Observe him in the classroom and the reason is obvious. He teaches with an exuberance and humor that keeps students engaged and attentive, even in night classes. He moves freely around the room, pausing frequently to ask, “You understand?” And eventually they do.
Rabbi Jordi Gendra, who began teaching religion classes at Wilson in fall 2011, is a committed scholar who holds a doctoral degree in medieval Jewish literature and a master’s degree in linguistics with an emphasis in Semitic languages. Born in Spain to a multilingual family, he became proficient in Latin, Greek and Hebrew and, after completing his studies, began working with translations of sacred texts. From the beginning it was clear that even texts of the same stories differ widely, in part because of the communities from which they spring, and in part because of what the translator brings to a text in the context of his own background.
When he designed his course on the Bible and the Quran, Gendra wanted his students to understand that, and to develop the critical thinking skills needed to analyze and compare texts reflecting the traditions and beliefs of the world’s three major religions. As he states in his syllabus, “the goal is not to agree and to adopt a single opinion concerning the interpretation of a particular text; rather, the goal is to back up or criticize the opinions put forward in a logical manner, using as many relevant features of the text as possible.”
To make the quest more “user friendly,” he developed the course around the prophets whose stories have found their way over the centuries into both texts. “Prophets are concrete individuals,” he explained, and most of them are characters that students are already familiar with: Adam, Abraham, Noah, Isaac, Ishmael, Joseph, Moses, Solomon, David, Job and, of course, Jesus. “Everybody knows about Jesus,” he said. What differs is perception.
For most of his students, their first writing assignment is an illuminating one: compare and contrast a specific character or story in the Hebrew Bible and the Quran. How are the accounts similar? How do they differ? What is the significance of these differences? Why are they there and how do they fit into the overall contexts of the Hebrew Bible or the Quran? Inevitably, the discussion turns to other questions: How is a prophet defined, and what are a prophet's attributes in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and in the Quran? How are the conceptions of prophecy similar or different? And the underlying question that sets the perimeters for the class: What makes a text sacred? And how should it be studied?
“The text talks to a specific community in time and geography, and their needs and their hopes are encapsulated in those texts,” he said. “If I have a revelation and I write it down, what is going to be the value of that revelation? How can it become a sacred text? There is a process here, and it begins by having a group of followers who will create meaning based on the text. The community begins reading the text and then the authorities in the community decide what’s good and what’s not good in that text. So then you go from a revelation to a canon. You go from 32 gospels to four. You go from four versions of the Quran to a single version.
He cites the absence of powerful women from scripture as an example of community influencing text. “(Scripture) was written by men for men about men. So where are women? There is nothing more frightening for men than women taking control. And so writings that present a very powerful image of women who defy the status quo are not included in the canon. The thing that I find interesting when I’m teaching is that when students come from a context of studying religion in church, they don’t think about such things as the role of gender or violence or identity. I want them to be able to look from a critical perspective to a sacred text as a piece of literature. What does it teach you about the community in which the text was formed?”
Digging deeper into a text to explore not only context, but personal theology is ultimately the by-product of religious studies. Hence, a question that inevitably comes up in class is, “How do you balance knowledge with faith?”
“That’s the process of discovery,” acknowledged Rabbi Gendra. “We can do this in class because class is a safe space. In class there are no dumb questions. In class everything is open and up for discussion. I always say if you have a different theory, go ahead. You just have to express it in a polite way and you have to build the argument. You have to tell me, what’s your proof, what’s your thesis.”
In the end, the answer goes back to his central tenet. “The sacredness of the text is not in the text. It’s the relationship one has with the text. The text is sacred to me because I care about the text. I speak to the text and the text talks to me. We shape each other.”