How should one teach “Introduction to Jewish Studies”?

Sarah Imhoff

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.