Galilee Diary: Ivory Tower
Yehoshua ben Perachia said, Make for yourself a teacher (master), acquire for yourself a colleague, and judge every person favorably. -Mishnah, tractate Avot 1:6
Thursday was a warm sunny winter day after a difficult couple of weeks. I welcomed the opportunity to drive myself to Jerusalem, enjoying three mindless off-peak hours as the scenery sped by. The occasion was a seminar in honor of the retirement of Prof. Emanuel Etkes from the Jewish history department of the Hebrew University. There were learned papers presented by eight of his students who are now lecturers and professors in their own right, hors d'oeuvres in the soaring lobby of the new Jewish studies building that was not even a fundraiser's dream when I was a student at Hebrew U., and a few personal reminiscences and presentations. And home in the Galilee by midnight.
In 1982 I met with the revered Prof. Jacob Katz about writing a doctorate in Jewish history at the Hebrew University. He told me he had retired and was taking no new doctoral students, but he would pass me on to his senior student, Emanuel Etkes, and would help me choose a topic. We chose "The New Jew" - studying the attempt to create a new Jewish identity, by education, in pre-State Palestine. I was Etkes' first doctoral advisee - and the topic was well outside of his field of 18-19th century Eastern European intellectual history. But he couldn't say no to Katz. The next three years were for me an intensive, formative experience, an opportunity to understand Israeli culture in its historical development, to explore questions of educational philosophy that would be relevant to every position I've ever held, to grapple with central issues of Jewish and Israeli identity that still remain unresolved after a century of trial and error. It was my good fortune to fall in with an academic of impeccable research credentials yet who saw has central mission in life to be teaching - and who is indeed a master. I wrote my dissertation in Hebrew and hired an editor to help polish it. Etkes was not satisfied with her work, and re-edited almost every page himself. And in Israel in 1985, "cut and paste" was still something you did with scissors and glue. Etkes knew that my thesis would reflect on him as a rising academic in a competitive environment - but he also knew that for me it was not going to be my academic calling card, for my direction in life was elsewhere; rather he made it an amazing educational experience for me, which I think gave both of us a chance to reflect on issues of education, culture, Jewish identity and Israel, in ways that became part of everything I did afterwards.
The lectures at the seminar in his honor helped me realize that Emanuel Etkes' on-going studies of Hasidism and the opposition to it, of Haskalah in Russia, of the yeshivot of Lithuania and Jerusalem, of the Musar movement, have not been mere dry academic research and are not a world apart from the concerns of my PhD exercise. On the contrary - they are clearly part of a deep and committed search to discover who we are here, how we got that way, and where we are going. As the American educator Parker Palmer says, "You teach what you are."
And another realization: The Hebrew University is of course just another world class university struggling against budget cuts, brain drain, mediocrity, etc. But historically, remember, it is THE Hebrew University - founded in 1918 (!) to represent the pinnacle of the synthesis of Jewish and Western thought and culture (Einstein, Freud, and Buber were on the board...), to be a powerful force for the building of the old-new Israeli culture in the land of Israel, to "restore the crown," in which the wisdom of the yeshivah and the wisdom of modern scientific thought would bring us new understandings of Judaism and give the new state its "High Culture." Looking around the room, contemplating Etkes' achievements and the rise of a whole new generation of scholars who "knew not Katz," it was nice to see that sometimes we really do get it right, that visions really can become reality.