The course is actually called “Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.” “Old Testament” comes first because most of our students have never heard of the “Hebrew Bible.” The latter is a respectable academic effort to avoid sectarian bias in naming biblical scriptures. Calling the Jewish scriptures the “Old Testament” assumes said scriptures existed only to give rise to the New Testament. For Jews, this is a pretty perilous proposition. It makes them grind their teeth.
Jews call their texts the Tanakh, an acronym for Torah-Neviim-Ketuvim. The Torah includes the Five Books of Moishe. These, in turn, are also known as the Chumash, Hebrew for “five” and/or the Pentateuch, which is Greek for the same. Neviim is Hebrew for “prophets” and Ketuvim is Hebrew for “writings.” The former includes prophetic texts and histories like Joshua, Judges, and Kings. The latter includes, among other writings, Psalms, Proverbs, the books of Esther and Ruth, Lamentations, and Job.
Academic types call all this stuff of ancient times the Hebrew Bible because the vast majority of the texts are written in Hebrew. A very small portion is written in Aramaic, which can look and act like Hebrew, but isn’t. The name “Hebrew Bible” is neutral. It makes no sectarian statement. It has no religious connotations.
Religious connotations, as I tell my students, are inadmissible in a secular classroom. “This class,” my syllabus reads, “assumes a scholarly attitude to religious beliefs and texts. We will look at religion scientifically as a historical phenomenon. We are not here to talk about personal beliefs, or to make moral judgments about the text. This is not the setting to deal with our own views on God or spirituality; the setting for that is a nice, comfy chair with some good coffee, and maybe a Danish.”
Or a bialy.
But, hey, I was in a silly mood last week. It was our last day. The students were about to take a final exam in which, among other things, they would have to explain intertextuality at work in Numbers 22 and Genesis 22. (That meant comparing the seer Balaam, who converses with his donkey, to Abraham, who doesn’t seem able to talk to his own son.)
I decided to let down my hair.
“Let’s sing some Christmas carols while we wait for everyone to get here,” I suggested brightly. “How about ‘Winter Wonderland’?”
You would have thought I had announced that the final was going to cover Sumerian hymns, insist on intimate knowledge of Ugaritic, and test knowledge of ancient Persian governance. There was a loud and raucous outcry. There was an “Occupy UNC-Charlotte” spirit adrift in the room. The peasants were revolting.
“Whoa,” I said. “Wassup? I was just trying to bring a little seasonable cheer into the room.”
I teach many students who have to work their way through college. A good many informed me in no uncertain terms that they had been forced to listen to Christmas carols since Halloween as they bagged motley plastic goods. They were mortally, thoroughly sick of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Little Drummer Boy.”
Some may have heard “Silver Bells” as many as fifty times in less than six weeks.
They threatened to gag, upchuck, or make rude noises if I so much as jingled a bell or decked the hall.
I demurred, of course. The room assigned for Old Testament/Hebrew Bible last semester is already dark and dank. It has no windows. The artificial light, as Shakespeare would have said, sucketh. We had studied in a version of Sheol all semester long, the gray and wretched place everyone lands after death according to Hebrew Bible. It doesn’t matter if you were naughty or nice in life – that’s where you go when you kick off. It’s like a nursing home with tenure.
Had said students done as threatened, the next group to trudge in would be met with gory smells and sights unbecoming to the student body. Any of them.
Sadly, I handed them their final exams. I watched them stress and worry, gnash their brows and furrow their teeth.
I mightily resisted the temptation to cheer them up by dreaming about a white Christmas – a song written by a Jew, by the by. I did not conjure up the image of old Frosty, who could have been Jewish. (He reminds me a lot of my Uncle Max – incessantly cheerful, that man and oy, the shnoz). I most certainly did not think of Scrooge. He evokes terrible associations and clichés about, well, Jews.
Instead, very softly – very softly indeed, I hummed a song that could not possibly offend anyone.
“I have a little dreidel. I made it out of clay…”
P.S. Chag sameach to clay-handling readers!
P.P.S. A list of my Top Ten Christmas Songs Written or Composed by Jews is provided for general edification below, as is a link to explanatory materials.
- Silver Bells
- Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
- Winter Wonderland
- I’ll be Home for Christmas
- Let it Snow
- White Christmas
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
- It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
- A Holly Jolly Christmas
- Sleigh Ride