It’s Greek To Me! // An Interview with the noted Greek Scholar, Professor David Schaps

By Shira Schmidt

It happens every semester. Bar-Ilan University students sign up for a course in classical Greek or Latin. They enter the classroom on the first day, get a good look at Professor David Schaps, with his long white beard, black hat and old-fashioned black suit, and check their class schedule. Then they go outside and check the number on the door, thinking there must be a mistake. This cannot be their professor. Professor Schaps sees the puzzled looks on their faces and reassures them that they have come to the right classroom and that he will be their teacher for the next few months.

What is a chareidi rabbi doing teaching classics? We sought to find out and caught up with Rabbi Professor Schaps on a typical evening, when he goes from teaching Daf Yomi in Petach Tikvah to listening to a shiur from Rav Yitchak Zilberstein in Bnei Brak, where he lives.

Rabbi Schaps grew up in Brooklyn and describes his background in this way:
“I was brought up as what is known as a ‘Conservative’ Jew, which means that my Jewish education—although it started when I was six years old and continued until I was 15—taught me no Gemara, no Mishnah, and only part of Chumash—the segment that began with Bereishis, went up to Yisro, and then started over again, because telling us stories was safer than trying to teach us mitzvos.”

As a youngster, he once glimpsed his grandfather donning tefillin—and ran, frightened, to his mother to ask her about it. He put on tefillin for some time following his bar mitzvah while hiding in his room, but without support from his environment, the practice eventually tapered off and ceased.

His meager Jewish education was no match for the excellent level of his public high school studies. He went off to earn his bachelor’s degree at the prestigious Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, planning to major in economics. But on the advice of his guidance counselors, he soon switched to classics, including Greek and Latin studies.

When he discovered “that the Greeks knew many things that seemed to be getting lost in the modern world,” he became interested in learning more. The cultural heritage epitomized by the Iliad and the Odyssey that had been the legacy of every educated Westerner two generations earlier was no longer being passed down. “I thought I could help preserve it for one more generation,” he says.

Substantive Jewish life at Swarthmore was minimal. As an introduction to his doctoral studies in classics at Harvard, he took classes there over the summer. While the campus Hillel had active Reform, Conservative and Orthodox services during the year, only the Orthodox minyan kept going in the summertime. It was in this setting that his desire to know more about Judaic texts was kindled.

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