Jewish Interfaith Endeavors: Academic Programs (2004)

The following report is part of a series of pieces investigating the Jewish community’s participation in interfaith dialogue.

Because they are grounded in theology and philosophy, interfaith studies have become a popular topic of conversation in colleges and universities. Besides articles in various academic journals, some institutions now have centers and programs solely devoted to the topic. In addition, many seminaries foster interfaith dialogue in hopes of engendering compassion, tolerance, and understanding among those who will later enter education and the clergy. Although such programming generally addresses only Christian-Jewish dialogue, in recent years leaders of the involved organizations have come to the realization that Muslims have just as crucial a voice. Many predict that within the next ten years monotheistic “trilogues” will develop more and more frequently.

The following is a series of summaries of interfaith work performed in academia. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but merely to provide a sample of the types of action taking place.

Jewish Institutions

Hebrew College in Newton is a non-denominational college in Newton, MA. It offers B.A.’s and M.A.’s in Jewish Studies and Jewish Education, as well as rabbinical ordination and a variety of certificate programs. HC offers graduate-level introductions to Christianity, Islam and religions of the East within its curriculum. In addition, it is located next to the Andover Newton Theological School, and as a result, hosts many interfaith dialogues for its students.

Hebrew Union College is a Reform college with campuses in New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. It offers B.S. degrees, M.A.’s, and cantorial and rabbinic accreditation. It offers interdisciplinary courses with a number of Christian institutions, including The General Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, St. Joseph’s Catholic Seminary, and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. It also participates in an interseminary dialogue with the above groups which includes the Jewish seminaries Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the Jewish Theological Seminary as well.

Arguably, the college’s Cincinnati campus engages in the most interfaith work. Its interfaith fellowship program, the largest and oldest of its kind in North America, brings in non-Jewish students to take classes and share co-curricular activities with rabbinical students to build religious understanding. In addition, the Academy for Adult Interfaith Studies offers a wide variety of non-credit courses for people of different faiths and backgrounds. The campus also boasts Michael Cook among its faculty, possibly the only rabbi in the U.S. with a Ph.D. in the New Testament.

Of the 41 fellowships HUC offers its graduate students, eleven of them are intended for non-Jewish students. By studying at a Jewish institution and then going on to teach or serve in the ministry, it is assumed that such students will contribute to interfaith work, although it is not formally required.

The Jewish Theological Seminary is a Conservative seminary based in New York. It offers joint undergraduate degrees with Columbia and Barnard as well as graduate programs in Jewish Studies and Jewish Education. There is also a cantorial and rabbinical school.

JTS has a large number of interfaith programs including a partnership with the non-denominational Protestant Union Theological Seminary. The collaboration allows rabbinical students to take classes there with permission of their dean. In return, Union’s students can come to JTS to learn, creating fresh opportunities for student involvement in interfaith alliances and practices. The goal is to foster a justice-centered spirituality as well as peacemaking efforts and the flourishing of sustainable communities, particularly in New York City.

JTS also has an Institute for Interdenominational Studies, founded in 1938 to bring together Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy and scholars for courses on the various religious traditions. Later renamed the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, a historical perspective of the center can be accessed here, while a current mission statement is accessible here. As mentioned above, JTS is involved with the same interseminary dialoge as HUC

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah was founded in New York in 1999 as an “open” Modern Orthodox rabbinical school. The yeshiva’s goal is to create rabbis who are critical thinkers with intellectual integrity and who openly engage the challenges of the modern and post-modern world while living a life of faith and religious commitment. Those involved encourage open discussion, and many students regularly participate in interdenominational and interfaith events, such as the interseminary dialogue mentioned above, though these are not directly organized by the school. Given the usually frosty reception of Orthodoxy to interfaith efforts (see related report), such encouragement is rare. The hope is that students will learn that religious growth comes not through dogmatism but through questioning and struggle.

Christian Institutions

The Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning is a recently formed partnership in Minnesota. In 1996, Saint John’s University and the University of St. Thomas, two Catholic institutions in Minnesota, formed a partnership of their individual programs in Jewish-Christian understanding. In 1969, Jay Phillips founded a Chair in Jewish Studies at Saint John’s University to teach courses in Jewish religious thought to undergraduates and seminarians, host scholars as lecturers at the university, and participate in general campus life. In 1985 Rabbi Max A. Shapiro became the founding director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Learning at St. Paul’s College (now University) of St. Thomas.

In 1996, under the guidance of Rabbi Shapiro and with the counsel of the founders of these two programs, the two universities partnered to merge these separate entities. In addition to a full schedule of classes at both universities, the center hosts week-long interfaith study workshops and brings scholars-in-residence to Christian and Jewish organizations . It supports significant work in Holocaust education and makes extensive use of the Internet for circulation of its major addresses, and is affiliated with other centers devoted to Jewish-Christian relations, both throughout North America and in Europe. Rabbi Barry D. Cytron is currently the director of the center and occupies the Jay Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies.

The University of Notre Dame recently established an endowed professorship in Jewish Studies to help promote dialogue and scholarly community between Jewish and Christians. In addition, Michael Signer is a Professor of Theology and Medieval Studies. Signer was one of the four drafters of Dabru Emet (see related report), and has been promoting interfaith efforts at the university for the last decade. In February 2004 The Observer, Notre Dame’s newspaper, published an article about his work.

Secular Institutions

The Cambridge Interfaith Programme (CIP) is designed to “sustain and resource engagement between Muslims, Christians and Jews through conversation, study, teaching and research, through involvement with Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities, organisations and initiatives, and through participation in the cultural, scientific, political and economic spheres.” The CIP plans to be connected to similar centers in the US and Middle East and to promote teaching the Abrahamic faiths together an Cambridge and other institutions.

The Center for Christian-Jewish Relations at Boston College is devoted to fostering a multifaceted and mutually enriching relationship between Christians and Jews. It offers conferences, collaborative programs with houses of worship, and a variety of other events to foster Christian-Jewish dialogue, as well as about a dozen courses at the college each year. The center is still in development; currently there are only three staff members. In the future it hopes to expand to study abroad programming and hire two professors of Jewish-Christian studies.

The Children of Abraham Institute (CHAI) is dedicated “to bringing indigenous religious interests back on the map as essential components of peace negotiations between peoples with a history of intense religiosity.” Founded eleven years ago, the group (whose acronym means “life” in Hebrew), has led to meetings of scholars in the U.S. and England to examine the rules of interpretation and belief that are common to the scriptural traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The effort has resulted in a compilation of overlapping “rules of scriptural reasoning,” which they are currently describing in a series of book publications. The group has recently extended its sphere to religious leaders and academic institutions. Renamed The Society for Scriptural Reasoning in 1996, it now publishes a quarterly electronic journal through the University of Virginia’s electronic text center.