Response from Rabbi David E. Ostrich: Israel Studies Has an Israel Problem

[Since the launch of SAPIR, we have received a number of letters to the editor, and have decided to begin publishing a select few on this page. Although we cannot publish every letter, please know we read and appreciate all that we receive. Letters may be submitted to letters@sapirjournal.org. —Editor.]

To the Editors:

Thanks so much for pursuing the SAPIR project. It brings clear-headed thinking to many of the issues facing our Judaism and our world, and it is most appreciated. 

Thank you, also, for starting this Letters to the Editor feature. Though I often want to jump in on the discussion for an article or two each issue, this recent issue found me chomping at the bit on several articles because they resonated so much with my experiences. My main position is that of a congregational rabbi, but I have also served as an adjunct instructor at Penn State, and I have been distressed over the trends in modern thinking and scholarship that your essayists decry. 

At one point, the Jewish Studies Program decided that it needed a mission statement, and we met to work on the wording. For a sentence about our scholarly goals and approaches, no one seemed able to conjure the right word. To me, the term “objective” was obvious: our scholarship aspires to be objective. When I said the word out loud, however, there was an audible silence. It was as though I had emitted a rude sound—or uttered a prohibited word. It turned out to be the latter. After an uncomfortable silence, one of the younger professors (a signatory on the anti-Zionist letter cited in Ari Blaff’s essay) said that such a word is not allowed. There was no explanation or discussion. Clearly, I had committed a faux pas. After the meeting, an older professor explained to me that the new generation of scholars does not believe in objectivity—that it is considered a biased word which disrespects other points of view. It assumes that there is an objective truth—which there is not!—and attempts to silence other and valid truths. The older professor counseled me that this is “just the way the younger scholars have been trained.”

I understand that true objectivity is an elusive goal—that all sorts of biases contribute to our thinking. But, with the aid of the scholarly method—of other scholars challenging our thinking and purging it of the impurities of bias and relative ignorance, we strive to get closer to objectivity. We are constantly rethinking and re-investigating and testing our conclusions against those of our colleagues—and, in so many ways, we make progress in understanding our various subjects. To deny the possibility of objective truth is distressing to me. It also opens the door to all sorts of fuzzy-headed thinking—the results of which we see all too often.

Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Congregation Brit Shalom, State College, PA