Michael Alexander Talking

Inaugural Lecture


"Jewish Studies in the 21st Century"

Inaugural Lecture of the Maimonides Chair in Jewish Studies
Professor Michael Alexander
University of California, Riverside — January 31, 2016 


I want to frame my remarks today regarding the future of Jewish Studies by announcing the establishment of two new student awards and fellowships that will be sponsored by the Maimonides Endowed Chair.

But before I do, I am obliged to mention that Maimonides himself did not actually endow the Chair. Recognition for that must go primarily to three intrepid families: the Feys, the Rubins, and the Silagis. I say intrepid because it takes perseverance and faith to navigate the University of California. That goes for students, faculty, and supporters. We’re big. We serve a lot of students, about 250,000. We face issues of scale and public accountability that USC and the Claremont Colleges and Stanford will never understand. And yet we see our UC Riverside students as the future foundation of California, especially here in the Desert Area and Inland Empire where often they choose to settle down and to build us up. Doctors — business school graduates — computer scientists — environmental and sustainability scientists — and so many other kinds of careers and disciplines. In all these ways UCRs commitment to our region is a long term project of creating infrastructure for the future and we are thankful for your patience, and for your ceaseless energy and attention to the region’s future. And I am personally grateful that you see Jewish Studies as an integral part of that better future. …

So I would like to take a moment to applaud these many people who have worked to make the Maimonides Chair in Jewish Studies a permanent reality on our campus and in the Region.

Legacy of Maimonides

The honor of being named the first Maimonides Chair in Jewish Studies also derives from the legacy of Maimonides himself. Today Maimonides is remembered as the leading Jewish mind of Islam’s Golden Age. As a young man still living in Spain, he came across the rationalist works of Ibn Sina, a Moslem doctor from Teheran. When Maimonides later came to articulate his own Jewish perspective on rationalism, which he discussed in his classic The Guide for the Perplexed, the perspective was passed down to Christian Europe and to Thomas Aquinas, who often referred to Maimonides by the rather friendly name “Rabbi Moses.” So from Ibn Sina to Maimonides to Aquinas — from Islam to Judaism to Christianity — together they crafted a global, cross cultural conversation, laying down still essential elements of our contemporary academic outlook.

Maimonides then reminds us that our best work comes when we are in conversation. Each of us, students and faculty alike, bring radically different points of view to a single conversation — a uni-versity. In this conversation, we are called upon to speak, and also to listen. Often ideas coming from the other side of campus are more persuasive than our own, and we are persuaded — that’s the most successful kind of conversation. Our simple university goal is for students to take the conversation with them, beyond the walls of the ivory tower, as they go become leaders in the region and in the state and beyond.

So it is humbling to realize that by endowing a chair in Jewish Studies, UCR has made an enduring commitment to include Jewry as part of this university conversation. And I am humbled to have been chosen by my colleagues to represent the long and complicated sets of traditions carried forward by Jews. These Jewish perspectives are somehow both world-weary and yet still idealistic. The group has been around a long time and has seen a lot. The endowing of a chair in Jewish Studies says of this people: “Please, come with your experiences, come with your wisdom and with your mistakes, and offer your views in our 21st century conversation.”

Two Student Fellowships

Now let’s turn to the subject of these remarks, “Jewish Studies in the 21st Century,” and especially the initial means by which I hope to advance 21st century Jewish Studies on our campus — the student fellowships I mentioned at the start.

Genocide Studies Prize

The first fellowship addresses the enduring legacy of Jewish ethnicity. It is a sad reality witnessed by all participants in these first two decades of the 21st century, that with respect to ethnicity, nationalism, racism, and religious persecution, we have learned almost nothing from the violent disasters of the last century. Dreams of ethnic self-determination and neighborly borders articulated by President Wilson in his Fourteen points during the First World War quickly devolved into propagandas of ethnic, racial, and religious purity and cleansing, and these fostered pockets of vicious religio-nationalism. Wilson’s plan, rather than saving the world from another genocide like the Armenian, only seemed to fuel violence by fanning ethnic, racial, and religious emphases. As we know, Jews took the brunt of this racial violence. One of the Maimonides Chair’s benefactors, Mark Rubin, spent his childhood in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and, for the sake of our students, he agreed to revisit that time and came to campus to testify to the racial nightmare he personally witnessed.

Unfortunately, genocide is not a memory. The Armenian, Jewish, Bangladeshi, Rwandan, and Bosnian Genocides are only the most visible we’ve seen, but the outbursts of religio-nationalism witnessed in our current century almost guarantee that it is a type of violence the world will see again. And we need not look abroad to notice the phenomenon. Almost as soon as the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide to name the inconceivable crime, African-American scholars and activists took it up and charged America with a continuing genocide of African-Americans. In 1951 Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois brought a document before the United Nations called “We Charge Genocide.” Attorney Raphael Lemkin supported this effort and so did much of the Jewish community. Keep in mind that this activism all happened seventy years before “Black Lives Matter” made similar charges, and yet obviously we still face the same sets of problems, abroad and at home.

So, dedicated to the purpose of furthering our understanding of the causes of genocide, abroad and at home, The Maimonides Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies hereby announces an annual Genocide Studies Prize for undergraduate and graduate research or creative work related to the understanding of genocide. Relevant projects may come from any College, School, or Division of UCR and may consider genocide from the point of view of any discipline studied in the academy.

Despite all violences in the name of ethnicity, race, and religion, and their distressing continuation in our own time, we are also seeing profound developments in the 21st century in these areas as well. We can especially see these changes among Jews, who have always been a vanguard in the understanding and mediation of peoplehood. 

To speak of Jewish Studies in the 21st century — really to speak of ethnic studies at all — one must notice the most recent advances in population genetics that are entirely new to our century. Initially these gains were pursued by doctors interested in curtailing population diseases such as Creutzfeldt Jakob and Tay-Sachs and the BRaCA1 breast-cancer gene to which Jews are prone; and Sickle-Cell among Africans and African-Americans; and Phenylketonuria among Turks.  These population geneticists have taken to sharing the DNA record with historians and anthropologists. In the case of Jews they turn especially to the J1 and J2 haplogroups, — the Jewish chromosomes, as it were — which point to an extraordinary consistency of genetic material across Jewish populations around the globe. The J1 and J2 haplogroups are found in astounding proportions in both European Askenazic Jewry and Middle Eastern Sephardic Jewry, pointing to a shared genetic heritage well before humanly recorded history. And the connections do not stop there. These Jewish genes have been found in the most surprising places. They exist for instance among the Lemba Tribes of Black South Africa, a group long claiming Israelite heritage, but until the advent of genetic evidence their claim was largely doubted. Now there is no doubt, they carry the Jewish haplogroup. These markers are also found in Mumbai, India, among the Bene Israel Jews, a similarly doubted group until the new genetic evidence proved otherwise.

 Lemba of South Africa
Lemba of South Africa


Bnai Israel children of Andhra Pradesh, India
Bnai Israel children of Andhra Pradesh, India


And the J1 and J2 chromosomes are found even among some Latinos of the American Southwest, particularly in the San Luis Valley of Colorado and northern New Mexico. For decades and even centuries, these Mexican-Americans — most of them practicing Christians — have repeated in their homes incomprehensible rituals, such as avoiding pork, draining blood from meat, covering mirrors in times of grief, sweeping the home up ritually at the time of Easter, and playing a strange top-spinning game at Christmas. And they have also been curiously susceptible to Jewish diseases such as BRaCA1. Now, with genetic testing, this Latino population knows that it too has J1 and J2 Jewish chromosomes. They are likely Jewish conversos having once fled Spain, and then again fleeing north during the Mexican Inquisition of 1571. 

For instance, John Entine interviews in his book Abraham's Children one Bill Sanchez of Albuquerque. Sanchez has a sister with BRaCA1. He himself has a genetic profile that indicates he has the Jewish Chromosome. Not only that, his genetic test indicated that he has the Jewish Priestly chromosome, the Cohen Modal Haplotype, indicating that he is likely a descendent of the first priest — in tradition known as Aaron, the high priest in the ancient Temple. — And what does Bill Sanchez do in Albuquerque as his day-job? He’s also a priest. A Catholic Priest. Yet ethnically, by heritage, he identifies as Jewish, and so now Father Sanchez has become a staple of the Albuquerque Jewish community. Father Sanchez is among the faces of 21st century of Jewry. We live in interesting times.

Perhaps the most astounding revelation of the new population genetics: which is that the J1 and J2 chromosomes — the universal Jewish haplogroups found disproportionately among Jews from every corner of the globe — most closely resemble the genetics of Lebanese, Beduin, and Palestinians. The historiographical and political ramifications of this new genetic discourse has yet to be sorted out, but even if most faculty will be wary of drawing historical and political conclusions from genetic data, others will be less careful. Indeed, Genetic identity is already a fact of our century, that bears pointing out now as a major trend in Jewish Studies and in the related ethnic and racial fields.

And finally, in summing up these very brief remarks regarding ethnicity and race in our current century, I must at least mention in passing what I see as the most important development in Jewish Studies happening at this very moment, the widening acceptance of Jews of Color into normative Jewish institutions. Increasingly, our synagogues and temples, our Jewish community centers, and our families have come to appear more like the human rainbow. Almost 11 percent of American Jews in Generation X and Generation Y identify as Jews of Color. (Lets keep in mind that the American Orthodox community is 10%.) At the current rate, we expect Jews of color to represent close to 20 percent of the next American Jewish generation. Jews of Color are the Jewish future, and they are really already the Jewish present. I am honored to have edited the first American academic journal volume to be dedicated to this Color Issue. It is the January edition of the journal American Jewish History, which I co-edited with Bruce Haynes, a sociologist up at U.C. Davis. 

To recap: Although Jewish Studies will encounter many trends: continued genocide and ethnicity studies; genetic historiography; and Jewry of Color will certainly be among the most major trends of Jewish Studies in our century. 

Jewry and Innovation Scholarships

Now with my remaining time I want to turn to our second fellowship announcement. The Maimonides Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies hereby announces the availability of research funds for the study of Jewry and Innovation. Relevant research projects may come from any College, School, or Division of UCR and may include innovation in the realm of any discipline studied in the academy.

Ok, what is this about? By most reasonable standards one can say that Jews are an innovative people. The group seems to cultivate creative thinking — out of the box thinking. I don’t need to point to hackneyed lists of Nobel prize awardees or to statistics regarding Jewish university faculty to make the point. The point was also made recently in the book Startup Nation, detailing the phenomenon of the past decade for the biggest technology firms in the world to move their most creative operations — R & D, Research and Development — to offices in North Tel Aviv. To list the tech firms with Israeli R & D offices is probably as garish as listing the names of Jewish Nobel prize winners, but I may have to be garish for a moment. Here’s a quote reported in Startup Nation from a current eBay executive:

“Google, Cisco, Microsoft, Intel, eBay… the list goes on. The best-kept secret is that we all live and die by the work of our Israeli teams. It’s much more than just outsourcing call centers to India or setting up IT services in Ireland. What we do in Israel is unlike what we do anywhere else in the world.”

Where does the Israeli ingenuity come from? Why is it that teams in Tel Aviv disproportionately come up with industry-changing ideas? Startup Nation claims it comes from Israel’s military training, a training which is infamous in its lack of rituals of authority. In fact, it’s best known for encouraging all ranks to question normativity. Commands in the Israeli military only come after elaborate debate, and all ranks are required to participate in the conversation. It’s called “debriefing,” and it happens after every exercise. Anyone who has been through a debriefing will tell you that it can be more grueling than live ammunition exercises because debriefing demands that you take ownership of mistakes — and that’s irrespective of rank. So every 18 year old Israeli is taught by the army itself that Normative is not reason enough. “It’s not my job” is not reason enough. Every 18 year old is taught that it’s her job to discover the best available facts and to come to a position about the best way to proceed. Not the normative way. Not “the Army” way. “What’s the best way?” Every 18 year old is taught that she has full authority — and full responsibility — to ask that question — and also to make her point of view known. To speak up. 

In this sense, Startup Nation is probably right to trace Israeli innovation to the military, where the ethic is most widely trained. But when David Ben-Gurion founded this system in 1947 he did not personally invent the culture of creative, out-of-the-box, anti-authoritarian thinking. 

He actually inherited it from the rabbis.

Let's consider this account from the Talmud. If I’m going to go around telling people I’m the Maimonides chair, I have to occasionally quote Talmud! Here I refer to Bava Metzia (59b).

The Talmud reports that Rabbi Eliezer, the genius of his generation, while discussing the rules regarding the building of an oven, found himself frustrated with his colleagues. They wouldn’t accept his interpretation of the issue despite innumerable ironclad proofs. Finally, at wits end, Eliezer declared “If my view is correct, let this carob tree prove it!” and miraculously a carob-tree uprooted itself and flew three-hundred yards across a field. But his colleagues only replied that the carob-tree was no proof. So Eliezer declared “If my view is correct, let this river change its flow!” and the river began to flow backwards. But the assembly still would not assent to his view. Finally Eliezer said, “If my view is correct, let it be proven by Heaven!” And a Heavenly Voice actually boomed out: “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer when you know his interpretation is always correct!”  

But now the rabbis not only refuted Rabbi Eliezer, they also they shot down the Heavenly Voice. They cited a verse from the Hebrew Bible [Deuteronomy (30:12)] which says “The Law is not in heaven, … rather it is near to you, it’s on your tongue, and in your heart, so that you can do it”.  And the rabbis explained therefore that “We pay no attention even to a Heavenly Voice. In ourgeneration we follow the rule of our rabbinic majority.” 

So the rabbis voted down God. It’s in the Talmud!

And “What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour?” The Talmud says: “He laughed and said 'My children have beaten Me, My children have overruled Me.’”

This strange story in fact relays the essence of so-called Jewish “tradition.” One can see, despite Tevye harping on about Tradition in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and about “the way things have always been,” that the rabbis themselves never viewed authority this way. If they had, there would be very little reason for the incessant debate for which rabbis are so well known. 

Rather, the only real Jewish tradition is the divine support of contemporary authority in each generation to weigh the arguments and make its own decisions. Indeed it’s the contemporary responsibility of each generation to do so.

And how is this ethic and tradition of contemporary responsibility passed down? How is it cultivated in Judaism? Actually it’s a remarkably simple pedagogy. Students enter a Jewish academy, a Yeshiva, in their mid-teens. When they arrive they are given two things. (1) First, they are given a study partner, a chavrusa. Someone their own age and level who they will study with. (2) Second, they are given a totally indecipherable book — the Talmud itself. This ancient legal code written in a dead language has the strange characteristic of never clearly stating precedents or pertinent legal concepts, and of never coming to final conclusions. And that indecipherable text is exactly what is thrown at two teenagers. Together, the pair is given the Talmud and told: “You two, Go figure it out.” Knock your heads against the text. Knock your heads against one another! Yell at each other, become passionate, get it wrong, become demoralized, start over again, just keep doing itBegin your conversation.

And together, two young students make their best effort. And together they come to their own best understanding of the indecipherable text.

That simple pedagogy — to give students the space to figure things out for themselves — is the real foundation for Jewish innovation. The Israeli military and startup nation may utilize this ethic, but the rabbis invented it. I know of no similar academy. It is in this sense that Jews are people of the book. By cultivating this personal and intense approach to a text students learn how to approach the world-text. The ethic of personal responsibility in deciphering the indecipherable Talmud transposes directly to deciphering the indecipherable text that is our world. When God laughs about being beaten in an argument and overruled by his children, it’s the joy of a teacher who has succeeded in passing along the most important lesson, namely this: “Here is  your indecipherable world — go make heads or tails of it. It’s up to you.

It is in this spirit of intellectual ownership and responsibility — of fostering an ethic of independent and creative thinking for our students — that I’ve decided to establish this fellowship in Jewish innovation. I envision Professor Sharon Walker and Professor David Jassby’s students, of our Chemical and Environmental Engineering department, going to Ben-Gurion University to learn about Israeli desalination. I envision Professor Tamar Shinar’s students, of our Computer Science department, going to the Technion or to R & D offices in Tel Aviv to learn about computer graphics. I want to see Professor David Crohn’s students learning something about Environmental Optimization from Israelis who make the Negev Dessert bloom. I want to see Professor Cathy Gudis’s students in Public History learning from the Holocaust Museums in Washington DC and at Yad Va-Shem in Jerusalem, and from the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. And I’m just mentioning a few faculty who I know already have these contacts and are ready to go. I’m interested in innovation in every avenue under academic purview: I mean technology, medicine, agriculture, economics, politics and policy, pedagogy, even social and cultural innovation. I want to encourage students to start thinking about making their own marks in the world by spending some time with Jewish centers and institutions which are famous for making world-changing innovations.

I want to introduce UCR students to the same Jewish spirit of innovation and promise which animated Theodore Herzl when he said: “If you will it, it is no dream.”  

The future of Judaism: LGBT Trends

In that very same spirit, I want in my concluding remarks today to recognize an innovative revolution occurring within Judaism itself right now. I mean innovation in Judaism the religion. Because it, too, is changing, and perhaps even for the better. This religious innovation is no less compelling than the political innovations that compelled Theodore Herzl or the Startup Nation mentality.

It is an innovation being articulated by perhaps the world’s most consistently marginalized group. I mean what is known today as LGBT. Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender.

I realize these are very different identities, but when it comes to being marginalized, either for one’s natural sexual impulses or for one’s gender identity, members of each of these groups sometimes can find themselves alike in asking: Does God — or doesn't God — bless me for who I am? And increasingly, these are all groups who are starting to say that the answer is an unqualified: Yes — God blesses, Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Trans people, and maybe even boring gender-normative heterosexuals.  

Let me do my best to explain this interesting new development in Jewish thought. Judaism is a religion that recognizes the spiritual power of being marginalized. That is a unique Israelite contribution to the world’s understanding of spirituality. In the ancient world it was the kings and royalty who had special connection to the gods. And then Israel came and said, no, God has no special connection with kings. God has no special connection to royalty. Its the slaves. God chose an enslaved people. One’s marginalization by society brings one closer to God. That’s how one is chosen, by being outcast. That’s an Israelite insight, a Jewish insight — and it’s actually a profound insight. That God is there especially for those who need Him most. So it makes a great deal of sense that some folks in different LGBT communities tap into this feeling that there is something special and even sacred about marginalization, and these people, I think, have a kind of spiritual genius in bringing themselves closer to God.

That LGBT spiritual genius is actually revitalizing the rest of American Jewry.

Let’s use some new rituals involving the mikveh to make this final point before I let you go. The mikveh, the ritual bath. Other than orthodox Jews, who still uses it? Not too many people. Sometimes it’s used in conversion ceremonies but even then, these days often it’s not. Many contemporary Jews think of it as sexist, since women have had special obligations to use the mikveh. So in our day in America, it seems to be an example of an ancient religious ritual that is basically dying or dead, -- like sacrifice -- a ritual completely neglected by modern jews. 

But actually this isn’t the case at all. I have a graduate student, Sonia Crasnow, who is an ethnographer, and she’s in the field studying LGBT Jews, and she’s about to publish a fascinating and brilliant article about the LGBT reinvigoration of the mikveh.

So what is the mikveh essentially? It’s a baptism. It’s a symbolic rebirth. It’s the marking of a significant change in one’s life, washing away the remnants of an old life and preparing oneself for the new. So it makes sense that we’re starting to see Transgender people seeking to mark their transition with the sincerity and gravity which such a decision deserves. And so, LGBT leaders have created an entirely new liturgy and purpose of the ritual bath for Gender Transition Ceremonies. They call these Crossing Over Ceremonies.

This is how one Transgender Jewish leader describes how the new Crossing Over ceremonies came to be:

“The reason I got involved with [the mikvah] was because after… I’d actually changed my name about a week had gone by without me needing to say my old name out loud and then I had to for some reason or other… I had to [say my old name], and I felt dirty afterwards like I needed to take a shower, and that got me thinking about mikveh. And so I [thought], ‘you know I wonder if anyone out there has ever addressed the issue of trans people and mikveh?’”

And so she created a ritual, marking her transition ceremonially. And that mikveh ceremony provided a formal, spiritual transition that could not be adequately confirmed in a doctor's office or by a psychologist. The bath ceremony itself released her from her previous life. It marked with gravity and sacrality a transition to a new life. 

Since then, LGBT leaders have created an entire ceremony of Gender Transition and Crossing Over around the mikveh, which helps people who are making gender changes. This ceremony includes a fascinating prayer: “Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God who has made me in God’s image." And then the LGBT rabbi will go on to explain that Jewish tradition actually notes the sexual hybridity of God. They’re quite correct, actually. The sexual hybridity of God is a very deep Kabbalistic mystical concept, thousands of years old. The Kabbalah states that God himself is both man and woman, sometimes choosing to emphasize one gender and sometimes the other. 

So here we have a new community, who takes both this lost Jewish theology seriously and also the lost Jewish ritual of the mikveh. And my student Sonia Crasnow tells me that now “Coming Out” ceremonies in the mikveh are also becoming popular. These are for Gay and Lesbian and Bi. It’s a new use of the mikveh for anyone who wants to mark with purity and with the ritual of rebirth the fact that God accepts their sexuality or their gender identity — that the period of hiding is washed away.

So, at a time when “normative” Judaism is running away from theology and running away from antiquated Jewish rituals, we see in LGBT a vanguard rabbinate — totally innovative — who is reviving these old rituals, investing them with new meaning and significance. And I wouldn’t be surprised if in the 21st century we see a general resuscitation of the mikveh as a popular Jewish ritual, only this time without the gender biases and perhaps sexist baggage that kept people away from the mikveh in the last century.


So there’s been a lot of innovation so far — in Israel, in science and technology and culture, and also in Judaism the religion itself — and obviously the work isn’t done. There is still a long way to go. Rabbi Tarfon, another rabbi of the Talmud, relays to us a Jewish warning about the work that is left to be done. 

“Rabbi Tarfon would say: The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing. 

“He would also say: It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to cease from doing it.”

Ethics of the Fathers, 2:15-16

 This too, is already a relevant lesson for the 21st century, not just for Jewish Studies, but for students everywhere and in every discipline. Jews are not special in feeling the Master’s pressure to work towards solutions to our profound problems, and neither are Jews special in sometimes contributing to our problems. And while none of us will finish the world’s work, neither are we free to stop trying

So it is with deep gratitude — and an even deeper sense of responsibility — that I accept the Maimonides Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Students, faculty, and friends: Thank you for your confidence. May we each take upon ourselves the task of going forward and doing the work. Thank you.