How Jewish Studies Came to Harvard, with Anti-Semitism Hovering Nearby

Dec. 14 2018

In 1670, a commencement speaker at Harvard College cited Maimonides’ halakhic code; in the next century, the school hired Judah Monis, a converted Jew, as its first full-time professor of Hebrew. It was not until 1912, however, that the university would hire a Jew to teach Jewish studies. Jon D. Levenson, in a brief history of Jewish studies at Harvard Divinity School, tells of these developments, focusing on “the most impressive scholar of Hebraica in the history of Harvard,” the historian of religion George Foot Moore, who taught at the university from 1902 to 1928. Moore learned Hebrew from his grandfather, a pastor, and served as a clergyman himself before coming to Harvard:

Serving a church in Zanesville, Ohio, [Moore] took up the study of rabbinic Hebrew with a local rabbi. . . . Moore pursued modern Hebrew at the same time, something that to this day cannot be said of most scholars of the Hebrew Bible. . . . [He later] became a leading figure in the scholarship of the Hebrew Bible, playing a major role in the importation of innovative German scholarship into the United States; his commentary on Judges (1895) is still considered a classic. But it is primarily in the realm of rabbinic Judaism that he left his mark. . . .

For our purposes, I would like to concentrate on “Christian Writers on Judaism,” a long essay that [Moore] published . . . in 1921. . . . The opening sentence tells it all: “Christian interest in Jewish literature has always been apologetic or polemic rather than historical.” . . . In the case of the revival of Christian study of Judaism in the 19th century, Moore writes, “the actuating motive was to find in it the milieu of early Christianity” and, more ominously, “to exhibit the system of Palestinian Jewish theology in the first three or four centuries of our era as the antithesis of Christian theology and religion as they were taught in certain contemporary German schools.” . . . And thus there emerged as well the charge of “legalism,” which according to Moore (writing, remember, in 1921) “for the last 50 years has become the very definition and the all-sufficient condemnation of Judaism.” Whereas before this, “concretely Jewish observances are censured or ridiculed, . . . ‘legalism’ as a system of religion, not to say as the essence of Judaism, no one seems to have discovered.”

Moore’s own motivation was different. As one scholar puts it, “Moore did not attempt to establish connections between Judaism and Christianity, but”—and this was really quite revolutionary for a Christian scholar—“to present a composite and constructive view of Judaism in its own terms.” Whatever it was that first impelled the young Moore to study with that rabbi in Zanesville, by the time he had become a mature scholar his research compelled him to recognize that the reflexive anti-Judaism of the Christian community was in urgent need of correction. . . .

Despite Moore’s seminal contributions, notes Levenson, “many eminent New Testament scholars . . . failed to understand the import of Moore’s work and continued to trade in the old prejudicial stereotypes, sometimes even citing Moore against what he was, in fact, saying. Decades after Moore, even after the Holocaust, the old biases were alive and well.” He adds:

To me, the pressing question is why. Why has the negative presentation of Judaism proven so powerful, so protean, and so tenacious? One reason, I think, is that it intersects with social prejudice—theological anti-Judaism drawing energy from, and imparting energy to, social anti-Semitism. But another reason is that the old pattern presents a simple but enormously powerful psychological drama—the innocent and peace-loving Jesus murdered by his godless, hypocritical, and legalistic kinsmen.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Christian Hebraists, Christianity, Harvard, History & Ideas, Jewish studies

The Riots on the Gaza Border are Carefully Coordinated Attacks on Israel, and Should Be Treated as Such

Jan. 16 2019

On Friday, the weekly riots at the Gaza security fence resumed in full force: 13,000 people participated, and a Palestinian woman was apparently killed by Israeli gunfire. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) had established a commission of inquiry in May, not long after these riots began, “to investigate all alleged violations and abuses of international humanitarian law and international human-rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, . . . particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military assaults on the large-scale civilian protests that began on March 20, 2018.” In a report to the commission, Richard Kemp, a retired senior British officer, concludes, after investigating the situation at the Gaza border, that there is no evidence whatsoever of Israeli wrongdoing, and that the commission is operating under faulty assumptions:

The terms of [the commission’s] mandate are self-evidently biased against the state of Israel and the IDF. The context cited—“the military assaults on the large-scale civilian protests”—make clear that the UNHRC either failed to understand what was happening on the ground or deliberately misrepresented the reality. In addition, the commission’s mandate terms the Gaza Strip “Occupied Palestinian Territories,” which it is not. . . .

[T]he so-called “civilian protests” in reality were, and continue to be, a deliberate military operation, orchestrated and controlled by Hamas, [a] terrorist group that has been waging an armed conflict against Israel for many years. Their intention was and remains to kill and wound IDF soldiers, to break through the border fence, to murder and maim innocent civilians, to destroy property, and to compel the IDF to take defensive action resulting in the death of Gaza civilians for exploitation in the international arena. [Israel’s] “military assaults” were not what was implied by this prejudicial mandate. They were in fact lawful, proportionate, and restrained defensive actions. . . .

Suggestions that these demonstrations are [protests] against Israeli policy toward the Gaza Strip are demonstrably false and easily refuted by cursory viewing of Hamas and other public statements made at the time of the events. . . . Further, it is clear that Hamas intended this violence to continue its long-standing strategy of creating and intensifying international outrage, vilification, isolation, and criminalization of the state of Israel and its officials. . . .

[T]he starkest indication that these events were entirely under Hamas control is the simple fact that, when it suited Hamas’s political interests, the [demonstrations] occurred and were of a violent nature, and when such actions did not serve Hamas’s interests, the border was quiet. As the most recent example of this, in November 2018, Qatar began to make large cash payments to Hamas in Gaza. The most recent payment of $15 million was handed over in December 2018. These payments are reportedly part of an agreement with Hamas to diminish violence along the Gaza border. [After] the first payment, the border violence [was] reduced [and the] demonstrations [became] far more restrained.

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More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, IDF, Israel & Zionism, Laws of war, UNHRC