In 2011, Gershon Hundert, Derek Penslar and David Novak were inducted into the Royal Society of Canada, the first Jewish studies professors to receive this honour. For many, including the honorees, the event highlighted the fact that the academic world has been paying more attention to Jewish scholars than the Jewish community itself.
The fact that Judaism can be studied at universities alongside all the great disciplines is an amazing development that our ancestors could never have imagined and one that eludes many Jewish communities in the Diaspora even today.
It is self-evident that research done by Jewish studies scholars has yielded great insight into our culture and has opened the doors of Jewish learning for people who would have never dared engage with it in more traditional forums, such as yeshivas and synagogues. At a time when many such forums struggle to appear more pluralistic in order to attract disaffected Jews, university departments of Jewish studies have long modelled true pluralism by simply providing a space where all are welcome to study without being judged.
Students find that the academic study of Judaism provides an exciting vantage point. They are delighted at their encounter with the totality of Jewish civilization, having grown up in institutions that could only provide limited vistas. When sources are studied without prejudice, new truths emerge about the great movements and figures of Jewish history. The broader historical and cultural contexts provided reveal how Judaism has always been in dialogue with the world, open to and affected by its surroundings, even as it maintained its unique character and made its own contributions.
Some feel that Judaism is in some way diminished by academic treatment, which demystifies it. But many more ask why they were not given the keys to its fascinating insights earlier. Jewish studies at universities also makes Jews and Judaism more accessible to non-Jews, who take these courses in notable numbers and learn to appreciate the Jewish experience. In this way, the academy fosters the type of mutual understanding that is so painfully absent in other realms of society.
For all these reasons, the Jewish community should support, nurture, and take advantage of departments and programs of Jewish studies. It should aim to have more elementary and high school Jewish studies teachers study Judaism in university, as well as encourage people to attend Jewish studies public lectures when they are offered, buy and read the books produced by scholars, invite more scholars to speak in synagogues, schools and community events, and write and read more articles about groundbreaking developments in the field of Jewish studies.
The community should strongly back Jewish studies programs and departments financially as well. These courses will never attract as many students as Economics 101 or Introduction to Psychology, so their position on campus is always fragile, especially in these times of unprecedented cutbacks and tight budgets. Visionary community support can ensure the field of Jewish studies remains on campus with exciting and broad course offerings, opening the widest possible doors to our timeless heritage.