Teaching stands at the heart of my job. Whether it is through my writing or lecturing, my job is to communicate ideas that in one way or another, directly or indirectly, by enriching or provoking, contribute to the continuing intellectual growth of my audience. My own teachers (my parents foremost among them) conveyed to me not simply a love a learning, but also its joy; the incredible excitement and rush that accompanies a new idea, however silly I may ultimately come to think it was. It is this freedom of mind – the curiosity and disposition that allows one to think unconventionally; the skills that allow ideas to take shape, and that then refine them; and the knowledge out of which these ideas are made – that I want to convey to my own students. In this way I facilitate the acquisition of knowledge rather than impart it. Few pleasures are as sweet for me as helping an individual to discover his or her own intellectual path, and continue the journey.
I primarily teach three constituencies, undergraduates, graduates, and adults. Each, generally speaking, has different needs. My teaching of undergraduates is weighted toward critical skill development: How do you make and critique arguments? How can you communicate them effectively? How do you productively engage an idea or a set of facts? For graduate students, the weight shifts toward developing the skills necessary for the production of specialized knowledge. At this level I train students for a professional life studying the Jews of antiquity. For adults, many of whom have active and demanding professional lives, the need more often is for knowledge that is more immediate, immediately applicable, and provocative.
My approach to undergraduate teaching continues to evolve, but is grounded in four core convictions:
- I believe in the value of a liberal education. Much of life is about learning to ask and grapple with the right questions, even while admitting that the answers are sometimes elusive. Learning to ask those questions and to find frameworks for answering them, though, is an acquired skill. In all of my courses I seek to develop and strengthen the critical thinking and reasoning skills that are essential for a full and informed life.
- A liberal education provides more than marketable skills, although it certainly does that. (I like to tell my students that after graduating from college with my BA in ancient Jewish history I took my first job at an investment bank on Wall St. before returning to graduate school; this is the one factoid about me that they consistently remember.) It develops habits of mind that lead to personal freedom and pleasure. I still receive a sense of subversive delight when questioning a conventional understanding and experience the joy of a new idea. Almost nothing is professionally more satisfying to me than watching as a student experiences the same pleasures.
- I believe that learning is best done actively rather than passively. Education is not about the delivery and memorization of data, although knowledge of course content is surely important. It is about knowing what to do with that stuff. I have known for a long time about the large body of educational research that indicates that active engagement and practice is far more pedagogically effective than lectures. While I have always encouraged discussions and assigned much written work (I often require a short paper each week) in order to foster such engagement, Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges galvanized me. I have been increasing my efforts to move away from lecturing in order to achieve better learning outcomes.
- I believe that education is a relationship, not a transaction. The classroom is a dynamic environment in which human beings engage each other. My goal in the classroom is to set up a safe learning environment that challenges each of us to further our human potential.
Selected Undergraduate Courses
Click on the links for a syllabus.
In the West, there has always been a complicated relationship between Jews and money. On the one hand, Jews have disproportionately prospered in many places where they were given equal economic and political rights. On the other, though, economic success was often accompanied by more virulent anti-Semitism. In the first part of this course we will examine, both theoretically and empirically, the complex relationship between Jews, capitalism, socialism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism. In the second part of the course we will return to the one aspect of the “cultural capital” that is sometimes said to have helped Jews to prosper: their religious tradition. In this part we will examine traditional Jewish religious teachings on wealth and poverty in their historical contexts both to flesh out some of the issues raised in the first part of the course and, more importantly, to provide a fresh set of intellectual resources for considering our own approach to these issues in modern America.
This course will survey religious approaches to the acquisition and use of wealth: How do religious thinkers understand the notion of ownership and private property? Is the fact of ownership of significant possessions seen as a moral good or an impediment to the spiritual life? Are there better or worse ways to acquire wealth? To spend it? The course will focus primarily on Judaism and Christianity, although examples from Islam and perhaps eastern religions will be brought in as appropriate. Topics to be covered will include religious understandings of poverty, charity, finance, and the link between religion and capitalism.
Judaism is sometimes defined as an extended conversation between writers in different places and times, writing in different languages. This course will give you access into this conversation. Who are the major thinkers and their works? What are the topics and ideas that engage them, and how do they engage each other? We will wrestle with their ideas, both as universal answers to perennial questions of human concern (e.g., why is there evil in the world) and as expressions of their own Jewishness.
This course surveys the major practices, traditions, and beliefs of the Jews, with an emphasis on modern Jewish communities. How does a Jewish community shape its practices and beliefs against its own specific historical circumstances to create a coherent and meaningful religious system?
A problem of definition lies at the heart of this course. What is “Judaism”? How can a definition of “Judaism” be inclusive enough to include the black-caftanned Lubavitch Hasidim of Brooklyn, the Reform Jews of Israel, religious Zionists and anti-Zionists, and American Reconstructionist Jews who have replaced many references to a male God with references to a female One? Might it be more accurate to talk of “Judaisms,” or are there in fact characteristics that hold these different Jewish communities together into a single coherent group?
In addition to the definitional problem there is an analytical one. It is not enough to describe a religious system; as students of religion we also seek to explain it. One goal of this course is to introduce the academic study of religion. Each discipline has “good” and “bad” questions: Within the context of the academic study of Judaism (or indeed, any religion), what are the “good” questions, and what are the methods for trying to answer them?
Faith and Violence
Does religion spawn violence? Are some religions more violent than others? Or are all religions inherently peaceful, with acts of religious violence the result only of the perverse misuse of religion by extremists?
These questions – which commonly frame most modern media analyses of religious violence – are ultimately misleading and unhelpful. This course will examine the complex relationship between religion and violence, focusing especially on when, why, and how religious actors relate religion to violence.
Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible
No book in human history has exercised as much influence as the Bible. Over the past 2,000 years, people have killed and died for the Bible, and it continues to exercise a powerful if contested role in modern politics. Yet how did it achieve this power? This course will trace the development of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) from its origins in ancient Israel to its development about five hundred years later as a foundational text of both Judaism and Christianity. This story, as we will see, is inextricably linked to Jewish history from approximately the seventh century BCE to the first century CE. This course is based on and uses my podcast, “From Israelite to Jew.”
Religion and Sexuality
For millennia, religious thinkers have wrestled with the nature of sexuality. This class will examine how these thinkers have dealt with the essential questions that sexuality raises. Why do humans have sexual desire? Are there proper limits to sexual activity? While the focus of this class will be on Judaism and Christianity from antiquity to the present, we will also discuss Muslim and Hindu views. Topics to be addressed include: the nature and purpose of human sexual desire; contraception; homosexuality; and abortion.
This course will introduce you to the Babylonian Talmud. Compiled in the third through seventh centuries CE, the Babylonian Talmud (henceforth the Talmud) played a crucial role in the history of Judaism, perhaps rivaling even the Bible in importance. In addition to its religious importance, the Talmud is an unparalleled – if complex – source for the study of ancient history. As a text that at times seems foreign to our way of thinking, the Talmud also challenges us, as modern readers, to probe and interrogate our own logical assumptions.
Judaism and Christianity in Conflict
Although rabbinic Judaism and Christianity emerged at about the same time in the same place, their relationship over the last 2,000 years has not been one of sweetness and light. Until very recently, Jews and Christians have engaged in an often tense relationship, characterized by bitter polemics. In this course we will trace the history of these polemics, with the goal of better understanding current themes in Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Religion in the Dead Sea Scrolls
First discovered over fifty years ago in the caves near the ancient settlement of Qumran off the western bank of the Dead Sea, the Dead Sea scrolls have been the subject of searing academic debate and popular interest. From the time of their discovery to the present, the Dead Sea scrolls have been surrounded by an aura of mystery, as if buried within them lie the secrets of early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. Yet as public imagination of these texts far outstripped anything remotely contained within them, their scholarly appraisal has until recently been mired in issues of lower criticism: piecing the fragments together into a readable text; establishing the relationships between variants; debating the relative chronologies. Only in the past few years, with the full publication of the scrolls have scholars begun to move beyond these fundamental issues to assess the meaning of these texts. What kind of religious community, or communities, do these texts represent? How did the authors of these scrolls envision their relationship with the divine? How did they worship? How did they understand religious and moral perfection? What, for them, did it mean to be a member of Israel? In this class we will survey most of the Dead Sea scrolls in English translation, and consider these and other academic questions of religious meaning.
Selected Graduate Courses
The Mishnah is a seminal Jewish text. Compiled around the year 200 CE in ancient Palestine, it became the foundation of the two Talmuds and thus, all later Judaism. But it is still in may ways a mystery: Why was it compiled? Who was its intended audience and what was its function? What are its antecedents? This graduate seminar has two interlocked goals. One is to strengthen the ability, both linguistic and conceptual, to read and decode Mishnah. The second is to survey and gain some facility with modern scholarly approaches to the Mishnah.
To modern scholars used to working with bits and pieces of fragments of pseudonymous authors whose literature floats without context, Philo –much of whose vast literary output is extant – stands as a solid point of reference. Raised in a wealthy and clearly well-educated Jewish household in Alexandria around the turn of era, Philo appears to have spent much of his privileged life ruminating about the Hebrew Bible and Greek philosophy. Never one to leave a thought unwritten, he leaves an oeuvre that is as fascinating and insightful as it is frustrating and tedious, and a legacy of Jewish neglect and early Christian lionization. It is, in fact, only through the Christian preservation of his work that any of it survives.