How should one teach “Introduction to Jewish Studies”?

Vanderbilt University

I taught "Introduction to Jewish Studies" for the first time this past semester (Spring 2014). I let my students know at the very first meeting that the course wasn't going to be an introduction to Jewish religion, or Jewish history, or even Jewish literature. Although I think that a lot of students come to an "Introduction to Jewish Studies" expecting some or all of these things, I am fortunate to teach in a program that offers other courses that specialize in these matters. Because I am a historian, I did bring a sense of trajectory and structure to the course by relying on a broad-based narrative of Jewish history from a textbook. But my main objective for the course, week in and week out, was to provide an introduction to just what it is that Jewish Studies scholars do. As students read pieces from the textbook, I assigned them a brief scholarly article for each classroom session, engaging questions pertaining to the period about which they had read. We spent much of our time in class discussing the ways the author of the scholarly article intended to intervene in the field and to make a contribution to the literature. By exposing students to a range of scholars and methodological approaches, they got a taste of the breadth of Jewish Studies scholarship.

However, Jewish Studies scholars constantly engage primary sources directly using those methodological tools to tackle the central questions of Jewish history. To give students a taste of the role primary sources play in the field, I asked students to read selections of primary sources that animated both the narrative material in the textbook and the questions in the secondary literature.

I structured students' writing assignments to mimic the scholarly process: students were asked to participate in a library session exposing them both to hard copy and electronic resources, to write book reviews, to prepare an annotated bibliography and a paper abstract (they actually presented their abstracts to each other at the end of the course), and finally to draft a brief paper that outlined the major scholarly trends on a question of their own choosing. I hope they left my course with a facility with the basic research tools and a sense of the richness of methods Jewish Studies scholars employ, as well as an exposure to the broad arc of the Jewish historical experience.

University of Kentucky, Lexington

Although Jewish American culture is most commonly associated with East Coast urban metropolises, in actuality Kentucky has a Jewish history as rich and deep as the Bluegrass itself. Some of the people, products, and places most strongly associated with Kentucky have Jewish chapters in their histories. For example, the Gratz family of Lexington and the Simon family of Louisville were related and both served instrumental roles in the development of Kentucky's two largest cities. In business, the bourbon founder Jim Beam descended from Jacob Boehm (a German Jewish immigrant). The Jewish bourbon connection lives on today in Heaven Hill, one of the last remaining family-owned distilleries, revived after Prohibition by the five Shapira brothers. And, in humanities, the epic poem "Kentucky," written by Israel Jacob Schwartz, tells of Jewish acculturation within the state and remains a seminal work within American Jewish history and literature.

Kentucky is unique because Jewish heritage is everywhere but not always immediately visible. Because of this not-yet-fully-recognized ubiquity, students at the University of Kentucky are taught a broad range of methods and approaches to both Jewish topics in the commonwealth and beyond. Part of our shared scholarly adventure is to map the unchartered territory of Kentucky's Jewish heritage. Using oral history, archival, and rhetorical methods we work together to represent Kentucky Jewish communities' diversity and to integrate their perspectives with the more familiar narratives of Jewish identity, history, and culture in the commonwealth, the United States, and the world beyond. Students learn about this rich Kentucky "Jewgrass" heritage first hand in several ways. In collaboration with the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History and local Kentucky Jewish community members, they work to both analyze and conduct oral history interviews. Students learn methods for uncovering, interpreting, and curating primary archival materials as well as creating and constructing new repositories of artifacts both digital and print. As a rhetorician, I find it helpful to use the tools of my trade (an understanding of audience, rhetorical purpose, and exigence) to help students engage the issues they encounter in the primary materials and our Jewish Studies courses and to better understand the texts they encounter. Our goal as a faculty is to not only teach the diversity of Jewish Kentucky history, culture, and heritage, but also to teach the tools for knowledge construction and understanding so that this heritage can be both preserved and generative.

At the University of Kentucky, we offer a minor in Jewish Studies, which means that (as of yet) there is no official course in methods. Instead, every course we teach must engage in some discussion of why Jewish Studies matters and how one best studies it. For the Kentucky Commonwealth students we meet in our classes, who are mostly non-Jewish students, Jewish Studies is important because it simultaneously offers a local context and a global passport to world history, literature, languages, and culture. And while some students may have never met a Jewish person or encountered Jewish ideas before arriving on campus, our courses enable them to put Jewish history, thought, and culture in both local and transnational perspective. Our minors graduate with first-hand experience accessing, analyzing, and helping to generate primary materials and strong research and writing skills that enable them to contextualize, interpret, and intervene in complex rhetorical situations both inside and outside of the classroom.

The Ohio State University

The main subjects usually covered in "Introduction to Jewish Studies" courses are Jewish history, beliefs, and practices. That is a huge amount and each instructor develops her or his own style. I am a historian so I begin with history, which I think is necessary to understand the development of beliefs and practices. History also encompasses topics in which some students have particular interest: the Bible; the relationship of Judaism to Christianity; the Holocaust; the State of Israel; and contemporary Jewry.

There is usually a core textbook to which other readings—primary and secondary— are attached. After trying a number of these I now use Nicholas de Lange's excellent Introduction to Judaism. It is readable, it covers the topics I want to discuss, and it avoids most of the denominational slant that colors many introductory works. Instructors often use Barry Holtz's standard Back to the Sources. I have not found a text reader that really works for me so I cobble sources together from various places. Many of them are now available free on the internet.

One problem I have found teaching the introduction is the varying levels of student knowledge, from the day-school slackers to people who never met a Jew before arriving at Ohio State. A few years ago I was doing my standard "all of Jewish history in forty minutes" schtick (with jokes, of course). I had just hit minute four—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and I thought I was doing great, when a student in the second row put up her hand. "I have no idea what you are talking about," she said. "I don't know anything about these people and I have no idea what you're saying." She was applauded. I had to rethink the assumptions I could make about student knowledge. This is tricky and I have no clear solution.

Hebrew Union College-Los Angeles

When I first started teaching Jewish Studies I took a "best athlete" route; I invited colleagues from across the disciplines to engage the students in the ways they "did" Jewish Studies. But the students lacked context and instead of seeing a synthesis of disparate methods, they saw a chaotic mishmash. So I began teaching it as a history of an idea: starting with the early Wissenschaftlers we traced the development of the study of Judaism "in its fullest scope" from Immanuel Wolf's description of the aspiring field in 1822 to its realization in colleges and universities in the twentieth century. But we found that approach too dry; the students wanted the opportunity to pry apart the political aspirations of each generation. So we turned instead toward an investigation of academic programs throughout the United States and Canada and assessed the requirements for Jewish Studies minors and majors: language offerings ("just" Hebrew or were Arabic, Persian, Yiddish, or Ladino available and acceptable?), programmatic structure (chronological or subject focused or by discipline), which departments offered the majority of courses, and the presence of an introduction to or capstone in Jewish Studies. We were surprised that hardly anyone seemed to teach a class that looked at Jewish Studies broadly, as a field in its own right, as a multidisciplinary lens through which to view a multitude of subjects. And so my students designed their dream class: historical context was followed by star lectures from across campus, and students presented semester-long projects on topics informed by their favorite academic discipline.

Next time, I will include social media and an examination of the multitude of Jewish organizations offering real-time learning on web-based platforms and in mini-conferences. In the six years since I last taught the class, Jewish Studies has exploded beyond the borders of the university. Its fullest scope includes all the portals through which people learn and engage in Jewish learning, even the study about the study itself.

Indiana University

I don't teach "Introduction to Jewish Studies." In some ways, this is an accident of curriculum: instead we have "Introduction to Judaism" and introductory Jewish history courses, and I've taught each. But in other ways, this arrangement is relevant—even central—to larger questions about teaching Jewish Studies. Parallel to the pedagogical question about how we teach Jewish Studies is the disciplinary question of how we know what to teach.

From where I stand, Jewish Studies isn't a discipline or a method, and herein lie both the assets of interdisciplinarity and flexibility, but also the challenges of articulating a body of knowledge or a set of skills our students should have. Where is the intellectual core of Jewish Studies? Is it the study of descent-based groups of people we call Jews? Is it the study of text? How is it related to religion? Donors, foundations, campus Hillels, and institutional structures all stake claims on this. For instance, whether Jewish Studies is a nondepartmental "center," a subsection of Religious Studies or History, or an "area studies" unit implicitly shapes the method and the student experience of Jewish Studies.

At its worst, an unidentified method or discipline can lead to unreflective valuing of all things Jewish merely because they are Jewish, and our students come away with little more than a more robust version of narratives they might hear at a Jewish day school. But at its best, it equips our students to engage with the real world, which rarely respects the boundaries of academic disciplines. Jewish Studies students can ask, for instance, how we have come to live in a world where personal history, cultural affinity, DNA, family structure, and religious observance all compete for the authority to define Jewishness. And this kind of rich and subtle questioning, in my eyes, is a central goal of Jewish Studies.

Williams College

My introductory course in Jewish Studies is entitled "Judaism: Before the Law." It is a humanistic exploration of "the Law" as a concept that arises from, but also transcends, Jewish thought and practice. Students begin with the Law of Moses in the Hebrew Bible, and over the course of the semester are introduced to the rabbinic distinction between "Oral Law" and "Written Law," medieval philosophical justifications for the Law, modern interpretations of the Law as Moral Law, Hasidic challenges to the centrality of the Law, and twentieth-century Jewish fiction that is haunted by a felt absence of the Law. The course also covers the nature of rabbinic authority, methods of Jewish legal interpretation and innovation, and Halakhah as it pertains specifically to women, Gentiles, idolaters, food consumption, and the Land of Israel. In addition, the course addresses non-Jewish depictions of Judaism as essentially legalistic. Students learn how Judaism came to be stigmatized as dead letter contrasted to living spirit, corrupt flesh contrasted to pure soul, and antagonistic particularism contrasted to benevolent universalism. They investigate the origin and legacy of Immanuel Kant's claim that "strictly speaking Judaism is not a religion at all" but merely individuals "of a particular stock" who have established themselves under "purely political laws." They trace this line of thought from Paul through Spinoza and Kant to contemporary thinkers like Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou. Course materials include classical sources from the Talmud and Midrash, modern philosophical texts by Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, and Joseph Soloveitchik, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Kafka's The Trial with his parable "Before The Law," short stories by Bernard Malamud, Woody Allen's film Crimes and Misdemeanors, and ethnographic accounts of contemporary Jewish observance. In general, I hold the view that an introduction to Jewish Studies ought to show students how the study of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism can be a valuable exercise in humanistic inquiry. By "humanistic inquiry" I mean investigation into human thoughts, practices, and institutions as they emerge and vary in different places and times.

Florida State University

I have never taught an introduction to Jewish Studies per se, which would give students an overview to the various methods and approaches that scholars take when they look at people who identify as Jews. Being housed in a department of Religion, my introductory class is an introduction to Judaism. In one semester, I take students on a whirlwind tour that begins with the sacrificial cult of ancient Israelite religion and ends with Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the dean of Yeshivat Maharat. I have long wondered whether learning outcomes for such a class might be improved if the course were spread out over a year, but there is something about the quick pace that prohibits students from getting too comfortable with any form of Judaism as marking a site of truth, with respect to which all other forms become deviant and false. (Undergraduates, especially in the American South, are more invested in truth than most contemporary philosophers.) On the first day of this class, I introduce my students to the work of Gershom Scholem, particularly some comments on Judaism from fifty years ago that were published posthumously under the title "Judaism." That essay begins by claiming that "Judaism cannot be defined according to its essence, since it has no essence." Whether my students are Jewish or Christian, religious or secular, they start out skeptical of the worth of Scholem's resistance to any and all abstract accounts of Judaism. But after examining such phenomena as the centralization of worship to the Jerusalem Temple in the Book of Deuteronomy, the collapse of Deuteronomistic frameworks of suffering in the rabbinic period (and later, in post-Holocaust theology), the difference between Midrashic and Maimonidean approaches to biblical texts, the radical accounts of creation in Kabbalah, and the existence of a proudly feminist Orthodox Judaism, my students are sufficiently dizzied that they can acknowledge the truth of Scholem's claim that the study of Judaism is nothing more and nothing less than the study of Jews.

For Scholem, this meant that there was no choice but to affirm the State of Israel as "the living force of the people of Israel," but such a claim falls into the same problems of abstraction that Scholem decried in Jewish theology. In a time when "just Jewish" is a sociological term of art and Birthright trips are yet another manifestation of college hookup culture, Judaism can be taught as itself, as just as ordinary as any other religious tradition. The political potential of such a pedagogy is greater than we scholars might realize.

University of Pittsburgh

While the University of Pittsburgh does not offer an "Introduction to Jewish Studies" course, I started teaching a survey of modern Jewish history when I joined the faculty of Religious Studies in the fall of 2011. From the outset, I wanted to avoid rendering the histories of non-Ashkenazic and non-male Jews as secondary or marginal, the stuff of "special topics" on women and Sephardim. My goal was not necessarily to replace the famous men who have traditionally been studied in surveys of modern Jewish history with a new pantheon of Jewish women and non-Europeans (though I did some of this as well). Rather, I wanted to acknowledge the geopolitical and gender dynamics that allowed generations of scholars to present the experiences, concerns, and cultural productions of Ashkenazic Jewish men as the defining material of modern Jewish history. And of course, I wanted to do this in a way that was engaging and not too convoluted or complicated.

Serendipitously, my first semester teaching the modern Jewish history survey coincided with the release of the third edition of Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz's The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History (Oxford University Press, 2010). I was delighted to discover that unlike the previous editions, the new edition included a wealth of illuminating primary sources that addressed the concerns and experiences of Jewish women and non-European Jews, and I assigned many of these documents to my students.

As I soon discovered, however, a large percentage of my students had purchased used, second-edition copies of the book that did not include the new texts. Rather than get annoyed by this, I decided to use it as a teaching opportunity. We began our primary source discussions by talking about which of the assigned texts could only be found in the newer third edition, and why this might have been the case. Analyzing their textbooks offered my students a concrete and entirely accessible way to think about how, for better or for worse, the study of Jewish history always reflects the choices and assumptions of the scholars who create it.

University of Oklahoma

The Passover ditty Dayyenu reminds us that many approaches "would suffice us" to introduce Jewish history, Judaism, or Jewish Studies. Any good university-level course needs to keep Schwab's four-fold distinction of instructor, student, subject, and milieu in mind. Our program at the University of Oklahoma sits at the buckle of the Bible Belt, although I've seen that dubious distinction claimed by colleges from Florida to Ohio. Since many of our students understand religion as synonymous with Christianity, I present Judaism as a developing religious system (including the preference of praxis over creed, the importance of fictive kinship, the privileging of the Hebrew alphabet, the ethnic dimensions of Jewishness, and the startling discontinuities among different historical eras). I have had students who are legitimately surprised to discover that Jews do not practice the religion of the "Old Testament," and I am reasonably sure they are not twelfth-century friars. A good argument can be made for interdisciplinarity rather than multidisciplinarity as a pedagogic goal—actual integration of approaches rather than multiple approaches encountered sequentially in different departments. But at a public university scratching at the coveted "Top 100" designation, I am satisfied with mere disciplinarity. If I can convey a set of useful Religious Studies concepts (e.g. ritual objects, sacred texts, liturgical units, prayer book reforms) and also teach students how to put on their historians' glasses and interrogate the presuppositions, possible counter-arguments, and general context of written documents, I am ready to declare victory—for that semester at least.

To paraphrase Hillel—all the rest is tactics, go and study. Every instructor ought to maximize his/her advantages and minimize her/his failings. I am a Jew by birth (this should not be assumed) and shul goer by inclination (this should definitely not be assumed); I feel comfortable doing reality checks or poking a little fun at the realia of Jewish life—especially if it illuminates elite versus folk versions of the same. I am untutored in Gender Studies, so while I make a point of devoting time to women's history and flagging obviously patriarchal features of Judaism, this approach is not at the center of my syllabus. I am past fifty, so while I instruct via Powerpoint and YouTube, I also have students read documents aloud in class, learn texts in h . evruta, or write their own teshuvot before seeing Rambam's or Rashi's (e.g., Should I say God of our Fathers if I am a convert? May I divorce my wife for boils?). I hold students accountable for a considerable amount of reading, providing them with a reading guide for each of our four textbooks. I also assign several one-page papers with very specific prompts. The only "higher critical skills" I cultivate are reading, writing, and speaking. Relative to the academy at large, I am a positivist and an optimist: I believe there is material worth mastering and I believe our students are capable of achieving a great deal within a twelve-week or fifteen-week (at OU) semester. How one teaches Jewish Studies is how one should teach anything: with the conviction that it matters.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The activities of conventional scholarship tend to be solitary ones: reading, reflecting, writing. The scholar faces her laptop, attending, examining, and arranging many precepts. But teaching is (supposed to be) predominantly a social activity. The magic of learning is not in the rote transmission of knowledge, etching facts on the tablet of the student's heart, but in the experience of debating meaning. The assigned reading material in an "Introduction to the Hebrew Bible" course seems self-evident from the title: students are introduced to ancient Israelite religion and culture through the lens of a textual canon. Yet how does one create the experience of dialogue out of texts composed by individuals who no longer walk this earth? The challenge of revivifying ancient texts can be mitigated by an appeal to the three-dimensional world out of which these texts emerged—a recreation of the social world of ancient Israel and early Judaism— and the tradition of dialogue surrounding the text in Judaism. In my courses I try to recreate the multisensory experience of the world the text represents, teaching a practicum in ancient Near Eastern cuisine, bringing in material objects from excavations for students to hold (and hopefully not break!), and having students re-enact the narratives. We also discuss the place of text in Jewish practice, like the performance of 'Eshet H . ayil at the Shabbat table and the reliving of the Exodus narrative during the Passover seder, to give the written a lived context. Examining how texts are performed in Jewish practice can also give a glimpse into their reception history and can connect to the life of the text in contemporary religious communities. These activities draw students out of the written word and into dynamic experiences that they can identify with and learn from.