Dr. Michael Meyer presents Cincinnati Graduation Address

Tuesday, June 1, 1999

Rationality and Immorality -- Scholarship and Sin

Dr. Michael A. Meyer

Graduation Address
June 2, 1999
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati

Reflecting upon the entire course of Jewish history, the great nineteenth-century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz once defined Diaspora Jewish history as composed of two strands: Leidensgeschichte and Geistesgeschichte, a history of suffering and a history of intellectual creativity. "Inquiring and wandering, thinking and enduring, studying and suffering" -- these, Graetz told his readers, represent the Jewish experience. Although perhaps oversimplified and incomplete, Graetz's bifurcation, as he himself could not have known, proved remarkably indicative for the future.

On this happy occasion, when a Jewish institution grants earned degrees to students who are mostly Christian and an honorary degree to a Professor of Theology at a Christian University, when we extend the honorary doctorate, as well, to men who have studied the Holocaust and to men who have lived through it, it seems appropriate to elaborate upon Graetz's two categories as they intertwined in his time and into our own.

Though prophecy and priesthood, not intellectual inquiry, characterize the first stages of the Jewish people's history, by the time of the early Rabbis, the Tannaim, study of the Torah, along with prayer, had become the channel for drawing near to God. Consistently thereafter, wherever Jews dwelled -- even in historical contexts that did not encourage intellectual activity -- Jews educated their children, or at least the males among them, and venerated their scholars. Learning, not charisma, became the prerequisite for leadership.

In the premodern world such learning could be undistanced and uncritical. The object of study was God's word delivered through an inerrant chain of tradition, the shalshelet hakabalah. But as Jews in the early nineteenth century encountered modernity in the form of the German university, they found that their Jewish learning (lernen, as it was called) was challenged by a very different relationship to the texts of tradition which the Germans called Wissenschaft. Unlike lernen, this distinctly modern form of scholarship did not set itself the task of elucidating texts from within, writing commentaries, and applying old words to new situations. It sought to place text in context, secularizing and relativizing what had earlier been regarded as sacrosanct.

This new perspective did not, however, diminish Jewish devotion to intellectual endeavor. A new generation of university-trained Jewish scholars in Germany set about bringing critical scholarship within the perimeters of Jewish life. They created the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the scholarly study of Jews and Judaism, and dedicated themselves to it with religious fervor. Flush with the first signs of political emancipation, they hoped that Judaism too would emerge emancipated, liberated from the relative isolation of the spiritual ghetto in which it had dwelt for centuries. Reason, applied to literature as to politics, would create a realm of discourse open to all regardless of religious or ethnic background. Their dream was that even as they themselves had entered the universities, Judaism too would gain entry, that it would become part of a curriculum open to Jew and Gentile alike. Rescued from the stagnant world of the traditional yeshiva, Jewish studies would find its place in the sanctum sanctorum of German intellectual life. And its teachers would be Jews, who had absorbed Judaism from their youth but had learned to view it through the lens of Wissenschaft.

This dream would not be fulfilled in Germany during the entire course of the nineteenth century. To be sure, here and there Judaism was taught, but by men whose purpose was to denigrate it or who combined teaching Judaism with active proselytizing of Jews for Christianity. No German university wanted to have a Jewish theological faculty, even one financed by Jewish donations. When the greatest nineteenth-century Jewish scholar, Leopold Zunz, asked for a position at the University of Berlin during the seemingly more tolerant revolutionary year of 1848, university authorities responded that such a position might indirectly serve to sustain Jewish identity in Germany, and hence it represented a misuse of the university. Like other Jews who aspired to teach Judaism in a German university, Zunz was forced to remain a Privatgelehrter, a scholar on his own.

During the Weimar years matters seemed to improve. Sympathetic study of Judaism now entered a few German universities. Martin Buber taught at the new University in Frankfurt, as did Nahum Glatzer. There was even the occasional German intellectual, like the noted Bible scholar and editor of the Zeitschrift fer die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft Hugo Gressmann, who believed that practicing Jews were in a favored position to teach Christians about Judaism. It became possible for German Jews to believe that, at last, the Diaspora history of suffering on account of their being Jews was coming to a close and their ongoing commitment to intellectual enterprise would find a home, together with the efforts of non-Jews, within the religiously neutral domain of the university. The common commitment to reason and to scholarship, at last triumphant, would banish grief from Jewish history.

But the spirit of tolerance did not prevail. It ran against the grain of a German public opinion laden with resentment during the financially troubled Weimar years. When Hitler gained power in 1933, Germany turned from reason and the political morality of democracy to emotion and the darker longings for vengeance and national glory. As it did, the universities turned from scholarship to its perversion.

The Nazis deeply distrusted the universities, with their commitment to freedom of research. "They do not want anyone to study; intellect, scholarship are the enemies," the Jewish academic Victor Klemperer wrote in his diary in 1934. The Reich Minister of Education spoke out vigorously against "insipid intellectualism" and stressed the importance of physical and character traits as opposed to "purely intellectual accomplishments." Two years later Klemperer wrote: "People treat reason as if it were the most minor and harmful aspect of a whole human being."

The Nazi authorities began to close some of the smaller institutions of higher learning. The remainder became extensions of the regime. As early as 1933, Jews were dismissed from teaching positions and quotas set for Jewish students. Two years later, the most prestigious German university, that in Berlin, would enroll only students holding Nazi party membership cards indicating they were among the first one million to join its ranks. Pushed out of the university, and increasingly also out of the elementary schools and gymnasia, Jews perforce expanded their own Jewish educational system for children and adults. Within this network the commitment to rationality and to untrammeled Wissenschaft flourished, as it no longer did in the German school and the German university. The German Enlightenment had expanded the Geistesgeschichte of the German Jews to embrace the literatures of modernity. They had taken over ideas from Lessing, Kant and Hegel, grafting them upon a trunk rooted in medieval Jewish philosophy. Ironically, this heritage of German Enlightenment and German liberalism now dwelt in the increasing isolation of a new ghetto, apart from the society that was in the process of ignoring or perverting it. And Jewish history was again becoming a Leidensgeschichte, a history of suffering.

What remained in the German universities was abject subservience to the political regime, perhaps one of the saddest chapters in the history of the modern intellect. Reason became rationalization. Professors signed loyalty oaths to the regime. They broke off ties with erstwhile Jewish colleagues. Klemperer, himself a dismissed professor in Dresden, was right on the mark when he called the intelligentsia and the scholars "prostitutes." The students, he wrote, have become "political soldiers."

And yet it was not enough to transform institutions of higher learning into claques for the regime and to banish Jewish instructors and students from their sacred halls. "Herr Professor" remained a prestigious title in Nazi times as before and Wissenschaft (unlike reason) was not a word the Nazis made fun of. Hence the elaborate plot to couple scholarship to the engine of racism. Judaism was not to be ignored and forgotten. On the contrary, its investigation became a favored enterprise. The Nazis created no less than five institutes for the study of Jews and Judaism. One of them, called "The Institute for the Study of the Jewish Influence on German Church Life," was headed by Professor Dr. Walter Grundmann of the University of Jena who, among other enterprises, was intent on showing that Jesus could not possibly have been a Jew. Another such institute issued a series of nine large volumes called Forschungen zur Judenfrage (Studies on the Jewish Question), which numbered 35 scholars among its contributors, most of them university professors. Among the participants in that project one name must especially stand out for students of the Hebrew Bible, as many of our graduate students at Hebrew Union College are. Gerhard Kittel, the son a great biblical scholar, Rudolf Kittel of "Kittel Bible" fame, was a professor of theology at the University of Tebingen. His contribution to the study of the Jewish question, as he himself put it, was to establish discussion of the Jewish question on "a religious foundation" and to give "the struggle against Jewry a Christian interpretation." In conquered lands too this pseudo-research had to be carried on. By government decree of November 6, 1942 a chair in Jewish history was established in Paris at the Sorbonne and entrusted to "the renowned historian and antisemite," Professor Henri Labroue.

Surely Nazi actions did not depend on the justification they received at the hands of university professors, but the political leadership welcomed the halo of Wissenschaft, the willingness of professors to drive rationality to immorality, to muster scholarship in support of sin.

In 1953, on the twentieth anniversary of the April 1st boycott of Jewish stores and businesses throughout Germany, Leo Baeck, the Liberal rabbi and steadfast leader of German Jewry during the dark Nazi years, gave a brief address at a meeting in London, where he had settled after the war. Among his words one sentence stands out: "Every decline," said Baeck, "begins with great cowardice, every ascent with great courage." Baeck and his associates did indeed muster abundant courage in their attempt to keep Jewish spirits alive, to carry on a Geistesgeschichte in an increasingly hostile environment. But it was insufficient to stand against a regime that had physical force, pervasive propaganda, and the legitimation of a perverted Wissenschaft to keep it in power. The decline became ever steeper.

Back in the more hospitable 1920s four young Jewish scholars had made their way from Cincinnati, Ohio to various German universities: to Berlin, to Heidelberg, to Jena. One of them, Walter Rothman, would return to become a librarian at this institution; another, Sheldon Blank, would teach Bible here; the third, Jacob Rader Marcus, would pioneer the field of American Jewish history and found the American Jewish Archives on this campus; the fourth, the biblical archaeologist Nelson Glueck, would become president of the Hebrew Union College.

When the institutions of higher Jewish learning ceased to exist in Europe, it became apparent to Glueck and to other members of this faculty -- some of them immigrants from Germany saved from death at the hands of the Nazis by Glueck's predecessor, Julian Morgenstern -- that advanced Jewish studies must find a home at the Hebrew Union College. It could no longer be a rabbinical seminary alone, as important as that function was and still is today. Its tasks had to be broader now: to take up and extend the heritage of a modern Jewish scholarship that had been defeated in its land of origin.

And so a half century and more ago we founded a Graduate School for Jewish Studies here in Cincinnati at the Hebrew Union College. In 1949 the Department of Education of the State of Ohio authorized that we grant the Doctor of Philosophy in Hebraic and Cognate Studies. The catalogue that year made the point explicitly: In the wake of the European catastrophe, "it has become the imperative duty of the Hebrew Union College to train competent and authoritative Jewish scholars." From the start, fellowships were available to non-Jews as to Jews. Jewish studies was not to be ghettoized as a province of Jews alone. The first Jewish candidates received their Ph.D.s in 1951, the first Christian two years later. By last year the Graduate School had given out about 140 earned doctorates, the majority of them to Christians. Of the Jewish holders of the HUC doctorate more than one-third had joined the faculty and about a dozen were teaching at American universities.

In America, then, we may hope that at long last the history of intellectual enterprise in the field of Judaism has disentangled itself from the history of Jewish suffering, and this institution is perhaps its best witness. Dedicated to an academic freedom that does not preclude religious and political commitments but never becomes subservient to them, dedicated to learning in the broadest sense, we may with justification and pride celebrate this occasion of giving honor to those whose lives and scholarly achievements bring honor also to us.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu