How should one teach “Introduction to Jewish Studies”?

Jacqueline Vayntrub

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The activities of conventional scholarship tend to be solitary ones: reading, reflecting, writing. The scholar faces her laptop, attending, examining, and arranging many precepts. But teaching is (supposed to be) predominantly a social activity. The magic of learning is not in the rote transmission of knowledge, etching facts on the tablet of the student's heart, but in the experience of debating meaning. The assigned reading material in an "Introduction to the Hebrew Bible" course seems self-evident from the title: students are introduced to ancient Israelite religion and culture through the lens of a textual canon. Yet how does one create the experience of dialogue out of texts composed by individuals who no longer walk this earth? The challenge of revivifying ancient texts can be mitigated by an appeal to the three-dimensional world out of which these texts emerged—a recreation of the social world of ancient Israel and early Judaism— and the tradition of dialogue surrounding the text in Judaism. In my courses I try to recreate the multisensory experience of the world the text represents, teaching a practicum in ancient Near Eastern cuisine, bringing in material objects from excavations for students to hold (and hopefully not break!), and having students re-enact the narratives. We also discuss the place of text in Jewish practice, like the performance of 'Eshet H . ayil at the Shabbat table and the reliving of the Exodus narrative during the Passover seder, to give the written a lived context. Examining how texts are performed in Jewish practice can also give a glimpse into their reception history and can connect to the life of the text in contemporary religious communities. These activities draw students out of the written word and into dynamic experiences that they can identify with and learn from.