Access the latest, most up-to-date COVID-19 resources, policies, and news for faculty, students, and staff of the GTU here>>

CJS at 50: Remembering Our Beginnings and Becomings

Authored by: 
Naomi Seidman

From the Spring 2018 issue of SKYLIGHT

See a PDF of this article

In 1964, just two years after the founding of the Graduate Theological Union as a partnership of Christian seminaries, the school’s dean, John Dillenberger, approached the Conservative and Reform Movements to share his interest in establishing Jewish Studies on campus “to stand in its own right in relation to other studies, and not just as an adjunct to Protestant studies.” The radical vision of the early GTU is well reflected in its desire to establish a home for Jewish studies supported rather than constrained by its Christian context. After several years of development, the GTU’s Center for Jewish Studies (CJS) was launched in 1968 with the hiring of David Winston, a scholar of Philo and Jewish Hellenism who had previously taught at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles (now American Jewish University).

The following year, Professor Winston spoke with the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin about the importance of seminarians having “live contact with Jewish scholarship,” rather than encountering Judaism solely through Christian teachers and concerns. In fact, the generative partnership between Jewish and Christian scholars was often dramatized in the classroom, in the courses Professor Winston co-taught with Dean Dillenberger and Durwood Foster, a theologian at Pacific School of Religion.

It’s essential to understand these developments at the GTU within a broader context. In 1968, the year the Center for Jewish Studies was founded, Hebrew literary scholar Arnold Band of UCLA published a report on the resurgence of interest in Jewish studies in American universities in the quarter-century following the Second World War. While most seminaries had long taught Hebrew, and older universities offered Hebrew and other Jewish-related courses in such departments as Semitics or Oriental studies, new Jewish studies programs were emerging that included a wider range of courses and faculty specializations, and that were shaped less by the interests of seminarians than by their Jewish faculty and student bodies.

At the time CJS was established at the GTU, this resurgence Band spoke of was still gathering strength. In 1968, there were still only sixty full-time professors in Jewish studies in the United States; by contrast, there are now more than one hundred Jewish studies programs, generally with multiple faculty positions. Thus, the GTU was forward thinking not only in proposing to hire a Jewish studies professor but also in establishing a Center for Jewish Studies for this professor to direct. It would take until 1985 for Stanford University to appoint its first full-time professor of Jewish studies; its program for Jewish studies was formally constituted the following year. And while the University of California, Berkeley, had offered courses in Hebrew, Bible, and Semitics since the late nineteenth-century, in the 1960s it was just beginning to expand its Jewish studies offerings to history, literature, and Near Eastern Studies. A formal program in Jewish studies at UC Berkeley, combining faculty in these different departments, was not instituted until 1995, through the founding of the Joint Doctoral Program in partnership with the GTU.

The GTU was part of a growing trend in the American university while also constituting a special case: the GTU was a union of seminaries, which had traditionally subsumed the study of Jews to Christian theological concerns; but it was a new and innovative kind of institution, as a union of seminaries that grew out of the ecumenical and interreligious ideals of post-Vatican II culture.

These conditions, already visible at the outset, shaped the development of the Center for Jewish Studies in distinctive ways. On the one hand, the commitment to academic excellence along the model of the University of California (where Professor Winston quickly forged ties) ensured that course offerings would be governed by rigorous methods; on the other hand, as part of a union of seminaries, and without formal connection to any single Jewish denomination, CJS was also shaped by experiential and community-oriented approaches to Judaism.

For much of the 1970s, CJS was staffed by visiting scholars and lecturers on the cutting edge of the emerging interdisciplinary field. In 1979, CJS hired its second full-time faculty member, Daniel Matt, a scholar of Jewish mysticism. Matt deepened the GTU’s connections with the Bay Area Jewish community, providing courses and public lectures fascinating to those interested in spiritual systems and practices of all varieties. To the academic luminaries who had taught at or visited CJS in the 1970s (some, such as Robert Alter and Jacob Milgrom, from UCB) were added such public figures and spiritual teachers as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and David Hartman.

CJS expanded further in the early 1980s, with the hiring of a third faculty member with a specialization in art and Judaism, Jo Milgrom (herself a gifted artist). At the time, CJS was offering about a dozen courses each year in a full range of subjects. In 1982, after CJS became established in its own offices (including a dedicated seminar room and kosher kitchen), the elements were in place to begin a Master of Arts in Jewish Studies degree program. Professor Matt declared that a “renaissance of Jewish life was underway in the Bay Area” CJS was playing a crucial role in this revival, hosting not only courses but also concerts, lectures, exhibitions, and celebrations of Jewish holidays.

The mid-1980s proved a period of particularly strong growth. In 1985-1986, the Center established its first endowed chair in Jewish Studies, with leading grants from the Koret Foundation and William and Flora Hewlett (along with gifts from many other supporters). The GTU recruited the eminent historian David Biale of SUNY Binghampton for the Koret Chair and as director of the Center. Professor Biale sought to expand CJS academic offerings and encouraged the local Jewish community to assume “ownership” of the Center, rather than leaning so heavily on the GTU member schools for financial support. CJS found more than a few such admirers and supporters; in 1998, the Center was renamed in honor one of its oldest and most loyal friends, Richard S. Dinner, who died that year.

With his extensive list of publications and growing visibility, Professor Biale was well positioned to solidify the academic connections between CJS and other Jewish studies programs being developed at neighboring institutions, particularly at UCB. In describing the CJS mission in 1991, Biale noted that the Center undertook not only to prepare students for advanced degrees in Jewish studies and serve the larger GTU and Bay Area communities by offering programs in Jewish and interreligious subjects, but also “to work cooperatively with the programs at UCB and Stanford to create a Bay Area-wide Jewish studies community with national and international standing.”

1995 saw the fruit of some of Professor Biale’s most inspired efforts, with the launching of the Joint Doctoral Program (JDP) in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California, Berkeley. For the nearly two decades of its existence (it was dissolved in 2011), the JDP was among the most highly regarded Jewish studies doctoral programs in the world, attracting international applicants eager to study in a program famous both for its academic rigor and for its interest in some of the newest and most exciting methodologies and approaches including feminism, queer studies, and postcolonialism. The JDP joined other programs at CJS as part of a distinctive learning community in which academic rigor was combined with religious celebrations, films, a literary salon, a student-run newspaper, and a wide range of cultural programming.

1995 was also the year of Professor Winston’s retirement. Naomi Seidman, author of this article and a 1993 graduate of the UCB Department of Comparative Literature in Hebrew and Yiddish, was hired to replace him, and became director in 1999. By 2002, the faculty, which over this period included not only Seidman but also Rabbi Yoel Kahn, folklorist Dina Stein, and Byzantine scholar Joshua Holo, was running or co-running four programs—the MA in Jewish Studies, the Jewish studies track in the GTU’s PhD program, a one-year certificate program, and the JDP—with a total of thirty-six students enrolled (including eleven in the JDP).

The new millennium brought some changes: In 2006, Deena Aranoff, a graduate of Columbia University in Jewish history, was hired for what had become the medievalist position on the faculty. In 2007, Holger Zellentin was hired to teach rabbinics, a particular strength of the JDP, given the prominence of Daniel Boyarin at UCB. Since 2016, CJS has been under the able directorship of Professor Aranoff, whose status as a master teacher has brought CJS increasing visibility. With Professor Seidman’s impending move to the University of Toronto, CJS will be recruiting new talent in the area of modern Jewish history and culture. 

This recitation of faculty members and programs hardly does justice to the much larger roster of visiting scholars and teachers who offered courses at CJS during this period, including poet and translator Marcia Falk, scholar of Jewish spirituality Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, anthropologist of childhood Orit Yafeh, queer activist and Orthodox rabbi Steven Greenberg, the late mystic and activist Rabbi Alan Lew, filmmaker and former director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival Peter Stein, feminist activist Rachel Biale, and historian and theorist of Jewish education Hanan Alexander. The linguist Yitzkhok Niborski, Director of the Medem Institute in Paris, twice offered Yiddish intensive seminars.

The emphasis on training students in text skills, and particularly in rabbinic sources, continued, with courses by Ishai Rosen-Zvi and by Charlotte Fonrobert (a GTU graduate and long-time Chair of Jewish Studies at Stanford). CJS also offered summer and winter intensive programs in rabbinic studies, often led by Rabbi Benay Lappe. Building on its annual “Winter Beit Midrash” (led for years by Rabbi Lappe), CJS was instrumental in launching The Winter Madrasa/Beit Midrash in 2005, on the theme of “Gender and Sexuality in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity,” and co-taught by Dr. Ghazala Anwar, Rabbi Lappe, and Dr. Mary Ann Tolbert.

Such collaborations laid the foundations for the shared work between CJS and the GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies, founded in 2007. The Madrasa-Midrasha program, organized by the two Centers, was only the centerpiece of a full range of cosponsored courses, events, lectures, holiday celebrations, and public programs that brought together the Jewish and Muslim Bay Area communities. In 2015 the founding of the Center for Dharma Studies enabled an even richer network of interreligious collaborations. Among the most memorable events have been programs on the environment, on sacred time, and on national and international politics.

Innovative initiatives like these owe much to the creativity and energy of our students. Beyond the quality of the work they produce (including many published theses and dissertations), student initiatives have been part of CJS and GTU from the beginning, from Holocaust Memorial services in the 1990s to the 2010 public Qur’an reading (organized by MA student Robin Braverman) in response to Islamophobic attacks. CJS graduates have gone on to teaching, community activism, rabbinical and ministerial positions, and writing careers.

To conclude on a more personal note: I have personally witnessed nearly half of CJS’s fifty years of existence (or a little more than half, if you count my years taking GTU classes as a UCB doctoral student). It is no exaggeration to say that to review this history in preparation for writing this article was also to review my life. As with everyone who has ever taught or spoken at the GTU, I feel keenly the uniqueness of this place I have been privileged to call my academic home since 1995.

Some of this uniqueness began, no doubt, at the very founding, with John Dillenberger’s insistence that Jewish Studies would be no “adjunct” but rather a full member of the consortium. Nearly three decades after making that statement, John served on the search committee that hired me and was a part of the welcome I received at the GTU (although I was barely aware of his role in CJS’s founding). But even thinking back to my first encounter with CJS, as a cross-registered student sitting around a seminar table in “the Annex” (where the Center for Islamic Studies is now housed) where Danny Matt and David Biale were co-teaching a medieval ethical text, I felt the Center’s distinctiveness. It would take many more pages to put this quality in words. But I trust that even if this history has not allowed the reader to feel it, opportunities to experience this extraordinary learning community will continue to present themselves, now and for another century to come.

Naomi Seidman is Koret Professor of Jewish Culture at the Graduate Theological Union’s Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies and winner of the inaugural Borsch-Rast Book Prize. In the fall she will begin a new faculty position at the University of Toronto.

Over its fifty-year history, the GTU’s Center for Jewish Studies has been upheld by the generosity of thousands of friends and donors. In particular, CJS wishes to acknowledge with gratitude the financial support of the Aaron and Marie Blackman Foundation, Joan W. and Richard S. Dinner, Patricia H. Gibbs, the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, the Crescent Porter Hale Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Douglas Herst, William and Flora Hewlett, the Koret Foundation, Stephen Leavitt, Raquel H. Newman, the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation, Miriam Roland, Tobey H. Roland, Rita R. Semel, the Swig Foundation, Tad Taube, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, and the Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation.