When David Wasserstein, the first holder of the Eugene Greener Jr. Chair in Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt, spoke at the Nash-ville downtown public library recently, he drew quite a crowd. His noontime talk, “Islam and Europe—Sites of Conflict,” was intended to get people thinking about Europe’s longstanding relationship with Islam and what it can teach us.
For the general public, perhaps, it was clear that as a scholar of both Islamic and Judaic history, particularly of the medieval period, Wasserstein was in a unique position to address one of the great questions of our time: Is the war on terrorism part of an inherent clash of civilizations?
But that was far from the only question on the crowd’s mind. One after another they stood up: “Is religion the only filter in the Islamic world?” “With Muslims already outnumbering Jews in the U.S., will we soon have to tinker with our Constitution to accommodate them?”
One man compared Southerners’ display of the Confederate flag and their unwillingness to forget the Civil War to the Muslims’ unwillingness to forget the Crusades. And an older man lamented, “We Muslims are all paying for Sept. 11.”
Wasserstein may not have all the answers, but the fact that the questions are being so wholeheartedly asked of him—by students, public and the press—is how he knows he made the right decision in leaving a longtime post as an Islamicist at Tel Aviv University to take a position as a professor of history and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt in 2004.
“Before I left Israel,” recalls Wasserstein, “colleagues said to me, ‘You’ve never lived in America. You’ve never taught in an American university. Why not just take a year’s leave from Tel Aviv, go there, and see if you like it?’
“And that was excellent advice, from good friends,” he says. “So I did what one does with good advice—I totally ignored it. I resigned my job, came here and, I must say, seem to have landed on my feet. I’m very happy here. It’s been what a challenge should be. It’s made me think on my feet, and act, and get things done.”
Much of that challenge came as director of the fledgling Jewish Studies program. During his three-year-term, which ended last year and was only the second in the program’s history, his goal was to grow the number of students at both the undergraduate and master’s levels. He also worked to get more courses on the books, offered by different departments, and to deepen the relationship between the program and other parts of the university.
“We’ve always had a thin stream of majors and a slightly thicker stream of minors,” Wasserstein says. “It takes time. But the program is beginning to make its mark on campus.”
He gives Vanderbilt a lot of credit for that, expressed through both the generous support of the institution and the encouragement of its people. And he is quick to make clear that “Jewish studies is not just for Jews. I’ve had students of all religions and none. The way I see it, Jewish studies should be as much a part of the humanities and social sciences curriculum as economics or French.”
Exemplifying such universal significance is a class he is preparing for 2009–2010 that will take a wide variety of Jewish texts and pair each one with a non-Jewish text. Students might compare the New Testament with Homer, perhaps, or with the Koran.
“People think of the New Testament as a non-Jewish text, and in one sense, obviously, it is,” he says. “But I want to make my students think, to challenge them. So I point out that almost everything in the New Testament was written by Jews and addressed to Jews. The idea here is to make students ask themselves, What is Jewish about a Jewish text?”
Wasserstein himself came to Jewish studies only after beginning his college career in classics. Born and brought up in England, he moved with his family to Israel just two years after the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, in which Israel gained control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights from its Arab neighbors.
“Shortly after we moved back to Israel, my interest in the Middle East was sparked. I wanted to understand that world—my world—much better. So a couple of years later, I gave up studying Latin and Greek to study Arabic and Islam. Then I added Hebrew and Jewish studies later on.”
By the time he earned his doctorate at Oxford University, his research of these cultures so often at odds had convinced him that a person really can’t study one without the other very easily. He also realized that because of his diverse academic background, he was less limited by disciplinary boundaries and could indulge interests that span all three areas, such as when he completed a book, The Legend of the Septuagint (2006, Cambridge University Press), that his father, a professor of Greek, had left unfinished at his death.
The Septuagint, the most influential of the Greek versions of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, was adapted and changed through the centuries by Jews, pagans, Christians and Muslims. The Wassersteins’ book addresses all these versions, with the authors demonstrating “an extraordinary range of interests and linguistic skills,” according to the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
To aid his work, David Wasserstein has learned an astounding 22 languages well enough to read documents or books in those languages. He will draw on them, and a range of other interests, for his next book, which he plans to write on sabbatical as a fellow at the Davis Center at Princeton University during the 2008–09 academic year.
“I don’t know if this is going to be the title,” he says, “because it sounds a little flashy. But the subject, if you like, is ‘How Islam Saved the Jews.’”
When Islam came along, he explains, the number of Jews in the Christian world was dwindling. Oppressed by Christian states, the Jews’ legal and economic status was deteriorating, together with their cultural identity and knowledge of the Hebrew language.
“If you were an outside observer in 600, looking at the world of Christendom, you would have said the Jews were on their way out. They were basically all converting slowly—sometimes willingly, sometimes less willingly—and Judaism was on the way out.
“In the East, in the area that is now Iraq, Judaism probably would have died out, too, though over a much longer period. And Judaism simply would have disappeared from world history.
“But then Islam came along,” he continues, “conquered both the Persian Empire and most of the Byzantine Empire, and created a new world with new conditions—not deliberately, not consciously on the part of Islam—but created a new situation for Jews in which they could flourish. And they did flourish, particularly in Spain. They created a renaissance in Jewish life within the world of Islam.”
One could predict that when Wasserstein speaks publicly about this book, he’s likely to draw larger crowds than ever, providing an answer to that seemingly eternal question: No, there is no inherent clash of civilizations between Jews and Muslims, between the West and Islam.
As a historian, however, he’s also on guard against simplistic generalizations. “It’s absurd to look at some aspect of the Middle Ages and say, It was wonderful then; it can be wonderful again now. The situations are so different.”
Nevertheless, he believes the destiny of the Jews and Arabs is to live together, and that how they do so is a question that cannot be answered simply by extremists at either end of the spectrum of do-gooding peace lovers or terrorist ideologues.
“If you want to understand what’s going on in the Middle East, you don’t have to look backward,” says Wasserstein. “But it certainly is a very great help to do so.” V
© 2014 Vanderbilt University | Photography: John Russell | Illustrations: PAUL GIOVANOPOULOS
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