HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

On the Virtue of Not

by Martin Lockshin Issue: Teaching Jewish History
TOPICS : Jewish Studies

Lockshin, another prominent medievalist, advocates presenting students with points of contention and debate in the historical literature and not favoring a position.

One of the luxuries of teaching Jewish history in a university setting is that you can avoid taking an ideological stand. For example, in a graduate seminar on the Jewish experience in Muslim countries in the Middle Ages, you can assign readings, both primary sources and scholarly articles and books, from a variety of perspectives, some of which contradict each other. You can teach the viewpoint that the so-called Golden Age in Muslim Spain truly was golden, and that, in general, Jews thrived in Muslim countries (with a few minor exceptions) in ways that the Jews of medieval Christendom could not dream of. And you can also assign the writings of those who claim that when Muslims called Jews dhimmi, they were assigning them a uniquely degrading status, a status that was far worse than that of Jews in Christendom (again with a few minor exceptions).

You can quote Maimonides saying that Islam is truly a monotheistic religion and explain how revolutionary this assertion was. And you can quote this from one of his letters: “On account of our sins God has cast us into the midst of this people, the nation of Ishmael [that is, Muslims], who persecute us severely, and who devise ways to harm us and to debase us.... No nation has ever done more harm to Israel. None has matched it in debasing and humiliating us.” When asked which perspective is more accurate, the graduate school instructor can challenge the students to study the primary sources and judge for themselves.

Not every professor achieves or even strives for objectivity or balance. In a recent controversial Hebrew article (“From Victim to Murderer: The Jewish-Christian Encounter in the Middle Ages – Historiography in the Wake of the Establishment of a Jewish State,” in Remembering and Forgetting: Israeli Historians Look at the Jewish Past), Professor Daniel Lasker of Ben Gurion University points out that contemporary Israeli scholars who believe that medieval Jews prayed for or even took vengeance against Christians tend to be Israelis with left or far-left views about the Arab-Israeli conflict. In other words, academics who see Jews today as victimizers, and not as victims, promote an understanding of history in which pre-modern Jews were also not simply passive victims, but possibly even avengers.

Similarly a case could be made that scholars with far-right views about the Israeli-Arab conflict tend to emphasize how Muslims brutalized Jews in pre-modern times. For me, one of the most disturbing aspects of modern academia is when professors mix their roles as political activists with their roles as scholars, and look down on those who strive for objectivity. They argue that objectivity is impossible and every scholar has an agenda, either overt or covert. But thank God, some scholars still struggle to present differing historiographical perspectives to students without favoring one over the other.

In day schools it might be more difficult to tell students that we do not know for sure what lesson can be learned from historical data. When teaching Jewish history in a day school we surely ought to be, at least in part, strengthening students’ Jewish identity and increasing their Jewish pride. To do that, we pretty well have to take a stand. We either have to say, for example, that (1) the Jews went like sheep to slaughter during the Shoah; or (2) that they fought back vigorously much more than people imagined, or (3) that they practiced forms of non-physical resistance that were more fitting for the unimaginable horrors that the Nazis inflicted on them. Most contemporary Jewish educators are attracted to approach (2) or (3) and structure their syllabi and readings to support such approaches.

But the distinction between academia and day schools may be less than meets the eye. Pedagogically speaking, most academics I know are not so different from day school history teachers. Rarely do university instructors have the luxury of teaching a graduate seminar where they can analyze all the significant texts and theories about one issue. Most undergraduate students cannot or will not read a significant number of primary sources (certainly not in the original language), and only rarely do professors assign secondary readings with opposing interpretations of the data. The undergraduate instructor in the academy, just like the day school teacher, chooses the limited number of texts the students will read and thus also chooses a perspective.

When I teach a sweeping Jewish history course in the university (which we jokingly call “From Tanakh to Palmach,” though it goes beyond the Palmach, too), I get to spend two weeks, occasionally three, on the era that I know best, the Middle Ages. My best and/or most Jewishly-involved students would like me to give unambiguous answers to questions like, “Where were medieval Jews better off—in Christian countries or in Muslim countries?” Generally, I refuse to answer such questions.

Instead, I present in the same class two mini-lectures on the Jews of Christian Europe, one following what Salo Baron has called the lachrymose tradition of Jewish historiography and the other highlighting all the advantages of life in Christian Europe for Jews. The next week I do the same for the Jews of Muslim countries. Each week I also assign a small number of readings that support each viewpoint.

Some students, often the weaker ones, do not like this pedagogical approach. (“Why does he keep telling us that some say this and some say that? Why doesn’t he just tell us who is right?”) But I consider it crucial for students to learn that the evidence does not always support one viewpoint unambiguously.

This can work in the higher grades of high school, too. Many sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are mature enough to learn to search for answers to complex questions and to recognize the equivocal nature of our findings. Just as the skilled Gemara teacher teaches students to value and analyze the conflicting perspectives of Abbaye and Rabba without asking “so which one is correct?” so too the history teacher can teach the value of historical debate, even or especially when the debate is unresolved. ¿

Martin Lockshin teaches Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto, where he is chair of the Department of Humanities. lockshin@yorku.ca

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Teaching Jewish History

Is Jewish history the linchpin to Jewish identity formation, the weak link in day school Jewish studies, or perhaps both? Jewish history provides students with critical links to their past and gives them the context for their own experiences. Discover insights in this field from senior scholars and educators, and find creative new initiatives being used by teachers in day schools today.

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