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Northwestern University

Teaching the Talmud

Associate Professor Barry Wimpfheimer becomes Weinberg’s first professor to offer a MOOC

For the last 25 years, Barry Wimpfheimer has devoted himself to the advanced study of the Talmud.

An associate professor of religious studies and law at Northwestern, Wimpfheimer has lectured on the spiritual tome, taught courses analyzing its teachings and penned scholarly books examining the 1,500-year-old religious text, including the forthcoming The Talmud: A Biography.

“It’s my life’s work,” Wimpfheimer says.

And in April 2016, Wimpfheimer life’s work enters a new arena when his massive open online course (MOOC) debuts on Coursera, one of the world’s leading online education providers.

"The Talmud is a work that has engendered great animosity, but also curiosity and fascination from an increasingly broader and more diverse range of people,” Wimpfheimer says. “Though there are a lot of books out there that help people study the Talmud, few are from academic scholars and approach the Talmud from that perspective as this MOOC will do.”

Though faculty from colleges around Northwestern such as the Kellogg School of Management and the McCormick School of Engineering have entered the MOOC space, Wimpfheimer’s course is the first from a Weinberg College faculty member. Next fall, professor of religious studies Christine Helmer will join the MOOC movement with “Luther and the West,” a course designed to explore Martin Luther’s vast contributions to the modern-day western world.

Wimpfheimer’s course – “The Talmud: A Methodological Introduction” – is divided into eight modules, each hosting up to three short videos alongside associated texts and quizzes. Wimpfheimer covers the Talmud’s unique characteristics as well as the inherent challenges its study presents and the deep religious and intellectual analysis it inspires.

As for who will enroll in the MOOC, Wimpfheimer acknowledges that’s a mystery. With the help of his graduate assistant Sarah Wolf, a doctoral student in the religious studies department, Wimpfheimer designed the course for the diverse range of MOOC users across the globe, individuals who cross geographic, ethnic and socioeconomic divides.

“You really don't know who’s going to come and study, but that’s part of the joy of it,” admits Wimpfheimer, who also serves as director of The Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies at Northwestern.

Over the years, Wimpfheimer says he’s encountered people who have never heard of the Talmud and are fascinated to learn more as well as those who have studied the text, but hold key misunderstandings.

“This MOOC is an opportunity for me to take a lifetime of learning and share it with the wider public,” he says. “I believe it’s what academia is really about and what gives research even greater value.”

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