Hillel, Akiva, Abbaye, and Rava are not just historical figures at Yeshiva University, but cultural heroes and often intimates. Thanks to our unique dual curriculum, I can confidently refer to biblical, rabbinic, and medieval sources in the original languages, expecting many students to be able to finish my citation. My students care deeply and bring a variety of traditional and modernist frames to our often raucous class discussions.
Students choose my introductory courses knowing that they might be theologically challenged, but that it will be a fun ride. They encounter sources not studied in yeshivot—from recognizably "rabbinic" sources (including midrashim, piyyut, and targum) to Second Temple literature, Classics, New Testament, archaeology—and most of all, new ways to look at sources that they already know. Some students jump at all of this exciting newness, while others are jittery about it. My student-centered teaching is intended to help each person to integrate this new knowledge—often through individualized research projects, public presentations, and review essays of scholarly monographs chosen based on their interests.
Bringing students into the process of research is essential, and I actively share my own work and current thinking. One memorable experience was the day that a minister in California's Central Valley sent me images of an unpublished fifthcentury Aramaic tombstone from Zoar (in Jordan, on the Dead Sea) that was preserved in his congregation's museum of biblical archaeology. I set my undergrads to deciphering this artifact. A lively conversation ensued with Rev. Carl Morgan and with scholars in England and Israel. The church later donated this rather fragile artifact to Yeshiva University Museum, and this memorable exchange made the New York Times. On another occasion, I sent a group of general education students to check out "proof" adduced by an Israeli rabbi that the Menorah is hidden at the Vatican, published in advance of Pope Francis's 2014 visit to Israel. This resulted in a spirited search for rare halakhic texts, phone interviews with former Israeli government officials, rabbis, and Vatican officials, a public letter addressed to then President Peres refuting this urban legend, and coverage in the Wall Street Journal.
Archaeology, museum visits, and interpretive videos (like David Macaulay's Roman City and PBS's From Jesus to Christ) expose students to new sources, venues, and approaches. My larger goal is that these students someday confidently explain a museum exhibit or archaeological site to their own families, mull over some talmudic dictum in a different way, or read excitedly of a new discovery—applying learning from my course in their own lives. It's a fun ride for me as well.
Steven Fine, founding editor of AJS Perspectives, is the Dean Pinchos Churgin Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and director of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies. His book, The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel, was recently published by Harvard University Press.