Berkeley schools develop joint Ph.D. in Jewish studies

Just a year ago, Azzan Meir-Levi could not pursue graduate studies at U.C. Berkeley. He had the grades. But the university didn't have a program to accommodate him.

A new partnership between U.C. Berkeley and the nearby Graduate Theological Union is allowing the Israeli student and others like him to conduct graduate and doctoral research in Jewish studies for the first time.

This fall, five students begin the work that will earn them doctorates from both Berkeley institutions.

According to Daniel Boyarin, U.C. Berkeley Taubman professor of talmudic culture and co-chair of the joint Jewish studies program, the partnership stems from a "cordial cooperation" between the two institutions.

For years, the theology school and the university shared library and course-offering privileges. The joint doctoral program "gives the partnership flesh and bones," said David Biale, Koret chair and director at GTU's Center for Jewish Studies.

Until now, the closest thing to a Jewish studies Ph.D. at the university was a doctorate in Hebrew or Near Eastern studies — an option Boyarin said was unsatisfactory, as the program required the scholars to study languages and histories irrelevant to their true focus.

"They had less time to do what they wanted. So they were frustrated," he said.

Combining both institutions' faculties creates "a quality and synergy of instructors," Biale said.

Students with very specific interests — like Meir-Levi, who plans to compare the hermeneutics of Hebrew and Greek texts — will benefit from the dual faculty.

"You have a coming together of people, already accomplished scholars in their own fields," Meir-Levi said. "By bringing together people of high standing with varied interests, [you remove the] sense that if you're interested in several areas of study, like I am, you have to compromise."

He looks forward to no longer hearing the frustrating brush-off, "Nobody specializes in that, so don't study it."

The partnership doesn't merely benefit students. It also splits faculty and administration costs between the two institutions. In addition, the academic committee regulating admissions and requirements comprises instructors from both schools.

"It's entirely fair to say Cal wouldn't have a Ph.D. program in Jewish studies without GTU. In fact, it's a given. Cal isn't in the position to drain its already strained resources," Boyarin said.

To date, the joint doctoral program has received a $45,000 Koret Foundation scholarship grant. Students will alternate enrollment between the university and GTU each year. Financial assistance will also alternate, filtering through the institution where the student is enrolled in a given year.

The joint project serves as a model for institutions struggling to meet rising expenses, according to Boyarin.

"With the economic crisis in higher education throughout the United States, there's more and more of a sense that we don't need to duplicate programs and offerings at several universities. We need to ration our use of resources. One way is to have joint and cooperating programs," Boyarin said. "This gives students access to the maximum resources without duplication."

An additional benefit — specific to U.C. Berkeley and GTU — is the opportunity for interfaith dialogue at the theology institution.

"This is unusual for any graduate program in Jewish studies," Biale said.

Established in 1962 as an ecumenical graduate program and seminary, GTU added Judaism to its curriculum in 1968, although the school does not ordain rabbis.

GTU's Center for Jewish Studies faculty includes scholars specializing in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and modern Jewish history. U.C. Berkeley offers professors who are experts in modern Hebrew literature, the Talmud and Jewish history.

Together, Biale said: "We have a group of people whose work overlaps and complements one another's, and who have a common purpose to a great extent. But we don't have an identical approach."

Meir-Levi couldn't be more pleased.

"I'm combining Jewish studies and classical philosophy. I can do it here," he said. "If I wanted just Jewish studies, I would have stayed in Israel."