How should one teach “Introduction to Jewish Studies”?

Alan Levenson

University of Oklahoma

The Passover ditty Dayyenu reminds us that many approaches "would suffice us" to introduce Jewish history, Judaism, or Jewish Studies. Any good university-level course needs to keep Schwab's four-fold distinction of instructor, student, subject, and milieu in mind. Our program at the University of Oklahoma sits at the buckle of the Bible Belt, although I've seen that dubious distinction claimed by colleges from Florida to Ohio. Since many of our students understand religion as synonymous with Christianity, I present Judaism as a developing religious system (including the preference of praxis over creed, the importance of fictive kinship, the privileging of the Hebrew alphabet, the ethnic dimensions of Jewishness, and the startling discontinuities among different historical eras). I have had students who are legitimately surprised to discover that Jews do not practice the religion of the "Old Testament," and I am reasonably sure they are not twelfth-century friars. A good argument can be made for interdisciplinarity rather than multidisciplinarity as a pedagogic goal—actual integration of approaches rather than multiple approaches encountered sequentially in different departments. But at a public university scratching at the coveted "Top 100" designation, I am satisfied with mere disciplinarity. If I can convey a set of useful Religious Studies concepts (e.g. ritual objects, sacred texts, liturgical units, prayer book reforms) and also teach students how to put on their historians' glasses and interrogate the presuppositions, possible counter-arguments, and general context of written documents, I am ready to declare victory—for that semester at least.

To paraphrase Hillel—all the rest is tactics, go and study. Every instructor ought to maximize his/her advantages and minimize her/his failings. I am a Jew by birth (this should not be assumed) and shul goer by inclination (this should definitely not be assumed); I feel comfortable doing reality checks or poking a little fun at the realia of Jewish life—especially if it illuminates elite versus folk versions of the same. I am untutored in Gender Studies, so while I make a point of devoting time to women's history and flagging obviously patriarchal features of Judaism, this approach is not at the center of my syllabus. I am past fifty, so while I instruct via Powerpoint and YouTube, I also have students read documents aloud in class, learn texts in h . evruta, or write their own teshuvot before seeing Rambam's or Rashi's (e.g., Should I say God of our Fathers if I am a convert? May I divorce my wife for boils?). I hold students accountable for a considerable amount of reading, providing them with a reading guide for each of our four textbooks. I also assign several one-page papers with very specific prompts. The only "higher critical skills" I cultivate are reading, writing, and speaking. Relative to the academy at large, I am a positivist and an optimist: I believe there is material worth mastering and I believe our students are capable of achieving a great deal within a twelve-week or fifteen-week (at OU) semester. How one teaches Jewish Studies is how one should teach anything: with the conviction that it matters.