Jewish Studies Program: Goals and Objectives
Jewish Studies majors approach Jewish texts, cultures, and societies by gaining mastery of the broad outlines of Jewish history and the sociology, geography, and cultural and intellectual productions of Jewish communities. They do so by means of courses that survey the field, and by others that focus on particular manifestations of originary, formative, classical, modern, and postmodern Jewish life. Some students choose a more textually based approach, learning Hebrew, Yiddish, or Arabic and working with material in those languages. Others focus on cultural artifacts around and beyond texts. Still others treat cultural artifacts as texts. Often there is overlap between all these categories.
Our students deal with a group of complex societies, demonstrating the inaccuracy of the oft-proclaimed idea that Jews are "one people." Jews were often a minority population in diaspora among majorities, usually tolerant, sometimes welcoming, and occasionally hostile. However, there were times and places in which Jews were the majority, with all the attendant political implications of sovereignty, imperialism and overlordship. Though Jews were often "other" in society, an important part of Jewish Studies is the examination of internal otherness in the construction of Jewish identities, so the role of women and the relationship of queer culture to Jewish culture is often considered in our courses. We also attend to questions of race, since Jews are a multi-racial people. Finally, we examine religion as a force that has divided more than united Jews over time, and we teach students to think critically about the role of religion in Jewish cultures.
Finally we urge students to be thoughtful about the discipline itself: what is its relationship to other cultural studies? How has it developed and what do the politics of its development teach us about the relationship between Jews and others in the times and places that Jewish Studies has emerged? We encourage students to find intersections between their Jewish Studies scholarship and their wider intellectual concerns.Many students in our courses are non-majors. They come to us for a variety of reasons: interest in Jewish culture, curiosity about how Jewish Studies fits in with the other multi-disciplinary programs upon which they have embarked, interest in the relationship between Jewish religion and Jewish cultures, or curiosity about the classical antecedents of modern Jewish literature. One of the program's primary goals is to introduce non-majors to the study of Jewish cultures and societies such that their explorations dovetail with the work they are doing in other departments and programs. Our introductory courses (surveys of history and text in the broadest sense) are highly enrolled with non-majors, as are our 200-level courses, which offer more in-depth explorations of the topics and sources. We find continuity—often within the same year—between students' exposure to material in 100-level courses and their desire to explore it more fully at the intermediate level, and have designed our curriculum accordingly.
In addition to stressing content, we strive in all of our courses to get students to think critically about issues ranging from identity and identification to the relationship of majority and minority societies and shifting definitions of center and periphery. We work to demonstrate the polyvalency of "text" in Jewish cultures and to implode the idea that Jews idolize the written word; for teachers of Jewish Studies, "text" is a broad category, comprising everything from the Bible to the graphic novel and expressed in a variety of forms. We stress critical reading with close attention to details of text and context.Our goals for majors include: skills in the critical analysis of texts; familiarity with the broad parameters of Jewish texts from the formative to the post-modern period; and an understanding of how those texts continually engage in dialogue with one another. We want students to be proficient in particular texts, and conversant with both the sense and spirit of such texts in their original context, as well as in the myriad ways in which they have been interpreted. We want students to be able to situate the texts they encounter in history, and to understand both the religious cultures from which they emerged and the sociology of the communities in which they were formed. So that students may encounter texts in their primary form, we encourage them to study one of the languages historically employed by Jews. We aim to help them learn how the texts they study can be interrogated for a sense of the historical circumstances and/or inner world of the Jews who created them. Finally, we want them to be conversant in the secondary scholarly literature: to understand what goes into scholarly writing that meets the standards of the discipline, both in terms of treatment of sources and presentation of theses.
We want our majors to be able to continue in one of the many paths that study of Jewish texts and cultures will open up for them, though not in the sense of pre-professional training. Our majors have gone into a variety of fields, almost none of them directly related to Jewish Studies. Some, of course, go into Jewish communal work, the rabbinate, or graduate studies in Jewish history, texts, and cultures. We aim to prepare our students for both kinds of goals: the more common foray into areas informed by Jewish Studies methodologies and content, and the less common path directly contiguous with Jewish Studies. We attempt to provide majors with content and context, as well as the critical apparatus that will enable them to approach Jewish Studies outside of Vassar, and to situate themselves within or relative to the field in an informed and sophisticated manner.