Covering Jewish Life in Orange County

Joy of Jewish History

Forty years ago, there was a question of whether Jewish studies would be taken seriously as a discipline, according to Prof. David Ruderman, the 16th annual one-month scholar of the Orange County Community Scholar Program (OCCSP). Today, while there is a decline in the study of humanities, Jewish studies programs are thriving.

Prof. Ruderman, who said that he started teaching as a teenager, described his greatest joys as “writing about the Jewish past because it involves reviving the dead, resurrecting their memory ad modeling life after them; teaching; being a rabbi; and building institutions.” He spoke to a packed house of OCCSP members on January 3, the kickoff to a month-long program of lectures “that emerge from my own personal discovery of the Jewish past based on over forty years of research and teaching the subject.”

The Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History and formerly Ella Darivoff Director of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Prof. Ruderman believes that there is a connection between one’s writing and one’s teaching. He has written books on the history of the Jews in medicine and science, how Jews confronted the modern world, early modern Jewry and Jewish-Christian relations. He derives “passion and excitement from recovering our past,” he said.

Padua was one of the first universities to open its doors to Jews, and Judah Messer Leon was one of its graduates, Prof. Ruderman said. He wrote a book about rhetoric that was published in 1475 at a time when printing books was a new way to disseminate ideas. He theorized that it is not enough to know Torah but how to present it and said that the first orators were the prophets. Thus, the Bible is a work of rhetoric. He read Torah, learned academic tools and then realized that rhetoric was in the Torah all along, according to Prof. Ruderman.

“The academic study of Judaism is the Renaissance of Jewish learning,” Prof. Ruderman said. “There is so much knowledge available, but most Jews don’t take advantage of it.”

He concluded, “As a historian, you can use academic disciplines to learn things you never saw before in Jewish texts.”