Jewish Studies before Jewish Studies @Fordham: Interview with Professor Alan Brill

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 Professor Alan Brill, the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair for Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University. Professor Brill received his Ph.D. in Jewish mysticism from Fordham’s Theology Department, and is a leader in interfaith dialogue and research.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

I am the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair for Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, where I teach Jewish Studies in the Department of Religion and the Jewish-Christian Studies Graduate Program. My specialties include interfaith theology, Jewish mysticism, modern Jewish thought, and contemporary Jewish Orthodoxy. 

I have published several books, including Rabbi on the Ganges: A Jewish Hindu Encounter (Lexington, 2019); Judaism and World Religions: Christianity, Islam, and Eastern Religions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); and Thinking God: The Mysticism of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin (Yeshiva University Press, 2002).

I am director of a graduate MA program in Jewish-Christian Studies useful for many students who are teachers, clergy, or need to prepare for applying for a PhD. The program goes back to 1952, as the first program in Jewish-Christian reconciliation. 

Every year, I teach a course called “Encountering Other Religions,” based on my books on the topic. 

Beyond that, much of my time is spent in interfaith activities, especially on the global level, including in the UAE, Singapore, India, and Indonesia.  I have done interfaith work with Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, and Buddhists.  This interfaith work contributes to my teaching even on the undergraduate level in that Seton Hall is increasing its religious diversity with many Middle Eastern and Asian students. I like to quip that I may be the only person in the world who has taught at Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, and Hindu colleges and universities!

My latest article is entitled “A Jewish View of Contemporary Ideas of The Trinity,” which was published in the journal Modern Theology in April 2023. You cannot get more Fordham Theology Department than a Jewish view of Rahner and Moltmann on the Trinity. 

What brought you to Fordham?

I came to Fordham University because of Prof. Ewert Cousins, my doctoral advisor. I became part of the group that people nicknamed, somewhat critically by the others in the program, as  “Ewert youth.” 

I had been studying Jewish mysticism at Hebrew University with Moshe Idel and Rivka Shatz and wanted to finish my degree in the US. I went for a campus visit to Columbia University and one of the instructors, a professor of Islamic mysticism, told me in no uncertain terms that if I believe in mysticism and want to treat it with a phenomenological method then I had no choice but to go to Fordham University.  At the time, Moshe Idel, who had yet to release his book Kabbalah: New Perspectives, was becoming close to Bernard McGinn at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago and Ewert Cousins of Fordham University. That same month, there was an event dedicated to mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in which both Idel and Cousins spoke. I arranged to speak with Cousins at the end of the day after the event. 

Cousins’ presentation was about the psychological journey into the divine through mysticism, the mind’s ascent into the inter-divine structures culminating into a oneness with the divine. His was the only presentation to receive applause with an overwhelming ovation because his presentation was so unlike the other presentations, which were historical in orientation. I had my meeting with Cousins, where I told him about my interests. The meeting concluded with him inviting me to work with him and my feeling that he was going to be an ideal advisor.    

I applied to Fordham and received a distinguished graduate fellowship that did not require graduate assistantship work. So I went to Fordham.  Prof. Idel was my outside advisor, so I was the first person to do an actual Jewish Studies degree on a Jewish text in the Theology Department.

What do you remember about your time on campus? 

My courses were on the Rose Hill campus. It was before the new buildings or the renovation to the old building. I spent much of my time in the library in Duane, which was bursting at the seams. There were ad-hoc book shelves installed in odd places for the overflow and much had to be transferred to the basement of Keating Hall.  There were books shelved in the former confessional booths and naves on the first floor. Computers for data-bases were brand new and had to be placed on work tables together with their large dot-matrix printers.  

The central meeting place on campus was still the Rathskeller. Drinking age had only been raised in 1985 so the below ground Rathskeller was still the central meeting point and social spot on campus. They sold soft drinks, coffee, and light meals. I remember many an hour down there with fellow students. I don’t remember spending much time in Collins Hall where classes were held. 

I remember visiting classmates who lived on Arthur Ave in the midst of little Italy. I did not spend enough time there. 

I also saw Morningside Heights as an unofficial extension of the campus. Ewert Cousins taught each week one evening class at Columbia and had doctoral students at NYU, Columbia, and Union Theological Seminary. Therefore, the mysticism students, “the Ewert youth,” used to meet after his Columbia course at a cafe in Morningside Heights.  The group also included recent PhD graduates and junior professors in the field. 

The most vivid memories of my time at Fordham, etched into my mind, were the late 1980’s drug wars just outside the gate. It was NYC in its worst days. At the time, I lived in Washington Heights and the ride between the campus and the Heights passed through some of the worst drug neighborhoods. One could not avoid seeing crack deals, crimes committed, and SWAT teams making descents on buildings. In my youthful recklessness, I occasionally walked home where I could see the urban decay upclose in great detail. 

What was it like to be a Jewish student at Fordham, and in the Theology Department in particular?  

During my study in the Theology program, my social acceptance and comfort level were all due to the immense accomplishments of the Jewish-Christian encounter. I was accepted as an ordinary student along with the other non-Catholics, including Evangelicals, Mennonites, Greek Orthodox, and other Jewish students. In the Catholic climate, all priests were formally called Father even if they were first year graduate students. They showed me the same respect and always called me Rabbi. 

As the holder of one of the distinguished graduate fellowships, I was expected to show up for a variety of formal events including the reception and luncheon held for the superior general of the Society of Jesus.

They encouraged me to write my papers on parallel Jewish topics, for example if the topic was Aquinas, I wrote on Maimonides. 

How was Prof. Ewert Cousins as your professor?

My doctoral advisor Ewert Cousins garnered a cadre of students who listened eagerly to his intellectual and spiritual autobiography, which took leaps over the chasms between different spiritual worlds. For those seekers on the path of mysticism, his circle of students was the place to be. He was ever surprising in his connections to famous people and places he had been.

What made his class special was the fact that his own experiences were woven into the class. He was personally friendly with Raimundo Panikkar, for example. Cousins would come into class saying that Raimundo has a private set of keys for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which he used for a private mass in the middle of the night for Cousins. His spiritual autobiography included accounts of his time on an Indian reservation, study in Madras (Chennai) India, introducing Mother Teresa to the UN, and stories about theologians he had met in Rome.

In addition, he had regular field trips for his students. We visited Lex Hixon’s Tribeca Mosque for a private meeting with Lex about interfaith work followed by a dhikr ceremony. We visited the Jung library for a presentation on how to use their archetype library in our research into mysticism. He brought actual mystical practice and psychological spirituality into the program.

He was known outside of Fordham as the chief editorial consultant for the innovative Paulist Press series, The Classics of Western Spirituality, which forged new ground in interreligious encounters by having a Catholic press teach Jewish, Muslim, and Native American spirituality.  He was also the General Editor of the 25-volume series, World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest (Crossroads). He saw spirituality as a journey to the inner dimension of the person wherein the ultimate reality is experienced.

Cousins was educated with a pre-Vatican II emphasis on studying the medieval classics in the original Latin and to be able to argue in a scholastic manner. It was a valuable complement to his teaching because he stressed going back to the original sources and knowing them from the inside.

Cousins had the most admirable quality of “willingness.” He was willing to serve on many doctoral committees with candidates undergoing what he called “A rite of passage” or a “transformation of consciousness.” Never soft, he was pushed back to reach the meaning in a mystical text or dissertation, a persistent inquirer into the inner and outer worlds of human nature in relation to God. He had a passionate and confident faith in the innate bridge between the human and divine. 

What were some of your other favorite courses and professors at Fordham?

I especially enjoyed Fr. James Kennan’s class on the new topic, at the time, of virtue ethics. The class was organized and focused, which allowed me to be fully conversant in the literature on virtue ethics. He was honest in the fact that there were limits on what he could say on sensitive theological topics if he wanted to continue to teach in Catholic institutions. 

John Heaney was just a mensch. He was easy to work with and his work was a nice complement to other courses. His work on the role of the psychic, paranormal, and psychological in faith commitment was useful in the study of mysticism. 

I greatly enjoyed the language intensives in French and German. They were very well done. The French instructor occasionally brought her young daughter to class. At one point toward the end of the semester, the French instructor came into class and said that her daughter likes my French chapeau. The daughter mistook my kippah for a chapeau. Everyone had a good laugh.   

You currently hold the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair for Jewish-Christian Studies in the Department of Religion at Seton Hall University, where you also serve as the Director of Graduate Studies.  What has your experience been teaching Jewish Studies and Jewish-Christian relations at a Catholic University?  In what ways has your experience at Seton Hall been similar and different from Fordham?

My experience at Fordham clearly prepared me well for my position at Seton Hall. They are very similar. Seton Hall sees Jewish-Christian reconciliation as part of its mission. The MA program in Jewish-Christian Studies is specifically unique for this purpose.  My experience has been a wonderful experience. I have not found anyone to be unwelcoming, and given the school’s location in New Jersey, my colleagues and students have already lived alongside and befriended many Jews. 

In 2008, you returned to Fordham to deliver the Gannon Lecture.  What did you speak about and what were your impressions?

I was invited by Prof. Terrence Tilly to give the lecture in consultation with the Development Office.  I spoke about “Is There Still a Mysticism to Mysticism After Modernity?” When I was at Fordham, mysticism was treated as deeply psychological and seen as reaching a mysterious core. The old approaches of treating mysticism as symbolism, ineffability, transitory or in Jundgian categories was on the wane. By the 21st century, we tended not to treat it in a variety of new approaches including meditation-contemplation with reproducible instructions, esotericism and kabbalistic theosophy, a metaphorical diary of inner experiences and somatic sensations, a spiritual holism with political claims, and a personal hermeneutic of older imagery.  The lecture had a phenomenal turnout with at least 100 people more than they expected.  They brought in Prof. Cousins, who was frail at the time, and introduced him before I spoke. He received a standing ovation. 

The Fordham Development Office did most of the orchestration and had me meet with donors before the event and then took us out for dinner afterwards at the kosher restaurant Levana across the street. 

You have also spent time researching and teaching in India and at Oxford University.  What did you do in both these places?

I received a Fulbright Senior Scholar Award to teach and research in India, at Banares Hindu University in Varanasi. I taught two courses, “Judaism” and “Introduction to the Study of Religion” in the MA program in philosophy and religion. I also gave lectures in the Sociology of Religion Department. For them, non-textual approaches to religion such as festivals or daily ritual observances, are studied under sociology not philosophy. My time in India produced my book Rabbi on The Ganges: A Jewish Hindu Encounter (Lexington, 2019), a work of comparative theology introducing Hinduism to a Jewish audience, but my Hindu readers love it as a translation of traditional ritual Hinduism into Western terms. 

I have been back to India since then. During my recent trip I spoke to experts in Tantra and Yoga about comparisons to Kabbalistic kavvanot – Jewish mystical prayer visualizations. I spoke at the Tantra Institute in New Delhi and in various Ashrams. The subsequent trip allowed me to confirm and refine my earlier observations. 

At Oxford University, I was part of a working group dedicated to Modern Orthodox Judaism.  I was working on a full length study of the history of the ideologies of Modern Orthodox Judaism from 1800-2000, situated within the broader question of “What is ‘Modern’ about Modern Orthodoxy?” I am comparing the trajectory of Jewish Orthodoxy over the last two hundred years with that of Catholicism and Protestantism. Most of that research is still awaiting my organizing it for publication. 

You have also spent time teaching in Indonesia. What did you do there?

In Indonesia, I taught a course at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Java on comparative mysticism. It was the university’s way to introduce them to Judaism as in continuity with their own mystical beliefs. Thanks to Fordham, I had the ability to teach in a comparative way, which led to my being chosen for the position. I also spoke about Judaism in various Muslim, Christian, and Hindu colleges around the country. Part of my goal there was to introduce Judaism to the largest Muslim country in the world. Personally, I learned much about South East Asian religion and its many differences from other forms of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. 

Since then, I was invited back for the R-20 summit, part of the G20 summit subsidiary events, in 2022 in Bali and Yogyakarta. I spoke on dealing with difficult texts as one of several exemplars to encourage the moderate Muslim community. I still maintain contacts in the region. 

From my journeys to Asia and writing about Hinduism from a traditional Jewish perspective, I have now become a contact person on topics in which Judaism meets an Asian religion. Therefore I receive many questions not just about Hinduism, but also about Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. I have been on many panels on reclaiming the Swastika with Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists, where I represent the Jewish interlocutor. 

Currently, I am working on a book with the working title of “A Jewish Theology of Religious Diversity.”

Did Fordham’s Jesuit and Catholic mission impact the work that you do, in the classroom, in your research, or in other contexts, and if so, how?

I found Fordham to support intellectual study in a religious dialogical context with attention to the spiritual and psychological. Its mission has definitely impacted my scholarship and teaching. But more than that, its method has influenced my scholarship. Catholic theological categories are integral to my teaching and writing on theological topics. Whereas much of modern Jewish thought was formulated against a Protestant background, my formulations start with Catholic theological categories. This is certainly true about mysticism but also on topics like revelation, prayer, and encountering other religions.  

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

Yes, it would be nice if Jewish Studies @ Fordham works with its connection to a premiere Theology Department in order to start a graduate program in Jewish Theology. Not the history of Jewish thought, rather a parallel track in Jewish Theology to the degree programs in Christian Theology. Require the same methodology courses for the Jewish track and bring in visiting scholars to help develop the program.  I am ready any time you call. 

Thank you, Professor Brill, for sharing your Fordham story with us!