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Judaic center provides scholars forum for debate Students of Hebrew Bible find a careful reading at Philadelphia facility

PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA - Bernard Levinson is challenging a sacred cow of biblical scholars, and some of the biblical scholars are challenging back.

The bearded, 45-year-old Canadian sits at the head of the long table in the sixth-floor conference room of the Center for Judaic Studies, formerly the Annenberg Research Institute, in the 9-year-old modern-Colonial building.

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Listening thoughtfully, after polishing off a kosher lunch, are the 17 biblical scholars - 12 men and five women, all called fellows - who are spending the academic year doing research at the center, and several visitors from the University of Pennsylvania.

Levinson is an associate fellow. He comes to Philadelphia once a week to research his specialty - Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies. The rest of his time he spends in Princeton, where he is this year a member of the Institute for Advanced Study. He holds a chair of Jewish studies at the University of Minnesota.

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He reads his paper rapidly, as if anxious to get through centuries of history and years of research in the span of an hour.

Reading Exodus 34

Traditionally, he notes, biblical scholars have accepted the idea that Chapter 34 of Exodus is one of the earliest chapters in the legal and ritual texts of the Torah, the first five books of Moses, written around the eighth century B.C. But a close reading of the text, he declares, reveals that it was written probably around the late sixth century B.C., when the Jews returned from Babylonian exile and added matters of substance.

A challenge comes from Gary Rendsburg, professor of biblical studies at Cornell. There could be other reasons for the insertions, he suggests - literary ones, for example - if they are insertions at all, but they could be part of the original text.

Does Levinson contend, asks Mark Smith, professor of theology at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, that his approach to Chapter 34 would apply to the rest of the Pentateuch? For his part, he doubted it.

All of this may seem quite esoteric - Jewish scholarship on a stratospheric level - but "it's not a closed discussion among Jews about Jews," center director David Ruderman emphasizes. "It's a Jewish think tank of the highest order, but secular and open to all faiths." Ruderman, besides running the center, is professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Pennsylvania and an ordained Reform rabbi.

Penn recruited Ruderman from Yale, where he was a professor of Jewish history for 11 years and founding director of its Jewish studies program. He is the author of several books, most recently, "Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe" (Yale University Press, 1995).

The Center for Judaic Studies boasts of being the only institution in the world devoted exclusively to postdoctoral advanced studies in Jewish civilization. Every year, more than 100 scholars from top universities and think tanks in the United States, Europe and Israel apply for fellowships to come to Philadelphia for nine months of research, with stipends of up to $30,000. Most of the 13 to 20 fellows selected are Jewish, but the center welcomes non-Jewish scholars. This year, three visiting scholars are Christian, including Smith of St. Joseph's, a Roman Catholic.

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Every year the center chooses a broadly defined theme around which the scholars are expected to do their research. This year's theme is "Text, Artifact and Image: Revealing Ancient Israelite Religion."

The University of Pennsylvania took over the Center for Judaic Studies in 1994, but the center goes back a long way.

In the beginning

In the beginning, there was Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, created in 1907 by the will of Moses Aaron Dropsie, a distinguished Philadelphia lawyer. It was not, as many people believed, a rabbinical or even a religious institution. It was, rather, a unique institution where scholars of different religions, or none, could come and study Judaic and ancient Near Eastern subjects in a secular environment. It granted postgraduate degrees. It took over publication of the Jewish Quarterly Review - the oldest English-language Jewish scholarly journal, founded in 1888 - and created a vast and valuable library of Judaica that houses 6,000 rare books, 350 rare manuscripts and about 2,000 pages of the Genizah fragments found in a ninth-century synagogue in Cairo, Egypt.

Three generations of scholars studied there and went on to teach in universities that, especially over the last three decades, set up their own chairs or departments of Near Eastern studies. Dropsie was no longer so unusual. Students went elsewhere. Support dried up. In 1981, a fire destroyed its building in North Philadelphia. The college moved to Merion. It was nearly bankrupt, and there was talk of closing it down.

So in the mid-1980s Dropsie begat the Annenberg Research Institute, named after former publisher Walter A. Annenberg, who donated $7.5 million for the new building at Fourth and Walnut and provided the institute with an annual subsidy of $2 million. As its first director, the institute recruited Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study and professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton.

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Lewis left the institute after four years in a dispute over board interference in academic policies. The board hired another director, but dismissed him after a year, then another director who also lasted only a year. Associate Director David Goldenberg then served as interim director.

Annenberg pulls out

Four years ago, Walter Annenberg decided he no longer wanted to subsidize the Annenberg Research Institute (ARI) and proposed that the University of Pennsylvania take it over.

He wanted Penn to have it "because they have permanence and I haven't," he said in a recent interview. Annenberg, who turned 90 on March 13, said he had to slow down: "As we get older, we have to trim our sails accordingly."

Annenberg asked that his name be taken off the institute but agreed to continue his foundation's annual $2 million subsidy through June.

"It was a natural connection for the two institutions," said Rosemarie Stevens, former dean of Penn's school of arts and sciences. Penn has had Judaic studies in its curriculum for more than a century. Its library of Judaica, added to and connected electronically with the center's, is now second in size only to Harvard's.

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"We've taken the idea of the ARI, refined it and enhanced it with our association with the University of Pennsylvania," Ruderman said.

Pub Date: 4/26/98



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