Sex, Gender, and REligion 

This course explores how gender and sexuality have shaped the religious identities of individuals and groups in various ways: Being male and celibate, for example, remains crucial to the ideal of sacred leadership in the Catholic Church. Other traditional religions similarly assign distinct spiritual personalities to men and women. Traditional Jews “exempt” women from many religious practices because women are seen as being close to the divine—but in practice, this idea excluded women from wide parts of Jewish public ritual. Through our readings, discussion, and writing assignments, we will ask a series of questions this semester: how does one’s biological body impact one’s religious practices? Or does it? And what happens when people do not conform to expected these norms? When they are gay men, lesbian women, or transsexual? Or asexual?

In this course, we will examine a number of key texts that pivot around the relationship between sex, gender, and religion. In addition to reading a number of by now classical texts on the subject, we will look at contemporary expressions of these ideas both in theory and in popular culture. At the end of the semester, students will write their own theory of religion and sex/gender.

We will also consider up-to-date developments, and the first 10 minutes of each week will be devoted to contemporary news regarding sex/gender and religion.

History of Judaism I (Bible to 600) (RELG 381; HIST 383)

This course surveys Jewish history from the Second Temple Period to 1492 and explores the religious, cultural, social, and political conditions that shaped the experiences of the Jews living under western Christendom and Islam.

We will begin in Late Antiquity, a period that set the stage for the development of Judaism as we know it today and we will close with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.  Throughout the semester, we will reflect on this experience reading contemporaneous Jewish and non-Jewish texts, both at home and in class.

Course texts

  • The Jews: A Historyby John Efron; Steven Weitzman; Matthias Lehmann, also available as an ebook.  Note that this book will also be used in Jewish History II (RELG 382 /HIST384).
  • All remaining readings are on Blackboard.

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Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) RELG 301/RELG 592H

The Hebrew Bible (called ‘Old Testament’ by many Christians) emerged from a small community perched on the margins of the great ancient Near Eastern kingdoms and became a foundational text of Judaism, Christianity, and ultimately Islam—in short, of western civilization. This course will introduce you to this extraordinary book and the historical, cultural and religious experiences of ancient Israel and its surrounding cultures. While employing a historical-critical approach, we will focus on some modes of Jewish and Christian exegesis, such as rabbinic and medieval interpretations as well as some more recent approaches such as Storahtelling and Bibleraps. This is a reading-intensive course.

I hope you will share my fascination for this intriguing and powerful literature, and develop an awareness of the stories that continue to shape our culture in many ways.

Holy Women in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (RELG 491)

Over the centuries, holy women have inspired the faithful and even the not-so religious, with holiness shaping ideas of piety, martyrdom, monasticism, mysticism, and social activism. By examining holy women from various traditions and times, we will look at the ways in which particular communities have understood, practiced, and endorsed essential elements of holiness.

The Middle Ages at the Movies

Movies are a dominant form of contemporary cultural expression. At the same time, they shape our conceptions of the realities of the past (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) and our anxieties about the future (The Matrix series). This course explores what has been called “Medievalism,” the study of the many ways in which modern society and its popular culture interacts with and interprets the actual history of the Middle Ages. We will look at the function of movies dealing with the Middle Ages, especially the ways in which they tell us what we think we know about the medieval period. They shape our relationship with the past, and they inform our relationship to the present

Jews and Christians in the European Middle Ages

In the middle ages, Jews and Christians lived side by side in much of Europe. Theirs was a complex relationship fraught with conflict as well as mutual gain based on a range of conflicting claims. This class considers how cultural, social and economic conditions shaped this encounter from both the Jewish and Christian perspectives.  We will survey the legal standing of the Jews, their communal life and in particular the intellectual history and cultural achievements of medieval European Jewry in Christendom.

The primary focus is on the northern European middle ages but we will also consider the Jewish world outside of northern Europe as it becomes relevant for an understanding of the Ashkenazic experience. Beginning with the construction of Jewish and Christian religious identities in late antiquity and the early middle ages, this class follows both a thematic as well as a chronological order.

From Jesus to the Rebbe: Jewish Messianism through the Agesss

Messianic anticipation is integral to Jewish core beliefs.  But how did Jews envision the advent of the redeemer and how did they react to the various messianic contenders as they appeared throughout history? Taking a historical approach, beginning with Biblical notions of messianic signs and some early representatives (Jesus and bar Kokhba), we will explore medieval witnesses such as Moses Maimonides or the Jewish sufis Bahya ibn Paqudah and Abraham Maimonides who have shaped mainstream ideas on messianism and mysticism until this day.

Early modern times saw the arrival of the ‘messiahs’ Shabbetai Tsvi, Jacob Frank and Judah Loew of Prague, as well as a growing Christian interest in Jewish mysticism and the rise of Hasidism. We will end with a brief glance at contemporary issues such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the growing influence of messianic ideas in Israel, the relatively new phenomenon of messianic Judaism and popular manifestations such as the Kabbalah Center.  This class combines primary and secondary sources, and includes the extensive use of web-resources as well as relevant film material.

From Mainz to Madison–the history of European Jewry from medieval to modern times

Many American Jews trace their ancestry back to Europe where Jews have lived at least since the Middle Ages, a detailed study of medieval Jewish history seems therefore crucial for an understanding of the modern Jewish experience in the Americas. Beginning with the construction of Jewish and Christian religious identities in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, this class offers both a thematic as well as a chronological order and examines the economic, religious, and cultural conditions that shaped Jewish life throughout times, paying close attention to the gendered experiences of men and women. This includes the crusades, Hasidism, the rise of Zionism and the state of Israel as well as the Holocaust and the interpretation and relevance of the latter two for American Jewry.

The emphasis of this course is on western Europe but the experience of communities outside of this realm is taken into consideration, in particular with the beginning of the late Middle Ages and the rise of the Sephardic diaspora. A combination of primary and secondary sources, as well as extensive use of web-resources complement this course.


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