A Christian Divinity School, a Jewish Professor

Joel Baden

Being the only full-time Jewish faculty member at an explicitly Christian divinity school can be a remarkable pedagogical opportunity – and at times an exercise in existential frustration. I offer these thoughts here for any who may be thinking about the nature of theological education, and the role that religious pluralism plays both in the classroom and in the wider culture of a divinity school.

The students at YDS know that, being in an ecumenical setting, they cannot expect their classroom experiences to simply reinforce the traditions and beliefs with which they were raised. Unlike at a denominational seminary, our courses, our pedagogy, cannot be tailored to any specific constituent group, for fear of alienating the many others represented in the classroom. Nevertheless, this is a Christian divinity school, and the students, especially those planning to go into pulpit ministry, may well have the expectation that their classes will be, if not denominationally specific, at least generally Christian in character.

First Day of Class

It may thus be somewhat of a surprise when, early in the morning on the first day of their first semester here, the students who take their seats in the Old Testament Interpretation lecture find themselves face to face with a professor who is unwilling – indeed, unable – to provide them with a Christian understanding of the Bible.

Despite the common language of “Judeo- Christian,” which makes it sound as if we are all one common faith tradition, my Judaism and their Christianity are worlds apart. And it is in the space between my religious background and theirs that they encounter, and come to appreciate the value of, the critical academic study of the biblical text.

Beyond Alienation

Christian ecumenism allows for the discovery of common ground among different Christian traditions. True religious pluralism, looking beyond the borders of Christianity, both permits and requires even broader exploration. What we are searching for – both the students and I as their instructor – is that space where we can talk together about the Bible without experiencing any alienation, either from each other or from the text.

This means setting aside presumptions about which parts of the Bible are most important and about how the text should be read. Almost no one enters my classroom excited to dive into the sacrificial ritual legislation of Leviticus; most of them have never bothered to read it (or have given up if they did try). On the other hand, they have given extensive thought to the less than 20 verses about the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22.

This habit has nothing to do with which is more important in the Bible, and everything to do with which had a more lasting legacy in Christianity. Part of the task of reading the Bible in a pluralistic setting is recalibrating one’s sense of how to determine which texts are more deserving of attention. When a Jew is teaching the Old Testament – and calling it, quite consciously, the Hebrew Bible – it is remarkable how quickly students are able to stop finding Jesus in every other verse.

In other words, the forced separation from one’s denominational traditions – even from Christianity altogether – leads inevitably to a far closer reading, and a clearer and more nuanced understanding, of the material being studied, of the Bible itself. And this, in turn, leads – I hope – to a clearer understanding of one’s own traditions. Absent any alternative, it is all too easy to believe that what one learns in church about the Bible is somehow “the truth.” Pluralistic learning by necessity presents just that missing alternative.

Revealing a World

From my perspective, teaching a room full of Christian divinity students presents a far greater challenge than speaking to a synagogue or a Jewish classroom. Teaching the Bible in a way that does not, indeed cannot, rely on any shared background, history, culture, or knowledge – this forces me, too, back into the text itself. What can I tell them that will be at once engaging, informative, and, crucially for a professional school, useful? How can I open the word and world of the Bible to them – and to them all at once, equally, despite their remarkable diversity, and despite their utter difference from me? It is a challenge that I enjoy thoroughly.

A school that wants to commit itself to pluralistic theological education must also face some more difficult challenges, however. True pluralism requires not only common intellectual ground between traditions, but also appreciation for individual particularity across faiths, and too often at Christian schools there is a general lack of knowledge of any non-Christian faith within a student body. We do students a gross disservice if we send them out into the world, as religious leaders of any variety, without giving them at least a basic training in the other major faith traditions in America, that is, minimally, Judaism and Islam. And such training should be an established part of the curriculum of the divinity school or seminary proper, not merely an encouragement to explore possible courses in an affiliated department of religious studies. Students should know that learning about other faiths is an integral part of Christian education.

As strongly as I feel about the pedagogical advantages of having non-Christian faculty teaching in a Christian context, there are many in the world of theological education for whom it is not such an obvious good – those who talk the talk of the desirability of religious pluralism but don’t recognize the repercussions. There is an inherent tension between promoting the value of religiously diverse faculty and desiring, even requiring, certain faith-based behavior in educational spaces. (Praying before class, for example. Or praying before faculty meetings.)

A Christian Culture

I recognize the tricky balancing act: how to create a broadly pluralistic educational environment without sacrificing the distinctively Christian nature of the school? Yet pluralism in the classroom, with all its pedagogical advantages, in no way requires any diminishment of Christian culture outside it. There is still chapel, and internships, spiritual formation groups, clinical pastoral education programs. (At YDS many courses do not and cannot aspire to pluralism: preaching, pastoral care, polity classes, and others.) The place can be Christian even while the theological education provided – or at least some parts of it – is non-Christian.

The desire to celebrate pluralism, and train students to work in a religiously pluralistic world, are admirable goals. But they require more than lip service. Is it worth giving up the explicitly Christian nature of some spaces – a lecture hall, a seminar room, a faculty meeting – to achieve the benefits of a more pluralistic theological education? There is no correct or incorrect path: Every school has the right to train its students as it sees fit. But a path ought to be cleared and taken, and marked with signposts to ensure that everyone at the institution knows where they are going. If a commitment to pluralism is made, I believe it requires more attentiveness to an institution’s pedagogical culture. If the culture is unwelcoming to those who would make it pluralistic, it will not long be so.

It is my strong hope that my classroom, despite being an explicitly non-Christian space, still contributes directly to the Christian identity of my students. I believe that when they leave my course, they will be better able to appreciate the biblical text in and of itself, and also be better able to articulate how and why their own faith traditions take up that text and reshape it.

This is what pluralism does, at its heart: It provides students with distance from themselves, a distance that is necessary for the kind of self-evaluation and self-criticism that makes them into better and more productive human beings and leaders.

Joel Baden, professor of Hebrew Bible at YDS, is a specialist in the Pentateuch, biblical Hebrew, and disability theory in biblical studies. His books include The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero (HarperOne, 2013) and The Promise to the Patriarchs (Oxford, 2013). Future projects include commentaries on Deuteronomy (International Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament) and Exodus (Anchor).