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!

Jewish Studies before Jewish Studies @Fordham: Interview with Elisabeth Tetlow

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 Elisabeth Tetlow, who studied Philosophy and Theology at Fordham in the late 1960s and reflects on her time on campus. Her daughter, Tania Tetlow, is now Fordham University’s president!

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

I was at Fordham from 1965 through 1970. It was the height of anti-Vietnam War protests in which we took an active part. Girls had just been accepted into Thomas More College, but the campus was far from co-ed. The faculty in my departments were primarily Jesuits. My fellow students were all Catholic and predominantly male.

What motivated you to study Theology, and ancient religion in particular? 

As an undergrad at Barnard, I had double majored in eastern and western religion. I was fortunate to have access to all the courses at Columbia, Union, and teachers from JTS and St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Theological Seminary.  In the summers I worked in Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon for the World Council of Churches. I studied modern Hebrew and took Israeli folk dancing for P.E. Although the resources at Columbia were great, there were no courses or faculty who were Catholic. Upon graduation in 1964, there were no graduate programs in Catholic theology open to lay people or women in the US, so I went to Germany, where I studied theology for a year. But it was a pontifical program and they required 2 years of philosophy.  So I came to Fordham. The Fordham Philosophy Department was superb. After that I decided to stay at Fordham to study Theology.

Elisabeth Tetlow with her daughter and granddaughter.

Did your studies at Fordham include Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism? 

Yes, I studied Hebrew language and Bible, but not Judaism. However, we gathered for seders every year at Passover. I spent the summer of 1969 in Jerusalem, doing dissertation research at the Ecole Biblique on Qumran influence on the Epistle to the Hebrews and working on the dig on the southwest corner of the Temple Mount under Benjamin Mazar of the Hebrew University. 

Was there a particular course or teacher who made a lasting impression on you? 

Raymond Brown who was actually at Union, but then Union was linked with the Theology Department at Fordham. And Joe Fitzmyer, SJ, for Aramaic and Qumran. Both great teachers, great scholars, and men of faith.

In addition to studying religion, theology, law, and philosophy, you also studied Semitic languages.  What languages did you study at Fordham? 

At Fordham, I studied Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and Arabic at Columbia.

What work did you do at Loyola University? 

I taught in the Religious Studies Department and I am still a scholar-in-residence in that department.

You’ve published several books, including two volumes on women, crime, and punishment in the ancient world.  What led you to this topic of research?  What did you discover in the process of writing this book? 

I think it was trying to put together Law and Ancient Studies.  I gained much knowledge and respect for Ancient Near Eastern civilizations and was impressed with the role of women as priests, high priests, and other offices. My first book was on “Women and Ministry in the New Testament” and the subject of women’s ordination is still a primary focus in my life. Some day it will happen.

In what ways did Fordham’s Jesuit and Catholic missions impact the work you did while you were on campus and long after you left? 

On campus I ran the student retreat program and am still in touch with many of those former students.  It was very successful, but died after the New York Province kicked the Jesuit grad students out of Weigel Hall, the locus of all student ministry at the time. While at Fordham I began making annual retreats in the Spiritual Exercises and later did both 30-day and 19th annotation retreats.  This had a major formative influence on my life and work.  In 1980, I spent a year doing a gender-inclusive language translation of the Exercises, published by the College Theology Society and St. Joseph’s University.

On a Fordham University trip to Rome.

What advice do you have for current students at Fordham? 

Appreciate what you have at Fordham – it is a unique and wonderful time and place – and make lots of friends for the rest of your lives.

Thank you for sharing so many memories and such great advice with us!

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!

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!