A graduate education, it seems to me, should impart a detailed and accurate knowledge of a specialized topic. (Undergraduate liberal education, by contrast, should impart a somewhat vague and general knowledge of everything.) A graduate program should draw the graduate student into the ongoing debate over the meaning of their subject matter. In Jewish studies, graduate students must learn to take their stands within the great modern debate over the meaning and direction of Judaism, Jewishness, and the Jews. This implies that each student must begin to formulate her or his personal convictions. Furthermore (here is where detailed and accurate knowledge become important) he or she must have an understanding and appreciation of opposing positions, and locate his own convictions within the universe of opinions and interpretations of Judaism, and in this way, begin to participate in the great conversation of Judaism.
The professor, like the student, must be willing to express personal opinions and interpretations. But the professor, far more even than the student, must be open to the full range of interpretations of Judaism, so that the classroom may become a place in which every formulation is sharpened, every insight is treasured, every spark is raised, and every thought is respected.
To debate myths is also to correct myths. The world is awash in half-truths about Jews and Judaism, in simplistic stereotypes, dubious generalizations, legends with little or no basis in fact, out-and-out lies, and slogans and formulas so devoid of content or meaning that they hardly count as lies or legends or even myths. Sometimes students are so discouraged by this great mass of half-truth and that it seems that nothing else can exist -- only spin, fluff, and legends. Graduate education in Jewish studies must start with myth and stereotypes. But it must work to nuance and correct stereotypes, to add detail and complexity to generalizations, to offer new and more accurate generalizations and concepts, and to distinguish probable fact from improbable legend.
Most of all, graduate education must work -- it is often rather hard work; professors and students do it together -- to cut through the fluff to what is essential, meaningful, and uplifting. Or (to use a slightly different image), we must work to breathe life into a multitude of voices. In doing so, we will participate in the unending conversation of interpretation and reinterpretation that unites the Jewish tradition and the Jewish world today.
Joseph M. Davis was born in 1960. He grew up in Providence, R.I., and attended college at Brown University. His Ph.D. is from Harvard University in the field of medieval Jewish history and literature. His area of academic specialization is the cultural and intellectual history of Ashkenazic Jews in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Professor Davis has been teaching at Gratz College since 1994. Before that, he taught at Washington University in St. Louis and at the University of Maryland. He teaches a variety of courses on aspects of medieval Jewish culture and thought and on modern Jewish thought.
In March, 2007, Dr. Davis was appointed to the position of Academic Coordinator of the Distance Learning Program. Under the direction of the Dean for Academic Affairs and within the budgetary guidelines established by the College Administration, the Academic Coordinator of Distance Learning Program is responsible for maintaining and enhancing the academic level of the College’s distance learning program. The Coordinator’s responsibilities include oversight of online instruction as well as working with the Directors of Information Technology and Distance Learning to help ensure the academic quality of the distance learning program.
He is the author of Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller: Portrait of a Seventeenth Century Rabbi (Oxford: Littman Library, 2004), and various journal articles. His most recent article, not yet published, traces the changing definitions of heresy among Ashkenazic Jews from the time of Rashi, about 1100, and until Moses Mendelssohn about 1780. Professor Davis began work this summer on an edition and translation of Eser She'elot ("Ten Questions") by Eliezer Eilburg, written about 1575, an unpublished work which is perhaps most radical statement of religious skepticism by any sixteenth century Jew.
Professor Davis's teachers include Professor Isadore Twersky and Professor Bernard Septimus, who were his dissertation advisers, Professor Jacob Neusner, Rabbi William Braude, Rabbi Saul Leeman, and his grandfather, Professor Louis Finkelstein. He lives in Bala Cynwyd with his wife Susan, their three children, and a cat.