When Jacob Wright stood before his students this month to discuss the Torah and the Tanach, almost 18,000 students were signed up to hear him lecture. The classroom for his popular course on “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future” was literally everywhere.
The 47-year-old Jewish professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University is one of the rising stars of the Coursera online learning platform that now reaches almost 50 million participants in 13 languages around the world. In the last three years, over 60,000 students have enrolled in his class, which was produced as a tuition- free offering at Emory.
The AJT caught up with Wright to ask about his huge following.
AJT: What has it been like to face such an enormous number of students?
Wright: Just knowing that these thousands of people were doing this for the sake of learning was so, so beautiful. I was floored by it. You see individuals from Bangladesh to China to Iran, to Brazil to Atlanta and from all over the world engaging with each other and sharing their own experiences and being really thankful for the opportunity to learn. Not needing a grade or thinking of it for professional purposes, but just the pursuit of wisdom. It was one of the most moving experiences of my professional life.
AJT: What did your course have to say about the development of the Torah and the Hebrew scriptures?
Wright: Jews developed their sacred writings in response to all the challenges they faced in the ancient world. After suffering destruction and exile they used the process of developing their sacred writing as a way to learn how to get along in a world in which they were weak. That’s why women play such a huge role in biblical literature. We had to learn the ways of women. Women know how to co-exist in the world where they didn’t have power. But they still get things done. Jews had to adapt ourselves to collaboration. We couldn’t compete with the great empires so we had to reinvent ourselves.
Empires will come and go and continue to come and go. But the Jewish people spread our power out among the whole community and made it all about collaboration. They said we’re all in this together; our future is through our families.
AJT: What set the Hebrew scripture apart from the writings of other ancient people?
Wright: The nature of Hebrew biblical literature is that it requires someone to slow down and to get in between the gaps to fill out those gaps with the imagination. It’s about getting a community involved in questions about its own identity and provokes so many questions. This literature is about creating a community that will be activated and involved in arguing and engaged around a text. It’s not dogmatic. That’s not what the Hebrew Bible is about. And that’s not what the most beautiful forms of Judaism are about. The most powerful forms of Judaism in the Hebrew Bible, above all, are about questioning and keeping people invigorated around the questions, keeping them invigorated around the text.
AJT: What makes that approach of these ancient texts relevant today?
Wright: What I really wanted to emphasize was that the Hebrew Bible, as one of the greatest achievements of the human spirit, is both accessible and relevant to concerns that we have around us today, like with the coronavirus. What happens when cataclysm comes at us?
How are we to come together as a community? How do we cross lines of division to face threats to our collective existence? What happens when things that we have taken for granted are no longer there? How do we reinvent ourselves? How do we come up with new strategies?
AJT: Do you believe that the challenges we are facing today have influenced the enormous interest in your class?
Wright: They may also be thinking about what are the big questions that face us. And they’re gravitating towards the questions of the humanities.
Instead of being pulled along by the news cycle and what CNN is saying versus what Fox is saying, I believe some of them have rightly set that aside and have gravitated towards big ideas and things that have a longer shelf life.
There seems to be a new interest in ideas and history and all kinds of really powerful things that relate to the human condition. Teaching this course and helping people to appreciate that today I would say, with no exaggeration, has been one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had.