Cal law school adds institute for Jewish, Israel study

Over the last few years, the U.C. Berkeley School of Law has offered study opportunities in the field of Jewish law, often as casual lunchtime lectures at Boalt Hall.

No more brown-bagging it. As of this week, informal becomes formal with the start of the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society.

Launched with a $750,000 seed gift from the Santa Monica–based Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, the institute has hit the ground running with a 15-member faculty advisory board  drawn from a wide variety of disciplines, as well as an ambitious academic plan.

That plan takes the shape of two basic programs, one focused on traditional Jewish law; the other concentrated on modern Israeli law and society.

Rabbi David Kasher

“Each arises out of experiences in the law school that dovetail quite well with the strengths of the [larger] campus,” said Kenneth Bamberger, the institute’s faculty director and a professor of constitutional and administrative law. “It made sense to approach them in a more thoughtful, systematic and institutional way.”

The institute is offering classes, but much of the programming centers on guest speakers, symposia and collaborations between other U.C. Berkeley departments and Israeli universities.

For the classes, the institute will use professors from the law school (such as Bamberger) as well as other U.C. Berkeley academic departments, from history to economics to Jewish studies.

Two courses currently in progress are Religion in the Jewish State and Jewish Law in Comparative Perspective. Students interested in research can explore topics such as the Jewish view of privacy and Israeli data protection law.

David Kasher, a staff rabbi and educator at Hillel of Berkeley, had spoken at many of those lunchtime lectures past. He’s on board with the new institute, having recently been named its Gilbert Lecturer in Jewish Law.

“We support Berkeley and visiting faculty in developing classes,” Bamberger said. “This year we also brought Menachem Hofnung, a visiting professor from the Hebrew University teaching an undergrad class in legal studies.”

The institute also recently welcomed Yeshiva University professor Suzanne Stone, who delivered the Robbins Collection Lecture.

With the newly reconstituted Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life recently reopening at U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, the institute hopes to do some collaborative programming. Bamberger notes the Magnes has, among other treasures within its archives, a wealth of ancient Jewish marriage contracts, all ripe for study.

Kenneth Bamberger

The law school already has at its disposal the Robbins Religious Law Collection of ancient legal texts, including many prized Jewish works — midrashic, talmudic and more, some going back to the 15th century.

Jewish law and Israeli society are studied at many other universities and law schools around the country, but Bamberger hopes the U.C. Berkeley institute will set the pace for the field.

In coming semesters, the institute will introduce additional courses, expand Jewish law offerings to undergraduates and host a conference on Israel as a high-tech nation.

A formal launch event for the institute takes place April 6. Former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner will be the keynote speaker.

Bamberger does not rule out future lunchtime learning offerings for curious Cal students, but he’s pleased that they will now be under the aegis of the new institute.

“It’s easier to do collaborations within an institutional structure,” he says. “It’s huge for Berkeley.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.