The Euphemist

Reflections on Jewish Studies and many other subjects big and little, by a perpetual student who sometimes searches a little too long for just the right word ...

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Christian, truth seeker, husband, son, brother & uncle, Lutheran pastor, musician (cello, etc.), Jewish Studies grad student, intellectual historian, aquarium enthusiast & pet owner, philologist, astronomer, Norwegian-American, Ford pickup driver, buffoon.

Monday, October 31, 2005

So, what's your historical agenda?

Fascinating discussion by Dr. Sherwin in the video lecture I was viewing last night. He was explaining how the course on "Medieval Judaism" fits into the Spertus curriculum, and he said "Every curriculum makes a statement that's conceptual, political, and ideological." Also, he said that any scheme of periodisation of history has an agenda. Say what?

The way we divide history into periods reveals our ideological agenda. For example, reflecting upon my year of General Church History in seminary, I believe the periodization was "Pre-Reformation", "Reformation", and "Post-Reformation" - which strongly suggests a Reformation-oriented agenda. The Catholics and Orthodox would no doubt have different schemes. To be fair, I believe our professor gave much more time and credence to Centuries II - XV than most Protestants would have.

According to Dr. Sherwin, the thing that holds a period together in the history of Judaism is common questions, rather than common answers. In the Medieval Period, Judaism was tackling the question, "Why do we do what we do as Jews?" Jewish Philosophers and Jewish Mystics (Kabbalists) gave very different answers to this question, but they were answering the same question. Rabbinic Judaism had concentrated, rather, on the question of "What do we do as Jews?"

In each period, whichever group "wins" (i.e., comes up with the most influential answer to the period's leading questions) sets the agenda for the next historical period.

The Spertus core curriculum includes four courses corresponding to four basic periods of the history of Judaism:

1. Religion of Biblical Israel (Biblical Period)
2. Rabbinic Mind (Rabbinic Period)
3. Medieval Judaism (Medieval Period)
4. Modern Judaism (Modern Period)

According to Dr. Sherwin, this four-course, four-period scheme consciously rejects the ideology of Progressive Revelation found in Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism. This is the view that, the closer we get in history to the present time, the better the religion becomes - a development of the religion from a lower to a higher form over the course of time. Reform & Reconstructionist seminaries generally follow the Modern Period with a Post-modern or Contemporary period, beginning with the formation of modern Israel in 1948. Dr. Sherwin & others believe that the Modern Period is still an experiment with an unknown outcome. It's too early to tell if a large enough agenda-changing event has sent Judaism into a new historical period. (Seems to me that the Holocaust would be a big enough event to cause a major shift, but perhaps we need a few more decades, at least, to see what direction is taken)

The Spertus curriculum also contradicts the historical ideology of Orthodox Judaism, which holds that the higher form of the religion is found the further back you go in history, until it reaches its highest form at Mt. Sinai with the bestowing of the Torah. The Spertus scheme is non-committal about what direction the religion is going; it only says that, to understand the history of Judaism, one must understand something of the Biblical, Rabbinic, Medieval, and Modern Periods.

Though Spertus is officially not affiliated with any certain form of Judaism, it seems to me that it generally reflects the viewpoint of Conservative Judaism (a slightly misleading name, as it falls along the midpoint of the Jewish ideological spectrum, rather than the right wing - but, then again, when has the whole "right/left", "conservative/liberal" thing really held up to intense scrutiny, anyway?).

This answered one question I had: why didn't Spertus have a course that corresponded to my special interest, the Post-exilic period (about 530 BC - AD 70)? It had seemed to me that they were leaving a gap between the Biblical and Rabbinic periods, but now I see that, though there was a period in there when no new writings were being added to the Hebrew canon, the general mindset of the Biblical Period still held sway, until the destruction of the Temple.

Naturally this all leads me to ponder what agendas we reveal with the schemes we use to divvy up Christian history and general history. Do our agendas blind us to any ephochal, agenda-changing events that we should really be using as our major historical markers? I welcome your thoughts, one and all.


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