Timeless and Timebound

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Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky, dean of the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies and the Gershon Kekst Graduate School, as well as the Blanche and Romie Shapiro Professor of Bible.

When I reflect upon what makes List College unique, I often focus on the community we create and the unique integration of Jewish living and learning that it provides.  Whereas I know that there are other campuses where students can take a rich array of Jewish Studies classes and live in thick Jewish communities, I am certain that there are few, if any, that offer as many Jewish Studies classes, spanning across history and disciplines, as List College does.  Nor is there a community as committed to living Jewishly with the intentionality and diversity that we do.    

This year, I have been thinking about the way we learn at List College and how our style of learning may be our most unique feature and perhaps our most valuable.  I write from the perspective of a Bible professor who teaches a text that most students are familiar with and that many consider to be sacred.  

Like many of my students, I consider what I study to be both Bible and Torah.  The distinction I’m making between Bible and Torah helps me differentiate the kinds of questions I ask while studying.  When I study the Bible, I ask a set of questions related in large part to its composition and transmission.  When, I study Torah, I ask a set of questions related to my identity as a Jew and the meanings I can draw from Torah to enhance and guide my life.   

Here, at List College, I am able to teach the Bible as Torah.  I can consider the worlds that created the Bible—the history of its composition and transmission—as well as the world that the Bible creates and the values it transmits.  I can consider the relevance of those values to my life as a Jew—to find meaning in ancient wisdom and to work to apply and adapt this wisdom to contemporary life.  

The ability to address questions of history and meaning is what defines learning at List College.  Our core curriculum is designed to place sacred texts within their historical contexts.  Our classrooms encourage students to see what is timeless and timebound in what they study, and to create their own personal and communal contexts.  The timeless connects them to eternal values reflected throughout our canonical tradition.  The timebound connects them to the communities that shaped and lived this tradition.

Looking for what is timeless and what is timebound in the texts and events that have shaped Jewish life are equally valuable pursuits that can and, I would argue, should induce tensions.  Sometimes, contemporary values can conflict with ancient ones.  Sometimes, history complicates our understandings of our core narratives.  But if done well, and we do it well at List, the pursuits of the timeless and timebound enrich one another and give us a deeper understanding of and relationship to what we study.

I certainly appreciate the way our learning community is also a living one.  In the wake of COVID, I have come to appreciate even more the power and necessity of Jewish communal living.  Jewish communities are not meant to be socially distant, and our List community is anything but remote.  It is a uniquely vibrant community that offers an essential and vital model for Jewish communal living.   

But I don’t want to lose sight of the learning we do here at List.  Our classrooms are as unique as our residence hall.  They offer an essential and vital model for Jewish learning and engagement. Jewish texts and traditions are both timeless and timebound.  They express ancient wisdoms and capture ancient practices that continue to resonate and evolve.  In our List College classrooms, our students engage with the timeless and timebound.  By doing so, they participate in a wholly (and I would even say holy) unique kind of Jewish learning that is essential to the Jewish people.