How should one teach “Introduction to Jewish Studies”?

Martin Kavka

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.