A View from Jerusalem

A reflection on the humanities from the windows of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Welcome to the Rounded Globe blog! Our first post is an abridged version of Prof. Guy Stroumsa’s closing remarks at a conference held in Jerusalem earlier this month (January 2016). A scholar of comparative religion, Professor Stroumsa discussed the duty of scholarly subsversion. Speaking from the heart of a conflict, Stroumsa calls on intellectuals to step beyond aseptic seminar rooms into the wider world around them: a call to which we at Rounded Globe are deeply sympathetic.

For me, a révolutionnaire manqué, the comparative study of religions and their cohort of dreams of transformations, of patterns of mutations, both within societies and inside the self, has always represented a deeply subversive activity. I wish to offer here a midrashic reflection of sorts on subversion as an intellectual and moral duty: that of refusing to lie on the Procrustean beds prepared for us.

For the last half-century, the Hebrew University has been a true home for me, one which I never really left. A witz describes psychoanalysts as people whose analysis was not quite successful: they were not able to move ahead. Mutatis mutandis, the same could be said about professors and their education. The very first day of my new life in Israel, in July 1966 (I was eighteen, as old as the country), was also that of my baptismal day as a student at the Hebrew University – more precisely, at its summer Ulpan: the early stages of my interminable struggle with Hebrew. Like other ambitious universities, the Hebrew University has always known that its first, absolute commitment was to the search for truth and to what it entails: critical thought, moral backbone, intellectual freedom. The intellectual audacity expected from universities is worthless without the civic courage to constantly question thought patterns and attitudes current in their own societies, to affirm, clearly and loudly, their autonomy and independence from the bodies and governments funding them. In Rabelais’ lapidary dictum: “Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme.” This permanent questioning is, precisely, their duty of subversion.

Today, paradoxically, universities are everywhere under threat, asked to ‘be relevant,’ rather than to search for truth, to ‘deliver’ rather than to educate. I say paradoxically, as human societies, despite blatant, shocking inequalities, have never been as affluent as they are today. I cannot analyze this paradox here or even attempt to suggest solutions. I want at least to stress what you all know, that Faculties of Humanities are much more seriously threatened that those of Sciences and vocational schools.

The natural sciences have an easier time, I think, in their rebuttal of utilitarian demands, as it is relatively simple for them to show the value of pure research: no applied mathematics or physics without pure mathematics and physics. At least in theory, one can still make an argument about la science pour la science, as one does about l’art pour l’art. A similar argument is far less obvious for the humanities. Very soon, one will hear the argument about what the Germans call the kleine Fächer, the “small fields,” such as, at least in the Israeli context, the paradigmatic Assyriology: too expensive, too few students. And besides, who cares about Assyriology?

The problem, I fear, is made more complex by the fact that the humanities, the Geisteswissenschaften, in their wish to be taken seriously, have calqued themselves on the Naturwissenschaften. They are still doing that, as shown by the latest fad, “digital humanities,” and by the widely spread tendency to value only what can be quantified. I am all for the use of modern technologies in the service of the humanities, but at the moment, the technologies seem to take over the fields rather than serve them. Faculties of Humanities risk forgetting that their task, beyond producing new knowledge, also consists in offering a reflection on knowledge, on its conditions, its limits and its meaning. Such a second-order reflection is essentially subversive, as it questions the natural acceptance of existing conditions for the reproduction of knowledge in society, including in its educational institutions, and in the political system sustaining them. The humanities are deeply unsettling, and therefore, in this age of increasing resistance to questioning, increasingly unfashionable. By historicizing and relativizing all ideas and world-views, they disturb what is held sacred in all quarters. It is, then, by nature that the humanities, more than any other branch of knowledge in the universities, are subversive. I would go further, and argue that it is only by recognizing and embracing the subversive nature of their craft that humanists can avoid the new, deeply threatening trahison des clercs, to borrow the title of Julien Benda’s famous pamphlet, toward which the market forces of the global village almost inexorably push us all. Almost inexorably, but perhaps not quite: if the historian (even the historian of religion) is no prophet, she or he can never be sure that the claim of subversion will only remain a symbolic gesture of protest, done only for honor’s sake. It may also, perchance, hide the seed of a future rebirth.

Moreover, the modern university is a secular place: no theological presupposition, no religious limitation may regulate the questioning of scientists and scholars alike. This, we must reckon, creates a particular problem for the study of religion, a problem that cannot be easily dismissed, although it often goes unrecognized. Creating secular knowledge about the sacred is by no means an obvious task, even when one deals with societies far away from ours in either time or space. Nor is the study of religion, despite appearances, perceived as a problem only by those who have religious leanings, and who may feel that their world, their values, are under attack, perhaps even desecrated.

As I have come to realize over the years, creating secular knowledge about the sacred is also felt as a threat by the secularists, those who feel enlightened, free from the prejudices and fears so characteristic (they think) of religion. The modern, comparative study of religion is a study of humans, not of gods. More precisely, it is the study of humans dealing with the gods. It is, therefore, more akin to anthropology than to theology. While the study of religion cannot protect religion from the secular invasion (indeed, it reflects and often represents this invasion), it also refuses to evacuate religion from the secular world. In its double movement, the study of religion thus antagonizes both the proponents of a religious worldview and those of a secular one, appearing to both as a threat. No surprise, then, if it is deeply unfashionable. At the same time, it is urgently needed, as it stands at the very core of Faculties of Humanities, encapsulating, as it were, the duty of subversion that is theirs.

A few weeks ago, after the last Paris terrorist massacres, a dear friend of mine from Berlin expressed her shock at the speed with which French politicians were switching to a warlike vocabulary. The reticence to speak of war is easily understandable, and highly commendable, certainly on the side of Germans, who can afford historical amnesia even less than others. My immediate reaction to her remark, however, was that I had never considered the world I lived in to be a peaceful one. From the Qumran scroll describing the eschatological War between the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness and Mani’s Sermon of the Great War to more recent bouts of religious violence, in Jamestown, Waco, Ayodhya, Bali, Beirut, New York, Ankara or Bamako, war has always been omnipresent. We know, moreover, that not all Sons of Darkness belong to the enemy camp; some also sit in our midst. For me, then, humanism is conceivable only in a world at war; it must be a fighting humanism. In his theses On the concept of history, written in 1940, Walter Benjamin could say: “the emergency situation in which we live is the rule.”

“Ultimi barbarorum!” Spinoza’s cry of rage and despair, which he inscribed on a placard when hearing of the lynching of his friends, the De Witt brothers, in 1672, might have cost him his life, had not his lodger wisely locked him up in his room. “Ultimi barbarorum!” This cry resonates today in this impossible city, Jerusalem. Before the end of my first year of studies at the Hebrew University started the Six Day War – a war still going on, almost fifty years later. A life of learning and of teaching under such conditions is something difficult to grasp, and quite hard to sustain, as no university can remain an island of reason in a sea of madness, of honesty in a situation of injustice, certainly not when it stands, and quite concretely so, at the very seam between conqueror and conquered. We have tried seriously, students and teachers alike, to keep our labs, our libraries and our seminar rooms aseptic, as it were, to concentrate on what we were doing, isolated from the world looming right outside our window. Wissenschaft als Beruf: we have done our best to take Max Weber’s injunction seriously. We have played by the rules of democracy, while a whole people was, and still is being kept under military occupation, without civil rights, now for almost half a century – deprived of its freedom by those whose children read about Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and the books of the prophets in the original biblical Hebrew! For many among us, this has been at times intolerably stressful, unbearably painful. At some point, the bow must break. Under some circumstances, it is in the mode of protest that the duty of the scholar must be expressed. Cultivating the humanities in such a climate does not necessarily entail the splendid isolation of a (more or less) air-conditioned ivory tower. It can also express a potent protest, represent, as it were, a subversive activity against the reigning order. I have long been impressed by what Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian writer from Ramallah, has called şumūd, a noble way of resisting daily brutality and the constant rape of the soul by stubbornly sticking to one’s beliefs, way of life, and ethos. Insisting on remaining oneself, on keeping high one’s torch of values in front of politicians lending their support to thugs, ‘thugs for God’s sake,’ one might call them, and transmitting this torch to the youth: there is a real element of subversion here, perhaps even, who knows, a powerful one.

We are left here with a theologico-political aporia rooted in the very nature of Zionism. Like all movements of national liberation, Zionism achieved its goals, at best, only very partially. Here, the founders of the Hebrew University were quite lucid, aware from the start of the deep-seated ambiguities of the adventure in which they were taking part. I shall mention here only Yehuda Leon Magnes, the first President of the Hebrew University, Martin Buber, the first President of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and Gershom Scholem, another President of this Academy. In his magnum opus, a biography of the seventeenth-century false messiah Sabbatai Zevi, first published (in Hebrew) in 1959, Scholem could warn of the explosive mixture of old messianic ideas and modern political ideals. Today, the dialectics of the return to Zion threaten to lead to what is perceived, by too many, as Israel’s ‘manifest destiny’: after the Reconquista of the whole land, the segregation into reserves of the Palestinians, or even their eventual expulsion. The supreme jewel in David’s crown, for them, would be the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple and, one imagines, the ensuing restoration of daily blood sacrifices (what else would one do in the Temple?), after a pause of a mere two millenia.

It is certainly important, and tragically fascinating, to study the sinuous paths through which religious tradition and cultural legacy can - and do - degenerate into such lunacy. This urgent task is that of historians of religion. But it is not our only task, nor is it our most immediate one. If we wish to avoid what might soon lead to nothing less than a conflict of world dimensions, we must also fight the present neo-messianic madness urgently, and furiously. When fair is foul, and foul is fair, civic courage meets intellectual duty, and intellectual courage means civic duty. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, its Faculty of Humanities, and its students of religion, must be at the front line in this subversive war against the murderous folly threatening our society and our humanity.

Text: ‘Concluding Remarks’ to ‘Upholding Scripture, Rejecting Scripture: Strategies of Religious Subversion: a Conference Celebrating the Work of Guy G. Stroumsa’, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Jerusalem, 4-5 January 2016; read at the Israel Academy, 5 January 2016.

Header Image: ‘Coexist Jerusalem: Tunnel near Gaza Street, Jerusalem’ by zeevveez. Creative commons license.

About Guy Stroumsa

Guy G. Stroumsa is Martin Buber Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Professor Emeritus of the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, and Emeritus Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.

His recent publications include:

The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations of Late Antiquity (Chicago, 2009; paperback 2012)
A New Science: the Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason (Cambridge, Mass., 2010)
The Making of the Abrahamic Religions in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2015)
The Scriptural Universe of Early Christianity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, forthcoming)
He is the co-editor, with Adam Silverstein, of The Oxford Handbook of the Abrahamic Religions (Oxford, 2015).


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