Mara Benjamin, associate professor of religion at St. Olaf College, contributes this entry to our series from the Pedagogies of Engagement in Jewish Studies seminar.

As the only participant who teaches Jewish studies in a Christian context, I was a bit of an odd fit in the Mandel Center’s Pedagogies of Engagement seminar this past year. St. Olaf College, which is affiliated with the ELCA, takes theological education seriously: it requires all students to take a first-year course on the Bible (defined as Hebrew Bible and New Testament) and a later course in theology, with a focus on “Christian theology, understood as critical and normative reflection on Christian teachings.” These requirements pose some obvious challenges for me.

The seminar provided an opportune time to reflect on the theoretical and practical challenges of teaching Jewish thought, including what might be called “normative” Jewish traditions, within these boundaries; to further refine my own thinking on the character, genre, and goals of Jewish theology; and especially, to reflect on what I hoped my (overwhelmingly non-Jewish) St. Olaf students would take away from an encounter with Jewish texts.

In the spring of 2014, I used a theology course I co-taught with a colleague, Prof. David Booth, whose field is modern Christian theology, as a “laboratory” for some basic inquiries about these questions. This course, “Theology and Sexuality,” addresses theological understandings of love, desire, embodiment, and relationship in the context of human sexuality. We reconfigured the previous syllabus, which had only focused on the intersection between Christian theological texts and secular queer and feminist accounts of sexuality, to foster a dialogical engagement with the central questions. We placed Pauline epistles, Augustinian tracts, and recent systematic Christian feminist works into conversation with midrashic texts, recent Jewish feminist writings on sexuality, and critical analyses of rabbinic Jewish theological anthropology. We hoped that this comparative approach would help students develop a more nuanced understanding of the very meaning of theology, its task, and the diverse communities that have taken up such basic questions of human flourishing – and that our students would see rabbinic Judaism as a source for compelling theological reflection.

To fulfill the theology requirement, the course requires students to “engage in explicitly theological reflection, and to apply their theological knowledge to matters of historical, contemporary, or personal significance.” This requirement is somewhat unusual in typical academic contexts, in which professors theoretically distance themselves from explicitly treating matters of personal significance; this is especially true, I think, in religious studies, which for so long struggled to break free from the confessional requirements of theology. But thinking about the requirement through the lens of my discussions with colleagues in the Pedagogies of Engagement seminar prompted me to introduce a new kind of assignment to my students in the course. The results became the subject of my presentation at the seminar.

At the beginning of the course and at the end of it, Prof. Booth and I asked our students to reflect, in two pages or so, on a set of “meta-questions,” such as “How would you articulate what this course is about and why it is (or you anticipate it will be) a valuable thing to study?”; “In what way do you imagine this course will relate to your personal beliefs and judgments?”; and “What do you hope to learn about a faith tradition (or perhaps two traditions) not your own, and how do you imagine that doing so will shape your own thinking?”

The papers we received at the beginning of the course revealed that many students came in with a relatively unsophisticated understanding of theology. Prof. Booth summarized a consistent finding: “More than a few students identified the central task of theology as learning ‘what scriptures say’ about controversial topics. They have not yet internalized the concept of ‘theological reasoning’ about how the past informs the present and future of a religious community. They are looking for an inventory of answers presented by tradition.” Students largely interpreted the dialogical component of the course as furthering the virtue of “global citizenship,” in which they would learn about “others.” We hoped that the dialogue between the two instructors and between Judaism and Christianity would hit closer to home.

In May, shortly before the course concluded, we asked a similar set of questions, and this time the results suggested that we had accomplished a number of the tasks we had set out for ourselves. Here are few representative selections, in students’ own words:

Before taking this course, I knew little to nothing about Judaism. Perhaps because of my Christian upbringing, I mostly thought of Jews as the ones who rejected the divinity of Jesus. I now recognize the harm of such narrow thinking. The Jewish readings and lectures … have opened my eyes to the mutual enhancement that can take place from inter-religious dialogue.

Within the first few units of the course, I began to realize the true task of theology is not to force communities into religious orthodoxy but to help communities interpret scripture in ways that sharpen religious awareness, especially in light of modern social and political movements.

Learning about the Jewish tradition helped me understand the issues and challenges to the Christian faith that I have now inherited. It helped me gain a more neutral understanding of theology as a critical process. Theology is more than just learning about what Christian thinkers centuries ago said about God, Jesus, and Christianity: it encompasses a process of synthesizing past beliefs, understanding the modern issues in life, and determining the best way to live my life.

I have been forced to dive deeply into the theologies of a faith tradition I had previously rejected and of another that I knew nothing about.

Can (and should) Jewish texts claim the mantle of “theology” when this term has usually referred to an exclusively Christian discourse? Is it intellectually coherent to teach Jewish theological claims in an institution with a Christian religious commitment? Can reflection on and even formulation of critical normative claims happen with integrity in an academic context? My conclusions: Yes, yes, and yes.