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Asbell Chair Installation
January 30, 2004

The Sophia Ava Asbell Chair in Judaic Studies had its first professor installed in a ceremony held in Mathers Theatre in the Holland Union Building. Andrea B. Lieber, assistant professor of religion and coordinator of Judaic studies, is the first incumbent of this chair.

The chair was established through the generosity of Yale Asbell '78 and Mrs. Audrey Asbell and is named for their older daughter. The Asbell family has had ties to Dickinson for over 75 years with 13 members of the family having attended the college. The family has made numerous gifts to the college, including the Sarah and Isedor Asbell First Generation Scholarship. Yale Asbell currently serves on Dickinson's Board of Trustees.

A Fruitful Union: Judaic Studies and the Liberal Arts
Andrea B. Lieber, Dickinson College

"...The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and with out virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments."

Benjamin Rush's Plan

These are the words of Dr. Benjamin Rush, written in his 1798 essay, "On the Mode of Education in a Proper Republic." While Rush is clear in the essay that it is the study of the Christian religion that provides the ideal foundation, nonetheless, the study of Judaism had a place in Rush's early vision for Dickinson's revolutionary curriculum. We can see from his "Plan of Education for Dickinson College" penned in 1785, that classical Hebrew, alongside Greek and Latin, French and German, was included as one of the primary branches of learning. Like many scholars of his time, Rush viewed the study of Hebrew language and Jewish scriptures as a means to a better understanding of Christian theology. However, I have discovered ample evidence in Rush's writings to suggest that he greatly valued the study of Jews and Judaism as a living culture, and as useful in its own right.

Perhaps most telling is Rush's friendship with Jonas Phillips, a prominent Philadelphia merchant, and a founder of the historic Mikveh Israel Congregation, one of the first synagogues established after the revolution. Rush attended two religious ceremonies in the Phillips home, the wedding of Phillips' daughter Rachel to Michael Levy in 1787, and the circumcision of Phillips' newborn son in the summer of 1792. In a letter to his wife, Julia, dated June 17, 1787, Rush writes, "I accepted the invitation [to the wedding] with great pleasure, for you know I love to be in the way of adding to my stock of ideas upon all subjects." His narrative, which in many respects bears striking resemblance to the papers my students write in an Introduction to Judaism course, describes every detail of the ceremony and is in fact the only existing account of a colonial era Jewish wedding. Though Rush did not understand a word of the Hebrew prayers, except an occasional "Amen" or "Hallelujah," he makes a point after the ceremony to inquire about the meaning of the various rituals he had observed.


Five years later, in July of 1792, Rush was again invited to the Phillips home, this time for the brit milah, or circumcision ceremony, for their newborn son. Though it may seem peculiar that Phillips fathered a newborn son five years after marrying off an older daughter, it is important to note that Phillips' wife, Rebecca Machado Phillips, bore him 21 children between ages 17 and 46.

Rush notes in his commonplace book that he was the only non-Jew in attendance at the bris, and goes on to narrate the precise details of the ritual, paying careful attention to both the ceremonial and surgical aspects of the procedure. At the end of the entry, he cites a conversation with "an ingenious physician, a Jew," Dr. David Nassy, with whom he discussed the various health benefits associated with circumcision.

Rush's friendship with Jonas Phillips, strikes me as quite important. Tax records indicate that Phillips was the second wealthiest Jew in Philadelphia, and there is ample evidence to suggest that he was a committed Jew both in his personal and in his political life. He is perhaps best known for his address to the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, just months after his daughter's wedding, in which he spoke out against religious restrictions in the Pennsylvania Constitution. Phillips said in his address to the delegates, "It is well known among all the citizens of the thirteen United States that the Jews have been true and faithful Whigs and during the late contest with England they have been foremost in aiding and assisting the states with their lives and fortunes; they have supported the cause, have bravely fought and bled for liberty which they cannot (yet) enjoy." Rush publicly supported Phillips' petition and was a vocal opponent of the religiously-based oaths affirming belief in the New Testament, that excluded the Jews from holding public office. We can imagine that the two enjoyed lively conversations on the subject that are not preserved by documentary evidence.

Rush Letter

One final piece of evidence that Rush was interested in the Jews comes from his correspondence with Meriwether Lewis, co-leader of the legendary expedition team, Lewis and Clark. In February of 1803, Rush was asked by Thomas Jefferson to prepare a guide, a curriculum of sorts, for Lewis who had just been appointed to head the exploration along the Missouri River. Jefferson wrote to Rush, "it would be very useful to state for him those objects on which it is most desirable he should bring us information." So, in May of that same year, Rush drew up a series of notes recorded in his commonplace book. His questions were focused primarily on the "Indians"-what sort of medicine do they practice? When do they marry? What do they eat? How long do they live? Rush was especially interested in their religious practices and asks Lewis specifically to investigate whether there is any "affinity between their religious ceremonies and those of the Jews?"

In the early nineteenth century, many scholars theorized that the Native Americans were descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Intrigued by this hypothesis, Rush coached Lewis to identify some possible ethnographic evidence to support it. Most interesting, however, is the fact that this entry assumes some familiarity with Jewish rituals-how could Lewis judge whether the Indians' ceremonies resembled those of the Jews unless he, like Rush, had seen or at least read about Jewish ceremonies himself? In other words, familiarity with Judaism was, in Rush's mind, useful for exploring uncharted territory. Knowledge of Judaism was, then, useful knowledge.

This brief passage, for me, hints at the fact that Rush did value knowledge of Jewish culture as more than a backdrop to Christian theology. I'd like to suggest, in fact, that we read Lewis here as a metaphor for the Dickinson College student. Crossing the physical boundaries of the new nation, venturing into uncharted territory, Rush's proposed curriculum indicates that an understanding of Religion in general, and of Judaism in particular is important "working knowledge"-a key tool in the process of exploration. The message is: in your encounter with the other, take note of religious differences; pay attention to those customs and practices which lend meaning to the lives of those you meet.

In Rush's time the study of the Jews (like the study of the Native Americans) was largely the purview of Christians. Jews were an object of study, but were only just beginning to have a place in the academy as scholars in their own right. By the late 19th century, the development of a modern, Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Scientific Study of Judaism, was pioneered by the very same German Jewish intellectuals who established Reform Judaism. Wissenschaft, was an important extension of Enlightenment thought, in which objective, rational, historical method was employed in the study of Jewish texts, history and culture. Responding to a wave of anti-Semitism in the early decades of the 19th Century, the founders of the Wissenschaft movement held that a scientific "correction" of misinformation about Jews would eliminate prejudice, and thus eliminate anti-Semitism. This science of Judaism would thus facilitate acceptance of the Jews into European society. A science of Jewish studies would also seek to treat Judaism in its fullest scope, for its own sake, and not merely as the antecedent to Christianity. The advent of Jewish studies, then, created what Dr. Susannah Heschel called in her 2003 lecture at Dickinson "a reversal of the gaze." Instead of being studied as the passive "other," Jews assumed the active position of observer.

By the time Judaic studies was established at Dickinson in the 20th Century, it had changed dramatically from its origins in the Wissenschaft movement. The earlier scientific study of Judaism had been so preoccupied both with creating a fully rationalist Judaism and erasing Jewish/Christian difference in an effort to aid assimilation that it distanced itself from issues of Jewish religious identity. In the 1960s and 70s, just decades after the Holocaust and the founding of the modern state of Israel, Jewish studies appears on the scene of American colleges and universities for many different reasons. At Dickinson, it seems that the impetus to create a program in Judaic studies developed in response to the increased Jewish presence on campus and the need to address this surge in campus diversity. In the introduction to a 1972 report on the nascent Judaic Studies program, President Howard L. Rubendall wrote that "The presence of Judaic Studies at Dickinson has been... both a response to and a furtherance of the felt need for a mature exploration of the often ignored first member of the 'Judeo-Christian tradition'." The report, which sought funding for a two-year renewal of the Judaic Studies program, and hints at the need to establish an endowment, articulates the academic rationale for the development of a permanent Jewish Studies program. This rationale is founded in four principle beliefs (here I'm quoting from the report): "A belief that no apprehension of western cultural history is possible that omits considered attention to the continuing Jewish contributions inextricably woven into that history; a belief that the College should seek to reflect the contemporary activities and vitalities of its members; ...a belief that the presence of a firm Judaic Studies Program on campus enlarges and deepens the resources for our students' quest for personal religious self-recognition; and finally, a belief that Dickinson...is in the best position among the members of the Central Pennsylvania Consortium of colleges to develop a specialized program of this sort which will serve the students of all four colleges."

The report acknowledged that the establishment of Judaic studies serves as an important corrective to the Christian-focused study of the so-called "Judeo-Christian Tradition" typical of university curricula, but also notes the need to accommodate the increasingly diverse nature of the student body. Citing a Jewish student population of about 200, the report urged that these students "ought to have access to the best possible understanding of their own traditions." "Our task," Rubendall wrote at the conclusion of his introduction, quoting Elie Wiesel, 'is to make Jews better Jews and Christians better Christians.'"

Rubendall's focus on religious identity, and his quoting of a noted holocaust memoirist, are representative of this period. The 1970s was a time of enormous growth in Judaic studies on college campuses. The First Jewish Catalog, a do-it-yourself guide to Jewish life published in 1973, lists 66 colleges and universities offering eight or more courses in Jewish studies. Notably, of those only four are small liberal arts institutions: Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Smith and Dickinson; Smith and Dickinson are the only small colleges offering a major in the field. It is equally telling that Dickinson's first appointment in Jewish studies, Ned Rosenbaum, built a program that while centered on the study of classical texts and biblical Hebrew, fostered Jewish-Christian dialogue, and worked to create important connections between the College and the Carlisle Jewish community. In this generation, the generation in which Yale was a religion major, at the college, Judaic studies was again deemed a useful component of the liberal arts curriculum, this time as a means of addressing the needs of an increasingly diverse student body.

The establishment of the Sopha Ava Asbell Chair in Judaic Studies, and the endowment's support for a full-time line devoted to Hebrew Language, in some respects, is the fulfillment of Rush's commitment to Religion as a foundational component of study. With a permanent and enduring place in the College curriculum, the Chair in Judaic studies also fulfills the vision of those members of the Dickinson faculty who in the late 1960's pioneered a Jewish studies program at the college, hoping one day to establish an endowment. But, in what ways does this chair fulfill our present-day vision at Dickinson? How does Judaic Studies fit in to the exciting, innovative curriculum that every day attracts us more and more international recognition. How does Judaic studies move us forward in our pursuit of excellence?

I'd like to suggest that three core features of Judaic studies are strikingly resonant with Dickinson's strategic mission: First, by its very nature, Judaic studies (like the Jewish people for millennia) crosses borders; Second, the classical texts of Jewish tradition and the historic diversity of Jewish culture attests to Judaism's deep value for what I call "multi-vocality"; and third, given the level of religious conflict in our world, particularly in the middle east, the study of Judaism is most certainly "useful." If, for previous generations, Judaic studies represented an important corrective-adding back Jewish experiences and Jewish voices where they had been effaced or absent, or elided into the Christian experience, today we find that Jewish experience mirrors contemporary reality in striking ways.

Surviving more than two thousand years of existence in diaspora, Jewish communities have flourished in nearly every corner of the globe despite repeated persecution and disempowerment. Judaic studies courses at Dickinson today ask: How has Jewish identity been constructed and reconstructed in the different places Jews have lived? What constitutes the boundaries of a Jewish community and how have Jews negotiated such boundaries? How have assimilation and acculturation affected Jewish identity? Is Jewish identity enriched or compromised through intercultural contact typical of diaspora cultures? Is Judaism a religion or an ethnic identity? What is Jewishness and is it separable from Judaism? The complexity of Jewish identites, in the context of Judaic studies, thus becomes a springboard for exploring the complexity of contemporary human reality.

Further, just as our courses on US Diversity routinely subvert the hegemonies of race, class and gender, Judaic studies courses subvert religious hegemony by calling attention to the fact that the narrative of western civilization has largely been told through a Christian lens. Positioned both as insider and outsider in relation to the West, Jewish intellectuals are uniquely poised to discuss issues of center and margin. It seems to me that other college initiatives like Crossing borders, Community Studies and the American Mosaic programs are similarly focused on the need to complicate our students preconceptions about inherited narratives.

When we study Jewish history, it becomes apparent that the Jews' diaspora condition has enriched Jewish culture rather than weakened it. The most highly creative moments in Jewish history have been those moments when Jews were thrust into intense interaction with other cultures. For example, Jews' encounter with Persian and Hellenistic culture in the second temple period, while challenging traditional sensibilities, influenced the development of important ancient works of philosophy and biblical interpretation, and even helped give rise to that popular ancient Jewish sect, Christianity. Maimonides' later encounter with Aristotelian philosophy produced some of the most influential philosophical and legal works, written in Arabic, that are authoritative in Jewish religious circles to this very day. Some of Judaism's most beautiful liturgical compositions and mystical texts were authored during the golden age of Spain, when Jewish, Christian and Muslim intellectuals enjoyed the luxury of academic interaction. Judaism's encounter with American feminism is also an example of the profound effect of cultural interaction on Jewish religious life, and a reminder of the vast creative potential inherent in the meeting of differences. In the same way, today, the contemporary Jewish encounter with eastern religions, particularly Yoga and American Buddhism, is fueling an important renaissance in Jewish meditation and mysticism, inspiring new modes of prayer and transforming American synagogue life. Judaic studies is the study of border crossings-the Jewish experience truly exemplifies the creativity that comes from engagement across boundaries.

"Multi-vocality" is yet another powerful feature of Jewish culture which makes Judaic studies a fitting partner for the liberal arts. The very fact of the vast diversity of Jewish experience throughout the diaspora, documented so powerfully in the photographic essays of Frédéric Brenner, reminds us that we can never talk about a single Judaism, with a capital J. We are always looking at Judaisms, always encountering a polyphony of voices.


One of the most vivid ways of illustrating this concept is to examine a page of the Talmud. The Talmud is a vast compendium of Jewish law, an encyclopedia of sorts, compiled over several centuries. A page of Talmud is the site of a conversation that takes place across space and time. Formed around a core legal text, called the Mishna, the Talmud represents the practical interpretation and application of biblical law. Though ostensibly a legal code, the Talmud incorporates many different heuristic styles. In and of itself, the Talmud actually resembles an interdisciplinary liberal arts curriculum. Its discussions encompass a full spectrum of legend, language, literature, agriculture, law, business, history, mathematics, ethics, finance, astronomy, and religion. Even gender and women's studies have their place in this vast body of material! The Talmud thus represents a system of thinking, an inclusive curriculum of practical, useful knowledge.

The move from one subject to another is associative, much like the logic that underlies the World Wide Web. Indeed, writer Jonathan Rosen in his book, The Talmud and the Internet, makes a great deal of this analogy. He writes, "The Talmud offered a virtual home for an uprooted culture, and grew out of the Jewish need to pack civilization into words and wander out into the world....[Jews] became the people of the Book because they had no place else to live...That loss...lies at the heart of the Talmud, for all its plenitude. The Internet, which we are continually told binds us all together, nevertheless engenders...a similar sense of Diaspora, a feeling of being everywhere and nowhere. Where else but in the middle of Diaspora do you need a home page?"

In many respects, the Talmud is like a homepage-it even looks like one. On a single page of Talmud, we hear voices from the third, sixth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, and sixteenth centuries; we move from Palestine to Babylonia (modern Iraq), Baghdad to Northern Europe; Southern Europe to Egypt and North Africa. When we remember that this same Talmud text is today still studied by Jews all over the world as a source of religious authority, this "home page" becomes a truly global site.

The Talmud's multi-vocality is perhaps its feature which most strikingly resonates with the philosophy of the liberal arts. The text preserves dialogue over generations, and includes multiple voices from within a single generation. Thus, through Jewish studies, we learn that diversity does not threaten, but rather enhances dialogue. In the case of the Talmudists, this dialogue was undertaken as a sacred duty, an act of religious worship. The complexity of their dialogue mirrors the complexity of the Divine. Each created in God's image, infinitely varied human voices bring an ancient text to life. In the context of a liberal arts college, the Talmud reminds us of one of our own core values at Dickinson: that all voices matter, and that as a community we are most enriched when no voice is silenced.

Finally, as Benjamin Rush knew well, an understanding of Judaism is essential knowledge for those "adventurers" we expect to go out and truly "engage the world." The complex nexus of religion and politics that dominates headlines, plays havoc with our economy, and continues to take human lives around the globe, demands that its next generation of citizen-leaders be trained to understand religious difference. The establishment of the Sophia Ava Asbell Chair in Judaic Studies represents a very significant step in the fulfillment of that mission at Dickinson College. We must all express our deep gratitude to Yale and Audrey Asbell for this historic and most appropriate gift to the College.