December 01 2023

Embodied Religion, Embodied Teaching: Team Teaching "Food and Religion"

Norma Baumel Joseph, Concordia University, Montreal
Leslie C. Orr, Concordia University, Montreal

Participation and Particularity

Both of us aim in our individual teaching to have students appreciate religion as a lived reality—in the present and in the past. Rather than thinking of religion in the disembodied abstract, we want to give students the opportunity to explore what religion means and what religion does in specific and concrete terms. The outline of our team-taught "Food and Religion" course suggests a topical approach—with units, for example, on “Festivals, feasts, fasts and community”; “Gifts, offerings, and connecting with the divine through food”; “Life cycle rituals and food”; and “Food choices, restrictions, decisions, arrangements.” We do not attempt to “cover” all religions, or even to generalize within each topic area. We focus instead on particular contexts and practices, drawing especially on our own areas of expertise, where there happens to be an extraordinarily rich array of relevant material and where we can take advantage of the fact that there are two of us in the classroom. 

We began the course, in its most recent iteration, with “Two case studies in food and religion: Jainism and Judaism,” and returned to issues concerned with food in these two traditions throughout the semester. Materials from two or more religious traditions might be juxtaposed—more often with a view to highlight differences among them, the religious particularities and cultural specificities at play, than to discern commonalities. With regret, we stopped teaching Mary Douglas’s wonderful essay “Deciphering a Meal”: it was too abstract and too far outside of our students’ frame of reference. But this frame of reference—or rather these frames of reference—themselves offer a wealth of potential materials and opportunities for students to engage on a personal level with the course. Our university’s diverse student population means that we have people in the classroom who can draw on their own experience and knowledge to tell the rest of us about the significance of food and religion for the holidays that take place during the semester: in the fall of 2010, we had Eid al Fitr, Rosh Hashanah, Canadian Thanksgiving, the Mexican Day of the Dead, Diwali, Eid al Adha, the Orthodox Fast of the Nativity, Hanukkah… and Passover! Our university’s multi-ethnic urban setting also provides resources: having the class meet in a building adjacent to a food court (with rather excellent Thai and Middle Eastern fare, for example) gave us the opportunity to send the class out with the assignment to eat—and return to the next class with their reflections on food, symbols, and identity informed by more than simply doing the assigned reading.

Our mantra for this course—and a motif for our teaching enterprises elsewhere—is “embodied religion.” We want to stress that religion is something that exists in a particular time and place, but also in a person who knows and experiences the world through the senses and in interaction with a physical, as well as a social, environment. Our pedagogy and our efforts as a team thus posit particularity and participation as key. The food court assignment is a first step. We have tried to encourage this mode of participation—eating food, and sometimes preparing and sharing food—in a number of other ways. Students have to keep a journal recording their experiences, observations, and reflections related to the course content. They are given a cookbook analysis assignment in which they are to choose and examine a cookbook for its religious and cultural content (what it conveys about values, ceremonies and rituals, the social and ethical dimensions of food preparation and consumption, etc.), and ideally, to try out some of the recipes. We always have a few occasions when students or teachers bring holiday foods to class that we nibble on together. (Leslie can always be counted on to bring sweets for Diwali.)

Finally, we have two more elaborate events, during the regularly scheduled class time, in which we share food. (We are fortunate in having a space on campus that we can use for these purposes, which is off-limits to the usual food services supplier and has a kosher kitchen.) One of these events is the student pot-luck, usually on the last day of class, which is typically a festival of international treats, lovingly prepared by our students (who turn out, in some cases, to be professional chefs). A second event is Norma’s seder, which takes place regardless of the season; November is as good as April. It is not a full meal, but a sit-down affair with all the ritual foods. This is an extremely interesting learning opportunity for our students, for a number of reasons. The diversity of those present is acknowledged; it is understood, for example, that the Muslim students will not have wine and the vegans won’t eat the eggs. The diverse possibilities for the celebration of the Passover meal are also pointed out (Norma combines Ashkenazi and Sephardic fare). 

Team teaching emphasizes and enables the shared experience of the ritual uses of food on such occasions. And of course the symbolism of the food items is explained. But they are not just symbols, are they? Have a bite! Non-Jewish and Jewish students alike—and together—have the opportunity to be in an academic setting where they are learning something new, and something about one another, in a way that is immediate, personal, and shared. Because we are a team, we approach this topic not as a celebration of a holiday belonging to one of us, but rather as an exploration of meaning, identity, food, and festival. In this case, and in others, it is the very mechanism of team teaching that allows this course to be shared and thereby not owned by any one tradition or person. Team teaching teaches multiple approaches and openness to shared experiences.

Team Teaching as a Feminist Practice

Starting in 1993, the two of us began to develop team-taught courses that would be key components in our undergraduate women and religion curriculum. Convinced that the courses had to model the practices of feminist theory and method, we chose team teaching to highlight a particular style of education and interaction. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (2009) argues for a “democratic” model of teaching and learning that fosters collaboration through the acknowledgment of a range of perspectives, positions, and experiences among teachers, students, and the subjects we seek to learn about. Feminist pedagogy relies on notions of diversity, agency, and participation, and food studies are uniquely suited to convey these notions. Students readily understand the nostalgia, identity, and links to a treasured past through food, and they learn to respect difference in the embodied traditions of eating. Our pedagogy relies on this pathway as we encourage their openness to each other, to otherness in general, and to their own otherness. Through our own sharing and our course structure, we give them the tools of agency and enable respect of traditions—theirs and that of others.

Our first team-taught courses were “Goddesses and Religious Images of Women” and “Women as Ritual Experts,” and a bit later we offered “Feminist Hermeneutics and Scripture.”  In 2003 we inaugurated “Food and Religion” as a team-taught course. In the last twenty years, we have had the opportunity to team-teach fifteen courses, and eagerly look forward to arranging such collaborations in the future. Our approach has not been simply to divide up courses into units that each of us could individually teach, but rather to participate together in all classes with one of us as the lead presenter and the other bringing up questions and comments, allowing there to be something of a conversation between the two of us about the material. In the first instance, the logic of teaching together arose from two considerations: (1) sharing the tasks of course design, class preparation, and student evaluation would make these processes a lot more fun (although not necessarily less work!); and (2) in terms of content for these thematic (not tradition-based) courses, we could capitalize on our common interests and on our varied expertise—to Leslie’s knowledge of Asian religions we add Norma’s grounding in the anthropology of religion, feminist studies, and Judaic studies. 

We soon realized that there were positive consequences not only for us as colleagues and scholars, but also for our students in terms of the course format as well as its content: students not only got the benefit of the extent of our joint knowledge of various traditions, but were also given models—in the exchanges between Norma and Leslie—for critical thinking and collegial conversation. Issues and debates were taken off the course pack pages and voiced in real time and space. Whatever merit these models have in the grand scheme of our students’ intellectual development, they did not immediately translate into more engaged class discussion, except in the case of smaller classes; but they did seem to inspire fuller participation when students were divided into smaller discussion groups. Meanwhile, however, other means of encouraging student engagement and learning were available to us in the case of our course on food and religion. We sought to enhance participation by finding a way to bridge course content and students’ own lived experience. Since eating food, preparing food, sharing food, remembering food, and caring about food are such ubiquitous experiences, we looked for ways of having students relate in an immediate and direct way to what they were reading and hearing in class, and to reflect on their experiences and ways of knowing. Part of the challenge was to draw in students whose academic, in-class skills made them feel at a disadvantage. Journal writing (which for many was more an exercise in scrapbooking) provided a means of self-expression that allowed them to individually make connections with the course content. In class, we found that films that were more personal and “autobiographical”—like Karen Silverstein’s inspired Gefilte Fish (First Run Icarus Films, 1984)—worked better than larger-frame all-about documentaries in allowing students to feel and enunciate the intimate and multiple links between food and religion, and to engage with each other. And, of course, best of all for encouraging engaged and embodied learning, is the sharing together of food as well as experiences and ideas.

Broadening the Circles of Participation

A goal for our future teaching of this course would be to enhance collaboration among students through sharing and embodied learning. One way would be to have a pot-luck group meal early in the semester to foster engagement and fellowship and to underscore the significance of food at its most visceral level. Another would be to have students work in groups organized around a topic (not around a type of food or a religion), in which there is a trading of ideas and information and also an opportunity to cook and eat together. The increasing interest in food studies, at our university and elsewhere, promises to make such enterprises more logistically feasible, as food studies “labs” (i.e., kitchens) may begin to be part of the campus infrastructure.

Our course in food and religion clearly lends itself to a team-taught approach, but some of what we have realized in teaching this course is more generally applicable to other contexts of team teaching. The classroom dialogue between the team-teachers extends beyond discussion about the topic of the day and represents a relationship between people who are not the same as one another, in terms of their own embodiment and identity—separate behaviors, personalities, experiences, and backgrounds. Our team teaching not only provides models for collegial academic interchange but may also, on a deeper and more personal level, give students a sense of the appreciation of diversity and respect for difference. Finally, the fact of our own participation and the fact that we don’t constitute a singular unified authority figure may open the door for students to feel that they are partners in the teaching and learning process. 

photo of Joseph (left) and Orr (right)Norma Baumel Joseph is a professor in the religion department at Concordia University, Montreal, where she is director of the women and religion specialization, an associate of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies, and codirector of the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies. Her teaching and research areas include women and Judaism and women and religion. Norma appeared in and was a consultant to the films Half the Kingdom and Untying the Bonds… Jewish Divorce. In 2002 she edited a collection on gender, food, and survival in Judaism. Over the years she has written numerous articles and book chapters. Her current research focuses on the effects of food and gender on the identity and adaptation of an Iraqi Jewish community living in Montreal; the effects of the trauma of Iraqi brutality and expulsion on the Jewish community; and Jewish law and gender.

Leslie C. Orr is a professor in the religion department at Concordia University, Montreal, where she teaches in the areas of South Asian religions and women and religion. Her book Donors, Devotees and Daughters of God: Temple Women in Medieval Tamilnadu (Oxford University Press) appeared in 2000, and she is also the author of a large number of journal articles and book chapters. Her research is concerned with the roles and activities of women in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism; the organization of religious life in the history of South India up to the late medieval period, especially with respect to definitions of and interactions among religions; and temple-building, record-keeping, and history-making in Tamilnadu.