Ministerial students get taste of Judaism 101 at GTU

Future priests, pastors and Christian teachers got an intense Jewish experience this past semester.

They moved through the 800-page text, "Jewish People, Jewish Thought" at a pretty good clip, read Kabbalah, looked at slides of Chassidic Jews in Eastern Europe, discussed intermarriage and Lower-East-Side culture and all the while filled a Graduate Theological Union requirement — each student in the master's of divinity program must take three units of non-Christian religion.

For the first time, the Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley's GTU offered a one-semester introduction to Judaism, co-taught by Professors Naomi Seidman and Daniel Matt.

"We want to give them a balanced view of Judaism, to correct some of the bias they encounter just reading the New Testament," says Matt, who sees the course as "consciousness-raising as much as conveying facts and material."

About 15 students in the small class spanned almost every major Christian denomination.

In a recent session, co-teacher Seidman, whose specialty is Jewish cultural studies, led a discussion on the December holidays.

"Christmas is more colorful [than Chanukah], more exciting. Why should you celebrate Chanukah? Why resist Christmas? These are issues for Jews. One tactic has been to raise Chanukah to the level of Christmas with elaborate gifts," said Seidman.

Student Laura Holck asked, "To what extent does fear drive assimilation?" That sparked a discussion touching on events as diverse as the 18th-century Enlightenment and the social problems following the breakdown of Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.

Seidman uses slides to augment class discussions, flashing old photos of Chassidim, Jewish shtetls and notable Jewish leaders.

Daniel Kanter, originally from New Jersey and studying to be a Unitarian Universalist minister, was raised Unitarian but is half Jewish by birth. He took the class to soak up as much information as he could and "get in touch with my own Jewish roots.

"I wanted to understand more of what Judaism has to teach us about the world," Kanter said, chatting with other students during a class break.

For Presbyterian Cornelia Cyss-Wittenstein, the class was a way for the German-born student to learn about Jewish thinkers from her part of the world.

"My New Testament professor sent me here," she said. "He knew [Jewish philosopher Martin] Buber."

Matt says his students were most struck by the notion of Midrash, or Bible interpretation.

"That talmudic rabbis are willing to interpret so freely and boldly, that freedom of interpretation is refreshing and stimulating to them. They're looking at the Bible with fresh eyes," Matt says.

Garret Struessel, in his first year on the road to becoming a Lutheran pastor, found shared Judeo-Christian perspectives most compelling.

"For me," he said, "the interesting part was the common heritage with Judaism, which is often ignored or denied."