Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Salo Wittmayer Baron
Salo Wittmayer Baron "Only in a university can be found the range and diversity of disciplines and intellectual strengths that are necessary components of contemporary Judaica - history, political science, economics, sociology, philology, languages and literatures."

Salo Wittmayer Baron (1895-1989)
Historian
Faculty 1930-63
LittD 1964 (hon.)

With the appointment of Salo Baron in 1929 as the Nathan L. Miller Professor of Jewish History, Literature and Institutions, Columbia became the first university to provide a true academic milieu for Jewish studies. It was one in which Baron could realize his long-held ambition to cross departmental lines to integrate all of the disciplines that explore and interpret history and culture, revolutionizing the study of Jewish history and its influence on the western world. Later practitioners of Jewish scholarship (many of them Baron's own students) gained access to other prestigious universities promoting his scientific as well as theological interpretations of Jewish history and connecting that history to contemporary concerns.

On assuming the Miller Chair, Baron was invited to deliver the Schermerhorn Lectures, which he used to focus on the interaction between cultural, religious, social and economic forces of Jewish history. The lectures and his later 18-volume A Social and Religious History of the Jews demonstrated an approach to the study of Judaica that balanced historical and sociological contexts with other perspectives. During his incumbency, Baron denounced the "lachrymose conception of Jewish history" as a story of individuals and persecutions, flawed by undue emphasis on events, texts and idealism. He used universal categories and scholarly research to place Jewish history in a larger comparative context, while placing equal emphasis on the vibrancy of Jewish religious culture. In all, under Baron, Jewish studies flourished as it transcended the old boundaries set by philological and archaeological investigations. In 1965, Columbia University Professor Meyer Schapiro wrote that "by his teaching and his books [Baron] has made the study of Jewish history a recognized part of that comprehensive learning which is an essential goal of the University."

Contributed by Laurence E. Balfus, MD, ' 55 CC, MA, Jewish Studies, 2000

Read more about Baron in the Columbia Encyclopedia.


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