Remarks by Dr. Michael Fishbane

Posted On May 17, 2016

Remarks by

Dr. Michael Fishbane
Nathan Cummings Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Chicago

On the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate at the JTS Commencement, May 17, 2016


So it’s a very great pleasure to have received the degree from The Jewish Theological Seminary. Ever since my childhood, the Seminary stood for at least two great things. It stood for great Jewish scholarship, and it stood for the commitment to the Jewish community. Those are the two basic ideals that have guided my life in scholarship and concern, and I thought I would just spend one or two minutes sharing with you a key question that has guided me and give you some thoughts about how I have tried to implement the notion of scholarship and service to the community—the two great ideals of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

So the kind of question that I would ask or the question that an event like this prompts one to ask is to whom and to what is a Jewish scholar responsible? 

So, in the first instance, a scholar is responsible to the texts that one studies: the rigorous examination of the texts, the careful distance from the texts to understand their meaning in their own terms as much as one can, the careful discrimination of what’s an important question, how one raises those questions, and how one explores new knowledge.

One of my big areas of interest has been Biblical Studies in the broadest sense—that is, from the Bible and the context of the ancient Near East, to the reinterpretation of the Bible in rabbinic literature, Middle Ages, and even into the modern period. And I recall when I was a young student, the beginning of Biblical Studies was one of the ways of reclaiming a heritage—the heritage of critical Biblical Studies was in the hands of non-Jews. And they were setting the agenda of what constitutes a question, what constitutes the issues that one could be concerned with. And one of the first topics that I was concerned with as a way of trying to find a genuine Jewish question that would allow Biblical scholarship to unfold, and as it turned out to unfold my life of scholarship, was to turn to the Hebrew Bible and to discover within it the origins of interpretation. That is to say, the whole history of interpretation based on Biblical material is already grounded in inner-Biblical interpretation.

So it became a way of discovering a Jewish modality that covers 2,000 years but to realize that unfolding has a particular Jewish way of examining the question. Another aspect that Jewish Studies—Wissenschaft des Judentums—the great study of Judaism that the Seminary is so prominent about, is also not just to choose the questions that come down through the rabbinic or the yeshiva curriculum, but to have the courage to learn from new voices, new texts, hidden voices and hidden texts, and allow things to surface in a new way. And so, other aspects that I have been concerned with have been to develop trajectories from the ancient world to the modern world to show the unfolding of the history of interpretation.

A second aspect that a scholar is responsible to is to students. It’s the shaping of students. It’s allowing students to be trained as carefully as possible, but also the task not to make them into a clone – to give a certain amount of freedom; not to establish a school but to establish a certain openness to thinking, a way of creative thinking so that students can grow in a new and distinct way. Now all of that in a certain sense is what we at Chicago would call “Historical Studies,” “Historical Theology.” But there is another aspect that one would talk about as more constructive and communal-oriented, and that is: one is responsible to the community. One is responsible to what one of my great teachers who was a student of Franz Rosenzweig spoke of, as scholarship as service. That the task is not simply to add one more book in a library shelf, or to have one student simply write one more footnote, but to allow this to enter into the living community so that as Rosenzweig said, that knowledge is power. One turns that into a living personal destiny, and that knowledge can be transformed at the most personal way. So I have been concerned at various times in my life, for example my commentary in the Haftarot, was an attempt at what we call l’zakot et ha-rabbim—to help others take the material that scholars deal with and to grow with it and to be transformed.

There’s another aspect to the constructive study and it’s something that I think it took me a whole lifetime to have the courage to do. At one level, being a scholar is to be a very sophisticated ventriloquist—a very sophisticated ventriloquist. You have to allow the material to go through you, and you have to realize that you are always speaking it in your contemporary language but you want it to be the other material that’s coming through you. And at a certain point, parents, teachers, and myself ask the question, “Well, where do I stand? What is my relationship to the theology of Judaism? How do I put my finger on it? Do I have the courage to say, “This is where I stand. This is where the confluence of traditions come together in my particular life.” So in trying to do that in writing Sacred Attunement, the goal was to make a statement of honesty, to give a certain testimony of where one stood, that also perhaps would help the community, and also give courage to individuals to realize that they’re transmitting personhood, and that they’re not just transmitting texts. So that is a part of the community.

I think in the last phase of my work, some of these fields have come together, and I would just reflect on that at the last moment. So most recently I published a commentary through the Jewish Publication Society on The Song of Songs. Trying to deal from a scholarly point of view with the entire history of interpretation of love songs from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, through the interpretation of Biblical material, rabbinical material, right through the Middle Ages, all the different phases whether it would be philosophical allegory, whether it would be mysticism, right through to the end. But I realized in this context of l’zakot et ha-rabbim, to help other people become strong, the issue is not simply to cite material that you could Google, or that you could have in a rolodex. The issue is to try to help people have access to that material so that it becomes their own.

So I undertook the challenge of interpreting every single verse at four different levels, traditional levels, but not simply to cite the material which I had studied, but to try to reformulate that in a spiritual idiom so that people could then have new access to these levels of interpretation around one key text.

So these are the issues that have animated me both the care of historical scholarship, the concern for the community, the issue of transmission—these great ideals of the Seminary, realizing that scholarship only makes sense if it’s embodied in persons, teachers are only valuable when they turn their own students into repositories of living knowledge, the embodiment of knowledge, and the transmission—it’s something we all deal with not just as academicians but as parents. And so it’s also a very great privilege for me to have both of my sons—Eitan who is on the faculty, my son Elisha who continued in Jewish scholarship—and then in addition to have my two grandchildren—representing the grandchildren!—Abie and Aderet are here, and most special, alit al kulana, Mona, my sine qua non. Thank you very much.