The Bridge Builder

Peter Schäfer headed the Institute of Jewish Studies at Freie Universität. He has been the Director of the Jewish Museum Berlin since 2013.

Aug 21, 2014

Peter Schäfer, einer der bedeutendsten Judaistik- Experten für die Zeit der Antike und des frühenMittelalters, wird das Jüdische Museum leiten.
Peter Shäfer, one of the leading experts in Jewish studies for the period from antiquity to the early Middle Ages, is the director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Image Credit: Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Yves Sucksdorff

If the Institute of Jewish Studies at Freie Universität Berlin were a person, it would look back on 2014 as a year of joy and celebration. Not only did it celebrate its 50th anniversary – having been founded in 1964 as the first institution of its kind in what was then West Germany – in June, but starting in September, Professor Peter Schäfer, one of the directors responsible for shaping the institute, will head the Jewish Museum Berlin as well.

Schäfer, 70, was the head of the renowned Institute of Jewish Studies at Freie Universität from 1983 until 2003. He spent the last five years of this period going back and forth between Dahlem and Princeton, which had also appointed him to a professorship in 1998. Schäfer, who is taking over as head of the Jewish Museum from the 88-year-old W. Michael Blumenthal, sees his new office as a great honor.

Schäfer plans to use his connection to the institute at Freie Universität for his future duties. It is no accident, he says, that the university founded in 1948 became a pioneer in the field of Jewish studies in Germany. After all, at the time it was one of the few German universities to have been established after the end of the Nazi era. The founding director of the institute, sociologist of religion and Jewish studies scholar Jacob Taubes, came from the U.S., a country which has played a special role for Freie Universität Berlin ever since the university was founded.

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With this in mind, Schäfer fought with all his might, during his time as the institute’s director, against efforts to have the institute become part of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin after German reunification. “Jewish studies belongs to Freie Universität; it is part of the university’s history and part of what makes the university what it is,” says the researcher, whose main field includes Jewish studies of Late Antiquity. This was a period when crucial works such as both Talmuds and the Midrash arose, offering an exegesis of religious texts in rabbinical Judaism. “They define Judaism to this day,” says Schäfer, who dedicated his life as a researcher to understanding these works.

The institute flourished under his aegis. Schäfer was tireless in his efforts to secure funding, and he expanded the number of professorships to three – which, for a long time, made the Institute of Jewish Studies in Berlin the best equipped of its kind in Germany, with a correspondingly broad range of research and teaching activities. More and more students and instructors flocked to the world-renowned institute in Berlin, including some from Israel who for historical reasons had previously taken a more skeptical stance toward Germany.

“As a Judaist, you simply can’t get around the work done by the institute in Berlin these days,” says Schäfer. The fact that there will be a cooperative relationship with the institute in Dahlem now that he is heading the Jewish Museum is already a foregone conclusion, says the highly decorated scholar, who was not only the only German ever to hold a chair in Jewish studies at Princeton, but is also the only one to have been awarded both the Leibniz Prize and the Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award, the highest honor for scholars of the humanities in the United States.

In the past, he says, cooperation between the two institutions was “more of a loose relationship.” While many students of Jewish studies worked as museum guides and professors occasionally advised the museum on exhibitions, these things took place very sporadically. The museum would like to have a stronger cooperative relationship, Schäfer says, and not just with the Institute of Jewish Studies, but also “with the Judaic studies and Jewish landscape in Berlin and Brandenburg, which has become richer.”

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One possible interface might be the museum’s recently founded academy, which is tasked with strengthening the institution’s scholarly and research side. Schäfer is not worried that the museum and its exhibitions might become too academic or too “top-heavy” due to the connection with the university. On the contrary, he is convinced that the upcoming redesign of the permanent exhibition could benefit from scholarly impetus. And the researchers would be forced to communicate their findings to non-academic audiences as well as academic ones. In the United States in particular, Schäfer says, he personally experienced just how beneficial mutual sharing and dialogue can be.

Schäfer hopes that his academic background will help him unite the two sides: the in-depth dimension and general comprehensibility. This is likely one of the reasons that Schäfer was chosen for this high-profile position, where he has big shoes to fill after W. Michael Blumenthal.

Schäfer feels a connection with the institute in Dahlem, even more than ten years after his departure. Not only did he keep up his ties with Berlin the entire time, but there is also a certain unmistakable note of pride when he speaks of it: As a German institute, the Institute of Jewish Studies in Berlin always had it tougher than comparable institutions in other countries, since publications and findings from Berlin were always viewed with reservations. Schäfer says he did not realize this until he was in Princeton, where he suddenly felt greater freedom as a scholar because in the U.S. political climate, not every publication was scrutinized for possible latent anti-Semitism.

In Germany, by contrast, Schäfer faced questions when defending his dissertation – on the Holy Spirit in Jewish literature – about whether he, with his Christian background, was even capable of studying this kind of topic impartially in the first place. He countered with a quote from Jacob Taubes, who said a person didn’t have to be a triangle to be a mathematician. “No one in the U.S. would ask a question like that,” Schäfer says.

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Further Information

This text originally appeared in German on August 21, 2014, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.