A Room with a View, But a Room of Our Own:
On Academic Jewish Studies

What is the relationship between the Jewish studies taught at universities and the traditional learning done in the beit midrash? Should we encourage our students to take academic Jewish studies courses or to become academics in these fields? How can we best respond to the challenge of Bible criticism? Rabbi Carmy’s title conveys the essential argument of the article: We should acknowledge that the specialized knowledge of academics, in such fields as history, archeology, or philology, does indeed enhance our understanding of Torah. The Rishonim also availed themselves of whatever knowledge of this sort was available to them in order to arrive at a better peshat or understanding. In this sense, we want a "room with a view" that sees and learns from academic efforts.

Yet we also need a "room of our own" in the sense that several unbridgeable gaps exist between the world of the beit midrash and that of the university classroom. The most significant difference is in the realm of fundamental Jewish beliefs, such as Divine authorship of the Torah and the reliability of the rabbinic tradition. Furthermore, we experience Tanakh as part of a broader mansion of Torah where the academics tend to make sharp bifurcations. Our position would see the literature of halakhah and Jewish thought as helpful to the process of reading Tanakh even as we would avoid a total conflation of categories. To convey this relationship between different facets of Torah, Rabbi Carmy employs the image of a mansion in which separate rooms exist but each room offers a view into the other rooms. Additionally, the language of the academic world is often not just a neutral style but rather assumes attitudes and positions that are foreign to us.

In terms of the Bible criticism challenge, Rabbi Carmy warns about becoming too preoccupied with defending against it. The defensive posture will force our learning to become a constant parrying of attacks instead of the more constructive endeavor of working within our assumptions to interpret profoundly. In a reversal of standard assumptions, Rabbi Carmy argues that this more constructive posture will ultimately be a more powerful argument in favor of traditional beliefs and will convey strength more than weakness. He adds that solutions to problems raised by the critics are more likely to come from those learning in the beit midrash as even Orthodox academics are frequently trapped in the vocabulary and assumptions of their discipline.

Click here to read the essay (PDF 2.5MB).

Tradition 28:3 (1994): 39-69. (© Rabbinical Council of America, with permission.)

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