To the Editor
By Rebecca Alpert, Professor of Religion and Chair, Faculty Herald Editorial Board
As someone who was involved in developing the General Education curriculum and who teaches in the program as a faculty member in the Department of Religion, I read with interest “An Interview with Provost Hai-Lung Dai, Part One” in the last issue of the Herald for this academic year. I am responding to the Provost’s comments about our diversity requirement and the value of language study with which I respectfully disagree.
Perhaps Provost Dai is familiar with the maxim attributed to Max Müller that is at the foundation of the academic study of religion: “If you know one religion you don't know any”; it is reflected in his statement, “…if I learn Christianity, I may miss the Islamic philosophy.” But he should not assume this is a problem in General Education. This dilemma never comes up because those courses don’t focus exclusively on one religion. All of our General Education courses are designed to teach not only about multiple religions, but also encourage students to understand that no religion is monolithic, and we may find even more differences within traditions than between them—there is no one Christianity or Islamic philosophy for that matter.
This is obvious in the course I teach, Religion in Philadelphia, where we look at how various versions of religious traditions, including those of the Lenape Indians, the Quakers, Free Blacks, Jews, Catholics, followers of Father Divine, the Nation of Islam, Buddhism, and Santeria all combined to make Philadelphia the complex city it is today. This is something our students should surely want to understand while they live here and especially if they seek employment here after graduation.
This perspective also applies to the diversity courses that Provost Dai singled out for criticism. In our “Jews and Race” course, for example, students come to understand Jewish racial and ethnic diversity as they focus not only on the racialization of the Jews in Europe, but on the history and traditions of Jews of Asian and African descent that are vastly different from those we are familiar with in the United States. That course, as well as our other diversity offering, Race and Poverty in the Americas, is focused precisely on the goals that Provost Dai commends, to “learn the foundation for a harmonious society, the ethics and legal basis for tolerance and acceptance of difference in human society.” Courses like these teach those values and ideas, and that’s easily discoverable by looking at the syllabi and reading student papers and evaluations of those courses.
I would also suggest that Müller’s insight be applied to knowing one language, and see that as an argument for restoring a language requirement to the General Education program. Like Provost Dai, I know from my own experience the frustration of learning only the rudiments of languages I have studied in school, and the joys of translations that make those and other languages I don’t know more accessible to me. But there is great danger to the triumphalist monolingualism that pervades this country’s ethos and that we perpetuate at our peril.
And, I would argue, reading texts in translation has real limitations. I was pleased to see that a book by one of my favorite Israeli authors, A. B. Yehoshua, had recently come out in an English translation. But its title, Hesed Sefaradi, had been changed to The Retrospective. What a profound loss that is. But then the concept of hesed (often confused with the Christian idea of charity) isn't any more translatable than the allusions the original title makes to the Latin folktale and common theme of European painting, “Caritas Romana,” that haunt this narrative. Also untranslatable is Sefaradi, which refers both to the Spanish Catholic milieu in which the story unfolds, and the tension between the Sephardi Jews who came originally from Spain and the global south and the Israeli Ashkenazi (northern European) ruling class. “Spanish Charity,” the literal translation, would never get these complex points across either, although that’s likely what you’d get if you put the Hebrew into a translation machine. No matter what you do, if you don’t know the original (two words you’d learn in the first year of study of the Hebrew language and nuances you’d be guided to by your language instructor), you would never comprehend the richness of those multiple meanings, and would consequently miss much of the depth of the work.
I know that our conversation about General Education will continue this coming academic year and I am glad the Herald is providing an outlet for it. The dialogue has great potential to build the harmonious society at Temple that the Provost and I both value.
Professor of Religion and Chair, Herald Advisory Board •