The Program in Jewish Studies has appointed an internationally renowned scholar in hopes of molding the three-year-old program into one of the University's more accessible and diverse undergraduate curricula.
Peter Schäfer, a specialist in ancient Jewish history and mysticism, will begin his tenure at the University next year. He currently resides in Germany where he has been the director of Berlin's Institute for Judaic Studies at Free University since 1984.
Schäfer, a Catholic, is the University's first ever professor appointed to work exclusively with the Program in Jewish Studies. His upcoming professorship will not be his first exposure to Princeton; Schäfer has served as a fellow to the Institute for Advanced Study for the past three years.
Speaking from his home in Berlin last evening, Schäfer said he wants to enliven the fledgling program.
"I'm very keen to help building the Institute up," Schäfer said. "It's not yet established so there can be lots done there."
When sifting through the applications for the Institute's first Ronald O. Perelman professorship, Froma Zeitlin, Director of the Jewish Studies program, said that choosing their applicant was easy.
"The committee on appointments never saw a dossier that was as outstanding as this," she said.
Schäfer is the 1994 recipient of Germany's coveted Leibniz prize for innovative scholars – akin to the U.S.'s MacArthur Fellowship – and is fluent in several languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic. He has studied at the Hebrew University at Jerusalem and is the editor of a quarterly publication dealing with Jewish studies.
Schäfer said he looks forward to teaching undergraduates as opposed to his German students who work only towards master's degrees or doctorates.
Teaching at the University will allow Schäfer considerable leeway in his approach to working with students.
"It's much easier to be in touch with students and to do something interdisciplinary," Schäfer said.
Zeitlin added that her colleagues at other institutions are envious of Schäfer's pending arrival at the University. Schäfer opted for the post after Duke University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York tried to lure him.
However much enthusiasm and acclaim surrounds Schäfer, his pending professorship has encountered minor dissent.
In a letter to The Daily Princetonian, Jacob Neusner, a former fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study who is currently a religion professor at the University of South Florida, wrote that Schäfer's appointment "will prove controversial."
In an interview from his home in the Tampa Bay area, Neusner said Schäfer's lack of Talmudic scholarship – the study of Jewish laws – should disqualify him for a position at the University. "I don't think he views Judaism as a living religion," Neusner said of Schäfer.
Shäfer's response to such accusations was a cross between mild bemusement and expected disappointment in his colleague. "He is very nasty with everybody, and this is well-known," Shäfer said.