve to think that the economic motive was not central.”

The economic pressure is even more intense at smaller public universities like Hunter College, a CUNY school.

For the past three years, it has been receiving Posen grants, which can provide up to $50,000 a year. (This year, however, most U.S. grants were lowered to $35,000 because the foundation was hit hard by the Madoff scandal and the economic downturn, said Myrna Baron, executive director of the Center for Cultural Judaism, which helps administer the grants.) The money is enough to fund four additional courses, adding to the eight that already exist in Jewish-related subjects.

“I was a little apprehensive at first,” said Robert Seltzer, a professor at Hunter College who runs the Posen-funded courses. “But it worked out because it freed up other resources.” The grant money enabled the university to pay for the transportation costs of a professor who now teaches at Princeton. In addition, Seltzer said, “They didn’t in any way interfere with what goes on in the classroom.”

The New School, which is using the grant to fund adult education and continuing education courses, will create a new Jewish Cultural Studies program. It will double the courses offered in Jewish-related subjects, adding four to the existing two. But the separate degree in secular Jewish culture is distinct from a traditional Jewish studies degree, which almost always includes courses on the religious history of the Jews.

Carolyn Vellenga Berman, the chair of the humanities department who is also directing the new Jewish Cultural Studies program, said that the program did not diminish the importance of getting a broader Jewish education.

But it has raised eyebrows. “I’ve come across bewilderment. It’s hard for people to think about there being a secular Jewish program,” she said, since people wonder if teaching just one aspect of Jewish history — particularly one without religion — provides an accurate picture of the Jewish experience.

But she said that if students wanted a broader Jewish education, they could take undergraduate courses in Jewish history and religion, too. She added, “This is meant to be complementary, it’s not meant to replace those other programs.”

In an interview from London, Posen, who is 81, said that he recognized the importance of a broad-based Jewish education but felt it was more practical to fund a specific area of Jewish history he felt lacked attention. “Ideally, if I were the czar of Jewish education, I would start from where Jewish history started, which is religion,” he said. “But there’s not enough time to do everything.”

Biale, the chair of the foundation’s academic advisory committee, also acknowledged the importance of understanding the long history of the Jewish people before delving into the modern secular period. Though students who only take a secular Jewish studies course may have a distorted picture of what Jewish history is, Biale said it was practically impossible to require undergraduates to have taken courses in the broad history of the Jews beforehand.

While the foundation only gives grants to universities that already have a pre-existing Jewish studies program, it does not mandate students take an introductory course before enrolling in Posen-funded courses, leaving it up to the independent schools to determine the policy for enrollment.

“The reality is that [most] students will take only one or two courses in Jewish studies,” Biale said. “Which course are they going to take? A course on Maimonides or Spinoza? Really, it’s what fits into their schedule.”

Seltzer, who oversees the Posen grants at Hunter College, said that students with limited knowledge of Judaism might actually gain from taking a course on secular Jewish culture first.

“In a way it works the opposite way: you get them interested in the secular stuff and then they want to learn the other history,” Seltzer said. “This becomes an entry point for them to learn the tradition.”