Jun 09, 2015
People of Jewish origin have suffered unimaginable atrocities in Germany. And yet, many historians are interested primarily in those who oppose this major world religion, focusing on anti-Semites and their motivations. At the Institute of Jewish Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, a different focus dominates the discourse: Scholars here primarily study the history of Judaism.
“The institute’s founders wanted to know what Judaism is, not how anti-Semitism works,” says Professor Tal Ilan. Ilan herself primarily studies rabbinical literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and gender issues. She views herself as a scholar of antiquity. Ilan says, “I am interested in the origins of Judaism, but also in the period from 1000 BC to 500 AD and the history of the Persian, Roman, Hellenistic, and Byzantine empires.”
The crucial period in the history of Judaism is the biblical, pre-Christian era that ends with the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II in the year 586 BC. “From then on, the Jews were a divided people. Some stayed in their homeland, while others were expelled and had to live in the diaspora.” This interaction between homeland and diaspora, she says, has remained a formative part of Jewish identity to this day.
The Institute of Jewish Studies, which was founded in 1964 as the first of its kind in Germany, is home to two regular professorships. It covers the entire history of Judaism, from its earliest origins in antiquity to the modern era and up to the foundation of the state of Israel. “With two professors, we can’t specialize in all possible fields, so we have established certain areas of focus for our research: antiquity and the Middle Ages. But the modern period is also part of our teaching activities,” Ilan says. For her part she deals with antiquity. Her colleague Giulio Busi focuses on the Middle Ages, with support from junior professor Lukas Mühlethaler.
Jewish studies is a subject with a pronounced focus on text. With that in mind, the first requirement for all students is to learn Hebrew, the language in which all of the crucial texts are written. The institute’s research activities involve critical readings of these source materials. “We talk about Jews and do research about Jews, but students are not required to be Jewish, nor does it give them a particular advantage. For those of us in Jewish studies, the only thing that counts is the historical source material,” Ilan says.
The institute takes an inclusive approach: It is open to different perspectives and willing to entertain comparisons between Judaism and Islam and between Judaism and Christianity. The scholars also work together with Arab and Iranian colleagues. “There are no restrictions,” Ilan says. “Our aim is to look at Jewish topics objectively, not emotionally. This is the only way to understand what Judaism truly is.”
This text originally appeared in German on May 23, 2015, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.