Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

When Philosopher Richard J Bernstein helped build Jewish Studies at Oregon

Professor Richard J Bernstein, a major figure in 20th century philosophy, passed away on July 4th. Others will discuss his writings and the effects they had on the discipline in memorializing him, but I remember Professor Bernstein as someone who helped bring Jewish Studies to the University of Oregon, where I received my Ph.D.

When I was a graduate student, my adviser Professor Cheyney Ryan asked me what we should do to observe the fifty-year ending of the Holocaust. The Savage committee, chaired by Cheyney, was commemorating the fifty-year anniversary of Hiroshima and also wanted to memorialize the conclusion of the Holocaust. With more confidence than a grad student should have, I told him I’d call the most famous Holocaust scholars in the world and invite them here. He chuckled and told me to get him reasonable ideas.

But I already had my idea. I started with Professor Emil Fackenheim in Jerusalem, explaining why we needed him to speak at our commemorative conference “Ethics After the Holocaust through Rosenzweig and Levinas.” The name for the conference just came to me when speaking with him. I told him we could fly him in from Israel and pay his whole honorarium. He agreed as long as we flew him in through his old stomping ground, Toronto. I told him, of course we would.

My next call was to Professor Stefan Moses at the Hebrew University. He said, yes. I then called Elie Wiesel at Boston Univ. Hearing about Fackenheim and Moses, he too agreed. As did Professors Raul Hilberg and Deborah Lipstadt (who later lovingly yelled at me for keeping eighty year old Fackenheim on stage for two hours answering questions). I promised each of them their complete honorarium and all expenses covered. What I didn’t tell them was that I didn’t have a penny to cover any of the costs.

But I had a list, quite a list. Cheyney was stunned, but pleased. Like me, he knew we had to first get the people before we could raise the money. We ultimately raised $100,000 to bring a dozen major Jewish Keynotes along with seventeen other significant Jewish Studies scholars: twenty-nine talks on “Ethics After the Holocaust.”

But then Hamas started suicide bombing Jewish Israelis on buses, in cafés, restaurants, and discos. Stefan Moses canceled. He didn’t feel he could leave. Professor Moses was very nice and gave me the numbers of three famous philosophers he thought would be legitimate substitutes for him: Jean Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida and Richard J Bernstein.

I first called Derrida and left a message. He and I had spoken earlier in the year when I called his Irvine office (he answered!) to discuss Levinas. I then called Lyotard, interrupting his family’s dinner. I heard silverware on plates and discussion in the background. He was warm, but informed me he could not attend. Meanwhile, Cheyney instructed me that Derrida shouldn’t be invited. Being as famous as he was in literary circles, he would draw a crowd not interested in our themes and distract from the purpose of the conference. Derrida called me, expressing a desire to come. I didn’t get back to him.

I was down to one. I called Professor Richard J Bernstein at the New School, the only one who screened his calls. He instructed his administrative assistant to call and tell me he couldn’t come. She did. I informed her I needed to speak to the Professor, no wasn’t an option. Bernstein called me, telling me I sounded desperate to him and asked if I was. I told him, “Yes, I need you!”

Bernstein protested that he wasn’t part of this discourse and advised me he had no business attending as a keynote. I told him that Stefan Moses disagrees with you, otherwise he wouldn’t have given me your number. I told him that I had looked up his syllabi and noted he teaches Levinas through Rosenzweig, which not only makes him an ideal substitute, but obligates him to come for the Other. Using Levinas on a scholar who was falling in love with Levinasian ethics did the trick. He said, yes.

I spoke with the keynotes and coached them that our goal was not only to put on an amazing conference full of stars in the Jewish intellectual tradition, but to use the conference to create momentum for a Jewish Studies program at the university, and asked each to bring the need for Jewish Studies into their talk. I remember Professor Richard Cohen telling me he loved that the conference had this stealth objective.

Our first step in fundraising was me going to the humanities center and telling them I think their major donor, whose last name was Stern, was my 2nd cousin and asked for his number to call him. They gave me his number! Cheyney called him and discovered their dads had gone to Dartmouth together. He gave us a lot of money and helped us raise more capital.

The most concerned keynote was Bernstein. He felt out of his lane, so to speak, but he had no reason to be apprehensive. We spoke about his talk quite a bit, which was fantastic!

Equally, gripping was what happened at lunch. At the table was Fackenheim, Hilberg, Bernstein and either Deborah Lipstadt or Wiesel – I don’t recall, which – but everyone there remembers the argument Bernstein had with Hilberg.

Bernstein had just finished his book, “Hannah Arendt and The Jewish Question.” Hilberg, who wrote the most important work on the Holocaust, “Destruction of the European Jews,” claimed that Arendt never had tenure at The University of Chicago. Bernstein disagreed. They argued, fists on counter, voices rising. Eventually, Hilberg had enough and stormed away from the table.

I wondered if Hilberg was still affected by Arendt panning his monumental work when Princeton University Press asked her to review it. Princeton chose not to publish it. When the Hilberg’s work came out, Arendt not only praised it in her work “Eichman in Jerusalem,” she quoted from it.

Bernstein was gracious about the rift with Hilberg. Both attended all twenty-nine lectures. Hilberg was frustrated by the philosophical abstraction in many of the talks, which he felt immorally missed the lived experiences. Bernstein, at home in the technical philosophy, asked a question at each talk. He was a conference mensch as was Hilberg.

Richard J Bermstein’s memory is always for a blessing at the University of Oregon and beyond. Because of him, thousands have learned to not absent Judaism as a foundational civilization from the curriculum.  Here’s how he did it:

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern is the author of The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College
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