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The Introduction to Judaism Course: Three Perspectives

Introduction to How I Understand Judaism
Sarah Bunin Benor (University of Southern California and HUC-JIR)

Teaching Introduction to Judaism
Xandy Frisch, Ursinus College

Ask Big Questions
Noam Pianko, University of Washington

Introduction to How I Understand Judaism

Sarah Bunin Benor

As scholars of Jewish Studies, many of us have the pleasure of teaching Introduction to Judaism at some point during our careers. For me, the assignment came during my second year of teaching at Hebrew Union College and the University of Southern California, about a decade ago. As a linguist and ethnographer, I remember not feeling up to the task – shouldn’t this course be taught by an expert in Bible, rabbinics, or history? After consulting with colleagues and reading books and syllabi, I realized that Intro to Judaism did not have to focus only on texts and historical events (one social science colleague nicknamed his course “Introduction to What I Know About Judaism”). I could bring my own expertise and focus on lived Judaism and cultural diversity.

I decided to organize the course around three themes: holidays, lifecycle events, and contemporary American denominations. Through these lenses, we would read biblical and rabbinic texts and discuss the historical background and contemporary significance of each. I would convey five major “enduring understandings,” a phrase I learned from my colleagues in the HUC school of education:

» Being Jewish involves not just adhering to a religion but also belonging to a people

» There is a chain of Jewish knowledge, belief, textual production, and practice stretching from Biblical times to the present

» Judaism and Jewish culture have had diverse manifestations around the world and throughout history, influenced by local non-Jewish cultures

» Three of the most important aspects of Judaism are God, Torah, and Israel

» Judaism emphasizes actions over beliefs

In order to convey these messages and expose the students to diverse contemporary approaches to Judaism, I required them to visit a Jewish museum (the Skirball Cultural Center), attend a Shabbat dinner or services, and observe Simchat Torah festivities. I scheduled guest speakers – rabbis from four Jewish denominations – to speak and answer questions about how they understand and practice Judaism. Just as my research used interviews and observation, so too would my students get their introduction to Judaism by interacting with Jews and observing Jewish life first hand.

The students – USC undergrads – began the class with diverse levels of Judaic knowledge, ranging from none to some. Although the readings sparked interesting conversations in class, what they appreciated most was their visits to synagogues, Shabbat dinners, and the museum. In the class discussions following these visits, it was clear that they now understood concepts and facts more deeply and in more personal ways. By engaging all of their senses – eating chicken soup and kugel, dancing with the hakafot, listening to Jewish music from around the world, and feeling the schach of a sukkah (where we held class one day) – they experienced lived Judaism in ways that would have been impossible in a class based solely on texts.

When we are asked to teach a class tangential to our areas of expertise, our instinct might be simply to use someone else’s syllabus from a previous year. My experience teaching Intro to Judaism showed me that I was better off rethinking the class according to my own scholarly and pedagogical approach. Even if the students did not come away with a deep knowledge of Jewish history and rabbinic literature, they gained a sense of what it means to live as a Jew in the contemporary world.

Course Syllabus

Sarah Bunin Benor is Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and Adjunct Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Southern California.

Teaching Introduction to Judaism

Xandy Frisch

I have given a lot of thought as to how to construct my “Introduction to Judaism” syllabus. Considering that my field is Second Temple Jewish history, my first inclination was to begin at the beginning with Ancient Israel (how can we start anywhere but with the Hebrew Bible?) and end with contemporary Jews. But then I realized that I was inadvertently turning “Intro to Judaism” into an “Intro to Jewish History” course (and as a member of a religious studies department it was important for me to maintain a distinction). However, I couldn’t conceive of a course without some Jewish history. For example, what would happen if we were discussing Sabbath observances and I wanted to refer to biblical laws, Orthodox practices and Reform innovations? Students need to be able to grasp and differentiate between the many historical manifestations of Judaism. Therefore, I divided the course into three parts: 1) history, 2) beliefs, and 3) practices.

The history section of the course is structured chronologically and emphasizes a dichotomy between traditional and non-traditional Judaism, a dichotomy that is based on the assigned book Judaism in America by Marc Lee Raphael. We begin by discussing where “tradition” comes from, covering the biblical and rabbinic periods and focusing on concepts such as divine revelation, Oral Torah and interpretation. We then fast forward to modern Jewish movements of the past two hundred years (sorry to my Medievalist friends!) to examine the ways in which tradition is maintained, adapted and challenged. For example, we discuss how various ante-bellum rabbis understood the authority of the Torah in their efforts to condone or condemn slavery in the United States. To conclude this section of the course, I have students conduct their own “ethnographic” study of a film with Jewish content. For example, what sort of Judaism and Jewish community are depicted in “A Stranger Among Us” or “The Jazz Singer”?

As we delve into the next two sections on beliefs and practices, the classes are arranged topically. Doing so allows me to emphasize the fact that there are indeed common ideas and experiences that traditional and non-traditional Jews share. To use my earlier example, Shabbat is an aspect of Judaism that could be said to be axiomatic to Jewish life. Yet, given the foundations laid within the first section of the course, students are now able to anticipate that not all Jews celebrate Shabbat in the same way; they can identify that, depending on one’s view of the authority of tradition, interpretations of the biblical mandate “you shall not do any work” can lead to radically different practices. The same is true of our study of beliefs. For example, the question of “who is a Jew?” is a question that has permeated Jewish thought since the biblical period, but the answers to this question—ranging from those found in the Book of Ruth to the Brother Daniel case—reflect the diversity of Jewish adherence to tradition. Throughout these two sections, students are assigned a day on which they are responsible for bringing in a “Show and Tell” item to share with the class (e.g., you tube clip, an object, newspaper clipping, visual image, etc.). The goal is to show that while some topics might seem “antiquated” and “irrelevant” in the modern context, they are very much still a part of our contemporary conversations.

On a final note, I have found collaboration with other Jewish studies colleagues to be extremely beneficial in teaching this course. Given that I teach at a small liberal arts college where I am the only Jewish studies faculty member, this semester I began an initiative for “Collaborative Online Network for College Teaching” (CONNECT), a forum for faculty members on different campuses to share ideas and resources for teaching “Introduction to Judaism.” For such a standard course, shouldn’t we help each other invent the wheel of best practices?

Course Syllabus

Xandy Frisch is visiting assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Ursinus College.

Ask Big Questions

Noam Pianko

For years, the syllabus of my Introduction to Judaism course began: “This class explores the question: What is Judaism?” After rethinking the course this past summer, the syllabus now begins:

“Pause for a moment to consider these big human questions.

What Stories do We Tell?
What Has Power Over Us?
For Whom are We Responsible?”

My previous syllabus organized content around the chronological presentation of evolving expressions of Judaism. Inspired by the Ask Big Questions project, the new Introduction to Judaism syllabus asks students to consider fundamental questions they face as individuals and members of larger communities as the lens for studying Judaism. While I still plan to cover much of the same content covered in previous years, my primary object is to impart the idea that Judaism is a religious tradition that grapples with enduring human issues. Students who come looking for what Judaism teaches should leave the course appreciating that asking questions defines Judaism as much as insisting on answers.

I selected these particular questions because they trigger conversations related to the three main sections in the course—Foundational Narratives of Judaism, Authority and Obligation, and Community/Collectivity in the Jewish Tradition. In each of the three sections, I ask students to consider the framing question to gain a personal perspective on the Jewish theme we will discuss. I also assign havruta groups of 2-3 students for the entire quarter so the theoretical idea of asking questions happens in practice during each class period.

Three factors pushed me to restructure Introduction to Judaism around a series of big questions.

1) More Relevant to Students - Many of the students in my courses, especially as I try to increase enrollment by making the course count for a variety of university requirements, do not register because of the topic or professor. This reality forced me to rethink my initial starting assumption that students are interested in “what is Judaism.” My first task as a professor is to frame a course that explains the relevance of the topic in a way that will appeal to those in the class because of the time of day and those with a long standing interest, and even background, in Judaism. Questions about personal narratives, power and responsibility create an open playing field that speaks to diverse students and, hopefully, offers the Jewish tradition as a relevant conversation partner.

2) Better Learning Outcomes - Asking students to answer trigger questions in a personal way creates an active learning environment that sparks conversation among students and opens up class discussions. So far, I have found that posing big questions to undergraduates generates far broader participation than focusing first and foremost on the material found in reading in lectures. Breaking the ice with big questions that don’t have right or wrong answers has translated to far more class participation when we do discuss class material.

3) New Curricular Possibilities - Jewish studies curricula face major challenges in big public universities—our classes tend to be smaller, most of our faculty appointments are not controlled by our program, and there is a push for more integrative curriculum to maximize resources. How do we adapt to these new facts? Reframing this course gives me an opportunity to consider one possible new direction. In the past, I have seen my primary goal as teaching content about Judaism. This course shifts the role of Jewish studies toward providing a set of entry points to universal questions and concerns through the lens of global Jewish experiences. Perhaps this shift can expand student interest, build broader campus partnerships, and ultimately, develop more effective ways of teaching Jewish Studies.

Noam Pianko is associate professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Washington, where he directs the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.