The Magic of Penn's Center for

Advanced Judaic Studies

by David B. Ruderman

 Situated in a handsome six-story building across from Independence Hall and some thirty blocks from campus, the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies is a treasure that can easily be overlooked by the Penn community. It should not be missed by anyone who takes seriously the University's mission to foster cross-cultural study and intellectual exchange that creates new insights by crossing the boundaries of traditional disciplines.

The Center was created in 1993 by the merger of the Annenberg Research Institute with Penn and has been functioning under the aegis of the School of Arts and Sciences. As the world's only institute for advanced studies in Jewish civilization, it annually selects one or two themes of study and chooses some twenty fellows from a large applicant pool for a year of intense research. The fellows, who come from Europe, the Middle East, and North America, hold weekly seminars that culminate in an international conference and a published volume. Most of the fellows come from a broad cross-section of scholars engaged in the numerous sub-fields of Judaic studies, while others bring fresh perspectives from other fields. Many are senior scholars; others are young post-docs. The challenge is to shape this diverse group of men and women, young and old, Jews and non-Jews into a cohesive learning community that will leave an enduring mark within and beyond Jewish studies. The Center also aims to create a powerful engine that will carry into the next century a creative encounter between Jewish and American civilizations.

This year's two research groups are wonderful examples of the Center's vitality. One group, on the Hebrew poetry of Spain, Italy, and Germany in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, brings together leading scholars in that field from Israel, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France. It also includes experts on Arabic and Romance poetry, Jewish philosophy, mysticism, and history. The second group considers the connections between the European Enlightenment and the Jewish Enlightenment known as the Haskalah. Originally organized by two Penn professors, one in German philosophy, the other in German literature, it brings together scholars of history, art history, philosophy, and literature from the United States, England, Italy, and Israel. A regular influx of faculty and graduate students from Penn and other local universities catalyzes the research activities of both groups. Participants' diverse backgrounds and perspectives yield discussions that are always fresh, delightfully invigorating, and deeply satisfying.

Even more remarkable are the chance encounters among the fellows. Since their offices are assigned to facilitate exchange from scholars of diverse backgrounds, the agenda of each research group has spilled over to the other. Many in the poetry group attend the Enlightenment seminar and vice versa. Without the Center, neither group would have had the opportunity for such fruitful interaction. The closing conference will unite the two groups into one, focusing broadly on the theme of cross-cultural dialogues from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. As in the past, this year's groups will leave a significant impact on each participant, on the way each sees his/her own discipline and eventually on the intellectual communities to which each scholar and teacher returns.

The Center is committed to sharing its "brain-power" with the community at Penn and beyond. Fellows are expected to establish personal and intellectual links with their disciplinary communities at Penn. Several fellows teach undergraduate and graduate courses; some meet regularly and offer assistance to graduate students; others speak in various forums run by Jewish Studies, Hillel, and other campus sponsors. The symbiotic relationship among the Center, Penn's Jewish Studies program, and other programs in the humanities and social sciences is mutually enriching. In addition to their work at Penn, fellows also participate in public lecture series throughout the greater Philadelphia area, New York, and Miami. And the Center regularly hosts local groups of visitors, runs an annual workshop for local teachers, organizes special programs for clergy and other educators, and opens its world-class collection of Judaica to a steady stream of guests.

Every year the Center welcomes a new group of scholars and invites bold initiatives for creative research. Next fall's fellows, organized by Princeton historian Anthony Grafton and Hebrew University kabbalah scholar Moshe Idel, will study the emergence of Christian Hebraism in medieval and early modern Europe. This unique group was assembled from scholars in the fields of history, philosophy, literature, and anthropology. In future years the Center will consider the arts (music, art, and film) and their connections with modern Jewish Culture, Jews and Christians in Muslim lands in the 19th and 20th centuries, and comparative diasporas in the ancient and medieval world. Each year will offer new opportunities to engage a different constituency of Penn's faculty and students, to create new public programs and forums, and to educate a wider public in the richness of Jewish civilization and its creative encounters with other cultures. Because of the Center and its partner, the Jewish Studies program, Penn has become the intellectual leader in Judaic studies in this country. Never in the long history of Judaism have there existed so many opportunities for the study of Judaism in a secular university. By molding together all these diverse resources and perspectives, and stimulating a new collective discourse, Penn has created an institution of higher learning unparalleled in Jewish history.  

 The Center for Judaic Studies, at 420 Walnut Street, as seen from the interior.

Dr. Ruderman is the Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History in SAS and director of the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.

Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 23, March 2, 1999