Dr. Samuel Greengus, Director of the School of Graduate Studies at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati, was the speaker at Cincinnati Graduation Ceremonies at Isaac M. Wise Temple on Sunday, June 6, 2010. His address is below.
Higher Jewish Learning: A Personal Definition
Let me begin by offering congratulations to everyone who is being honored today and, with particular pleasure, to our graduates who are receiving their M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. I have had the opportunity to teach almost every one of you at some point in your studies. This adds personal joy as our school recognizes of your impressive accomplishments. This day also marks an historic occasion for me in my own academic career, since I will be retiring on June 30. Looking back at this point in time, after 46 years of teaching and service, I would like to share with you what HUC has meant to me by telling you about the special a place it has played in my life as a unique center of higher Jewish learning.
One could describe my own Jewish education as intensive. It began when I was very young. My Orthodox Jewish family placed strong emphasis on acquiring Hebraic and Judaic learning. My father taught me to read Hebrew even before I learned to read English. My textbook was his traditional prayer book that devoted its first pages to teaching the Hebrew consonants and vowels in various combinations. My mother instructed me in memorizing the morning prayers traditionally recited upon beginning the day’s activities. When I was five, my parents enrolled me in a Conservative Hebrew School and later in Hebrew High School. Overlapping with this formal program, I also received invaluable private tutoring in Hebrew Bible and commentaries from my uncle, who was an Orthodox rabbi and scholar. When I was eleven, I transferred from my public school to a local parochial school that enabled me to pursue additional years of study at the yeshiva. This yeshiva study continued throughout highschool and even beyond, well into my years of study at the university.
My Jewish education was not unique. It was actually a continuation of the classical Jewish curriculum created by the rabbis over fifteen hundred years ago. This curriculum is stated in the Mishna: (m. Aboth 5:24) Judah ben Tema said: “At five years of age, one begins the study of Scripture; at ten years, the study of Mishnah; at fifteen years, the study of Talmud.” When I came to teach at HUC, I felt instantly at home, because HUC, being a rabbinical school, maintains the essential elements of this classical Jewish curriculum. This curriculum is at the foundation of higher Jewish learning; and the College remains mindful of it even when making adjustments in order to accommodate the age of our students and the competing claims of their modern lives.
The classic Jewish curriculum resonates with me because it places strong emphasis on the reading of original and basic sources. As we study the ancient texts in our classrooms today, we too become disciples of the great teachers of the past.It is as if we are sitting in their very classrooms when we ponder the carefully chosen words preserved in their writings. This continuity creates feelings both of joy and authenticity.
When I look back on my own life and education, I can still vividly recall at the age of nine, the transformative experience of first studying the actual words and text of the Hebrew Bible. I already had completed several years of Hebrew school but the Bible was different; it was an eternal and foundational document. Even as a boy, studying the original text, I could begin to savor its style, syntax, vocabulary, and the expression of ideas and messages that had endured since time immemorial. And I, like students of past generations, had now been given the opportunity—and the challenge—of reading and understanding these same ancient words. For why else had they been so carefully written down and preserved? Was it not for me and for generations of students to follow?
The classical Jewish curriculum, while based upon the original sources,recognizes that there is also the need for interpretation. In this way, the study of Scripture generated the Mishna and Talmud; and these works in turn gave rise to codes, commentaries, and philosophical writings. This process of reading and interpretation is ongoing and eternal. For how else does an ancient text come alive for us today? As a young boy, when I began to study Rashi’s medieval commentary, I came to appreciate the exercise of interpretation and its relationship to sources. Rashi made a great impression on me because, in his exposition, he regularly reveals how his own interpretation must be built upon the precise wording of the text. Rashi often cites how rabbis who lived before him interpreted a biblical verse; but he could be critical about their use of the text. He makes a distinction between the plain sense of what is written—the peshat-- and interpretation that was inspired by the text in the mind of a reader—the derash or midrash.We must always remain mindful of this difference between the original text and interpretations derived from it. While we may be persuaded to embrace a particular interpretation, we must, at the same time, preserve our ability to access and examine the original sources. A favored interpretation may fall out of favor; but if the sources remain accessible, then they will be available to support a new examination by us or by another reader in the future.
Interpretation of sources has been serious business when it comes to religious texts. Wars have been fought and martyrs have been slaughtered over doctrines allegedly founded upon words in the texts of religious writings. By contrast, I find HUC to be wonderfully open-minded and intellectually honest. Here, there is readiness to consider the full range of how Jews interpreted Scripture and sacred doctrines over the centuries. There is no dogmatism, but rather implicit recognition that Judaism in its development has always contained many points of view; and that these views canat times be in conflict with one another. This was a very different approach from what I had been taught as a young person at the yeshiva; where conflicts in religious doctrine were often suppressed or condemned. I recall that at the yeshiva I was encouraged to read a respected work on personal piety called Mesillat Yesharim, written by a famous Italian rabbi, Moshe Chaim Luzzato. As it turned out, the best English translation and edition of this work had been prepared by Mordecai Kaplan. Because of its excellence, most students bought Kaplan’s edition. However, Rabbi Kaplan, who was the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, had also added his own introduction to Luzzato’s book. I recall how horrified I was when I saw that fellow yeshiva students were encouraged to buy Kaplan’s edition but then to rip out the introduction from the binding lest they encounter some comment that might bring them into conflict with Orthodox practices and tenets. This could never happen at the Hebrew Union College. HUC is committed to preserving an honest record; and appreciates the rich and multifaceted traditions emerging out of the many places in which Jews have lived over the centuries. Here, through our unique resources in faculty, library, archives, one can study the total history and development of Judaism from biblical to modern times. HUC teaches Reform Judaism; but the institution maintains a fundamental respect for all voices in Jewish thought and practice. Moreover, there are and have been members of the faculty and staff who are Reconstructionist, Conservative, or Orthodox Jews; I think that I am correct in stating that this kind of diversity makes HUC unique among Jewish seminaries.
There is another important reason that I have found HUC to be so special. It is an institution that accepts and engages with secular learning and scientific methodologies. For me personally, this quality made it possible to find a happy intellectual home at HUC and I have always been grateful for it. Before I came to teach at HUC, I had a well-developed, deep, and abiding love of classical Jewish studies. But my education was not limited to religious studies. I spent even more years of study in secular disciplines, culminating in eight years of graduate work at the University of Chicago in ancient Near Eastern culture and civilization. I loved and appreciated what I learned at the university as well; but I could not bring the two worlds of secular and religious learning together until I came to HUC. I must tell you that earlier, I had experienced troubling conflicts between the world of the yeshiva and the world of the university. Many of my teachers at the yeshiva were not pleased about my attending the university and exploring historical and humanities disciplines. And at times, some of my university professors would express the sentiment that religion was atavistic and could not contribute to any valid system of intellectual thought. Judaism, for them was merely a cultural or ethnic artifact. But I was not looking to abandon or demolish either domain, only to allow facts and observations to flow freely between the two realms. I did not like to place everything that I had learned into separate compartments.
Reform Judaism and HUC are ready to recognize the universality of knowledge, even if one has sometimes to struggle with the task of integration. At HUC-JIR, professors and students are able to confront challenges together in an honest and open fashion as we study the original sources, both sacred and secular. First we must read and understand what the writers said. Second, comes our efforts to interpret their ideas and to locate them in the larger intellectual context of their time and setting. And lastly, we need to ponder their place within the formation of our own religious thinking and identity as we seek to preserve the timeless and precious tenets of our ancient and sacred faith.
HUC has enabled me to bring together my two chief interests: the study of biblical and early Judaism with research into the civilizations of the ancient Near East, where the ancient Jews were living at the time when the Bible was written. I have been ableto do all of this in Cincinnati because here we are home to both a rabbinical school as well as to a School of Graduate Studies. Here in Cincinnati I have been associated with a Jewish seminary that aspires to educate at the same intellectual level as the best university. This has been immensely satisfying for me over the past 46 years.
There is one further dimension of higher Jewish education at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati that must be mentioned and for which I give thanks. Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College, during the past half-century, have been greatly enriched—and continue to be enriched—by the enrollment of highly qualified non-Jewish students in our School of Graduate Studies. They, like our Jewish students, see immense value in our approach: having respect and reverence for sacred tradition and original sources but also a willingness to explore secular context. The enrollment of non-Jewish students followed the academic accreditation of our graduate school in 1949; and their studies have been supported by generous donors, who have funded scholarships and fellowships for graduate students. Achieving a Ph.D. in our graduate school is a long process, even longer than the five years of our rabbinical program.
It has been my privilege to teach both our Jewish and our Christian students during my past 46 years of service. I have witnessed again and again the powerful benefits of our open and shared academic enterprise. Rabbinical and Graduate School students—Jewish and Christian— study the same texts together, side by side, in an atmosphere of mutual regard and respect; and these purposefully written and carefully preserved writings--these texts sacred or secular—manage to speak to each student in an individual voice. It is as if we are listening to a symphony together; we sit side by side and hear the same notes. The impact is similar enough for us to discuss and share understandings; yet it is also personal for every individual listener. Both Christian and Jewish students are inspired, uplifted, and gratified by what has been shared in the classrooms of our school. And when graduation comes, every graduate will leave not only feeling empowered to teach others but also able to proudly bear witness to the enduring value of having been part of HUC’s unique and treasured fellowship of learning.
For all of the reasons that I have stated—devotion and reverence for traditional Jewish learning; willingness to engage with secular learning and scientific methodologies; and a rare community of scholarly professors and students. For all of these reasons, HUC has earned its position as an exemplary center of higher Jewish learning. You, our graduates, are now well equipped to continue in the pursuit of higher Jewish learning. You have both the foundation and the tools for your own further study--and for teaching others. I am confident that you will make good use of these precious gifts as you go forward.
I hope and sincerely pray that our Hebrew Union College will have the will and the means to maintain what has been achieved here in Cincinnati, so that this source of living waters will continue to flow and bring us its blessings. Let us never abandon our reverence for the tradition that has sustained our people and still inspires us, along with so many others who come to study the writings of our heritage. Let us keep our minds and hearts open to new facts and approaches that help us to understand human history and the world, which we inhabit. For there is yet so much more to learn and investigate; and we have only begun to climb the great mountain towards mastering the known and exploring the unknown. Let us never abandon the task; it will ultimately enable us to unite all of the sacred with all of the secular. Let us then be spurred on by the ancient words of Rabbi Tarfon (m. Avot 2:21) who in reference to the study of Torah declared: “You are not called upon to complete the task; but you are also not free to evade it; if you have studied much Torah, much reward will be given to you; and the Master who has assigned you this task can be relied upon ultimately to validate this work in which you are engaged.” And so may it be.