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A Blasphemous Bit of Theatre

This semester I taught a college-level Bible as Literature class, and it has been quite the ride, to say the least. Out of 30 students, I would say that at least 25 of them come from conservative Christian backgrounds, which … Read More

By / November 20, 2007
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This semester I taught a college-level Bible as Literature class, and it has been quite the ride, to say the least. Out of 30 students, I would say that at least 25 of them come from conservative Christian backgrounds, which means they view me—and all of my claims about midrash and an evolving biblical text—with more than an inkling of suspicion, despite my own unapparent but sordid, long-lost background in the world of Evangelicals.

On the first day of class, four or five students approached me, and one said, “So, we really need to know: are you Jewish, or are you Christian? We need to know so that we can decide whether we are going to stay in this class.”

And now, my suspicions kicked in. They had been talking about me, and had somehow elected a leader, their own little makeshift Moses, to rise up from among them and ask the loaded question. I was the Egyptian, about to be struck down and buried in the sand. I was sweating on the inside, unperturbed on the outside.

The implied question seemed to be, “Are you going to regurgitate all of the ideas about the bible that have been communicated to me since birth by my conservative Christian community? If not, I’m out of here.”

It’s a literature class, not a theology class, which means that how, or rather if, I define myself is none of their business. But I felt compelled to answer.

My initial inclination was to say “Jewish,” but then I thought, why make it so easy? “I’m both,” I responded, “and neither. If that sounds interesting to you, then you’ll want to stay in this class. If not, I believe there’s a Catholic teaching one of the other sections, and there’s also a Reform Jew teaching a section. Plenty of diversity. The choice is up to you.”

Moses seemed satisfied: “Okay.”

I knew I would never see them again. But I was wrong. I was also impressed—they all came back, and they, along with all of the other students, have been amazing, despite their initial difficulty with reading the bible as literature, and not as theology.

Of course, it has taken some longer than others to shed the tell-tale signs of religious indoctrination. Last week, one young woman, a great student, asked me earnestly if the confusing reference to both God and God’s messenger in the story of Moses’s encounter with the burning bush was a reference to “the trinity.”

In a way, I didn’t mind, because it revealed that she was reading closely and interpreting the text from her own perspective and position. And it was a question—an attempt to understand—rather than an authoritative statement. She was searching for a way to make it mean something to her, and I think I can respect that. I wonder if we might even call it midrash.

A midrashic impulse is what keeps Torah alive. I myself have a slightly unnatural obsession with midrash and anything that feels midrashic, and so I’m happy when I see my students starting to think along these lines. I derive curious pleasure from listening to them during class discussions, as they “turn it and turn it,” much like the rabbinic admonition.

Do they know they are being Talmudic?

But I got a little surprise last week, when Brandon Kleiber, one of my students, turned in his weekly response essay. It wasn’t exactly an essay. In fact, he completely disregarded my instructions, and decided instead to re-tell the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac. It made me laugh so hard that I had to share it (with his permission), and give him an A. I only wish I had discovered this little gem in time to post it during the Days of Awe . . .

Enjoy. (And, note how he has even incorporated the Hebrew emphatic—“drink, yes, drink”—into his “midrash.”)

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