Sunday, April 03, 2005

For two of my classes, I (and hopefully the students as well!) have been reading two fascinating new books - one by Arthur Green, Guide to the Zohar, and one by Harvey Goldberg, Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life.

The first one is assigned for my Jewish Mysticism class as an introduction to the Zohar. It is a beautifully, lyrically written induction into the Zohar, seducing the reader into loving the text of the Zohar as Green does. He explains the symbolism of the sefirot, traces the history of Kabbalah before the Zohar, and describes the midrashic and narrative techniques of the Zohar. I would recommend it for anyone who wants to know what the Zohar is. It was written as an introductory book to the new translation of the Zohar that Daniel Matt is doing (the Pritzker edition of the Zohar) but certainly stands very well alone.

The second one is an introduction to Jewish rituals of the life-cycle by an eminent Israeli anthropologist. It is also beautifully written and accessible to undergraduates. He traces the history of Jewish rituals (for example, circumcision), beginning with the Bible, going into rabbinic and medieval developments, and talks about how the ritual is practiced today. He explores the meaning of Jewish rituals within a wide range of Jewish cultures and brings in his own experiences as a Jewish ethnographer. He provides as well the relevant anthropological theoretical framework - for example, from Arthur van Gennep's Rites de Passage or from Victor Turner's The Ritual Process. He engages the material with a full awareness of his own personal role as an anthropologist/ethnographer. He is also admirably non-judgemental, thus allowing the reader to make up his or her own mind about the information he is providing.

Both of these books provide much information delivered in an effortless manner. I think they are challenging to undergraduates but ultimately very rewarding.

I cannot say the same of a book I used last semester for my Hebrew Scriptures course - John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. The book is marketed as an introductory Hebrew Bible textbook suitable both for undergraduate and graduate courses. I found that it was not appropriate for my 100-level course, which has many first and second-year students in it. They complained that it often assumed too much knowledge on the part of the reader. I agreed, and think it is much more appropriate for a introductory Bible course taught at a seminary, in other words for first-year graduate students who have probably already studied the Bible as undergraduates. In many respects it does not work very well as an introduction - for example, it would have been very helpful if each chapter had summarized the biblical book (or part of biblical book) that it dealt with and outlined the main points it was going to deal with. It was a good summary of contemporary scholarship on a given biblical book, but I found that more useful for preparation for my lectures, rather than for the students to read. In addition to these drawbacks for an undergraduate course, I objected to Collins' political slant that popped up at various points in the book, in particular what seemed to me to be his dragging in contemporary politics to the biblical text. I particularly objected to what he said about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but there were other tendentious political remarks that I also disliked. This aspect of the book seemed to embody what I often find obnoxious about liberal Christian academics' approach to politics.

Previous to using this book I used another introductory textbook, Reading the Old Testament, by Barry Bandstra, which was written at the right level for my undergraduates, but also had occasional superficial excursions into contemporary liberalism that I objected to. If the author of a textbook for undergraduates wants to introduce contemporary politics into the book, I think that he or she should somewhere in the book justify that importation of politics, rather than simply citing his or her political views as if they had the same authority as the scholarship that the book presents.

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