German university opening Europe’s first school of Jewish theology

President of Germany hails bachelor’s program as ‘a milestone in the history of science, but also in the history of European Judaism’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A service at the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam near Berlin (photo credit: Margrit Schmidt)
A service at the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam near Berlin (photo credit: Margrit Schmidt)

In what is being called a landmark moment for the Continent’s Jewry, Europe’s first university-level school of Jewish theology is set to open Tuesday at the University of Potsdam, situated just outside Berlin.

“The opening of the School of Jewish Theology marks a historical milestone in the training of liberal and conservative rabbis and is unique both in Germany and Europe,” university president Oliver Günther said in a statement.

Jewish theology has never been an academic subject at any European university — “nowhere,” said Rabbi Walter Homolka, the rector of the university’s Abraham Geiger College, a Reform Movement-affiliated rabbinical seminary founded in 1999 which will work closely with the new theology school.

“You do find this field of studies at one or two other European universities, but when it comes to covering all fields — exegetical, hermeneutical, philosophical, historical, and practical — the [new] School of Jewish Theology is unique,” he said.

Nearly 50 students from Germany, Israel, the United States and Hungary will attend the school’s inaugural semester starting this fall. The school, which receives financial support from the German government, will initially have six professors and offer bachelor’s degrees. It is also entitled to grant doctoral degrees and habilitation, the German degree qualifying for a full professorship.

“In addition to the basic knowledge about Judaism, the bachelor’s program — unique in Europe — teaches basic academic competences,” the university stated. “Moreover, it provides insight into Jewish religious practice.”

Christian and Jewish theologies have ‘finally reached equality’

Jewish theology taking a prominent place at a European university “creates a milestone in the history of science, but also in the history of German and European Judaism,” noted German President Joachim Gauck. “In Germany, of all places, where the Jewish intelligentsia — which had such a large and irreplaceable share in the intellectual prestige of German academia — was expelled and murdered, out of all places in Germany, Jewish theology is finally given its proper role.”

Writing in a brochure published by the university, Gauck — a former Protestant pastor — said that with the school’s opening, Christian and Jewish theologies have “finally reached equality.”

The school will be headed by Israeli-born poet and Talmud expert Admiel Kosman. After concluding his service in a combat unit of the IDF and receiving a PhD from Bar-Ilan University, Kosman relocated to Germany and currently serves as academic director of the university’s Abraham Geiger Reform Rabbinical Seminary.

In addition, on Sunday night the University of Potsdam opened Europe’s first rabbinical seminary for Conservative Judaism. The Zacharias Frankel College, which will closely cooperate with the School of Jewish Theology, pledges to be “a full-fledged rabbinical school that values rigorous scholarship, embraces the splendors of spirituality,” according to Vice Dean Rabbi Cheryl Peretz.

Tuesday’s opening ceremony of the School of Jewish Theology will be attended by German and Israeli dignitaries, including the president of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, Leslie Bergman; vice president of the Central Council for Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster; Brandenburg state’s Culture Minister Sabine Kunst; and Israel’s ambassador in Berlin, Yakov Hadas-Handelsmann.

“Almost 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, we are witnessing a rebirth of Jewish life in Germany,” Handelsmann wrote. “Not only because the number of Jews here is growing, but also because Jews and Judaism are increasingly in the focus of Germans’ research interests.”

The core subjects to be taught include religious philosophy and history, Bible and exegesis, Talmud and rabbinical literature, liturgy and religious law. While the school is affiliated with Conservative and Reform movements, the academic program is open to everyone regardless of religious affiliation.

Besides the Reform and Conservative institutions for higher Jewish learning, there are also two Orthodox yeshivas in Berlin.

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