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It's 'the life of the mind' for ASU professor

Passion, outstanding achievements in Jewish intellectual history earn Hava Tirosh-Samuelson Regents' Professor honor

woman in office

February 06, 2018

It might sound contrived, given her area of expertise, but to ASU Jewish studies Director Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, a career in academia is like a secular version of a religious commitment.

And when students approach her with the idea of applying for graduate work in history, she tells them so.

“I say, well, you have to think about going into it like going into a convent, or going into a monastery,” Tirosh-Samuelson said. “It’s a life commitment. It’s not something you can do cavalierly.”

To be sure, no one could accuse her of such a transgression. For more than four decades, Tirosh-Samuelson has happily lived what she calls “the life of the mind,” and it is every bit as sacred to her today as it was when she began it.

“There is nothing that gives me more pleasure than discovery, understanding and insight. The feeling that comes with deep understanding, when you say, ‘Wow, I really understand it, I really see something that I didn’t see before,’ gives deep satisfaction,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, and that passion has not abated. Actually, it is probably stronger now than before.”

That passion, along with her outstanding achievements in her field of expertise, Jewish intellectual history, were recognized when Tirosh-Samuelson was named as a Regents’ Professor by the Arizona Board of Regents in November.

Born and raised in Israel, she knew from a young age that she was destined to be an intellectual. Though she showed promise in other areas, such as athletics, music and dance, she always found herself drawn back to books, words and ideas.

After high school, Tirosh-Samuelson spent three years in the Israeli army, as is customary for all citizens of the country, and had her first brush with the joys of teaching while training officers. Soon after the army service, her appetite for scholarly pursuits brought her to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she did as she advises her students now and committed herself fully to a life in academia when she chose to pursue a doctoral degree.

Her dissertationon an Italian Jewish philosopher and mystic from the early 16th century opened her eyes to the importance of interdisciplinarity. In it, she argued that philosophy and mysticism should not be seen as diametrically opposed, but rather, as complimentary and cross-fertilizing one another.

She brought that idea with her when she came to the U.S. in 1977 and taught first in the history department at Columbia University and later in the departments of religious studies at Emory University and Indiana University.

“My PhD was in philosophy rather than history or religious studies,” Tirosh-Samuelson said. “So from the very beginning of my academic career, I realized that intellectual growth means you don’t say no to a new topic, or a new discipline, or a new way of looking at things.”

She also didn’t say no to sharing knowledge with the public. In 1998, one year before she came to ASU, Tirosh-Samuelson delivered a keynote speech at the annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies in which she advocated for civic engagement of Jewish studies scholars.

“[Being a scholar] isn’t just about thinking in the privacy of your office,” she said, because “intellectual life impacts culture. What we think has social ramifications. So scholars have an obligation to be involved in the community outside the academy, to teach outside the classroom as well.”

At the time, it wasn’t a popular opinion, and she received a lot of criticism from detractors who believed that civic engagement threatened scholarly objectivity. Perhaps it was fate, then, when Michael Crow joined ASU in 2002 and his vision of social embeddedness as a function of the university aligned so well with her own.

“I think my vision was vindicated,” she said, not only at ASU but in higher education in general. Back in 2012, the U.S. Department of Education made an appeal to colleges to make civic learning a priority, and several, including Cornell and Duke University, have since put forth initiatives to do so.

But ASU was definitely a trailblazer on that front, Tirosh-Samuelson noted, as it is on many others, something she feels has allowed her to do things she couldn’t have done elsewhere. Thanks to the university’s early adoption of cross-disciplinary inquiry, she was able to put together the first faculty seminar on science and religion in 2003, which still exists under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

Another area she foresees ASU taking the lead in over the next few years is environmental humanities. (The university’s new dean of humanities shares that sentiment.)

“It’s very exciting to be in a university that sets scientific, cultural and social trends,” Tirosh-Samuelson said. “We shape the conversation in many ways. ASU has superb faculty. The intellectual quality is very high here. And that’s true of the students, too.

“There is something very distinctive and unique about the spirits of ASU. I feel very proud and glad to be part of it.”

Over almost 20 years at ASU, she has honed her expertise in three main subject areas in addition to Jewish intellectual history: religion, science and technology; religion and ecology; and women and gender in philosophy. She has written widely on each topic from the perspective of an intellectual historian, exploring what they teach us about the meaning of being human.

Ten years ago Tirosh-Samuelson founded the Center for Jewish Studies at ASU, which serves as both a research operation, bringing together experts across disciplines, and an outreach operation, hosting guest lectures, exhibits, book and film talks and more.

“There is no town-gown division here,” she said of the center’s work. “My intellectual community is not just the ASU community, it’s the world community,” which she added is relevant to people in Arizona.

In 2012, Tirosh-Samuelson began work on what she characterizes as a legacy project: the “Library of Contemporary Jewish Philosophers,” a snapshot of Jewish thought in the second half of the 20th century. Each of the first 20 volumes focuses on a different Jewish philosopher. The final volume, which she is currently editing, serves as an overview of the entire library.

“I hope it will inspire others to continue to engage with the questions [the Jewish philosophers] have raised and help lift this conversation among both Jews and non-Jews,” she said.

“Jews and Judaism matter because you can’t understand the history of the West without them. So to study about Jews and Judaism is part and parcel of being an educated person and a concerned citizen. And it goes way beyond just knowing about the terrible things that happened to Jews in the Holocaust.”

This semester Tirosh-Samuelson is teaching an independent study course that allows her to have personalized, one-on-one discussions with her students. If past pupils’ experiences are any indication, it’s not an experience they’re soon likely to forget — Tirosh-Samuelson still receives letters and emails from students she taught as far back as her time at Columbia in the 1980s.

“My students always enrich me,” she said. “They always tell me something I don’t know, or bring up a perspective I haven’t thought about.”

And finding new ways of thinking is one of Tirosh-Samuelson’s favorite things.

“Ideas to me are exciting, they are intellectually beautiful and they keep me young,” she said. “I’m never bored. Never. Because there are always more books to read, more people to get to know, more ideas to think about, and more problems to address. … And I want to infect my students with that kind of desire for life-long learning.

“Being a college student is not about drudgery; it is not about just fulfilling some obligation to get a diploma. … Students don’t understand that the time they have in university is the most precious time they will have in life. So my advice to students is: Enjoy being here, love what you study and learn as much as you can.”

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