Tag Archives: empathy

You Are What You Read

For our final contribution to the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 4-8), editor Natalie Fingerhut discusses the importance of compassion and how this forms the foundation of our soon-to-launch imprint, New Jewish Press. 

By Natalie Fingerhut

A little personal story: I spent my 20s working at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University here in Toronto and teaching English at the Centre for Victims of Torture. Through a newcomer service, I helped an Iranian family adapt to their new life in Canada.

In my 40s, when the Syrian refugee crisis reached Canadian Jewish ears, I was busy with work, my kids, and I felt that it was other people’s turn to help out.

At the time, I had just finished Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe under Hitler and Stalin. Through that reading, I discovered the Soviet Jewish journalist, Vasily Grossman, on whom Snyder relies as a primary source. It was this paragraph taken from Grossman’s report, The Hell of Treblinka, about his 1944 visit to the remains of the Treblinka death camp that changed the course of my behavior:

“The SS men subjected the group of rebels from the Warsaw ghetto to especially vicious torture. They picked the women and children and took them not to the gas chambers but to the cremation ovens. They forced the mothers half crazed with terror to lead their children between the red hot bars on which thousands of dead bodies writhed and squirmed twisting and turning as though alive. This spectacle was enough to rob the strongest man of his reason, but the Germans knew that its effect would be a thousand times more terrible on a mother who was frantically trying to shield the eyes of her children from the ghastly sight while they shrieked in terror, “Mama, Mama…what are they going to do to us…will they burn us?” 

For a brief moment, I was that mother with my hand over my daughter’s eyes. It was only by an accident of birth that I was not. And it is only by an accident of birth that you were not.

The next morning I had a call into our synagogue’s private sponsorship group and asked them to put me to work. We wound up sponsoring a set of Syrian grandparents, parents, and a grandson now safe in Toronto.

Such is the power of words.

Such is the power of compassion.

Compassion, as well as empathy, critical thinking, and attentive hearing form the moral foundation on which our new imprint at the University of Toronto Press, New Jewish Press, rests. Our two new titles for Spring 2020 include The A–Z of Intermarriage by intermarried rabbi Denise Handlarski and The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate by renowned freedom of speech and human rights advocate Kenneth S. Stern. These two books epitomize the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam – the repairing of the world – by offering their expertise on complex issues facing twenty-first-century Jewry.

Rabbi Denise Handlarski tells us that we may not like that our children marry out of faith but that we need to hear them out and respect their decisions. Ultimately, all marriages are intermarriages and there is so much good that comes out of mixing different cultures. Less Oy and More Joy!!!

Kenneth S. Stern tells us that we may not like when pro-Israel speakers talk on our university or college campuses, but we cannot ban them. We cannot retreat to safe spaces. We cannot disrupt them. Instead, we use rational and reasonable thinking – skills that we have learned in our higher education institutions – and we listen to each other as human beings.

As an editor, I believe in – and am proof of – the influential power of books. My goal with the books I acquire for New Jewish Press is to inspire Jewish, Jew-ish, and not-Jewish to read, think, and act with compassion.


To round out a successful University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

University of Washington Press
Blog: https://uwpressblog.com/
Twitter: @UWAPress

Columbia University Press
Blog: cupblog.org
Twitter: @ColumbiaUP

University of Illinois Press
Blog: http://www.press.uillinois.edu/wordpress/how-the-transformations-series-invites-us-to-practice-compassion-university-press-week-blog-tour/
Twitter: @IllinoisPress

Penn State University Press
Blog: https://pennstateuniversitypress.tumblr.com/
Twitter: @PSUPress

University of South Carolina Press
Blog: facebook.com/USC.Press
Twitter: @uscpress

University of Nebraska Press
Blog: https://unpblog.com/category/jewish-publication-society/
Twitter: @UnivNebPress
Twitter: @JewishPub

Bucknell University Press
Blog: upress.blogs.bucknell.edu
Twitter: @BucknellUPress

Beacon Press
Blog: http://www.beaconbroadside.com
Twitter: @beaconpressbks
Twitter: @WitnessToGTMO

A Reformation Sourcebook: Documents from an Age of Debate

Author Michael W. Bruening explains the impetus behind his new Reformation sourcebook, the innovative structure of the book, and how it contributes to the important task of teaching empathy to today’s history students.

Reformation SourcebookOver several years of teaching an undergraduate Reformation history course, I have noticed that, more than ever before, students bring to the course almost no understanding of basic Christian history or theology. As a result, most have difficulty grasping the significance of the issues at stake during the Reformation. The roots of this difficulty may lie partly in increasing secularism across the western world and in the growing number of religious “nones.” Or perhaps we can attribute it to the rise of nondenominational congregations which have consciously detached themselves from the mainline Protestant churches and, consequently, from their sixteenth-century roots. Whatever the case, whether self-identified Christians or not, many students today are not equipped to evaluate the religious upheaval of the Reformation. A Reformation Sourcebook: Documents from an Age of Debate is an effort to help students understand the historical significance of the Reformation by showing them more clearly what was at stake.

The key innovation of the Sourcebook is that it places texts in pairs or groups that expose students to opposing perspectives on the contentious debates of the period. Every text stands alongside one or more documents that articulate a competing perspective. Many texts are direct responses to key arguments presented in other selections. This approach helps students see why the changes introduced during the Reformation were so controversial. For example, students can read Luther and his Catholic opponent Johannes Eck on justification and the priesthood. They can read Luther and Erasmus on free will, Calvin and Sadoleto on the Reformation generally, Thomas More and William Tyndale on the English translation of the Bible, and much more. Students will also be able to read excerpts from a number of formal disputations during the Reformation, including the First Zurich Disputation, Luther and Zwingli’s debate on the Eucharist at the Marburg Colloquy, and one of the first Christian debates on slavery at Iwie. In this way, students will be able to understand far better why what can seem like arcane theological arguments led to real tumult and cultural change all over Europe.

But there is much more to the book than erudite theological debate. Despite the fact that so much recent scholarship has focused on the social and cultural history of the Reformation, the Sourcebook is, to my knowledge, the first Reformation primary source reader to highlight these issues. Its final chapters will allow students to see the enormous impact of the Reformation on Christian rituals as well as on attitudes toward women, marriage, Jews, and religious toleration in western culture since the sixteenth century.

Each chapter begins with a general introduction and concludes with suggestions for further reading. Sections within each chapter include short introductions to the texts as well as focus questions for students to consider as they read. Many of the texts are available in the public domain, but A Reformation Sourcebook makes them more accessible by modernizing archaic spelling and language (e.g., changing thee and thou and replacing King James biblical quotations with newer translations). Several documents are original translations, including (among others) selections from Eck’s Enchiridion, the Sorbonne’s condemnations of the Meaux group, Francis de Sales’s sermon on fasting, and Theodore Beza’s The Authority of the Magistrate in Punishing Heretics.

My main hope is that A Reformation Sourcebook will facilitate students’ understanding of the Reformation and its many debates. But I also hope that in this era of increasingly partisan political rancor and hardening of ideological positions, it will help students develop a greater sense of empathy and a recognition that there are almost always more ways than one to look at controversial issues.

This is one skill that the study of history generally, and A Reformation Sourcebook in particular, can help students to develop. The study of the past—especially the distant past—forces students to confront worlds very different from their own. It requires that they practice being empathetic. To understand the Reformation era properly, one must recognize that the ideas and circumstances that have produced modern perspectives on religious freedom, democracy, gender and social equality, secularism, and relativism did not yet exist. To be sure, it was precisely during the Reformation that these ideas began to develop, but not until then and not without stiff opposition. The structure of this reader, therefore, should help students to hone their ability to understand the perspectives of authors who were in many cases vehemently opposed to one another. And they will learn that in order truly to understand the debates of the Reformation, they will need to place themselves in the shoes of the people on both sides.

Michael W. Bruening is Associate Professor in the History and Political Science Department at Missouri University of Science and Technology.