Judaism in six classes

A friend recently asked how I would present Judaism to undergraduates in six lectures. I think I might try something like this.

1. First chapter of Michael Wex’s book, Born to Kvetch. Brief account of centuries of persecution (not the Holocaust). Resulting attitude of habitual crankiness.

2. Jewish law. Distinction between laws that are rational and laws that aren’t. Example of former: not just 10 commandments but Sabbath. Stress in discussion of Sabbath the actions that are allowed/encouraged, as opposed to forbidden. It’s a good day. Law can be liberating. Discuss some non-rational laws. Purpose? Various accounts offered. At least these laws tell us that humans do not know everything/ did not make themselves. Our dependence on higher power.

3. Biblical story. Brief run though of Patriarchs to destruction of 2nd Temple. (Jesus does not figure). Mention of parts of the Bible where these events are recounted. Discussion of what, according to scholars, is the actual history. Discussion (very brief) of how the Bible was put together.

4. Rabbinic literature. Barry Holtz is a good source. Chapter on Midrash, with juicy bits added orally by the lecturer from Talmud chapter. Focus on single biblical story and look at all the midrashim and gemora. Should be a story some of them have already heard so they can be amazed at the tangentialness and insight of the rabbis. Creation? Garden? Cain and Abel? Genesis Midrash has virtue of accessibility.

5. Denominations and holidays. Keep it light: this could get boring.

6. Holocaust and Israel. What people think of – erroneously – when they think of Judaism.

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8 thoughts on “Judaism in six classes

  1. Sign me up. What I never get is the dairy plus chicken issue — surely that should be kosher? Irrational.

    Also, can I say, having grown up on the edges of orthodoxy, it has always seemed to me that kashrut is, in its modern formations, really about class. Thoughts??

  2. Not sure what you mean exactly but I’m eager to hear more. No doubt all religious law has as one of its purposes merely to enforce a small-o orthodoxy and therefore define who is in and who is out and to shore up the authority of the authorities. Law means that rabbis have jobs and status. It’s a question when this is a primary purpose and when its secondary. But as to straight class, there’s more poor kosher than rich kosher, no?

  3. I was also thinking about kashrut and class recently. It costs money to essentially set up two separate kitchens in one. Trust me on this one — I’m still trying to set up my apartment kitchen so that I can feed my boyfriend. :/ (When did the idea of separate dishes evolve, anyway?)

    It costs money to get kosher milk — more to get cholov yisrael. Stringency. It costs money to get kosher meat — more to get glatt meat. Stringency. Wealthy people can afford the hydroponic vegetables that are essentially guaranteed bug free and kosher. Poorer people have to buy the vegetables at the supermarket and carefully inspect them. In that case, it’s a stringency that has taken hold, that is easier to manage the wealthier you are. It seems that many of the stringencies are class things.

    Now, the counter-argument is that we are now more aware of these things than we were before because of increases in technology. It’s an argument — I don’t entirely buy it.

  4. “Glatt” may well reinforce class distinctions, and certainly bolsters rabbinic authority. The need to have a certification label on everything raises prices. And it is of recent invention. 60 years ago there was no such thing — just Jews buying from Jews when they could and picking up their vegetables at the corner market. I have serious doubts about the ethics and politics of the certification craze.

    But it remains true in my experience that many families living below the poverty line manage to keep kosher, and also true that richer families tend to be generally more assimilated and therefore (not in every case of course, but as a group) less likely to care. How do these poor families afford it? Because they have vastly different priorities. No meals at restaurants. No money at all spent on entertainment. Little technology. Etc. If you have a frum life, everything is different for you. Of course if you’re trying to lead a normal life and also have a frum kitchen, it’s going to seem like an annoying intrusion into your wallet.

  5. Oh yes, forgot about the chicken thing. So, Kyla, here’s the best I can do. There is indeed a talmudic ruling to the effect that the meat/dairy distinction applies only to animals that give milk; the classical rabbis were thinking along the same lines as you. But it wasn’t too much later that chicken began to be counted as fleischic, and the only reason I know of for this is that people generally understood it to be meat, so that it made sense by a different logic — maybe a kind of Levi-Straussian logic dealing with binaries — to include it in a general meat/milk separation.

    To this I would add that kashrut isn’t only about applying the laws stated in Torah. It’s about restraint, and about being different from the goyim, and about having a life every external aspect of which follows a pattern and represents devotion to a path. And it sort of makes sense, in a restrained way of life, to have a general distinction between two wide categories of things that don’t mix. Maybe this is one way of describing the Jewish ethos as whole. Instead of saying, like other religious traditions, “good is separate from bad,” Jews tend to say something more like: “it’s all good, but good-a is separate from good-b.” It can be read as an acknowledgment of the complexity of a world in which good and bad are always found together, and an embrace of the resulting arbitrariness of distinctions.

    For me that’s a better account than the simple: “put a fence around the Torah,” since there’s no particular reason why a fence around a cow should include a chicken. A chicken is not a slippery slope toward a cow.

  6. the story i always got about dairy is that they decided (who? by, as Kids in the Hall have it, The Hearsay Experts of You) that people would get too confused if there was a distinction drawn between milk-bearing meat and chicken so someone said, meh, just make chicken fleischig”. i always thought that was dumb in the extreme but you make it a lot sexier. (also, by the by, i can’t think of any meals that mix chicken and dairy that are yummy – maybe chicken in a bouche.)

    as for the class thing, in the orthodox communities i know – one in toronto, one in montreal, both of them moroccan and related, naturally, orthodoxy always seems to me to be about social competition: who can afford two dishwashers, whose kosher practice is the flashiest, etc. actually, interesting sidebar, JF and CS in Toronto is allowed to supplement welfare allowances for people who keep kosher.

    a more nuanced way to to say it i guess is that the performance of kosher dovetails with the performance of class. nu?

  7. * is reading the Neusner he assigned and preparing for Judaism 2 of 6.

    In a world where obesity is often an indication of membership in the underclass, aren’t most dietary restrictions functions of class? Is there any diet, by which I mean any food-discipline, not made easier with cash? Five words: Jenny Craig’s delicious meatless selections.

    Tandoori Chicken is yummy.

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