The Independent Florida Alligator, April 5 1999, page 3

Jewish Studies: Today vs. Tradition

By Zophia Rendon, Alligator Writer


When Michael Rothenberg came to UF in 1995 to pursue Jewish studies, he hoped to leave the university with a deeper knowledge about what Jewish people of different faith levels believe and why.

Rothenberg knew the history of Judaism, so he wanted to know other, more personal aspects of the religion.

But the Orthodox Jew says UF's Jewish-studies department teaches a conservative, history-based view that sometimes leaves students without a full perspective of how Jews live and practice their faith.

"It's sad that a lot of people are leaving 'Intro to Judaism' perplexed. They have no idea about the religion except history," explains Rothenberg, president of the Orthodox Jewish student group Tikvah. "If I were to take an introduction to Christianity course, I would expect to hear about how Christians worship and what they believe, because it's not my own faith."

He and some of the other 6,000 Jewish students at UF want a more modern approach in their studies, an approach already being taken on by several other U.S. universities.

Across the nation, schools are focusing on the personal philosophies behind Judaism first, letting the religion's traditional historical principles take a back seat.

Colleges like Columbia, Boston University and the University of Miami have Jewish-studies programs that emphasize learning Jewish culture and religion along with telling students how the religion came to be.

Issues like gender, ethnicity and the way Jews are portrayed within comedy and television are being addressed within Jewish studies at places like Brandeis University and the University of California at Berkeley.

Seeking a fresh approach

As the Jewish-studies department searches for a director to succeed Warren Bargad, who retired last month after serving more than a decade, some Jewish students say this is the chance to bring the department up to speed.

They want a director who ushers in some of the new attitudes being assumed in other academic circles.

They do not want to phase out all historical teaching of their religion - they agree with their professors that it belongs there. They just want some of UF's 30 or so Jewish-studies classes to show students what being Jewish really means.

"I'd like to see Hebrew scripture taught as Hebrew scripture, not just a book written hundreds of years ago," Rothenberg says, explaining he worries students will leave the department's classes with an incomplete education in Judaism.

Parts of the covenant upon which Jews base their beliefs are 613 commandments from God, which Jews use as a model for everyday life. Raanon Gal, Jewish Student Union president, says those commandments are glossed over in his classes.

"The commandments are talked about very briefly in the classes, but observing God's commandments is how we live. You can learn about history, but what makes Judaism so special is the Jewish people's unique covenant with God," he says.

Aaron Alexander, a religion junior and practicing Jew who has taken many Jewish-studies classes here, sees nothing wrong with the way Jewish studies and other religions are taught. 'The religion department does an excellent job of offering diverse classes and having teachers that are knowledgeable in a lot of religions," he explains.

In all of his classes, Alexander says he receives the scholarly point of view and the religious beliefs from objective teachers.

"The most important thing is that teachers convey both sides," he says. "If that doesn't happen, it's a problem."

A secular institution

Sheldon Isenberg, interim director of Jewish studies, says students have to understand that UF- is not a religious school but a secular institution, where professors have the freedom to decide the focus of their classes.

"If the person who is teaching has a historical orientation, then that's what they get," says Isenberg, who teaches a course in Jewish mysticism.

Leo Sandgren, who came to UF one year ago from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to teach "Introduction to Judaism" and other Jewish-studies courses, says beliefs cannot be taught without a historical base.

"My theory is, let's start with the historical perspective and see where (the beliefs) developed," Sandgren explains.

But some UF students in his class wrote in recent course evaluations that they want more beliefs taught.

"I think my class gives an accurate view of what it means to be Jewish, (although) I don't know how thorough," Sandgren says, adding he is open to changing some of his curriculum.

"It's a class for students, not believers," he says, while admitting about 75 percent of students in the Jewish studies classes he teaches are Jewish.

But Rothenberg says his concerns with what he describes as 'incompleteness' in UF's department are not just for himself.

"There's so many positive things in the Jewish department - we just want to build on them," Rothenberg said.

The person to build on those things, he says, should be the next director.

"(UF's Jewish Studies Department) is very valuable, and it needs to be current and competitive with other schools."