Development of historic proportions


[Dr Hanan Eshel]

Dr Hanan Eshel, of Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, shows one of the Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) caves to participants in the Damascus Document conference held in Jerusalem at which Dr Stefan Reif gave the introductory lecture

Within a short time, the subject of medieval Hebrew studies is scheduled to appear among the list of Cambridge professorships and this seems to me a development of historic proportions. For centuries, only biblical Hebrew, as understood and taught by generations of Christian scholars, has been accorded such status.

The broader manifestations of the language as expressed in the rabbinic traditions, in medieval literature, and in the contemporary spoken language have received attention, but never on an equal basis with what has been formally called in the University "the interpretation of the Old Testament".

An unwritten rule appears to have existed according to which those post-biblical subjects in which Jews tended to excel, including the Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, were never quite worthy of the ultimate academic accolade of a chair.

The argument about a lack of suitable candidates holds little water. Schiller-Szinessy's brilliant and original work with Hebrew manuscripts; Schechter's ground-breaking research in rabbinica and among his Genizah discoveries; and Rosenthal's publication of seminal studies in medieval philosophy all these were surely worthy of greater recognition. And one could also make strong cases on behalf of Israel Abrahams, Herbert Loewe, David Diringer and Jacob Teicher, who spent most of their teaching careers at Cambridge.

At least part of the explanation of the current development lies in the changing attitudes towards Hebrew studies as a whole. The foundations in modern Hebrew laid down by Dr Avi Shivtiel in the 1970s, and successfully built up by Dr Risa Domb into a Centre for Modern Hebrew Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies, have made a major impact.

Dr Nicholas de Lange has expanded Jewish studies in the Divinity Faculty; and a Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, directed by Edward Kessler, Dr Martin Forward and Nicholas de Lange, has been established in association with the Cambridge Theological Federation.

The research projects, publication programmes, lecture series and visiting scholars associated with the Genizah Collection over the past quarter-century have also given a fillip to the whole field of Hebrew and Jewish studies, especially in its medieval aspects.

The proposed personal chair that has resulted is a tribute to all who have laboured to broaden the parameters of that field on the Cambridge campus.


Director, Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit

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