How should one teach “Introduction to Jewish Studies”?

Matthew Goldish

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.