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Professor Mirsky combines academia with religion

By Albert Reiss

Section: Features

March 11, 2016

If you ever want to take a Near Eastern and Judaic Studies (NEJS) class, you may want to consider one of Professor’s Yehudah Mirsky’s courses. Prof. Mirsky (NEJS) specializes in classical Jewish studies as well as contemporary Israeli politics. This week, The Brandeis Hoot got a chance to talk to Prof. Mirsky about his experience with both Brandeis University and Jewish Studies.

Prof. Mirsky first came to Brandeis in the fall of 2012, confessing not to know much about “present-day Brandeis.” However, as Prof. Mirsky detailed, many Brandeisian faculty members and leading figures had been a great influence on him. Among others, Mirsky saw influence from “the intellectual historians Alexander Altmann and Nahum Glatzer, and the Bible scholar Nahum Sarna (father of our own Jonathan Sarna) and their students, like Arthur Green and Michael Fishbane.” In spite of a seeming disconnect between what Brandeis was and what Brandeis now is, Prof. Mirsky has learned to embrace the Brandeis University of the present.

Among the things that Prof. Mirsky most enjoys about Brandeis is the “spirit, the heart and the sheer friendliness I’ve encountered … and the number of people [whose] lives were touched and changed by this university in one way or another.” Given its small environment, it is no surprise that Brandeis helps to foster such a congenial environment.

Most of the classes that Prof. Mirsky teaches mainly fall into “classically oriented Jewish studies (law & ethics, mysticism, Hasidism) or the history of Zionism and the State of Israel, in particular their struggles over the meanings of religion, statehood, nationhood and identity,” says Mirsky. Of particular interest to students would be Prof. Mirsky’s political classes (such as Human Rights: Law, Politics, Theology) given the fact that Mirsky has worked in the U.S. State Department and is immersed in religious academia.

Mirky’s first foray into “academic Jewish studies” began in college, where he majored in English. Prof. Mirsky says coming up from, “a family of rabbi-professors, my own path to the field was a little different from theirs, less literary and legal, more historical.” What really drew Mirsky into the field was the ability to pointedly study Judaism from religious, historical and academic perspectives. Mirsky commented how authors such as Jacob Katz as well as Gershon Scholem would play a pivotal role in influencing his decision. He described “academic Jewish studies as a way of synthesizing my different identities, as both a committed Jew and a committed humanist in the Western tradition.”

From college, Prof. Mirsky went on to attend law school, which was followed by political work in Washington, D.C. After this political stint, Mirsky went back to school earn a Ph.D in religion. As a doctoral candidate, Mirsky’s scholarship focused on Rav Kook, whom he describes as “a colossal figure in Jewish and Zionist history [for trying] to unite in his life and work conflicting strands of modernity.”

Presently, Prof. Mirsky has completed a book on Rav Kook titled “Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution” (Yale University Press). The book was recently “named a finalist by the Jewish Book Council as one of the five best Jewish nonfiction works of the last two years,” says Mirsky.

Soon, Mirsky plans to work on a publication that will go back to his “interests in politics, trying to understand, and hopefully deepen, the foundations of ideas of democracy, human rights and freedom as we move deeper into what already is a very challenging 21st century, scary, yet full of possibilities.” Wherever this project takes him, Prof. Mirsky is sure to make a rigorous academic investigation and “approach it as best we can with scholarly patience and care.”

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