Forum on Pedagogy: Embracing Discomfort

What do your students find to be the most difficult and uncomfortable idea in your introductory-level Jewish Studies classes? And what pedagogical techniques have you found most effective for creating safe spaces that encourage students to explore these ideas?

St. Olaf College

At the Lutheran (ELCA)-affiliated liberal arts college where I teach, most of my students were raised in church-going Christian households. My students' primary reference point for Jews is the New Testament; sometimes I am the first Jew they have met. Since the charged place of Judaism in the traditional Christian imaginary often stimulates students' interest in my courses, I try to parlay that curiosity into the study of Jewish culture, religion, and history on their own terms.

In my course on Jewish-Christian encounter, however, I face the task of leading students through an inarguably difficult history while simultaneously interrupting the temptation to see Jews solely as victims of Christian anti-Judaism. Provocative writings by Jews about Christianity aid me in this effort. These texts range from the Toledot Yeshu traditions of late antiquity to medieval halakhic rulings that presume Christianity's idolatrous character to Franz Rosenzweig's affirmation that "we [Jews] have crucified Christ and, believe me, would do it again every time, we alone in the whole world." These transgressive texts elicit surprise, even shock, and discomfort. Because I anticipate this reaction, I am careful about how and when I introduce such texts in the course, waiting until we have developed a rapport as a community of learners. But then, with trust firmly established, I use students' discomfort as they encounter Jewish intellectual aggression as a rich resource for learning. I ask students to turn a critical gaze on their own responses in our class discussions. Then we can think together about the unfamiliar (for them) experience of viewing Christianity as Other.

Mara Benjamin is associate professor of Religion at St. Olaf College. She is the author of Rosenzweig's Bible: Reinventing Scripture for Jewish Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and is a recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for her forthcoming book, The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought (Indiana University Press).

Yeshiva University

Hillel, Akiva, Abbaye, and Rava are not just historical figures at Yeshiva University, but cultural heroes and often intimates. Thanks to our unique dual curriculum, I can confidently refer to biblical, rabbinic, and medieval sources in the original languages, expecting many students to be able to finish my citation. My students care deeply and bring a variety of traditional and modernist frames to our often raucous class discussions.

Students choose my introductory courses knowing that they might be theologically challenged, but that it will be a fun ride. They encounter sources not studied in yeshivot—from recognizably "rabbinic" sources (including midrashim, piyyut, and targum) to Second Temple literature, Classics, New Testament, archaeology—and most of all, new ways to look at sources that they already know. Some students jump at all of this exciting newness, while others are jittery about it. My student-centered teaching is intended to help each person to integrate this new knowledge—often through individualized research projects, public presentations, and review essays of scholarly monographs chosen based on their interests.

Bringing students into the process of research is essential, and I actively share my own work and current thinking. One memorable experience was the day that a minister in California's Central Valley sent me images of an unpublished fifthcentury Aramaic tombstone from Zoar (in Jordan, on the Dead Sea) that was preserved in his congregation's museum of biblical archaeology. I set my undergrads to deciphering this artifact. A lively conversation ensued with Rev. Carl Morgan and with scholars in England and Israel. The church later donated this rather fragile artifact to Yeshiva University Museum, and this memorable exchange made the New York Times. On another occasion, I sent a group of general education students to check out "proof" adduced by an Israeli rabbi that the Menorah is hidden at the Vatican, published in advance of Pope Francis's 2014 visit to Israel. This resulted in a spirited search for rare halakhic texts, phone interviews with former Israeli government officials, rabbis, and Vatican officials, a public letter addressed to then President Peres refuting this urban legend, and coverage in the Wall Street Journal.

Archaeology, museum visits, and interpretive videos (like David Macaulay's Roman City and PBS's From Jesus to Christ) expose students to new sources, venues, and approaches. My larger goal is that these students someday confidently explain a museum exhibit or archaeological site to their own families, mull over some talmudic dictum in a different way, or read excitedly of a new discovery—applying learning from my course in their own lives. It's a fun ride for me as well.

Steven Fine, founding editor of AJS Perspectives, is the Dean Pinchos Churgin Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and director of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies. His book, The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel, was recently published by Harvard University Press.

Hebrew Union College

Rabbinical students exploring early Christian literature struggle to appreciate Paul as a Jew. That Jesus and his disciples were apocalyptic Jews who anticipated the imminent redemption of Israel does not appear to bother them, especially once they learn that much of Jesus's periodic vitriol against Jews and Jewish institutions more likely reflects the perspective of later Christians than of Jesus himself. But when I tell the students of recent (and in my view, correct) perspectives on Paul, which consider the apostle a Jew even as he inveighs against the Law and his nonbelieving kinsmen, they invariably recoil. Galatians 3 proves especially irritating. There Paul utilizes thoroughly Jewish biblical exegesis—quotation, allusion, analogy, wordplay, etc.—to demonstrate that the death and resurrection of Jesus displaces the Torah and that baptism, not birth, determines true descent from Abraham. The students deem Paul's argument strained and spurious, even as they acknowledge that their own sermons and divre Torah often draw on midrashim that are no less contrived. They condemn Paul's demotion of the Torah as a wholesale rejection of Judaism, even as they concede that their intellectual forbears in the Reform movement held a similar view of Jewish Law as historically important but nonetheless outmoded.

I have found role play the best tool for overcoming this initial pushback. Oddly enough, it's a technique Paul himself uses. At times in his letters he deploys the ancient rhetorical artifice called prosopopoeia, speech-in-character, by taking on and expressing a perspective that is not his own. I think it is an invaluable way for students to appreciate the struggles and motivations of historical actors, and I use it often when teaching history to rabbinical and undergraduate students. I create scenarios in which students are asked to speak or write as though they are Paul, to assume what he assumes and to think the way he thinks. Sometimes I generate transhistorical conversations, either in class or in written assignments, where "Paul" might discuss antinomian trends in Jewish history with the likes of, say, "Anan ben David," "Sabbatai Zvi," or "Samuel Holdheim." Encouraging students to inhabit the worldview of a historical figure cultivates empathy. It also creates a safe space to explore difficult ideas by allowing students to think and speak transgressively without themselves transgressing.

Joshua Garroway is associate professor of Early Christianity and Second Commonwealth Judaism at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and at the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Paul's Gentile-Jews: Neither Jew nor Gentile, but Both (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012).

North Carolina State University

Having primarily taught premodern Jewish history classes in Austria and only recently in the United States, I expected the difficulties of Austrian and American students to be very different due to the presence of Jewish life in the United States versus the lack thereof in Austria. However, the feeling of "foreignness" and "unconnectedness" to both the early modern period and traditional Jewish culture were among the difficulties my students most often expressed in both places.

I encourage all of my students to take their learning outside of the classroom and make the semester a holistic experience by reading firsthand accounts and novels; watching documentaries and movies; listening to Jewish music; visiting Jewish memorial sites, former Jewish neighborhoods, and places of worship; and speaking with friends and family about anything related to Judaism and Jewish history. My Austrian students appreciated this because it gave them an active starting point beyond their academic reading, and they realized their progress as they continually promoted their knowledge outside the classroom. However, for them, this often meant experiencing their direct spatial surroundings or place of origin for the first time as a (formerly) Jewish space and a space of persecution even before the Holocaust, which also caused them to feel uncomfortable. In first writing about and then discussing their experiences in class, their surprise at their own ignorance about these topics helped them articulate their discomfort, coalesce into a group, and advocate for the study of Jewish history.

Obviously, with my American students, I do not have the option of sending them outside the classroom to have immediate experiences of premodern Jewish spaces. "All these places in Europe are so hard for me to imagine. I have never been there," one of my students said this semester. Maps, pictures, and videos can obviously help here, as can early modern travel reports and firsthand accounts such as those of Glikl, Maimon, or Wengeroff. Again and again, students find these accounts stunning and exciting. The most effective method, however, seems to be taking them to see premodern Judaica collections at libraries or museums. Seeing and sometimes even touching Jewish artifacts or writings, from a Torah scroll to Dubnov's Jewish history in Yiddish, from European menorahs to contemporary huppot—this encounter with material culture often does the magic. They gain a more pluralistic and historical view of Judaism and Jewishness and build a connection to the European past they thought at first to be so different and difficult to grasp.

Verena Kasper-Marienberg is assistant professor for Jewish and Early Modern History at North Carolina State University. Before coming to NC State, she taught at the Karl- Franzens-Universität Graz. Her book, 'vor Euer Kayserlichen Mayestät Justiz-Thron.' Die Frankfurter jüdische Gemeinde am Reichshofrat in josephinischer Zeit (1765–1790) (StudienVerlag, 2012), focused on Jewish legal cases at the Supreme Court of the Holy Roman Empire in the eighteenth century and won the Rosl and Paul Arnsberg-Preis, the highest prize given for Jewish Studies in Germany.

University of Illinois at Chicago

The University of Illinois at Chicago is considered one of the five most diverse campuses in the United States. We have no racial majority and are designated by the Department of Education as a Minority- Serving, Hispanic-Serving, and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander–Serving Institution. Our most recent "Entering Student Survey" revealed that: English is not the first language for about a third of our students (sixty-two different languages were named as first); we have no religious majority; and Jewish students make up only 0.8 percent of the entering class.

The introductory course that I have taught most frequently is Introduction to Yiddish Culture and Literature, a general education course with no prerequisites. The most difficult and uncomfortable idea for students in this course is that Jewish identity can be defined not only in religious terms but also as a national, cultural, ethnic, or racial identity, or various combinations of these, depending on the historical or cultural context, or simply on who is doing the defining. In this particular course, where students learned about Yiddishist and anti- Yiddish Zionists, Diaspora nationalists, Bundists, and contemporary Haredi Jews, among others, becoming comfortable with the complexity of Jewish identity and the fact that some understandings of Jewish identity might challenge their contemporary (generally liberal) American sensibilities was imperative.

The diversity of students participating in my course and their willingness to talk about their own experiences opened up possibilities to consider different understandings of Jewishness and also ways in which their own identities were contingent, "messy," contradictory, or difficult to define. The fact that the majority of students who take the course are not Jewish allowed us to consider connections or comparisons that might have been missed or less meaningful in more homogenous groups. The following are just a few examples. In one class, an Assyrian student volunteered that Assyrians were like pre-Israel Yiddish-speaking Jews—a stateless people/nation, who speak a language that is not the official language of any country. An African American student told us that she had been so engrossed in the Memoirs of Glikl of Hameln that she missed her stop on the bus—because the way that Glikl talked reminded her so much of her deeply religious (Christian) Afro-Caribbean grandmother. Two Jain students could speak of the practical challenges of strict dietary laws. When we read a story about a newly married woman who resisted the expectation to cover her hair, Muslim women in my class weighed in on how religious women could embrace a tradition that seemed misogynistic to others while at the same time considering themselves to be feminists. When we read The Dybbuk, I shared a recent New York Times article about reports of a talking carp in a Hasidic community, who claimed to be the troubled soul of a recently deceased community elder. When a few students started to laugh, a Catholic Latino student reminded his peers that Christians who believed in the Resurrection and in other miracles were similarly called on to accept the supernatural.

Elizabeth Loentz teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Let Me Continue to Speak the Truth: Bertha Pappenheim as Author and Activist (Hebrew Union College Press, 2007); and she is currently writing a second book, The Meaning of Yiddish in 20th-Century Germany. Prior to her doctoral studies, she taught unaccompanied refugee minors in Hallbergmoos, Germany.

Indiana University Bloomington

A few years ago two students came to my office hours to talk about a course I regularly teach entitled Jews, Christians, Muslims. In the course of our conversation one of them asked, "Can I ask you a personal question?" Hesitantly, I responded, "Yes." The student continued, "Are you a Muslim?" A bit taken aback, I responded that I am not sure I could answer the question but I wondered why he asked. He said that the other day in lecture I had said something quite positive about Islam and its devotion to monotheism, which made a number of students posit that I must be a Muslim. I informed him that saying something positive, even laudatory, about a religion or belief system does not make one an adherent to that religion or belief system.

When teaching religion, any religion, our students often wonder what we are. Do we believe what we teach? Is our presentation a defense or a critique of the subject at hand? I don't suppose this is a prevalent in courses on Shakespeare ("are you a sonnet?") and certainly not in chemistry ("are you an amino acid?"), or perhaps even analytic philosophy ("are you a fact?"), but teaching religion ("are you religious, a believer, if so, what kind?") evokes this kind of curiosity. Many of us simply choose not to disclose "what we are." But that too has a pedagogical price, one that may shut down an important opportunity.

When I studied Hebrew Bible with Moshe Greenberg in Jerusalem in the 1980s he always refused to answer questions about what he believed in regard to the Bible. But once a semester he would invite us to his home in the evening and we were free to ask him anything we wanted. This illustrated for me a version of a famous apocryphal adage about when a student saw Henrich Graetz walking to synagogue on Purim carrying a scroll of Esther. The student approached Graetz and said, "Excuse me, Herr Professor, but didn't you teach us just last week that the story of Esther never happened (lo hayah ve-lo nivra')?" Graetz said without any irony, "Religion is one thing, scholarship is another thing (dat le-hud ve-meh. kar le-hud)," and continued walking.

In today's multidisciplinary and identitarian times, our students would likely not be satisfied with such compartmentalizing. And neither are many of us. Greenberg didn't want "what he was" to be in the classroom, only the living room. But "what we are" is in the classroom, although making that evident does not necessarily enhance the learning process. As Greenberg probably thought, it may very well serve as a distraction. Thus, what challenge does the question "What are you?" pose to us as scholars, as believers or disbelievers, sometimes believers, half-believers, or whatever? One possibility is to interrogate the notion of situational thinking, or thinking from a point of view without being inextricably wed to that point of view, as a model of "thinking religion." That is, to convey to our students that seeking objectivity and being objective are different, that we can think, argue for, and even defend something we don't believe in (e.g., I can praise Islam without being a Muslim). We could convey that intellectual rigor does not require an empty vessel, or an empty heart.

The lesson, perhaps, is that we, like them, are struggling beings, thinking subjects in the warp and woof of simply trying to figure out how to be human. That in the broad scheme of things, we are not that different from them and that the distinction between teaching and learning is far less stable than we are led to believe?

What students want to know and what they need to know are not identical. They want to know "what we are" to put us in a box so that they can assess how to receive what we say. Perhaps our response should be to interrogate and critique the question. It is not that "what I am" doesn't matter. It certainly does, surely to me! It is to say, rather, that I can think from what I am and what I believe without the need to defend those beliefs. Not only will that help them do the same but it may also change who I am. Allotting thought the power to effect change is part of humanistic education. But as important, thinking outside "what we are" has the power to change what we are. And, as Socrates might have said, that may be the most beautiful, and most precarious, dimension of teaching. And living.

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies and professor of Religion at Indiana University Bloomington. He is also a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His most recent book is Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Making of Modern Judaism (Stanford University Press, 2015). His forthcoming book is A Voice Calls: The Talmud and the New Testament, Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik's Commentary to the New Testament (Yale Judaica Classics).

University of Notre Dame

Most of the students who enroll in my Introduction to Judaism are theology majors, usually with a Catholic background. These students identify with the church and with the Catholic past, and therein lies one of the challenges I face in teaching my Introduction to Judaism: how to confront the history of Christian antisemitism. It is not a topic on which I dwell at length, because I take this history to be an extrinsic condition for the development of Jewish thought. That is to say, Jewish thought has been (partly) determined by the fact of antisemitism, but in its particular manifestations, antisemitism tells us little about Judaism, or in any case, little that cannot better be addressed from the sources of Judaism themselves. But I do take note of antisemitism at various points, in connection with Judaism of both the medieval Christian and the medieval Muslim worlds, and of course in connection with modernity and the Holocaust. Discussion of Christian antisemitism inevitably makes students uncomfortable. This discomfort is a good thing—one should be made uneasy by the sins of the past (or present) with which one identifies—and I cannot say that I make any special effort to mitigate it, as it is, I take it, obvious to all class participants that we enter on the topic in a spirit of mutual respect and good faith.

The other side of the coin concerns the ways in which I present Judaism to the class. The students, typically self-selected by their engagement with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council or, more mundanely, by experiences with Jewish family and/ or friends, come to the course inclined, in general, to view Judaism very positively. I find myself tempted, naturally, to confirm these inclinations. This temptation is reinforced by the theological context in which I teach, insofar as theology encourages constructive (in both senses of the word) engagement with religious tradition rather than exclusively (but hardly to the exclusion of) historicizing or critical engagement with it. My own personal commitments, as a Jew, make the temptation toward apologetics still greater. The accumulated temptation is not altogether to be resisted, and I do not resist it altogether. We do read invocations of divine vengeance in Byzantine piyyut and in the Mainz Anonymous Chronicle, and we do, following Naomi Seidman, deconstruct Elie Wiesel's Night through comparison with its earlier Yiddish instantiation. But I offer Judaism with only some of its warts, not all.

Teaching the course this past fall, I have exposed another source of discomfort, perhaps more urgent than the above two. In my course, I present the challenges of Jewish modernity as a special case of the challenges of modernity in general. The Mendelssohnian solution to modernity, I tell them, came under threat from the same forces that challenged Western liberalism in general, and that found expression in Bundism, in Rosenzweig's community of blood, and in other ways. Came, I say, but now I also say comes, as current political conditions once again, but in new ways, expose the blind spots and instabilities of the modern liberal state. My students and I are confronting this unsettling reality together.

Tzvi Novick is an associate professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where he occupies the Abrams Chair of Jewish Thought and Culture. His research focuses on law and ethics in rabbinic literature, and on the liturgical poetry of late antique Palestine. He is the author of What Is Good and What God Demands: Normative Structures in Tannaitic Literature (Brill, 2010).

University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Over the past ten years, I have taught an undergraduate course titled Introduction to Jewish History from Antiquity to the Present. My students are mainly Christians from the Midwest, who have had little to no contact with Jews before coming to campus. Nearly every semester, some students express discomfort with referring to the very people on whom we are focusing: Jews. To be sure, their discomfort invariably stems from good intentions. They just have a gut feeling that writing the word "Jews" is offensive but they aren't sure why. I typically use this opportunity as a moment for critical engagement: Is the problem the word "Jews"? Or is it just using the article "the" before it? I often find the most effective pedagogical examples to be drawn from current events, and for better or worse, the 2016 US presidential election yielded plenty of material to address the issue. Luckily, the students didn't need much convincing to see how Republican candidate Donald Trump's frequent references to "the African-Americans" and "the Latinos" at his rallies were indeed offensive. In class, we discuss how such references lump together members of groups as undifferentiated entities. Students learn that referring to groups in this way serves to distance the speaker from those groups, and thus serves to both marginalize and dehumanize its members. By the time we get to the Holocaust, students can better understand how the Nazis used language as a key facet to persecute their Jewish victims. At the same time, I am always careful to point out that not every reference to "Jews" or even "the Jews" is necessarily offensive. For examples, we look at how authors we read in class use the term, or even how I used it myself on the syllabus or on their exams. From these discussions, I believe they learn important lessons about context. Words matter. Language reflects feelings, and what one says is a reflection of how one acts. As distasteful as it was to have so many examples to draw on from current events this year, I have to admit that I'm thrilled that such a relevant and important lesson about the dangers of essentializing can emerge from my Jewish history class.

Lisa Silverman is associate professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She is currently working on a study of Jews in postwar Europe, 1945–1953, in Austria, France, and Germany. She is the author of Becoming Austrians: Jews and Culture between the World Wars (Oxford, 2012).