Monday, February 12, 2007

Academic freedom

I recently came across an article in the Jerusalem Post that describes Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders, a historical study written by Professor Ariel Toaff of Bar-Ilan University, who argues that some blood libels may not have been libels at all.

Here's an excerpt:

Toaff offers as an example the case of Saint Simonino of Trent. In March 1475, shortly after a child's body was found in a canal near the Jewish area of Trent, the city's Jews were accused of murdering Simonino and using his blood to make matzot.
After a medieval trial in which confessions were extracted by torture, 16 members of Trent's Jewish community were hanged.

Toaff reveals that the accusations against the Jews of Trent "might have been true."

Toaff refers to kabbalistic descriptions of the therapeutic uses of blood and asserts that "a black market flourished on both sides of the Alps, with Jewish merchants selling human blood, complete with rabbinic certification of the product - kosher blood."

Yesterday Bar-Ilan University responded by releasing a statement condemning "any attempt to justify the awful blood libels against Jews" stating that Professor Toaff will be summoned to the president of the university to explain his research, arguing that it is not clear whether the reports in the press accurately describe the research. At the same time the statement asserts that the university "champions freedom of academic and scientific expression as the basis for its research activity."

Bar-Ilan's predicament - balancing academic freedom with basic Jewish beliefs - is one that educators (and parents) face daily. While we aspire to teach our children to be inquisitive, open-minded and critical thinkers, we also want them to come to accept religious dogmas that are difficult to fully explain or prove definitively. Does there come a time when it is appropriate to say to a child "you cannot make a statement like that" or "you cannot ask questions like that"? Can a student be allowed to engage in Holocaust denial? In rejecting Zionism? In questioning the historical accuracy of Megillat Esther? At what point – if at all – do we say "now you've crossed the line"?

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