To Get the Better of Words:
An Apology for Yir'at Shamayim in Academic Jewish Studies

How can secular studies contribute to a Jewish education? What role should academic Jewish studies have within that broader education? What are the specific pitfalls to be found in the approaches to traditional texts common to the university setting? How do we generate, and need we justify, a study that emphasizes religious and theological issues of existential importance to our students?

This article both advocates in favor of studying a broad range of secular literature and cautions about certain trends in academic Jewish studies. In terms of the former, Rabbi Carmy emphasizes the significance of human inwardness for the religious Jew and argues that exposure to Western literature provides resources for understanding the human personality. Additionally, he points out the importance of thinking carefully about our use of language and that even the "Torah only" approach faces the danger of incorporating problematic assumptions by not doing so.

Rabbi Carmy does not reject the work of academic Jewish studies as he points out that all tools that help grant us a more accurate and correct reading of our traditional texts are worthwhile. At the same time, he cautions against academic tendencies to play with heretical ideas, mistake minor achievements for the real goal, and to erroneously identify creativity with discovering an idea never said before. Most importantly, he contends that thinking about yir’at shamayim ("that entire spectrum of religious experience that comes under the aspect of inwardness") and theological questions in what we learn is not an academic specialty limited to theologians but is rather the responsibility of all religious Jews.

Click here to read the essay (PDF 2MB).

Torah U-Madda Journal 2 (1990): 7-24. (© RIETS)

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