Jewish Illiteracy in Academia – View from the Trenches

There’s an apocryphal story about Leyzer Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto – an artificial language created with the utopian aim of promoting global harmony through linguistic uniformity. As the story goes, Zamenhof gave the opening address at the first international conference of Esperanto speakers and, wishing to welcome his audience as warmly as possible, he gave the most universal greeting he could think of: “Vos makht a Yid?” As a Jew from Bialystok, Zamenhof spoke Yiddish and Hebrew (as well as German, French, Polish, and Belarusian); and mythical though the story may be, it illustrates how prior generations maintained both their Jewish heritage and cultural literacy. Even the original proponents of the Haskalah (“Enlightenment”) sought to work within a Jewish cultural framework while they discouraged ritual observance and clashed with the religious establishment.

Zamenhof’s story evokes a time when, regardless of observance level, a Jew’s worldview was shaped by knowledge of Tanakh, rabbinic literature, Hebrew language, and Jewish culture and history. And it remains relevant because it contrasts with the erosion of Jewish literacy among today’s secular and non-Orthodox Jews, communal establishment organizations, and lettered professionals, academics, and intellectuals.

As an adjunct professor of criminal justice at a local college (one of several hats I wear), I use text materials suggested or approved by my department, but they sometimes contain material troubling from a Jewish perspective. The authors all have advanced degrees and are experts in their fields; and those with Jewish names sometimes include Jewish reference points in their works. I often find the use of Judaic subject matter in this way perfunctory, however, illustrating that secular academic achievement does not correlate with Jewish literacy. In fact, religious or moral insights inserted into course materials often seem to track the secular ideologies prevalent on university campuses today, while references to traditional sources show limited understanding of sacred text.

This is especially apparent in books and class materials discussing the evolution of the criminal justice system from its roots in the concept of lex talionis to its modern emphasis on rehabilitation. One common thesis holds that criminal justice in its earliest form was primarily retributive (which it was), and by way of example equates the ancient Code of Hammurabi with the dictum of “an Eye for an Eye” from the Torah (Shemot 21:24-26). Despite the supposed similarities, however, there are fundamental differences between Babylonian law and the Torah; and relating the two suggests a lack of scriptural understanding.

Scholars concur that Hammurabi’s law was mechanically brutal – with offenders who caused loss of life or limb being subjected to the same harms inflicted upon their victims. Pursuant to that code, one who gouged out an eye had his own eye removed as punishment; and the Torah’s law regarding “eye for an eye” is often depicted as analogous in application. But the original language does not support such an interpretation. Rather, a review of the verse in Hebrew accentuates the great disparity between Torah law and Hammurabi.

In Hebrew, the Torah verse of “an eye for an eye” reads thus: “Ayin tachat ayin, regel tachat rahgel, sheyn tachat sheyn.” Though this verse is commonly translated into English as “eye for eye, foot for foot, tooth for tooth,” its meaning in the original language is quite different. Because the word “tachat” means “under,” “instead of,” or in “place of” depending on context, the verse actually refers to the value of an eye for the damage caused to an eye (or a foot, tooth, and so on). Accordingly, justice is served according to Torah law by compensating victims for the value of their injuries, not by maiming the perpetrators in kind; and this meaning is further reinforced by the Torah chapters that follow, which speak at greater length about the laws regarding restitution and compensation for physical and economic damages.

There is no doubt about the meaning of this verse because the same grammatical construction is used to similar effect elsewhere in the Torah; for example, during the binding of Yitzchak, when G-d instructed Avraham not to sacrifice the boy, whereupon Avraham offered a ram caught in a thicket “tachat b’no,” which means “instead of his son.” (Bereishit, 22:12-13.) Or earlier in Genesis when Kayin (Cain) killed Hevel (Abel), after which Chava (Eve) bore another son, Shet (Seth), prompting her to praise G-d for giving her “zerah acheir tachat Hevel,” or “other offspring in place of Hevel.” (Bereishit, 4:25.)

When I discuss this material in class, I use the common misunderstanding of the biblical verse as a springboard for a short Hebrew lesson illustrating the moral and ethical differences between the Torah and Hammurabi. This usually prompts some students to ask how other professors often seem to misunderstand the meaning of Hebrew scripture, and my answer is that having a PhD in one field does not make one an expert in all fields. Nevertheless, students tend to give professors with Jewish names credence whenever they incorporate scriptural concepts, assuming they know traditional Jewish source material simply because of their background.

Another subject I teach is legal and judicial ethics, and some of the text materials for that class discuss the influence of world religions on the evolution of the criminal justice system. In comparing the foundational literature of various world religions, one such text suggests that Jewish belief is based on the Torah, not the “Bible.” But this assertion is not correct. It would be more accurate to say that Jewish belief and practice are drawn from the Tanakh – the acronym for Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings), which together constitute the Hebrew Bible. Although Tanakh differs significantly from Christian and Muslim scriptures, it nevertheless includes more than just the Five Books of Moses that comprise the Torah.

Again, after my students read the text, I correct their misimpressions by explaining what the Hebrew Bible consists of and how it differs from the Christian canon and understanding of Tanakh (dubbed the “Old Testament” by church fathers to imply its supersession by a new covenant). I also explain how Jewish moral values come from the entire Tanakh of which the Torah is but one component, albeit the foundational one. Some students are surprised by professors who seem unfamiliar with the deeper meaning of scriptural concepts referenced in their lessons. Until my class, these students never questioned the veracity of such inclusions in their textbooks and study materials. They just assumed that being a Jew makes one an expert on all things Jewish, and being a professor connotes rectitude.

But the reality is that unless they come from traditional backgrounds or have studied Jewish history, religion, language and culture, secular scholars generally know little more about traditional Judaism than anybody else from their secular milieu.

And that milieu has included generations of Jews who never learned the language, traditions, or history of their ancestors – including scholars and academics who patronize Judaism as trivial, archaic, or irrelevant. Consequently, Jewish literacy is not a priority in an academic world where misinformation about Jews and Israel abounds. Many believe, for example, that modern Israel’s history began only in 1948 and know nothing about the ancient Jewish Commonwealths that composed the Jewish homeland. Still more believe that a country called Palestine once existed there, despite its absence from the pages of history. And that yet others believe Jewishness is defined by faith alone, when in fact it is an amalgam of religious, ethnic, and national elements comprising a unique ethnoreligious identity.

And in western society they tend to conflate Jewish values with progressive ideals and liberal politics. Whether they do so through artifice or ignorance, Jewish professors and intellectuals who hold this way are often deemed authoritative by students and acolytes who know even less about Judaism.

Most academics and politicians are not rabbis, but when they use Jewishness to validate political statements or moral pronouncements – or even when they don’t intend to make any statements at all – their ethnicity implies credibility regardless of their actual Jewish IQ. The result is highly visible intellectuals who are considered authoritative spokespersons based on their heritage, not because they necessarily know anything about authentic Jewish tradition. And when prestige and veracity are bestowed thus, Jewish illiteracy can be legitimized to the detriment of Jewish historical integrity.

If they wish to speak authoritatively regarding Judaism’s core tenets and beliefs, they should first learn what constitutes Jewish law, tradition, and values. And it’s not progressive ideology. In the world of Jewish scholarship, such authority is earned from the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding – it is not presumed simply because of one’s ancestry.

©Matthew Hausman, J.D. All rights reserved.

1 reply
  1. H. Skip Robinson
    H. Skip Robinson says:

    Although not Jewish, I really enjoyed that. The evolutionary study of law and ethics much be fascinating. I try to teach what little I know such as the differences between Malum In Se and Malum prohibitum laws. Sadly, our public school text books are so week in content and truth, I have had to reeducate myself.

    Their is a book, a non fiction alleging while doing the genealogy of an European Royal Family the author Sir Lawrence Gardner found writings on Jesus suggesting he was a direct decedent of King David and thus, had Israel not been under Roman rule, Jesus would have been the actual King. Of course, the only evidence was the family records which he was unable to copy or keep. An interesting book none the less, as it provided some rational insight, whether true or false, that could potentially fit as being reasonable explanations of the various Biblical stories. Bloodline of the Holly Grail. All the writeups on the book, that I found, all said it had no basis in truth.

    Just one example in the book suggested that the two thieves also crucified with Jesus, had to also have been rebels, with Jesus most likely as their Messiah, trying to build a rebel force large enough to defeat the Romans, because they did not crucify common thieves back then. To me, that is at least plausible, unlike Jonah and the Whale or Noah’s Ark. Just wondering as a Jewish historian if you have even heard such stories.


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