Our Past

Derek Bok

In announcing the program that led to the establishment of the Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies, President Derek Bok said:

“The joining of one of the major strains of our culture in the Western world with an institution that for three centuries has been a symbol of intellectual excellence and humanitarian concern is a cause for great pride.”

Great pride, indeed. For the fact is that with the establishment of its Center, Harvard was not only building on its record of innovation and commitment in the field of Jewish Studies, it was also addressing and redressing a scholarly-cultural anomaly.


There is broad consensus that the civilization of the Jews–their history and literature, religion and philosophy, poetry, law, art, and music–is one of the richest complexes within the whole of Western culture. A small people numerically, and dispersed throughout much of their history into dozens of different lands and civilizations, the Jews created a cultural legacy out of all proportion with their material circumstances.

Yet, strangely, this great body of creativity was largely excluded from the world of the university for most of its history. Even the Hebrew Bible, perhaps the text of Western culture, was for centuries studied in Christian Europe only in translation. Later, even after the Hebrew language had begun to penetrate the world of the university, the Bible and the few scattered other Hebrew texts that came to be studied were generally approached in eerie isolation, separated from their historical matrix and frequently distorted for polemical purposes. As for the other aspects of Jewish civilization–the great fabric of Jewish history, literature and thought–these subjects continued to exist as a world apart. However much individual works from these domains may have influenced Western civilization, the cultural context in which they arose was largely passed over, and even the works themselves soon fell into neglect.


Harvard was the first American university, and perhaps the first in the world, to appoint a full-time scholar of Judaica to its faculty–and what a scholar! He was Harry Austryn Wolfson, the first Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy, clearly one of this century’s great humanists, a prolific and creative scholar in the history of philosophy. In many aspects he was Jewish Studies’ scholar laureate, acclaimed and admired throughout the world, beloved and honored. Professor Wolfson’s trail-blazing study of Jewish thinkers from Philo of Alexandria to Benedict Spinoza, and his systematic integration of the study of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian philosophy, attracted wide international attention.

Wolfson’s intense unqualified commitment to scholarship bore abundant fruit. His many well-known and justly celebrated volumes are monuments to the perspicacity and profundity of his life’s work: Crescas’ Critique of Aristotle: Problems of Aristotle’s Physics in Jewish and Arabic Philosophy (1929); The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Processes of His Reasoning, 2 vols. (1934); Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, 2 vols. (1947); The Philosophy of the Church Fathers: Faith, Trinity, Incarnation (1956); The Philosophy of the Kalam (1976); and Kalam Repercussions in Jewish Philosophy (1979). There are, in addition to these works, three book-length collections of papers and articles, some of which are full-fledged monographs of high quality and wide scope: Religious Philosophy: A Group of Essays(1961); Studies in the History of Philosophy and Religion, vol. 1 (1973), vol. 2 (1977). Each one of these large tomes in its own right could and would be a scholar’s pride. Yet while each constituted a major contribution to its particular field, the books likewise concretize Wolfson’s over-arching thesis about the Jewish role in the development of Western thought.

By establishing the first chair in an American university completely devoted to Jewish Studies, Harvard has done much to highlight the important role that Jewish Studies has to play in a humanities curriculum. Other universities have been less fortunate. Even at the time of Wolfson’s retirement in 1958, very few American universities offered any kind of program in Jewish Studies, and individual courses in Jewish subjects were generally “service courses” offered to specialists in church history, philosophy, and other disciplines. But some universities did take notice, and, by mid-century, a few fledgling programs in Jewish Studies had been inaugurated elsewhere.


Harvard’s program continues to grow. Even during Harry Wolfson’s tenure, the University library had begun building its Judaica collection; today, it has the leading university collection of Judaica in the country, comprising some 250,000 books, periodicals, posters, microforms, pamphlets, broadsides, recordings, videotapes and manuscripts in Hebrew, Yiddish, and most of the languages of the world–truly a major intellectual resource. Professor Wolfson’s statement that the library’s objective is “to acquire every book that may be helpful to the scholar in his researches, or the presence of which may be stimulative to new researches” has guided the growth of this remarkable collection, which is indispensable to the flowering of Jewish scholarship.


In 1970, Harvard acknowledged the importance of its Jewish Studies program by establishing a second tenured professorship in Hebrew and in Jewish History. This position was, and continues to be, wholly funded through general University funds. With two full-time faculty positions, Harvard could now offer a rich mixture of undergraduate and graduate courses in the areas of medieval and modern Jewish history and philosophy, and medieval and modern Hebrew language and literature. During these years, enrollments increased steadily, and while the number of concentrators in Jewish Studies remained small, numerous undergraduates were able to take at least one or two courses in Judaica while at Harvard.


Starting in the 1970s, a number of Harvard alumni, together with many prominent educational and communal leaders from throughout the United States, formed a National Committee to explore the possibility of establishing a center devoted exclusively to the furtherance of research and teaching of Jewish Studies at Harvard. Their efforts ultimately led to the founding of the Center in 1978. Here, at last, would be an institution capable of fostering a ramified interdepartmental and interdisciplinary program that could deepen and integrate the study of the language, literature, history, philosophy, and religion of the Jewish People.

 Now in its fourth decade, the Center for Jewish Studies has done much to fulfill this mandate. It has become the focal point for Jewish Studies at Harvard, successfully coordinating diverse research efforts, initiating publications, convening scholarly conferences, lectures, seminars and colloquia, many in collaboration with a wide variety of academic departments, centers and schools around Harvard. The Center supports student research and study, matching graduate students with fellowships in Jewish studies during the academic year, offering summer and J-term (January) research and study fellowships for undergraduate and graduate student research, supporting student-run research workshops in Jewish studies, and other special student and faculty projects. We aim to stimulate the broadest range of activities in the study of Judaica at Harvard.

Surely, the most significant result of the Center’s activities was the establishment of new professorships that have enabled Harvard to assemble a truly comprehensive program in Jewish Studies, from the biblical period to modern Israel: The Harry Starr Chair of Classical and Modern Jewish and Hebrew Literature, the Jacob E. Safra Chair of Jewish History and Sephardic Civilization, the Gerard Weinstock Visiting Professorship, the Harry A. Wolfson Professorship, the Rohr Visiting Professorship in Modern Israel Studies, the Albert List Chair of Jewish Studies at the Divinity School, and most recently the William Frost Professorship of Jewish History. The impact of these appointments is clearly felt, and all indications are that we have achieved our goal of adding strength to strength as well as expanding our course offerings and research interests; these reflect a conception of Jewish Studies that applies the classical disciplines of history, philology, and literary study to the entire Jewish tradition.

 These new positions have thus moved Harvard to the very forefront of research and teaching in the areas to which they are dedicated, and together have made our academic program one of the strongest in the world.