How should one teach “Introduction to Jewish Studies”?

Jeffrey Israel

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.