Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Are you afraid of things that go bump in the night? I was, but I’ve been taking a course — well, officially I’ve been teaching a course — on this very subject, and now I am not afraid.
Don’t get me wrong; there is plenty to fear in these uncertain times. Somehow, though, learning about all the things people feared in previous centuries and how they accounted for things they couldn’t explain has given me a fresh perspective.
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When my friend and colleague, Moshe, invited me to collaborate with him on his course “Things that Go Bump in the Night,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. He began sharing materials with me — biblical texts, rabbinic sources, medieval and modern literature — and we discussed ways to create a fully integrated Fine Arts and Jewish Studies course. By the end of the summer, we were mostly ready to team-teach and we uploaded the syllabus for fall semester to the website:
In this course, we will explore a wide range of topics associated with Jewish folk tradition (superstition) and mystical (magical) practices that are often considered taboo, including: sorcery and witchcraft, demons and vampires, hamsas, the evil eye and amulets. We will contrast Mystical and Chassidic Judaism, as exemplified by Nachmanides, and Rational Judaism, as exemplified by Maimonides. We will integrate our Jewish Studies with art, using sketchbooks as our notebooks to encourage drawing and prototyping of projects. Our main art assignments, at the midterm and final, will be message-driven art projects with accompanying artist statements.
Moshe and I continued to consult with each other, and with the art teachers, to develop the curriculum. We wanted to challenge the students to express their ideas through art. Students designed their own amulets, in the style of ancient and medieval amulets, to reflect their need for protection from modern evils. We gave them the option to analyze traditional texts and respond to challenges by writing words and by sketching their ideas. We encouraged students to see things differently, and we trusted we were making progress.
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As the semester draws to a close, I am struck by how much I have learned from my friend. And I’m not referring only to the vast quantity of material he has presented to the students, but also to the varied methods he employs to manage a class of 23 students, to engage their curiosity and to dispel their skepticism.
Just yesterday, our guest speaker Carmen, a practitioner of energy healing using crystals, opened my mind to new possibilities. Holding the geode of amethyst in my hand, examining it from all sides, I wonder if I’m more like Nachmanides than Maimonides now.
I know this: I am not afraid of things that go bump in the night.
Students’ amulets (in polymer clay), left to right: “In the Beginning” (Jack S., 10th grade), “The Protective Hand” (Natalie A., 10th grade), “Life” (Rachel S., 10th grade) and “The Acceptance of Evil” (Izzy J., 11th grade)