Learning the nuances of Jewish studies

Learning the nuances of Jewish studies

Touro launches a Ph.D. program and names a Teaneck scholar to lead it

Rabbi Dr. Michael Shmidman
Rabbi Dr. Michael Shmidman

It’s not easy to start a doctoral program.

In fact, it’s hard to decide where to start; you need high-level faculty, genuine scholars who can both research and teach. You need high-level students, searchers and thinkers who have the intellectual rigor to pursue knowledge wherever it will take them. You need the funding to hire the teachers. You need the curriculum to attract the students. And you need accreditation if you are to be taken seriously enough to be able to draw those teachers and students.

You need an intellectual passion that brings students and teachers and administrators together. If that intellectual passion is joined by an emotional connection to the subject, you have a base to build on.

Touro College and University System is a relatively new institution, which has developed into a four-country network of 30 schools, enrolling more than 19,000 students since it was founded in 1970. Some of its schools are purely professional, while others relate more directly to the mission it embraced at its founding as a school that focused on higher education for Jewish students.

Touro is about to add another program. In September, it will launch its first doctoral program in the arts and sciences as it offers students the chance to earn a Ph.D. in Jewish studies.

The program has been created and will be led by Rabbi Dr. Michael Shmidman of Teaneck, dean of Touro’s Graduate School of Jewish Studies, who has been working on it for a decade.

“It is fitting that our first Ph.D. in the liberal arts should be in Jewish studies, because Jewish studies has been at the core of Touro’s mission from the beginning,” Dr. Shmidman said. “The program began in 1981, and we were chartered to offer a master’s degree in Jewish studies. I was brought in then to run this new program.” Dr. Shmidman’s own doctorate, in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, comes from Harvard. He also is an ordained Orthodox rabbi, and he led Teaneck’s Congregation Keter Torah for a few years, until the press of his academic obligations became so unremitting that he had to give it up.

Dr. Shmidman is proud of Touro’s master’s program. “It is highly respected in the field,” he said. “A number of years back, the Middle States evaluators called it a model of excellence. So it is a fitting culmination of all these years of masters’ courses that we have been given approval for a Ph.D. program.” It is, in fact, he added, “the realization of a dream.”

The new program’s faculty will include Dr. Shnayer Leiman, who has been named Distinguished Professor of Jewish History and Literature. Dr. Leiman is a professor emeritus of Jewish history and literature at Brooklyn College. His background includes a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and a teaching stint at Yale, among other prestigious universities. He also is an ordained rabbi — his smicha comes from the Mirrer Yeshiva — so, like Dr. Shmidman, he embodies a thorough and rigorous mixture of Orthodox and secular scholarship.

The new doctoral program’s faculty includes two other Teaneck residents — Maya Balakirsky Katz, a professor of art history who earned her doctorate at Bryn Mawr and focuses on the relationship between religious identity and the media, and Zvi Kaplan, a rabbi and professor of history who focuses on the Jews of Western Europe and whose doctorate is from Columbia. “These two are among a number of other distinguished scholars on the faculty,” Dr. Shmidman said.

Just as it is important to engage the right faculty members, it is important to enroll the right students. “We are recruiting students very selectively,” Dr. Shmidman said. “We expect to begin with just four or five; we already have several among the most outstanding of the masters’ program who are continuing with us.”

The program will focus on “modern Jewish studies,” he continued. “We define that as from the 16th century to the present, but there is a scholarly debate about how you define the 16th century, as late medieval or early modern. We’re defining it as early modern. But in a few years we hope to add more in medieval Jewish studies.

“The degree is in Jewish studies, not Jewish history,” he explained. “History is at the core of the curriculum, but we call it Jewish studies, not history, because we use an interdisciplinary approach. We are interested in intellectual history, cultural history. To understand all that, you have to integrate the disciplines and methodologies of literature, sociology, anthropology, and more; all of this is a part of what goes into the history of Jews and Judaism over the last millennium.”

Students will have to be “proficient in Hebrew; we also expect French and German proficiency, and whatever other languages are relevant to the particular student’s pursuits. It could be Arabic, if you are interested in the relationships between Jews and Muslims, or it could be Latin if your interest is in the relationship between the church and the Jewish community.

“Remember, if you want to understand medieval Jewish philosophy, you have to understand medieval Muslim philosophy,” he added; the cultures learned and took from each other with abandon.

Dr. Shmidman remembers his own education with joy; he is confident that Touro’s doctoral students will get the same excitement and feeling of connection with the past and the future that he got as he studied primary sources. “There is a satisfaction in better understanding who we are and where we came from and what we stand for,” he said. “That’s the Jewish intellectual tradition. How can we continue it? It’s exciting to try to place ourselves in some of these historical contexts.

“When I study the Rambam” — Dr. Shmidman has written about Maimonides and finds the 12th-century physician and philosopher a great source of inspiration — “it sometimes feels as if he is with me, helping me along. That is a special feeling that I try to convey to my own students, to help them experience the joy, the stimulation, the excitement of studying together with some of the major figures of Jewish history, of trying to recreate and be present at major events of Jewish history, and of trying to transmit the lessons of Jewish history to current and subsequent generations of students.”

Maimonides was not an ahistoric figure but lived in a very specific time and place, as do all the rest of us. There is much to be gained from learning how a genius dealt with real-world problems. “It is no accident that to this day, the Jews of Yemen have such respect for the Rambam,” Dr. Shmidman said. “That’s because of the letter he wrote to them in 1172, a letter that addressed two major crises going on at the time in the Jewish community.”

One was forced conversion, which drove the community to a state of fatalistic despair, and the other was a false messiah, who was giving them false hope. “The Rambam had to give them real hope,” Dr. Shmidman said. “That was a remarkable challenge, because he had to do two opposite things — give them hope in the face of despair, and not give them false hope.”

It is because the study of history allows us to study such nightmares and understand both why they unfolded and how their repercussions played out that history is so important, Dr. Shmidman suggested. “We can learn from it and enhance our own lives as Jews and as members of society,” he said. “The more we understand the Jewish intellectual and religious tradition, the more we can learn from it.”

He expects that the students who earn their Ph.D.s at Touro will go on to become Jewish communal leaders, as so many students who have earned masters’ degrees already have done.

Oh, and there’s one other thing, Dr. Shmidman said. He knows that many Jews are fascinated by history, although most of them are not prepared to commit themselves to a master’s degree program, much less a doctoral one, and by far most of them lack the credentials that acceptance to such a program would entail.

But they can audit! The master’s program holds a limited number of seats for “qualified auditors,” Dr. Shmidman said. “Some of them have been major assets to our program.” In fact, some “eventually matriculate as students. Even if you are older, why not try to maximize your intellectual creativity?”

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