Question: Do you see the college classroom as the place for an inspiring Jewish learning experience?
Answer: I hope that I’m going to answer this correctly, but how I’m understand this is that you are talking about taking Judaic studies classes, as opposed to going to a Torah lecture or a Torah study group of some kind. They are very different and people respond to them in different ways. It’s very difficult off the bat to say whether someone will find something inspiring. Torah study is clearly meant to be inspiring. Academic Judaic studies is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.
I’m going to avoid a long lecture on the history of academic Judaic studies and mostly speak about my own experiences with it. I majored in Near Eastern Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, and NEJS classes constituted quite a bit of my early Jewish knowledge. I didn’t have much of a background in the topic but was very interested to learn about my culture. I was expecting to be inspired about the accomplishments of my people. That’s not what Judaic Studies was about.
Some professors just told over the facts of history, and some told the story better than others. Other professors were clearly agenda driven and made it clear what their agenda was. Their purpose was to in a sense debunk the tradition understanding of what Judaism is, and disprove the Torah. Jewish tradition is treated by scholars as suspect, or to say better “guilty until proven innocent.” Documentary Hypothesis, the theory that the Five Books of Moses (Humash) was written over several centuries by multiple authors and stuck together 2,500 years ago (poorly to boot), is taught as fact in universities despite the fact that none of the original documents been produced to support it and archaeological findings are more and more coming to establish the traditionalist view of Jewish history. The following story should illustrate what I’m speaking about well:
During one of my history classes, I had the pleasure of hearing from a world-renowned scholar who claimed to have ‘proved’ the existence of the Baal Shem Tov. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, was the founder of the Hassidic movement and had many important students including the Maggid of Mezeritch and the Noam Elimelech, not to mention hundreds of thousands of followers to this day. Before that class I hadn’t thought his existence was ever in question, yet in academic Judaic studies this is not only a topic worthy of class time but also of years of research.
Academic Judaic studies can be fascinating. I would not describe it as inspiring, and it is definitely not spiritual. In a sense it’s a class like math or science, and at the same time it is very clearly politically charged. If you are looking to learn more or have your mind teased, both religious Torah studies and academic Judaic studies can meet that need, each in their respective way. If you are looking to be inspired, Torah classes are the way to go.