Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Effect of Jewish Studies on Judaism

A friend of mine sent me a link to this older article where the inimitable Jacob Neusner, who taught Jewish Studies for years at a secular university, discusses how Jewish Studies has tended to undercut Judaism.

One very important point he makes in the essay is this:
When believing and practicing Jews decide who will teach what to whom, they take for granted that some things are more important than others. They affirm the cogency of the subject and know how things fit together. The Judaic system governs the things that are learned. To teachers and students, the classical texts convey truth. What follows? The Talmud is more important than a cookbook. The Jewish sponsors of Jewish learning derive the scale of values from the received canon and tradition.

Universities, by contrast, have no stake in according to Scripture or Midrash and Talmud a superior position in the curriculum. Learning in every topic and discipline defines its own priorities, and reason is not governed by revelation. So the curriculum is a mishmash of this and that — discrete details of a main point that does not register. Anything that is Jewish is as worthy of study as anything else that is Jewish. At my own college, the history of the bagel and the status of women in Jewish law have served equally well as topics of graduation essays.
Substitute "Mormon" for "Jewish" and "General Conference" for the "Talmud" and you probably have an apt description of Mormon Studies.

Neusner's point, of course, is one of the frustrating things about studying ancient Egyptian religion. Any inscription or text is taken as equally important with any other inscription or text. No system governs what is learned or studied and we do not know how things fit together. What is valuable and what is not? How are we to know? I have made the argument that the things that the Egyptians endlessly repeated to the point that modern scholars see them as "banal" are probably the most important things. Without an ancient Egyptian informant, that is an educated guess. One has to wonder if all the outpouring of writings of Egyptian religion is as valid as the outpouring of writings in Mormon Studies.