First-Year Studies: Jewish Spirituality and Culture

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Judaism since the biblical age has defied easy categorization, oscillating between religion and ethnicity. This course provides an introduction to Judaism with an eye towards Jewish responses to Western values, masculine heroism, and chivalry. We begin with questions about the authorship and message of the Bible and delve into formative texts like the Talmud, Midrash, Medieval Bible commentaries, and philosophy. We then encounter texts produced by movements that challenged, and in many ways displaced, normative Jewish practice, including Kabbalah, Messianism, poetry, folk religion, and Hasidism. Next, we follow attempts to create a modern Jewish synthesis through Enlightenment (Haskalah), Zionism, Jewish Socialism, modern literature, modern philosophy, and feminism. Then, we explore religious transformations like Reform, Conservative and Neo-Orthodox Judaism, alongside attempts to resist modernity through the invention of Ultra-Orthodoxy. Finally, we explore Jewish responses to the Holocaust and chart the course of Jewish religion and culture in 20th-century America and Israel. Throughout, we will attempt to gauge the interplay between Jewish texts and daily life. The desired outcome is to become aware of the way in which conceptions of law, chosenness, exile, sin, redemption, sexuality, death, and so on evolved over time to meet the twin challenges of anti-Semitism and complete assimilation.