Chicago continues long-lived exchange with Israeli scholarsBy Seth Sanders
It was to be an institution of pure research without any particular orientation, in which scholars of all tendencies would rethink all aspects of this field and cooperate with one another in the spirit of such a task.” To those familiar with this University’s heritage, this may bring to mind only one American university. But the Israeli scholar Gershom Scholem actually wrote these lines about the founding of Hebrew University. And it is in the conviction that pure research can help build democracy and revitalize society—by highly independent scholars whose work straddles disciplines and forges new ones—that Chicago is tied in an intricate web of connections with scholarship in Israel.
This year, the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Hebrew and General Literature was awarded to Menachem Brinker, the Henry Crown Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and the College and an emeritus professor at Hebrew University. Soon afterward, a prestigious academic rival of Hebrew University, the University of Haifa, appointed its new president, current Rector Aaron Ben-Zeev, who traces not only his doctorate but also his intellectual roots to Chicago’s Department of Philosophy.
From Jewish visionary Martin Buber’s 1951 conversation with the prickly, Socratic Leo Strauss at the Hyde Park Hillel Center to Chicago economist Jacob Frankel’s turnaround of the Israeli economy in the 1990s, Chicago has long held a vigorous scholarly exchange with Israel. While the topics have ranged from modernity and God to monetary policy, they have shared an ambition to change the world or the way it is viewed.
The connection, argued Paul Mendes-Flohr, Professor in the Divinity School, is both spiritual and genetic. Mendes-Flohr, who brought his students from Hebrew University when he arrived here to teach Jewish thought, described “a shared conception of the Humanities’ role in society.”
Hebrew University was largely founded by German Jews and rose on the same tide of brilliant refugees who brought vitality to Chicago in such diverse areas as Assyriology and Social Thought. Many of those figures, Mendes-Flohr noted—such as Nathan Rotenstreich (1913-1993), a devotee of John Dewey and Robert Maynard Hutchins, and a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University—helped form that institution’s educational philosophy.
“Rotenstreich,” said Mendes-Flohr, “was thinking of issues in similar fashion: What is the relationship of a pure research university to larger society? Hebrew University wanted to take a special place in culture, society and nation-building just as Chicago had.”
Chicago’s depth in a range of specialized disciplines made it the training ground for a number of Hebrew University’s most renowned departments, from economics to education to Assyriology. But its impact in Israel has been broader.
From his office in the seaport town of Haifa, University of Haifa president-designate Aaron Ben-Zeev (Ph.D.,’81) recalled that it was “the profound seriousness of the research and the emphasis on interdisciplinary perspectives,” which affected him most about his training at Chicago.
Ben-Zeev has published recent books on the problems inherent in the notion of romantic love as well as the power and danger of emotion on the Internet. “My dissertation work on the nature of the emotions naturally connected to psychology, history and cognitive science: an interdisciplinary perspective was essential. And as president, I want to encourage this perspective at Haifa. We lose a lot by not knowing what other people are doing, and future scientific insights will be generated by interdisciplinary research.”
Ben-Zeev connects this with another Chicago value: study for its own sake. “We received many reading assignments which may not have been directly relevant to the course but gave me a broader outlook—and which became extremely helpful when it came to the dissertation. You learn, in Aristotle’s terms, for the sake of learning, not for the sake of grades and degrees—those are welcome, but the study itself comes before external goals. This, I believe, can improve all of us.”
If Israel has listened attentively to Chicago, the dialogue has hardly been one-sided. In an airy café on Jerusalem’s bustling Emek Refaim Street, Brinker discussed the work that brought him to Chicago in 1995 and won him the Israel Prize this year. The prize, which covers a vast range of human endeavors from social work to music, combines features of the MacArthur, the Nobel and the Pulitzer, and was awarded to Brinker for his work spanning Hebrew, French and English literature, as well as literary and philosophical theory.
“I’m interested in the issue of the nature of the interpreter; is he an agent of eternal reason, so all valid interpreters must have the same interpretation, or is he a historical being himself? If so, in what ways can a work of literature be ‘true’?”
Brinker exemplifies how intellectuals in Israel have felt an urgent need to uncover truth and present it to those in power. After Israel’s military victories in 1968, “the greatest writers, poets and critics participated in a dialogue about how best to take advantage of these gains. We wanted to respond to them, so we wrote a manifesto, the Movement for Peace and Security (hatenua le shalom vebitachon).
“The manifesto was published in 1969 in The New York Times and Time and created a fuss. There were members of every Zionist political party except the ultra right. We got invitations to schools, army camps and started preaching; from that time on the debate is still going. De facto we won because now even the (right-wing) Likud admits a Palestinian state should exist and Israel cannot occupy all territories. But we were severely criticized at the time. Someone asked my mom how much money I got from the PLO when they saw her at the supermarket. We formed a political party, which at its peak, had 12 delegates when Rabin won in ’92, so ultimately we were quite successful—but this was after a long time building a wider and wider coalition.”
In the quiet, modernist halls of Jerusalem’s Van Leer research institute, Josef Stern, Professor in Philosophy and the College, and a scholar of Maimonides and the philosophy of language, noted the breadth of inspiration Chicago has provided Israel. He mentioned the founder of Hebrew University’s education department, Seymour Fox, and the spearhead of contemporary Israeli analytic philosophy, Yehoshua Bar-Hillel. Since the early days, explained Stern, intellectuals in Israel have been strongly associated with the left. But in recent years, students of Leo Strauss, one of the most searching critics of the left’s vision of progress, have provided an alternative political voice.
Strauss’ collaboration with the Hebrew University professor Shlomo Pines, one of the two or three greatest historians of medieval Arabic and Jewish philosophy during the last century, resulted in the University of Chicago Press’ monumental translation of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed and represents an enduring physical icon of the cross-fertilization of linguistic skill with philosophical questions. Strauss, who was offered Buber’s position in social philosophy when Buber retired from Hebrew University in 1949, but who chose to stay in Chicago, remains a significant figure in Israel. Through Strauss’ direct and indirect influence, Chicago is, together with the Hebrew University, one of the two greatest centers in the world today of Maimonides studies, with faculty like Stern; Joel Kraemer, the John Henry Barrows Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School, who came to Chicago after teaching many years at Tel Aviv University; Ralph Lerner, the Benjamin Franklin Professor in the College; and most recently James Robinson, Associate Professor in the Divinity School.
Chicago scholars have been active on all sides of political debate in Israel. Daniel Doneson, a graduate student in Social Thought who now is a coordinator at the conservative-leaning Shalem Center in Jerusalem, explained the center’s role in translating classical, political and economic works into Hebrew, such as those of the libertarian economist Friedrich von Hayek, whose thought provides a striking challenge to Israel’s socialist legacy.
In inviting such scholars as Leon Kass, the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College, to sit on its board, the Shalem Center has broadened its range of discourse and plans to continue this mission of challenging and deepening Israel’s intellectual life in a style familiar in Hyde Park.
A Visiting Professor at Chicago for many years, S.N. Eisenstadt, widely considered Israel’s most eminent sociologist, reminisced in his library in Jerusalem’s tree-lined Rehavia neighborhood about the time he spent in the Committee on Social Thought. At one meeting, Allan Bloom began speaking French to stress his cosmopolitanism. In response, Saul Bellow turned to Eisenstadt, and they held a conversation in Yiddish.
Eisenstadt recalled a deep and long-running friendship with Chicago’s most eminent sociologist of the time, Edward Shils, as well as friends who held appointments at both Chicago and Hebrew University, such as Joseph Ben-David, a scholar of education.
Perhaps it is in a view of what education should be that Chicago holds its clearest and most important connections with Israel. Ariela Finkelstein, Senior Lecturer in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and the College, is a graduate student of Brinker, holds a B.A. from Hebrew University and an M.A. from Chicago, and teaches Hebrew at Chicago.
Every year, she attends a workshop at Hebrew University on the teaching of Hebrew and has imported the philosophy of “teaching Hebrew in Hebrew here at Chicago.” When she arrived in Chicago 16 years ago, Hebrew was taught informally, when the demand arose. Since then and with the help of Philip Gossett, the Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor in Music and the College, and other faculty members, as well as the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, she has built a full-blown program with four to five levels of instruction. Every year, Finkelstein sends to Jerusalem a few students for in-depth study of Hebrew and Jewish thought.
The one remaining project for Finkelstein is a regular exchange program for students. Such a program was planned, and was supported by Brinker and Mendes-Flohr as well as John Boyer, Dean of the College, before the second Intifada began. “It would have been professors from here visiting there, classes in archaeology, history, meeting Israeli authors, with classes from Hebrew University professors. Students still keep asking about study abroad in Israel,” Finkelstein noted.
Divinity School student Spencer Dew, who witnessed a bombing in Israel, is vocal about wanting to return. This may be an effect of improved security, but may just as well spring from a desire for an intellectual reunion in a relationship that arose before the founding of the state of Israel, and which gives every indication of enduring.