Academic journal article Shofar

Introducing Jewish Studies through Jewish Thought and Practice

Academic journal article Shofar

Introducing Jewish Studies through Jewish Thought and Practice

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Geoffrey Claussen provides an in-depth discussion of his Jewish Traditions course, taught at Elon University. The course begins with an experiential learning exercise in which students eat honey cake while they read a fourteenth-century account of Jewish boys consuming honey (and other sweet delicacies) while studying Torah for the first time. Claussen outlines the course's learning outcomes, which include students developing awareness of the complexity and diversity of Jewish cultures, learning diverse ways in which Jews have related to non-Jewish communities, and (as the course is a part of Elon's Women's/Gender Studies program) recognizing the importance of gender for understanding the Jewish tradition and people. The course focuses on major aspects of Jewish thought and practice, giving particular attention to influential classical Jewish texts and modern responses to those texts. An abridged syllabus is provided.

Elon University's course titled Jewish Traditions is the one required course in Elon's Jewish Studies minor, a minor which is oriented around the fol- lowing five student learning outcomes. Students will: develop awareness of the complexity and diversity of Jewish cultures throughout history; identify experiences, ideas, and modes of communication which have connected Jewish communities throughout the world; explain some of the diverse ways in which Jews have related to non-Jewish communities; recognize how the Jewish tradition may be viewed as a religious, national/political, and cultural tradition; discuss the importance of gender, race, ethnicity, national iden- tity, class, and sexuality for understanding the Jewish tradition and people.1 This course gives attention to all five of these outcomes; concerning the last outcome, the course is a part of Elon's Women's/Gender Studies program, and it gives particular focus to questions involving gender.

THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT: SWEET AND SOUR

Our class begins with an experiential learning exercise that builds on a suggestion first made to me by Abraham Socher of Oberlin College: that, on the first day of class, students eat honey cake while they read a medieval account of Jewish boys consuming honey (and other sweet delicacies) while studying Torah for the first time.

The text that students read, as they begin their studies in my course, was written by Rabbi Aaron ben Jacob of Lunel, France, in the fourteenth century, and translated by Ivan Marcus as part of Marcus's work on this childhood initiation rite. It describes how-following the "custom of the ancients"-a young boy eats sweet foods as he first studies the book of Le- viticus and thereby experiences the sweetness of God's revelation at Sinai.2

Students read and discuss the text with partners, as they will often do throughout the semester. They eat the honey cake that I have provided for them, and they are guided by a number of questions that I have provided for them. What strikes them as interesting about the ritual described in the fourteenth-century text? What surprises them? In order to understand this ritual better, what else would they want to know? What questions would they ask the participants? What are the respective roles of males and females in the ritual? Why might these roles be constructed in this way? In what way does the ritual claim to evoke the experience of the people of Israel receiv- ing the Torah at Mount Sinai? What various goals might this ritual seek to accomplish? How might these goals compare to the goals of contemporary college professors who bring food to class?

Our conversation about these questions helps to introduce a num- ber of key objectives for the course, raising questions about authority and common ideas and practices that may or may not unite Jewish communi- ties, raising questions about gender, and raising questions about how Jews have related to non-Jewish communities. I urge them to think critically about claims that certain practices are "customs of the ancients" when, in fact, they may be relatively recent innovations. …

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