A few years ago two students came to my office hours to talk about a course I regularly teach entitled Jews, Christians, Muslims. In the course of our conversation one of them asked, "Can I ask you a personal question?" Hesitantly, I responded, "Yes." The student continued, "Are you a Muslim?" A bit taken aback, I responded that I am not sure I could answer the question but I wondered why he asked. He said that the other day in lecture I had said something quite positive about Islam and its devotion to monotheism, which made a number of students posit that I must be a Muslim. I informed him that saying something positive, even laudatory, about a religion or belief system does not make one an adherent to that religion or belief system.
When teaching religion, any religion, our students often wonder what we are. Do we believe what we teach? Is our presentation a defense or a critique of the subject at hand? I don't suppose this is a prevalent in courses on Shakespeare ("are you a sonnet?") and certainly not in chemistry ("are you an amino acid?"), or perhaps even analytic philosophy ("are you a fact?"), but teaching religion ("are you religious, a believer, if so, what kind?") evokes this kind of curiosity. Many of us simply choose not to disclose "what we are." But that too has a pedagogical price, one that may shut down an important opportunity.
When I studied Hebrew Bible with Moshe Greenberg in Jerusalem in the 1980s he always refused to answer questions about what he believed in regard to the Bible. But once a semester he would invite us to his home in the evening and we were free to ask him anything we wanted. This illustrated for me a version of a famous apocryphal adage about when a student saw Henrich Graetz walking to synagogue on Purim carrying a scroll of Esther. The student approached Graetz and said, "Excuse me, Herr Professor, but didn't you teach us just last week that the story of Esther never happened (lo hayah ve-lo nivra')?" Graetz said without any irony, "Religion is one thing, scholarship is another thing (dat le-hud ve-meh. kar le-hud)," and continued walking.
In today's multidisciplinary and identitarian times, our students would likely not be satisfied with such compartmentalizing. And neither are many of us. Greenberg didn't want "what he was" to be in the classroom, only the living room. But "what we are" is in the classroom, although making that evident does not necessarily enhance the learning process. As Greenberg probably thought, it may very well serve as a distraction. Thus, what challenge does the question "What are you?" pose to us as scholars, as believers or disbelievers, sometimes believers, half-believers, or whatever? One possibility is to interrogate the notion of situational thinking, or thinking from a point of view without being inextricably wed to that point of view, as a model of "thinking religion." That is, to convey to our students that seeking objectivity and being objective are different, that we can think, argue for, and even defend something we don't believe in (e.g., I can praise Islam without being a Muslim). We could convey that intellectual rigor does not require an empty vessel, or an empty heart.
The lesson, perhaps, is that we, like them, are struggling beings, thinking subjects in the warp and woof of simply trying to figure out how to be human. That in the broad scheme of things, we are not that different from them and that the distinction between teaching and learning is far less stable than we are led to believe?
What students want to know and what they need to know are not identical. They want to know "what we are" to put us in a box so that they can assess how to receive what we say. Perhaps our response should be to interrogate and critique the question. It is not that "what I am" doesn't matter. It certainly does, surely to me! It is to say, rather, that I can think from what I am and what I believe without the need to defend those beliefs. Not only will that help them do the same but it may also change who I am. Allotting thought the power to effect change is part of humanistic education. But as important, thinking outside "what we are" has the power to change what we are. And, as Socrates might have said, that may be the most beautiful, and most precarious, dimension of teaching. And living.
Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies and professor of Religion at Indiana University Bloomington. He is also a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His most recent book is Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Making of Modern Judaism (Stanford University Press, 2015). His forthcoming book is A Voice Calls: The Talmud and the New Testament, Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik's Commentary to the New Testament (Yale Judaica Classics).