Release Date: December 16, 2015
BUFFALO, N.Y. – The University at Buffalo will launch a new department at the end of the current semester dedicated to the academic study of the Jewish intellectual tradition in the development of Western civilization. The highly interdisciplinary department will foster inquiry, knowledge and understanding through innovative scholarship and teaching that explores the rich philosophical and spiritual contributions of Jewish culture from antiquity to the present.
UB’s Department of Jewish Thought in the College of Arts of Sciences will be oriented toward theory and philosophy with an emphasis on ethics, the central and unifying feature throughout the long and diverse history of Judaism. The new department builds on the foundation of the university’s Institute of Jewish Thought and Heritage (IJTH).
“UB is recognized nationally for our excellent and innovative research and education in the humanities,” said UB Provost Charles F. Zukoski. “The Department of Jewish Thought will contribute to this tradition by building on the unique approach that our faculty have been pursuing through the Institute of Jewish Thought and Heritage, making these programs more accessible and visible to our students.”
Established in 2008, the IJTH has since 2012 offered a bachelor of arts degree in Jewish studies, as well as a minor in Jewish studies, but the new department will have an identity that distinguishes it from similar programs and departments at other colleges and universities.
“We are deliberately being called the Department of Jewish Thought because that is our particular orientation of Jewish studies,” said Richard Cohen, professor of philosophy and director of the IJTH. “There are many departments of Jewish studies engaged primarily in history and philology, but at UB as a department within the humanities, we’re highlighting ethics, which relates us to philosophy and to some of the greatest philosophers of the last 150 years, such thinkers as Henri Bergson, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Emanuel Levinas.”
“Creating this department is a testament to the continuing support of UB for the humanities and a desire for the campus to be a leader across the spectrum of humanities scholarship,” said E. Bruce Pitman, dean of UB’s College of Arts and Sciences.
While ethics, the biblically inspired teachings of morality and the prophetic call to justice will form the department’s core, guiding its direction and providing definition, its contours still will consist of components in history, semiotics and language. Cohen says the focus will be on humanism and a fluency in its related disciplines.
“It’s what’s needed today,” he said. “This is not vocational training. This is teaching from among the basic strands of humanity in the Western world.”
The interdisciplinary department will deeply engage students in the grand spiritual tradition of the West and the self-reflective dimension of civilization, both in terms of philosophy and religion, said Cohen
Since 2008, the IJTH has hired five full-time faculty members with expertise ranging from the Jewish philosophical tradition, the Talmud, Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah, rationalist Jewish thought and comparative study of Jewish literature.
“This is a research-oriented faculty with extensive teaching experience,” Cohen said. “All five of us have published books in the last two years and all five of us are currently working on books.”
Cohen expressed gratitude to the university, the College of Arts and Sciences, and members of the Western New York Jewish community — two of whom have provided support for two endowed professorships — for helping to make the new department a reality.
“It’s thrilling to have reached the moment,” said Cohen.