Spotlight: Rabbi Michael Signer advances Jewish-Catholic dialogue

by Matthew V. Storin

Sitting in Room 248 of Malloy Hall, Theology Professor Michael Signer smiles at the question, but the answer is a while in coming.

It cannot be easy to explain what a nice Jewish rabbi is doing in a place like Notre Dame.

“It began with the Second Vatican Council’s document Nostra Aetate,” he said. “That provided the impetus to reverse two thousand years of hostility between Jews and Christians. Notre Dame provides a vital Catholic community where Jews are not present in significant numbers. That means I think of Notre Dame as a kind of parish. How do we create an environment within parishes that is sympathetic to and respectful of Judaism?”

Nostra Aetate, (“In Our Age”) was the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, a document of the Vatican II Council issued in 1965. It ushered in a period of healing and dialogue in the relationship between Catholics and Jews.

Michael Signer, the Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture, is hardly the only Jewish faculty member at Notre Dame, nor the first Jewish member of the theology department. But he has made Jewish-Catholic relations a high profile topic on campus and beyond.

Along with his wife, Betty, coordinator of the Notre Dame Holocaust Project, Michael Signer has organized three major conferences at the University since joining the faculty in 1992. All were focused on the historical roots of Jewish-Christian relations. In April 1998, the widely hailed “Humanity at the Limit: The Impact of the Holocaust Experience on Jews and Christians” attracted the top scholars in the field. A new conference, “Life After Death: Reconstruction After Genocide and Mass Murder,” is being planned for the near future.

Signer teaches a full load of courses in the theology department and he and Betty take undergraduates to Auschwitz every other year, and graduate students to Krakow in the alternate years. (A colleague from the history department, Doris Bergen, is teaching a Holocaust course to 70 students this semester.)

Betty Signer notes, "Through history and the Holocaust, one can learn many lessons about survival, hope, courage and hatred. She says of their students, who are exposed to texts, films and various multi-cultural experiences, “Through discussion and listening, we hope that they become the disciples who will teach and practice tolerance, open-mindedness, and peace amongst all people.” When Rabbi Signer came to Notre Dame, a friend said to him —that I had been preparing for this job all my life."

In fact, he did his doctoral studies under the direction of a Catholic priest, Rev. Leonard E. Boyle, O.P., at the Center for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. He wrote his dissertation on Andrew of St. Victor, a 12th century Christian Hebraist, and received his degree in 1978.

While a professor of Jewish History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles (1974-1991), he also taught Bible courses at St. John’s Seminary and participated in a myriad of other Jewish-Christian dialogues and shared experiences.

Though he knows not everyone on campus is comfortable with the presence of a rabbi on the faculty, he says his support from the majority of colleagues, as well as the administration, has been unwavering since he was first recruited by Rev. Richard McBrien, then chair of the theology department, with the support of the president-emeritus, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C.

Signer says, “I want to build for the future an interest in new questions of Jewish and Catholic thought, focusing on our unity as well as respecting our differences.”

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