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Aaron S. Gross

Assistant Professor, Theology and Religious Studies

Aaron Gross is a historian of religions who focuses on modern and contemporary Jewish traditions. He has a sub-specialty in South Asian religious traditions and has done extensive fieldwork in Northern India and Nepal. Gross views the study of religion as inherently interdisciplinary and draws especially on anthropology, critical theory, philosophy, sociology, and theology. He co-chairs the American Academy of Religion’s Animals and Religion Consultation, serves on the national board of the Society for Jewish Ethics, and has recently become the Associate Editor of the Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies. Gross joined the faculty in 2009.

Education

Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara Department of Religious Studies

M.T.S., Harvard Divinity School

B.A.,  Grinnell College; Philosophy

Scholarly and Creative Work

Gross’s current research centers on contemporary American Jewish thought and practice, especially as it is related to the significance of animals and human-animal relations in Judaism, and contemporary food practices. Gross also has a comparative interest in South Asian traditions (various forms of Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism). His forthcoming book, Animal Others and the Human Imagination, is co-edited with anthropologist Anne Vallely (University of Ottawa) and is due out from Columbia University Press in Spring 2012. Much of Gross’s work in religious studies also contributes to the interdisciplinary field of animal studies, a location where his scholarship intersects with questions of public policy leading Gross to be cited in such periodicals as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Huffingtonpost.com. His essay “The Question of the Creature: Animals, Theology, and Levinas’s Dog” recently appeared in the edited volume Creaturely Theology: God, Humans and other Animals (SCM, 2009), and his in-progress monograph argues for the special significance of animals and the category “animal” for the study of religion through a case study of the animal abuse scandals at the notorious AgriProcessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. His work has been published in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, the Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal, the popular periodical Tikkun Magazine, and in several academic encyclopedias. Gross is also the founder and CEO of the nonprofit humane and sustainable farming advocacy group, Farm Forward.

Teaching Interests

Gross teaches survey courses on world religions and upper division courses on Jewish traditions. In addition to expanding the offering of upper level courses on Jewish traditions, he is planning future special topics courses on animals and religion, and food and religion. While Gross teaches about Jewish traditions in all periods, he puts a special emphasis on modern and contemporary Jewish thought and practice, especially in North and South America. As a specialist in Judaism committed to the ideals of a liberal arts education, Gross emphasizes that understanding Jewish traditions provides essential information for a critical understanding of such important modern Western concepts as race, ethnicity, multiculturalism, nation, law, spirituality, ritual, religion, and religious freedom.

All of Gross’s courses work towards the development of religious literacy with an emphasis on procedural literacy—knowing how to engage questions about the human phenomena of religion in a responsible and sophisticated manner. Especially given the context of globalization, this requires the acquisition of new vocabulary and basic knowledge about multiple religious traditions. That said, the more difficult task is learning how to think nonreductively about religious traditions and being capable of applying both sympathetic and critical approaches, skills that also equip students to both better understand religion in the public sphere and better explore their own or other religious traditions in their personal lives.

Gross’s classes emphasize religion in the everyday, religion as “meaning making”, the theoretical basis for the academic study of religion, ethical traditions, and critical attention to race, sex, and gender. He also focuses on building core skills including thesis-driven writing, close reading skills, sympathetic understanding, ethical reasoning, and critical and comparative thinking. In classroom presentations Gross utilizes a variety of media including material culture, images, video, and a wide range of websites. Pedagogical approaches Gross favors include interactive lecturing, discussion, small group work, guest speakers, and site visits. He is currently part of a Program Learning Community with other USD faculty examining how to modify their courses to make more space for students to explore questions of ethics and meaning.