The yellow-brick road toward a PhD in the History of Judaism began yesterday with Michael Fishbane's class on Jewish Spiritual Practices. As Professor Fishbane pointed out in his introductory lecture, Judaism is based on the Hebrew Bible, but Judaism and the Bible are not the same thing. Judaism, he said (and I'm paraphrasing), is a variegated, multiform, non-monolithic conglomeration of spiritual practices, philosophies and cultures that continued to expand and diversify, to debate itself and transform itself, over the course of more three milennia. The course will look at how Jewish spiritual practices have developed both in isolation from and response to other cultures and religious traditions, and have spread outward from Mt. Sinai (and before) without ever actually leaving it. The main theme of these practices, or the theme at which we'll look most closely, is cultivation of the self and ideas (and ideals) of self-transformation. The course will be both comparative and methodological.
The class seems to be comprised mostly of students who are in the Masters in Divinity program or who are budding scholars of disciplines having to do with Christianity, so there's a wide range of knowledge about Judaism in the room. This will present an interesting teaching challenge, and a learning opportunity for us all. The syllabus incorporates rabbinic ethics, philosophy, Jewish mysticism and some Christian (Augustine), Sufi and Greek philosophical perspectives on spiritual development and discipline.
Of the dozen or so students in the class, four (including me) were (or appeared to be) older than the average student. One gentleman was a resident of Aspen, Colorado, but was planning to be in residence two quarters out of the year to begin working toward a Masters in Religious Studies. He wanted to know if it was permitted to bring coffee into the classroom; the rest of us wanted to know why IV drips weren't available.
I was encouraged by the percentage of older students. I think this is a good thing for the university, for universities and for classrooms generally. The old model of preparing young people for careers in academia is being shouldered aside to make room for people who want to deepen their knowledge and understanding, who want to teach or do research in some capacity but not necessarily make a full-fledged career change, and/or who have an abiding interest to which they can finally turn their attention. I, for one, fall into all those categories.
After class, I convened over coffee with a good friend, also a "mature student" (love that term), a PhD student in Islamic Studies who recently completed her exams and is now preparing to launch into serious dissertation work. While we sat and had coffee together, in one of the university's self-consciously deshabillé coffee-shop-cum-pool halls, another fellow student walked by -- an undergraduate with whom I'd taken Hebrew for more than a year. This young woman was pre-med, but also preparing to take the LSATs and applying to graduate programs in -- I think I have this right -- Forensic Anthropology.
This is one of the great things about the University of Chicago. People are so smart they barely know what to do with themselves. My "mature" colleague and I marveled at the sheer breadth of this young woman's interests -- and her options -- and at her ability to cast such a wide and ambitious net without seeming overwhelmed by it. Ah, youth.
After we had chatted for a few minutes, my young ex-Hebrew classmate said goodbye and added, "We should be friends on Facebook!" And my 'mature' colleague turned to me in astonishment and said: "You're on Facebook?!" It occurred to me that "We should be friends on Facebook" is the contemporary equivalent of "Let's do lunch." And yes: seeing as I have daughters who are no longer at home, and friends all over the country -- and friends at the university young enough to be my children -- why, yes, I am on Facebook.
After the coffee break, it was off to meet with Professor Omar McRoberts in the Sociology Department. Professor McRoberts will, one day, write one of my four PhD exams, because one of my interests is the intersection of Sociology and Theology: how cultural change and upheaval affect sociology (and vice versa). We had a wide-ranging discussion that touched on the urban influences on religion generally and Judaism specifically, religious responses to colonialism (on the part of both colonizers and the colonized), and Jewish social justice initiatives as a response to rupture. I'll be taking a reading course (a self-designed, one-on-one seminar) with Professor McRoberts, for which I read heavily over the summer and for which I'll continue to read this Fall.
Today, it's back to campus for Paul Mendes-Flohr's course on History and Memory in Jewish Thought. This course will look at the issues (and sometimes competing currents) of Jewish collective memory and Jewish historiography. The syllabus quotes Lionel Kochan: “The Jews, regarded as ‘the most historical of peoples,’ have [until the modern era] taken little interest in their own history. At least this appears to be the case, if the paucity of historians is the criterion.”
I could (and probably should) read eight hours a day for the next 10 weeks and not have finished everything on my various syllabi. This is sad, but it's a fact of life, and it's starting to not bother me. What bothers me more is that I didn't begin this work earlier in my life. But then, if the opportunity had presented itself then, I likely wouldn't have pursued it, what with three children at home and a job that was still devouring me alive.
OK, that's it for now. Back to the books. And the coffee.