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February 19, 1988 - Image 77

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1988-02-19

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Trunk Showing

of 10 children, a Roman
Catholic with a girlfriend,
who flirted with the idea of
becoming a celibate priest.
There was Robert, a middle-
aged banker who decided to
devote his life to God after he
saw his bank go under and his
wife become an alcoholic.
There was Julia, a clean-cut
suburban type from
Cleveland who was a leader in
the school's Lesbian and Gay
Caucus. And there was Soho,
a Buddhist monk from Japan
who brought his search for
Nirvana to Harvard.
They were a diverse group.
But, in keeping with my pro-
fessor's admonition, if I knew
them all, I could begin to
understand myself.
The professor who spun
this wisdom, Diana Eck, was
a Christian from Montana
and a Hindu scholar who held
a joint appointment at Har-
vard College and the Div
School. Her class in world
religions, held in Emerson
Hall on the main campus, was
popular in both schools.
She worked hard at her lec-
tures; she once admitted to
staying up until the wee
hours of the morning
rewriting them. And she ex-
pected her students to work
hard as well. The syllabus
warned of a mid-term, final,
term paper and reading list of
10 weighty books.
The books included 'What
the Buddha Taught," by
Walpola Rahula; "Ideals and
Realities of Islam," by Seyyed
Hossein Nasr; "Between
Time and Eternity," by Jacob
Neusner, and "Honest to
God," by John A.T. Robinson.
But maybe the book on the
list that summed up the
course the best was by
Mohandas K. Gandhi. It was
called "All Religions Are
True."
While the class was crowd-
ed for the first few lectures —
during a time known as the
"shopping period," when Har-
vard students may decide
what courses they finally take
— it thinned out somewhat
when the requirements were
spelled out. In the end, 151
students, two-thirds from the
college and the rest from the
Div School, stuck with Pro-
fessor Eck.
Her first task was to banish
some misconceptions. On the
blackboard, she chalked the
names of the five faiths we
were to study and asked us to
estimate the percentage of
world population each
religion represented.
"Hindus, what do I hear for
Hindus?" she cried out like a
carnival barker. "Five per-
cent," said one voice. "No no,"
said another. "Think of all
those people in India. Thirty
percent."
"Jews, what do I hear for

Jews?" she called out. "Ten
percent," called out one stu-
dent. "No, too high," respond-
ed another. "It's more like 3
percent."
It went on like this for a
while, with Professor Eck at
the blackboard recording the
guesses. Then she wrote the
real numbers, which sur-
prised more than a few peo-
ple, including myself: Chris-
tian, 32.4 percent; Moslem,
17.1; Hindu, 13.5; Buddhist,
6.2; Jewish, 0.4.
Diana Eck was an enchant-
ing teacher. In her early 40's,
unmarried and pretty, she
had the habit of pulling her
hair behind her ears so her
simple gold earrings would
show. In the winter, she
favored turtleneck sweaters
and oversized sport jackets.
She was also enigmatic.
Though she came across very
warmly, almost seductively,
from the lectern, many
students reported that she
was standoffish when they
approached her after class.
Early in the semester, Shira
good-naturedly teased me
about having a crush on this
professor of world religions.
There was another teacher
I met in the first few days of
the fall semester whom I un-
doubtedly had a crush on. His
name was Louis Jacobs, a
scholar from England who
was at Harvard Divinity for
the year as the visiting List
Professor in Jewish Studies.
He was short, a bit over-
weight with a white goatee
and large bags under his eyes.
Rabbi Jacobs, the descend-
ant of an illustrious family of
European rabbis, fast became
one of the most popular pro-
fessors at this elitist Protes-
tant divinity school. Quickly
he became known as "the rab-
bi," as in "Have you heard the
rabbi?" "You must sit in on
the rabbi's class." The rabbi is
a storyteller." All this was
overheard in the cafeteria and
the hallways.
The administration, be-
mused by the rabbi's popular-
ity, had inadvertently
assigned small seminar
rooms for his classes. All the
chairs around the table were
quickly filled; latecomers
would steal chairs from less
popular neighboring classes,
or merely sit on the floor.
For everyone else, Louis
Jacobs was a window into
Judaism; for me, an insider,
he parted the curtains and let
the sun shine in.
The Orthodox Judaism I
grew up with was warm, em-
bracing and, at the same
time, curiously intellectual,
with much emphasis on the
complicated legal arguments
of the Talmud. It was an in-
tellectualism, though, with
its own set of rules that made
perfect sense in the rabbinic

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