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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News October 2010

October 21, 2010

Building the Next Generation of Jewish Scholars

The Foundation's stated mandate at its inception was the reconstruction of Jewish cultural life after the Shoah. The founders of the Foundation envisioned that this could most effectively be achieved by the regeneration of a new cultural elite in the post-Holocaust era to replace the generation of Jewish scholars and intellectuals decimated in the Shoah.

The Jewish people have fortunately achieved notable success in developing a new generation of cultural elite, our earlier mandate. Increasingly, we have therefore sought in recent decades to create and develop the "social capital" of the Jewish people, to raise up a new generation of leadership that can deal with the current challenges we are facing in the Diaspora, and generating Jewish connectedness world-wide.

This reformulated version of our mandate is to create Jewish leaders in a special mold, steeped in Jewish learning and culture, and passionately devoted to the concept of Klal Yisrael, i.e. Jewish connectedness. This new genus of leadership will hopefully, with greater competence and confidence, be able to achieve more effective and wider ranging resolutions regarding the new type of challenges that inhere in our current global Jewish realities with which our communities are now wrestling.

One track of our work deals with communal leadership, accomplished by the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship. The second is Jewish scholars. One of the most effective vehicles for our efforts in this area, in addition to our regular scholarships and fellowships, has been the Professor Ephraim Urbach Post-Doctoral Fellowships. It assists the most promising recent recipients of PhD's in the field of Jewish culture who have completed their dissertations with distinction and show promise of distinguished careers to publish their first book and further their research in their areas of expertise, thereby launching their professional scholarly endeavors. Over the last fourteen years, fifty-nine outstanding scholars have received these fellowships named after the late Prof. Ephraim Urbach, who at the time of his death was serving as a vice president of the Memorial Foundation and president of the World Union of Jewish Studies. The World Union of Jewish Studies cooperates with the Foundation in the implementation of this program.

Evaluations undertaken by the Memorial Foundation and the World Union have abundantly demonstrated the enormous success of this program in developing the next generation of distinguished scholars and academics in Jewish culture all around the world. To best illustrate the impact of this program, I should like to share with you the profile of Prof. Avinoam Rosenak, a professor of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University who has already made significant contributions to Jewish culture and, as we demonstrate in this report, will undoubtedly become an intellectual asset who can serve as one of the "anshei ruach" for Klal Yisrael that we desperately need.


Professor Avinoam Rosenak

Prof. Rosenak who was awarded an Ephraim Urbach post-doctoral fellowship in 1999-2000, and two doctoral scholarships and a fellowship in prior years, has recently become a tenured professor at the Department of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University and was also simultaneously appointed as chair of that department. All his academic degrees were completed at Hebrew University. His Master's degree was an analysis of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's philosophy of halacha. His doctorate dealt with the thought of the late Chief Rabbi Kook. Thus, Prof. Rosenak early in his career did seminal work in the analysis of these two intellectual giants of the 20th century whose work had a major impact on Judaism's relationship to modernity and philosophic thought. Although their personalities and work differed significantly, each had a major impact — Rabbi Soloveitchik in constructing the intellectual foundation for modern Orthodoxy in the United States and Chief Rabbi Kook on both religious Zionism and the intellectual and cultural life of Israeli society.

In Prof. Rosenak's early research and publication on the philosophy of halacha in the modern age, he was concerned with the view that halacha is preoccupied with the practice of Jewish law — its technical details and its efforts to resolve problems in that sphere. Those adhering to that perspective regard halacha as a body of texts falling outside the bounds of Jewish thought and has
little in common with Jewish philosophy which engages in reflections on religious thought like the nature of the Divine, Creation, Revelation and Redemption.

Dr. Rosenak's work strives to change that perspective and create a new model in which halachic decisions are derived not only from textual and legal analysis but are also influenced by philosophical premises and world views. In that connection, Prof. Rosenak organized a series of international conferences on the philosophy of halacha in 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2008 and serves as the academic director of the publication of the series of volumes resulting from those meetings to be published by the Van Leer Institute and Magnes Press. The first collection of papers was published in 2007 and two others are presently in the process of being prepared for publication.

This connection between halacha and Jewish thought can be considered from two perspectives. The first, the weaker version, examines how a particular Jewish thinker having a particular Jewish world-view reaches his particular Jewish halachic rulings. The second, and more ambitious version, strives to uncover more general schools of halachic decision-making growing from various intellectual sources. An example might be the two schools of Jewish thought — the mystical and the rational — that figure prominently in the history of halacha, loosely exemplified by Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Kook. But there can even be a wider range of intellectual schools having special halachic implications. Such philosophical and intellectual debates are found among the various streams within the Jewish world today, both religious — the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — and Jewish secular movements. This has led Prof. Rosenak in another phase of his research, to inquire into the philosophic disagreements and the possibly related variant halachic conclusions reached by those groups.

Under the auspices of the Van Leer Institute, Prof. Rosenak organized three conferences dealing with the goal, role, and contributions of halacha to these religious movements as they relate to their philosophical, cultural and sociological foundations. The three volumes of the deliberations resulting from these conferences organized in 2000, 2004 and 2010 are currently in preparation by Prof. Rosenak.

Thus far I have focused on Prof. Rosenak's past research which has resulted in three books that he authored, six volumes he edited and over 69 articles related to that research. It is the Foundation's contention that Prof. Rosenak's field of study and his seminal research and publications are not only important for Jewish scholarship, meritorious as they are, for their own sake. The field of Jewish thought generally and the specific areas in which Prof. Rosenak specializes have important implications for the Jewish people both in the Diaspora and Israel.

The essence of their critical importance is rooted in the enormous challenges that Klal Yisrael confronts today in the encounter between Jewish thought and modern culture. Some of the questions that Jewish philosophers and thinkers need to wrestle with today are the tension between universalism and particularism, between loyalty to the community and the pursuit of individualism, between philosophy and religion, between rationalism and religious faith, between Judaism and democracy, between our traditions and spiritual creativity. We need to define the threats, explicit and implicit, in modernity and contemporary culture to Jewish civilization and thought, and on the other hand, to enlarge the possibility of a fruitful dialogue between modernity and contemporary Jewish life in areas that can enhance our faith and culture.

For this type of encounter we need young Jewish scholars like Rosenak to help explicate the history of Jewish thought and how contemporary Jewish thinkers like Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook and others articulated and responded to the challenges posed to Jewish faith and thought in the contemporary world. We must also consider and evaluate the educational, intellectual and cultural tools that our thinkers in the past have created both to defend and preserve, but also engage the culture in which the Jewish community was enveloped.

Furthermore, at the Foundation we believe that young scholars like Prof. Rosenak have an important role to play not only at the university, but to share their work and wisdom with the wider Jewish community, especially with our communal leadership, present and future, as to how they can both preserve and enhance Judaism's role in our community and the wider society. The Ephraim Urbach program is a modest vehicle for helping develop those scholars and to enable them, through bodies like the Memorial Foundation and others, to engage and educate the Jewish community.

In that connection, a first step we are taking is planning to organize an academic convocation together with the World Union of Jewish Studies and the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem in May, 2011 to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the Ephraim Urbach Post-Doctoral Fellowship program by highlighting the work of some of the Urbach recipients. We will keep you posted about this program and other activities as they evolve.


With warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President