Jewish Studies before Jewish Studies @Fordham: Interview with Rabbi Dr. Barat Ellman

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 Dr. Barat Ellman, who teaches courses related to Judaism and Theology in the Theology Department at Fordham University.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?

I am a New Yorker, an ordained rabbi, and a member of the adjunct faculty at Fordham, teaching in the Theology Department.  I love teaching and am very invested in my students.

I am a proud member of the Contingent Faculty Union, and as one of the longest-standing adjuncts at Fordham, I teach two classes per semester.

Rabbi Dr. Barat Ellman

I did my graduate work at the Jewish Theological Seminary on the Upper West Side.  My thesis examined how the two principal religious traditions in the Hebrew Bible – Priestly and Deuteronomic – engaged memory as an instrument for sustaining the covenant between God and Israel.  The Priestly tradition, I argued, sought to provide sensory vehicles for engaging God’s memory while the Deuteronomic tradition exhorted Israel to be ever mindful of its obligations to God.  

More recently, I have become interested in exploring the possibility of constructing a Jewish diasporic and anti-racist theology of liberation, and in how the Jewish concept of “love of neighbor” may intersect with the Kingian “Beloved Community.”

When did you begin teaching at Fordham and what was Fordham like at the time?  

I began teaching at Fordham in 2008.  My sense then was that there tended to be a demographic difference between the students at Rose Hill (who tended to be traditional college age, and predominantly Catholic, many of whom attended Catholic schools before coming to Fordham) and the students at Lincoln Center (who were more diverse in terms of age, cultural background, and religious identity).  Now, the Lincoln Center cohort tends to be traditional college age like their Rose HIll counterparts, but remain more diverse in terms of cultural background and religious identity.  While once the majority of my students at Rose Hill were Catholic, now I often have classes with few to no Catholic students, and even a small number of people identifying as Christian.  

In my early years at Fordham, I often felt I was going a little rogue in my syllabi by including readings like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow in a mandatory theology course. But in the last several years, the Theology Department has mandated that all Faith and Critical Reason classes include a unit that addresses racial justice issues — and in 2018, Michelle Alexander helped inaugurate the university’s First Year Experience for Theology students, in conversation with Dr. Bryan Massingale.

Poster for event featuring Michelle Alexander in conversation with Rev. Bryan Massingale

You teach several core courses in the Theology Department.  Can you tell us what they are and how you approach each one?

My training is in biblical studies – specifically the Hebrew Bible, but because of the universal requirement in the Core Curriculum for THEO 1000, I usually teach at least one section of “Faith and Critical Reason.”  In addition, I teach courses on various parts of the Hebrew Bible and, occasionally, a course on “Classic Jewish Texts.”  

Outside of Fordham, I am an anti-racism activist, particularly around the issues of mass incarceration and policing.  I hold the conviction that theology and religion are meaningless unless they are related to the social issues of our day, and I am transparent about this with my students.  I start each semester – no matter what course I am teaching – by telling my students I want them to leave my class more aware of the existence of incarcerated populations in our state and country and of their lived reality.  Over time, I have adopted an anti-racist hermeneutic in my teaching and regard that as a key feature of my pedagogy.

My section of “Faith and Critical Reasoning” exhibits a decided emphasis on social justice and marginalized perspectives.  The first half of the course is devoted to readings in theology. I begin with Tolstoy and Kant to engage in the relationship between faith on the one hand and reason on the other, and then move from the supposed objectivity of Kant to feminist theology, womanist theology, Kingian theology, Black Liberation theology, and queer theology. The second half of the course focuses on contemporary social justice issues, including systemic racism and incarceration, refugees, climate change, and human rights.

I make sure that my sacred texts class also include opportunities to talk about racism and mass incarceration by linking biblical and rabbinic material to contemporary concerns. For example, when teaching about the biblical laws of slavery, I include material on prison labor which is a constitutionally sanctioned form of slavery. I will often pair the study of the exodus with the use of that tradition in liberation struggles. Last semester, my course on Prophets concluded with a unit on contemporary or recent social justice activists. Students were asked to consider the extent to which they might be seen as prophet voices today. 

Many students encounter Jewish texts for the first time in your courses. What is that experience like for you as an instructor? Do any particularly surprising or moving moments come to mind?

That’s an interesting question.  Most students, including Jewish students, have little to no experience with Jewish ways of looking at the Bible or God. Most don’t realize that Judaism is not the same thing as biblical religion. They aren’t used to the idea that serious Jews are okay with challenging the Bible and God.  So there is a lot of framing required.  But at the end of the day, I think studying Jewish texts encourages students to get comfortable with wrestling with religious ideas and living with unresolved conflicts.

You’re both an academic and a rabbi.  Firstly, can you share more about what it’s like to combine those roles, and secondly, can you reflect on how your role as a rabbi impacts your work with Fordham students?

Since I don’t lead a congregation, my classroom is a big part of my rabbinate. I like to think my students get something special from my courses, especially with respect to thinking about incarcerated people. Because my rabbinate is also “in the streets,” and I talk about my activism, I hope my students come to see that they, too, can become active in political advocacy and protest.

Rabbi Dr. Barat Ellman speaking at an event.

You’re also active in several social justice causes, and you teach in the Bard Prison Initiative. What has that experience been like? What are some of the similarities and differences between teaching at Fordham and BPI?

I taught for BPI for three years, and have to say that it was a transformational experience.  The opportunity to get to know and work with incarcerated people opened my eyes to life in prison and jails and to the humanity of incarcerated people.  That invisibility serves to dehumanize incarcerated people and make them appear as entirely other to the non-incarcerated population.

As for similarities and differences in teaching for BPI and Fordham, once I am in the classroom, the experiences are pretty much alike.  The biggest difference is that prison education can often be disrupted in ways that don’t happen in a university.  Prisons go into lockdown.  Students are placed into solitary confinement and have to miss class.  I had two students for whom that happened once. One of them returned to class after a couple of weeks; the other – a really brilliant student and excellent writer – never came back.  Sometimes students are transferred to another facility and have to drop out of the program.  What is amazing to me is the deep commitment to their education on the part of BPI students.  A lot of my Fordham students could learn from that model.

Any thoughts about Jewish Studies @Fordham as we celebrate its fifth anniversary?

It’s great that Jewish Studies is now part of Fordham’s curriculum.  I hope it can grow into a full fledged major.

Thank you, Barat, for sharing your teaching philosophy and activism with us in this interview!