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Northwestern University
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Taking “The Talmud” Online

Associate Professor Barry Wimpfheimer becomes the College’s first faculty member to offer a MOOC

For the last 25 years, Barry Wimpfheimer has devoted himself to the 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 text, including the forthcoming The Talmud: A Biography.

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

On April, Wimpfheimer entered a new arena when his MOOC (shorthand for “massive open online course”) debuted 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 broad and diverse range of people,” Wimpfheimer says. “There are a lot of books out there that help people study the Talmud, but few are from academic scholars and approach the Talmud from that perspective, as this MOOC does.”

Wimpfheimer is not the first Northwestern professor to enter the MOOC space, but he is the first Weinberg College faculty member to do so. This 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 along with associated texts and quizzes. With the help of his graduate assistant Sarah Wolf, a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies, Wimpfheimer designed the course for the diverse range of MOOC users around the world, 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,” says Wimpfheimer, who also serves as director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies at Northwestern.

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

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