Religious Studies 369: Introduction to Judaism

Guidelines for writing research papers:

Choosing a Topic

The headings supplied in the course bibliography refer to broad topic areas. These are provided to give you ideas you might like to pursue. You should not feel that you are confined to the topic areas on the list. However, the topic you choose should have an obvious relationship to Judaism as it has been discussed in the course. In particular, you should make sure that it relates to Judaism as a religion and not to other aspects of Jewish experience (e.g., historical, political, ethnic); and that it indeed relates to the post-biblical eras--including their understandings of biblical texts. If you have any doubts about the appropriateness of the topic, please discuss it with the instructor.

You are encouraged in any case to discuss the topic you choose with the instructor, in the interests of narrowing the topic down to something manageable.

Note: If you find that your paper topic has become much narrower than what you originally expected, and that you are only dealing with a small portion of what you had intended to at the beginning, do not worry. This is a sign that you are on the right track, and that you are learning more about the subject (which is, after all, one of the main purposes of the assignment). Simply put, you are coming to realize that the topic is much more complex than it appeared "from a distance." In general, you should prefer a detailed treatment of a narrowly defined question over a shallow survey of a very broad topic.


Your research should begin with a library search on your chosen topic. Aside from providing access to library catalogues, the Internet is usually not a reliable source for scholarly material, especially in Religious Studies.

You could also begin with a good bibliography on your topic if such a bibliography is available, followed by a search on the U of C library's on-line catalogue site to see if the library has the documents you want. On the basis of your searches you should develop a bibliography of your own.

The bibliographies that are included as "Further Reading" lists at the ends of the chapters in the textbook are quite useful and up-to-date as of the time of the book's publication (2009).

It is crucial to distinguish between primary and secondary sources. The former are the raw data of your research, actual texts and documents, etc., from the personalities or movements that you are researching. The latter are studies by scholars, etc., who analyze, evaluate and interpret the primary sources in order to reach historical or other conclusions. (Thus, your own essay will be considered a secondary source). The fact that a book or article makes a claim does not make that a fact. The author must justify the case in light of the evidence, the historical background and methodological principles. Different secondary works will often disagree in their constructions of the evidence, and it is up to you to decide which of them (if any) is more persuasive. Papers in which you weigh the opposing positions and try to make your own judgment are often the most satisfying for both the student and the reader.

The first stage of your research is to choose a topic, compose a short abstract in which you describe what you intend to do, and compile a basic bibliography of books and article to be consulted.

Writing the Paper

Your paper should normally have three components each of which has a particular purpose.

a) Introduction.

The purpose of the introduction is to explain in some detail what it is that you wish to do with your chosen topic. Aside from a general introduction to the topic, you should state clearly what you wish to show, or prove (= your thesis), and how you wish to proceed.

b) Body.

In this section of the paper you provide the necessary historical and literary background for your chosen topic and develop the needed descriptive information and arguments in support of the task you have set for yourself in the introduction. In other words, there should be a clear connection between what you have stated in the introduction as the purpose of the paper and what it is that you discuss in the text of the paper itself.

The most interesting and valuable research papers (for both the student and the professor) involve the testing of a thesis. This usually involves the posing of a question to which there is more than one possible answer, and the proposing of your own answer to that question. As with any other scientific problem, you should collect the relevant data and establish criteria and methods by which you will evaluate the various possible theses. In many cases, though not all, this can be done by comparing the positions taken by previous secondary authors.

As an academic discipline, Religious Studies usually tries to maintain a scholarly "distance" from the material being studied. In particular, this means that you should avoid taking personal moral or theological stands on the issues (e.g., abortion; or creationism vs. evolution), especially if you do not share the assumptions of the religious community that you are examining. At any rate, personal opinions of this sort will not be taken into account in the evaluation of the paper.

c) Conclusion.

Use the conclusion to summarize the major findings of your research.

The paper should be properly documented; that is, it should have a proper bibliography and appropriate footnotes or endnotes. Our department encourages the use of the Chicago Style Manual format. Whichever style you use make sure that you are consistent.

Some Suggested Research Topics on Judaism:


Topics in Jewish law:

Jewish philosophy:

Most of the topics listed above under "Beliefs" can be discussed with respect to how they were understood by Jewish philosophers.

Interpreting passages from Jewish religious texts:

Try to explain sample passages from major Jewish religious works; e.g., Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, Bible commentaries.

Some research guides and bibliographies for specific topics may be found on my web sites for various courses. Beware that they are all quite old and were compiled for courses that have not been offered for many years.

Following are the relevant URLS:

Many useful resources can also be found at the U of Calgary library's Judaism resource page at <> (organized by S. Lipton).

For many topics, it is useful to begin with an overview as found in the Encyclopedia Judaica. You have access to the on-line version through the University Library site.