Jewish Studies before Jewish Studies @Fordham: Interview with Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard

This year, Fordham’s Center for Jewish Studies is celebrating its fifth anniversary.  But before the formal founding of the CJS, many professors, students, librarians, and others taught, studied, and cultivated the study of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish history and culture at Fordham.  This blog series features interviews with some of these people and celebrates their lasting contributions to the university.  

This interview features Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, who teaches Jewish Law and other courses at Fordham Law School.

When did you start teaching at Fordham Law School and can you describe the sorts of courses you teach and the range of students who, over the years, have taken your courses?

I started teaching Jewish law at Fordham in the fall of 2007.  In the fall, I teach an adjunct course at Fordham Law School in comparative religious law – Jewish, Canon and Islamic.  The course focuses on developing models for comparing legal systems, as well as on the role of values/ethical norms in legal systems. I deliberately choose “hot” topics, like war, the environment, and economic regulation. The Jewish law course I taught between 2007-2010 drew primarily, but not exclusively, Jewish students; students in the comparative religious law course, by contrast, come from Christian and Jewish backgrounds.  Most students have an interest in subjects related to religion.

In addition, I am also the Jewish Scholar-in-Residence at the Institute for Law, Religion and Lawyer’s Work, which is guided by the role that mutual understanding and dialogue play in the practice of law. Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Hindu students participate by creating programming that includes everything from lectures and conferences to interreligious dialogue about working as religious lawyers.  

Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard delivering an opening prayer at the dedication ceremony for the Henry S. Miller Judaica Research Room at Walsh Library in October 2022

Does a particular moment at Fordham stand out for you?

Just a few memories: There was the very traditional Orthodox student who joined because he realized that he would probably play a leadership role in his community and would need to know how to interact with leaders of other faiths.

There were Muslim women, both Sunni and Shia, who created cross-cultural programming and at the same time helped guide incoming students through the challenges of wearing headscarves in professional practice.

There was the Wolf Law Lecture I gave on ambiguity in Jewish law that brought in a large range of lawyers, high school teachers, university faculty and students from the wider Jewish and Christian communities.  

These memories are just a few of the many experiences I have had that have shown me that Fordham is an environment that supports inter-religious dialogue, both academic, personal, and communal. My sense is that there is genuine respect for alternative faith traditions. There is also an academic commitment to intellectual breadth and rigorous standards. Even more important,  from my perspective, as a Jesuit school there is an educational commitment to fully developing the students—intellectually, psychologically, socially, and spiritually.   

Endy Moraes and Tsvi Blanchard at an event about workplace interfaith dialogue hosted by Fordham Law School’s Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work (photo credit: Lindsey Pelucacci)

You split your time between New York and Berlin, where, since 2011, you have been the Meyer Struckmann Professor of Jewish Law at the Law Faculty of Humboldt University.  Can you tell us more about that experience?

When I began teaching at Fordham in 2007, I had just completed my first semester of teaching Jewish law at Humboldt University zu Berlin. I continued teaching there yearly from April though the end of July, eventually becoming the Meyer-Struckman Professor of Jewish Law in 2011.  I teach one large introductory course as well as an advanced seminar that draws law students from other European countries besides Germany. In addition, my work there includes teaching two courses in the theology faculty—one in Bible and traditional Jewish commentary, and the other an advanced seminar connecting theology/religion to the functions of narrative and the social sciences.

Throughout your long career, you have taught in many different contexts, including at other Catholic institutions, secular institutions, and Jewish institutions.  In what ways (if any) has teaching at Fordham Law School differed from these other contexts?

I have mostly taught at secular universities: ten years at Washington University in St. Louis in Philosophy and Jewish Studies and some 14 years at Humboldt University in Berlin in the Law and Theology Faculties. But I also taught at Catholic – always Jesuit – universities: Theology at Loyola in Chicago and Law at Fordham. Both secular and Catholic universities valued teaching and research and shared a relatively open attitude to inquiry. They also had strong ethical values that informed teaching. For obvious reasons, religious commitment played a greater role in student life in the Jesuit colleges but, in my opinion, the focus on both secular and Catholic schools is on academic excellence in both teaching and research.

You have also served in various other positions throughout your career, not only in academia but also in psychology, social advocacy, and education.  Do these previous endeavors find their way into your work at Fordham, and if so how?

My work outside of academia impacts my understanding of teaching and my relationship with students. Over thirty years of practice as a psychologist I learned to appreciate the special value of relationships in supporting personal growth. My work has been in varied educational settings. I was the principal and also a teacher at an Orthodox Jewish high school.  I was a part time teacher and spiritual director at a rabbinical school. And, I spent years doing informal  “adult education” courses for Jewish leaders.

From these experiences, I have come to seek creating an educational experience that provides:

1. Growth in knowledge

2. Increased sophistication of thought process

3. The discovery of and commitment to personal educational and life goals

4.  A desire for lifelong learning in the subject area

5. The expansion of moral perception

6. A commitment to making a difference in society

7. A sense of one’s value as a person

At Fordham, I have tried to teach in a way that accomplishes these goals. My class aims to help students understand themselves as capable of enjoying serious intellectual inquiry in comparative law; it also invites them to assume responsibility for making a difference in the world.

There is also an interpersonal dimension. I encourage students to feel free to contact me with any questions and concerns about the course material and their own research. I keep saying, “You are not bothering me; that’s what I’m here for.” I make it clear that I always learn from my students.

Through your previous work at CLAL and with the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding, you have been an advocate for religious pluralism and diversity.  In 2007, you joined a delegation of bishops and rabbis for a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome.  Can you tell us about that meeting?  

My approach invites openness to a variety of approaches to life, belief and law. For many years, personally and professionally, I have been actively working to foster mutual understanding between different religious paths; alternative approaches to understanding human life, different ethical, religious, and philosophical beliefs, and also differing forms or ways of life.  My primary focus has been on dialogue across boundaries. This commitment to serious cross-boundary dialogue has been a part of my work since the 1980’s and is an important element in my work at the Fordham Institute for Law, Religion and Lawyer’s Work. In general, the Fordham University that I know has a strong commitment to dialogue and mutual understanding between different religious and intellectual traditions.

A interfaith trip to Auschwitz with bishops and rabbis, including Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, in 2007

Over the years, my participation in international Jewish- Catholic dialogue has brought me into serious relationships and contact with interesting, value-driven people. In addition to ongoing Catholic-Jewish dialogue, there were brief encounters with Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.

While I already knew and appreciated Benedict’s academic work, I was most struck by the loving and caring attention he paid to people with disabilities, even putting the high-power invited guests on hold until he finished encouraging disabled people. Francis was engaging, completely human and spiritual all at once. I met him with a group and yet he somehow managed to make each of us feel that he was talking to us individually. I left my meetings with both Benedict and Francis once more aware that no human tradition, mine included, has a monopoly on truth and spiritual seeking.

Thank you, Rabbi Blanchard, for sharing these memories and lessons with us!