Forum on Pedagogy: Embracing Discomfort

Tzvi Novick

University of Notre Dame

Most of the students who enroll in my Introduction to Judaism are theology majors, usually with a Catholic background. These students identify with the church and with the Catholic past, and therein lies one of the challenges I face in teaching my Introduction to Judaism: how to confront the history of Christian antisemitism. It is not a topic on which I dwell at length, because I take this history to be an extrinsic condition for the development of Jewish thought. That is to say, Jewish thought has been (partly) determined by the fact of antisemitism, but in its particular manifestations, antisemitism tells us little about Judaism, or in any case, little that cannot better be addressed from the sources of Judaism themselves. But I do take note of antisemitism at various points, in connection with Judaism of both the medieval Christian and the medieval Muslim worlds, and of course in connection with modernity and the Holocaust. Discussion of Christian antisemitism inevitably makes students uncomfortable. This discomfort is a good thing—one should be made uneasy by the sins of the past (or present) with which one identifies—and I cannot say that I make any special effort to mitigate it, as it is, I take it, obvious to all class participants that we enter on the topic in a spirit of mutual respect and good faith.

The other side of the coin concerns the ways in which I present Judaism to the class. The students, typically self-selected by their engagement with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council or, more mundanely, by experiences with Jewish family and/ or friends, come to the course inclined, in general, to view Judaism very positively. I find myself tempted, naturally, to confirm these inclinations. This temptation is reinforced by the theological context in which I teach, insofar as theology encourages constructive (in both senses of the word) engagement with religious tradition rather than exclusively (but hardly to the exclusion of) historicizing or critical engagement with it. My own personal commitments, as a Jew, make the temptation toward apologetics still greater. The accumulated temptation is not altogether to be resisted, and I do not resist it altogether. We do read invocations of divine vengeance in Byzantine piyyut and in the Mainz Anonymous Chronicle, and we do, following Naomi Seidman, deconstruct Elie Wiesel's Night through comparison with its earlier Yiddish instantiation. But I offer Judaism with only some of its warts, not all.

Teaching the course this past fall, I have exposed another source of discomfort, perhaps more urgent than the above two. In my course, I present the challenges of Jewish modernity as a special case of the challenges of modernity in general. The Mendelssohnian solution to modernity, I tell them, came under threat from the same forces that challenged Western liberalism in general, and that found expression in Bundism, in Rosenzweig's community of blood, and in other ways. Came, I say, but now I also say comes, as current political conditions once again, but in new ways, expose the blind spots and instabilities of the modern liberal state. My students and I are confronting this unsettling reality together.

Tzvi Novick is an associate professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where he occupies the Abrams Chair of Jewish Thought and Culture. His research focuses on law and ethics in rabbinic literature, and on the liturgical poetry of late antique Palestine. He is the author of What Is Good and What God Demands: Normative Structures in Tannaitic Literature (Brill, 2010).