Shalem College in the making

Martin Kramer delivered these opening remarks at the Shalem Center conference on “Philosophical Investigation of the Hebrew Bible, Talmud and Midrash,” Jerusalem, June 26, 2011. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

It’s my privilege and pleasure to welcome you to this conference on behalf of the Shalem Center. Our president, Dan Polisar, is traveling, so I’m here in his stead. I’m a senior fellow in the Center, and I’m president-designate of Shalem College, about which more in a moment.

My own field is the contemporary Middle East, which is remote from your field. My formal discipline is history, not philosophy. But I can certainly relate to your enterprise. The words “field” and “discipline” suggest the constant struggle over definition and redefinition of boundaries, of what is permitted and scorned by institutional convention.

The Shalem Center, as a research institute, has always drawn people who are determined to stretch conventional boundaries. And that’s how I understand this conference, as well as the work of your host Yoram Hazony. The philosophical reading of Jewish texts is an insurgency against convention. An important step in any academic insurgency is organization, networking, and above all, refining ideas in debate. In that respect, this conference may not only be extraordinarily long, which it will be, but also historic.

You come here at a particular moment in the evolution of the Shalem Center. For some fifteen years, the Center built a reputation as a daring and innovative research institute in the realm of ideas. I couldn’t possibly catalogue all its achievements in the few minutes I have here, but some of them you may have noticed yourselves.

Shalem was first of all a place to write innovative books. Yoram Hazony’s book The Jewish State set the standard very early. Michael Oren, now Israel’s ambassador to Washington, wrote two broad-sweep bestsellers here, on the Six-Day War and on the U.S. engagement with the Middle East. Natan Sharansky wrote an important book on identity. The Shalem Center also played a crucial role in the archaeological excavations in the City of David. It pioneered the field of political Hebraism, and was even sponsor of a journal of that name. Its general audience journal Azure, in Hebrew and English, is Israel’s premier popular journal of ideas. And the Center is the home of Shalem Press, which is famous in Israel as publisher in Hebrew translation of great books, from Hobbes’s Leviathan to the Federalist Papers.

But the founders of the Center always had in mind another vision: the establishment of an institution of higher education. This vision has taken the form of a plan to create Israel’s first liberal arts college. Since you’re not prospective donors, I’ll spare you the details, but there are no liberal arts colleges in Israel, or even classic liberal arts curricula in the universities. The Israeli practice is an adaptation of a certain model which pushes young people to early and narrow specialization. We now pay the price in young generations that share very few points of reference, and that are increasingly divided.

We believe a four-year liberal arts education, based on a reading of great books and imparted through a carefully crafted core curriculum, could revolutionize higher education in this country, and produce a different kind of leader in Israel. I’ve spoken of this as a vision, but at this point, it’s much more than that. It’s a concrete plan that’s already well on the way to accreditation in Israel’s official Higher Education Council. We’re already deep in planning of every aspect of this project, from campus to student recruitment. If all the pistons fire on time, we’ll open in the fall of 2012.*

The Jewish textual sources occupy a central place in our core curriculum. Of course, we expect to produce a few scholars in these areas, but our primary purpose is to imbue all our graduates with a deep appreciation of these sources, in a way that bridges the moats that tend to isolate the ideas in texts from other streams of thought.

This is a tall order. But I was reminded of its importance in an anecdote I recently encountered. I don’t read much in philosophy, but I do read in the history of diplomacy, and I came across this story in a biography of Yaacov Herzog. Herzog was an Israeli diplomat in the first years of the state, the son of Ireland’s chief rabbi, and brother of Chaim Herzog, who later served as Israel’s sixth president. Yaacov Herzog is probably best remembered for his famous 1961 debate with the British historian Arnold Toynbee. Toynbee had categorized Jewish civilization as a fossil and had condemned the state of Israel as immoral. Herzog, it’s generally agreed, got the better of Toynbee, in a public debate at McGill University. Hear it on the internet and judge for yourself.

In 1958, Herzog was minister at the Israeli embassy in Washington, and he went with the Israeli ambassador, Abba Eban, to convey birthday greetings to the U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, on Dulles’s 70th birthday. Dulles asked why he deserved congratulations. He said he regularly read the Book of Psalms—he was, after all, the son of a Presbyterian minister—and he quoted this verse: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” Herzog immediately invoked Pirkei Avot to explain that subsequent commentaries read strength, or gevurot, as the spiritual vigor that one attains in one’s seventh decade, and which takes one to the age of 80. Dulles wanted all this in writing, so Herzog wrote to Dulles with the relevant citations from Pirkei Avot and still more quotations from the Sages. It makes for a fascinating correspondence—perhaps unique in the annals of modern diplomacy.

Alas, all this didn’t do Dulles much good—he didn’t get to enjoy his gevurot, because he did die the following year. But in reading this story, I wondered to myself how many of our young diplomats could rise to such an occasion—most of them having studied only the dry works of IR, international relations, in their narrow university degree programs.

The Jewish great books are are bridges that lead in all directions, however we read them, whether the context is philosophy, theology, or even diplomacy. Our curriculum is designed to inculcate in our graduates a worldly understanding of the Jewish sources, both for their own intrinsic value as philosophy and legacy, and because you never know when you’ll need them—even in the halls of the State Department.

 * Shalem College in fact opened its doors in October 2013.