Academic journal article Shofar


Academic journal article Shofar


Article excerpt

This special volume "New Approaches to Teaching Jewish Studies" was prompted by my curiosity at the various methods and disciplines employed by colleagues in framing their introductory courses. Although the Asso- ciation of Jewish Studies (AJS), The Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History (Jerusalem), H-NET ("JSN Syllabi") and many individual univer- sities post introductory syllabi on-line, they do not, generally, contain the rationales behind these syllabi. Many of the published collections of Jewish Studies syllabi, moreover, do not adequately reflect the changes in what has proven to be a protean field.1 Given Shofar's long-standing interest in peda- gogy and enthusiasm about themed volumes, this seemed the right venue. The heart of this issue contains these rationales along with some newer syl- labi, from both established and emerging scholars. I hope readers will find the contents as helpful and impressive as I do.

Admittedly, a syllabus represents a teacher's often unrealized ideal, due to forces both within and beyond our control. As Judith Baskin and Laura Levitt observe in the essays that bracket this issue, higher education faces an unpredictable future which will largely determine the fate of Jew- ish Studies. We cannot be hale if the academic world sickens. Among some of the most obvious challenges: declining support for the humanities, uni- versity budgeting that pits colleges and departments against each other, en- rollment metrics that lead to cancellation or forced combination of classes (languages being a prime target of this penny-wise, pound-foolish policy), disenchantment or loss of interest among the foundations and/or families that provide the funds for annual programming. Although the "education bubble" may not have burst, and many of us have friends and relatives (or are ourselves) scrambling to pay college costs exponentially larger than we experienced, the level of college debt and the continuing woes in the labor market suggest something's got to give.

Even were we to factor out the economic calculations that drive many of these changes, new educational technologies, new assessment models of student learning, and a sharper focus on skill acquisition, will surely alter many of our expectations of what we need to do in the classroom. Moreover, the growth period of Jewish Studies that began in the 1960s and 1970s may be coming to an end. The terms of faculty employment at most colleges and universities seem to be deteriorating: the percentage of tenure track positions nationally continues to decline, wage compres- sion and inversion penalize institutional loyalty, and faculty are urged to be more entrepreneurial, whether or not that suits individual dispositions and competencies.

Looking down at the palette, one may paint a fairly dark picture. Yet I am reminded of the well- known parable attributed to Rabbi Akiva about a fox and fishes:

The Sages taught: one time the evil empire decreed that Israel may not engage in Torah study. Pappos ben Yehuda came and found Rabbi Akiva, who was convening assemblies in public and engaging in Torah Pappos said to him: Akiva, are you not afraid of the empire? Rabbis Akiva answered him: I will relate a parable. To what can this be compared? It is like a fox walking along a riv- erbank when he sees fish gathering from place to place. The fox said to them: from where are you fleeing? They said to him: We are fleeing from the nets that people cast upon us. He said unto them: Do you wish to come onto dry land and we will reside together just as my ancestors resided with your ancestors? The fish said to him: You are the one of whom they say, he is the cleverest of animals? You are not clever; you are a fool. If we are afraid in the water, our natural habitat which gives us life, then in a hostile habitat, all the more so. The moral is: So too, we that we sit now and engage in To- rah . . . BT Berachot, 61b [Koren translation, with my adaptations]

Rabbi Akiva does not enjoy a Hollywood ending-he is, of course, martyred by the Romans. …

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