Forum on Pedagogy: Embracing Discomfort

Mara H. Benjamin

St. Olaf College

At the Lutheran (ELCA)-affiliated liberal arts college where I teach, most of my students were raised in church-going Christian households. My students' primary reference point for Jews is the New Testament; sometimes I am the first Jew they have met. Since the charged place of Judaism in the traditional Christian imaginary often stimulates students' interest in my courses, I try to parlay that curiosity into the study of Jewish culture, religion, and history on their own terms.

In my course on Jewish-Christian encounter, however, I face the task of leading students through an inarguably difficult history while simultaneously interrupting the temptation to see Jews solely as victims of Christian anti-Judaism. Provocative writings by Jews about Christianity aid me in this effort. These texts range from the Toledot Yeshu traditions of late antiquity to medieval halakhic rulings that presume Christianity's idolatrous character to Franz Rosenzweig's affirmation that "we [Jews] have crucified Christ and, believe me, would do it again every time, we alone in the whole world." These transgressive texts elicit surprise, even shock, and discomfort. Because I anticipate this reaction, I am careful about how and when I introduce such texts in the course, waiting until we have developed a rapport as a community of learners. But then, with trust firmly established, I use students' discomfort as they encounter Jewish intellectual aggression as a rich resource for learning. I ask students to turn a critical gaze on their own responses in our class discussions. Then we can think together about the unfamiliar (for them) experience of viewing Christianity as Other.

Mara Benjamin is associate professor of Religion at St. Olaf College. She is the author of Rosenzweig's Bible: Reinventing Scripture for Jewish Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and is a recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for her forthcoming book, The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought (Indiana University Press).