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

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.

Read more at Harvard Divinity Bulletin

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

Hamas Wants a Renewed Ceasefire, but Doesn’t Understand Israel’s Changed Attitude

Yohanan Tzoreff, writing yesterday, believes that Hamas still wishes to return to the truce that it ended Friday morning with renewed rocket attacks on Israel, but hopes it can do so on better terms—raising the price, so to speak, of each hostage released. Examining recent statements from the terrorist group’s leaders, he tries to make sense of what it is thinking:

These [Hamas] senior officials do not reflect any awareness of the changed attitude in Israel toward Hamas following the October 7 massacre carried out by the organization in the western Negev communities. They continue to estimate that as before, Israel will be willing to pay high prices for its people and that time is working in their favor. In their opinion, Israel’s interest in the release of its people, the pressure of the hostages’ families, and the public’s broad support for these families will ultimately be decisive in favor of a deal that will meet the new conditions set by Hamas.

In other words, the culture of summud (steadfastness), still guides Hamas. Its [rhetoric] does not show at all that it has internalized or recognized the change in the attitude of the Israeli public toward it—which makes it clear that Israel still has a lot of work to do.

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli Security