Through Christianity and Islam, minimester looks at ‘Abrahamic’ religion through a wider lens

May 15, 2018

The World Religions minimester is an opportunity to learn differently about a subject Shalhevet students already spend a lot of time on: religion, including Judaism.

Unlike when we learned in Jewish History class when we are really just focusing on the role of Christianity or Islam when it’s connected to Judaism, we’re trying to really look at it from how its founded and how they see it,” said senior Aviva Katz. “Like when we were asked, who is the first Muslim, we all said ‘Muhammad’ and [the teacher] said ‘They would say Avraham.’”

Taught by Ms. Sheila Keiter, World Religions looks at the three “Abrahamic” religions — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — both separately and together. The course aims for students to understand the relationship of these three religions, while giving each religion a space to exist as a separate faith entity.

Like Islam, which considers Avraham a prophet, Christianity also descends from Judaism, and claims that Jesus descended from King David in order to have been the proper messiah.

Ms. Keiter says that by understanding what Christianity is, one can define oneself as something different.

“We study Judaism in school in depth, we are looking at texts, we are looking at halachot [Jewish laws] under a microscope,” Ms. Keiter said. So in the class, she said, “we pull back and kind of see it from an outsider’s perspective. I really want these students to think about these religions, including Judaism, in a broader way.”

The course goes through the origins of Judaism and its evolution under the early rabbis; the later emergence of Christianity and its continuation the era of early Christian writers and beyond; and Islam during and immediately after the life of Muhammad. There is some overlap and some going back and forth in time, but mostly each religion’s foundations are explained on their own.

As Ms. Keiter explains the history, she says she will later explain the rituals.

Students in the class said they chose it for its uniqueness and because especially as Jews, they wanted a scholarly understanding of all the major Western religions.

“We covered a lot of material,” said Tyler Ekaireb. “We began with Judaism, and even though we’ve spent all of our high school careers learning about Judaism, it was interesting to learn about it from an academic lens.”

Students are learning how major parts of Rabbinic literature, such as the Talmud, were written at the same time as the New Testament, and how each influenced the other. Ms. Keiter is a Jewish Studies doctoral student at UCLA and has been a teaching assistant in the Abrahamic Religions course there three times.

“When we look at rabbinic literature, it is aware of what Christianity is doing, they are conscious of each other,” Ms. Keiter said. “Are [the rabbis] rejecting certain ideas because they are associated with Christianity or embracing them because it is something they like?”

There is disagreement in Christianity as to the importance of the Tanach, which they call the Old Testament, as many see Jesus as the son or vessel of God and not part of the covenant of Abraham. But it is still considered an “Abrahamic” religion because of its Jewish origin and inclusion of Tanach among its sacred texts.

Rabbi Schwarzberg, who studied religions in the Divinity School at Harvard, arranged the class and for Ms. Keiter to teach it. He said a course like this has value at a Jewish school, even though it shouldn’t be required.

“It’s not an obligation of Jewish education,” Rabbi Schwarzberg said, “but … our students should go out of Shalhevet with some basic understanding of the relationship of Judaism and the other Abrahamic faiths.”

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