In Memoriam: Dr. Benny Kraut, Z"L
Tuesday Sept 26th, Dr. Benny Kraut passed away. Benny was the founder and director of the Judaic Studies department at the University of Cincinnati, and most recently the Director of the Jewish Studies program and the Center for Jewish Studies at Queens College in New York City. He was also a mentor to me during my years at U.C.
I first heard about him from my brother who passed through UC a decade before. He recommended Benny as one of the best Humanities teachers at UC, and his classes as a great way to meet Jewish girls. The first class I took with Benny was History of Jewish Civilization I, and I knew immediately that he was remarkable. Benny treated the subject matter with dignity, respect and honesty - and he expected his students to do the same. Jewish history was living, breathing, changing, modern. Assignments might include reading selections from the prophet Amos, discussions of the latest archaelogical finds in Israel, or comparative religion discussions between Judaism and Christianity advancing not one but several perspectives. His classes were not 'easy A' classes - they were always a challenge.
Benny was intellectually fearless and took chances. No question was taboo. One class I took with him was "African-American Jewish Relations in th 20th century". It was co-taught with the director of the African-American Studies Department, himself a member of the Nation of Islam. This was no small thing in the mid-1980s when relations between the two groups had sunk to new lows from tensions over the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson's comments about Jews during his failed 1984 run for president and clashes over economic and social issues. Benny was tolerant but not accommodating: he would allow diatribes, but not allow them to go unanswered in class. This class opened my eyes to the complexity of the relationship between the communities, gave me understanding, but with complete honesty: no apologia, no window washing, no excuses for either side. Some years later, I happened to be in D.C. the same time as the "Million Man March". My curiosity inspired directly out of Benny's teaching I dropped by the march, to see and better understand.
In fact, much of my understanding of the past, present and future of Judaism, particularly American Judaism was shaped by Benny. I found myself in an academic jam freshman year and going to him, he arranged that I should take an independent study in sophomore year to solve the problem. The topic: whatever I wanted to study. I chose the history of American Judaism. My assignment: Read 5 books and articles about each major stream of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Chasidic, Humanist. After six months, I had a deeper understanding than any but a handful of people in town, most of them teaching at Hebrew Union College. This understanding has informed and guided me in all my interactions and understanding of American Judaism. It's helped me make sense of it and myself and wakened a lifelong passion for the study of the sociology of Jewry and Judaism.
Benny personified a pure distillation of Modern Orthodoxy, of Torah im Derekh Eretz. Torah im Derekh Eretz ("Torah With The World") was a philosphy of the mid-nineteenth century German rabbic leader Samson Raphael Hirsch. It advanced the notion that a synthesis of Torah knowledge and secular knowledge - each for it's own sake - was permissable, productive and desirable, both as a response to Reform Judaism, and also as a natural evolution of traditional Judaism. This notion revolutionized Orthodox Jewish thinking in the Germanic speaking countries of Central Europe and led directly to the Modern Orthodox movement we know today. In his implementation of this philosophy I never perceived Benny as professor as providing the "Jewish" perspective in his lecture. But I also never lost sight of the fact that his deepest roots and foundations lay within Judaism - and this synthesis is something that I deeply admire to this day.
Over a 25 year period Judaic Studies at UC grew from just Benny into 3 tenure-track professors plus adjuncts and over 30 courses. He founded a student run and edited Journal of Judaic studies as a way to challenge and intellectually nourish his students. Everyone I knew who passed through his classes or the department was crazy about Benny.