«The essays collected in this volume are dedicated to Michael A. Signer by a select group of his colleagues, students, and friends. Their collective ...»
The Transformative Work of Michael A. Signer
FRANKLIN T. HARKINS
The essays collected in this volume are dedicated to Michael A. Signer by a select group
of his colleagues, students, and friends. Their collective purpose is to honor him, on the occasion
of his thirty-fifth anniversary of teaching, as a scholar and teacher of Judaism, Christianity, and
Jewish-Christian relations in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modernity. As Professor of Jewish History at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (1974-1992) and Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture at the University of Notre Dame (1992-present), Michael Signer, through his excellent teaching and wide-ranging scholarship, has contributed profoundly to the diverse fields of rabbinic Judaism, Jewish history, medieval studies, the history of scriptural exegesis, and Jewish-Christian relations. This book consists of entirely new work in one or more of these areas written specifically to honor Signer and his many contributions.
Michael Signer’s education at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies, along with his training and experience as an ordained Reform rabbi have equipped him with a combination of scholarly expertise and pastoral gifts rarely found in the academy. Furthermore, from the time he wrote his dissertation (a critical edition of Andrew of St. Victor’s commentary on Ezekiel) at Toronto under the direction of the late Father Leonard Boyle, O.P., Signer has acquired and honed his skills as a scholar and religious leader in conversation and interaction with Christian scholars, pastors, and lay persons.
Thus, Signer’s firm conviction that Judaism and Christianity are, in fact, and must always be 1 recognized as “two living traditions,” a principle that pervades his scholarly and pedagogical work, grows out of his own personal experiences with the Christian other. 1 For over three decades, Michael Signer has conducted his scholarship while training both laity and clergy in Jewish and Catholic communities. As such he epitomizes the scholar/teacher who is not only well-versed in his academic field, but also able to mediate between that field and the broader contemporary world. 2 Signer’s academic career is squarely situated in the midst of and has contributed significantly to the transforming relations between Jews and Christians since the Second Vatican Council. Paragraph four of Nostra Aetate, the conciliar Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, effectively reversed the “teaching of contempt” for Jews and Judaism that had characterized Catholic teaching, proclamation, and practice for nearly two millennia. The council fathers acknowledged the strong “spiritual ties” that bind Christians to the Jewish people, rejected the deicide charge and supersessionism (along with their putative New Testament foundations), deplored all antisemitism, and encouraged the Christian faithful to recognize their Jewish neighbors as fellow human beings created in the image of God.
Furthermore, the bishops sought to further “mutual understanding and appreciation” between Jews and Christians by advocating “biblical and theological enquiry and... friendly discussions.” 3 Throughout his career, Signer has engaged passionately and productively in precisely such interreligious study and amiable deliberation. For example, during his tenure at Hebrew Union College, he participated for over a decade in the Los Angeles Priest-Rabbi Dialogue. This group of seminary professors, pastors, and rabbis not only reflected on such theological issues as liturgy, covenant, and the Kingdom of God, but also initiated a professor-exchange program
about the personally transformative potential of such interreligious dialogue and mutual exchange, affirming, “I believe that the next twenty years of Nostra Aetate lie in this transformation of the individual Catholic or Jew.” 4 In the nearly two decades since penning these words, Signer has worked tirelessly to provide his students, both Jewish and Christian, with unique opportunities to engage in face-toface Jewish-Christian dialogue and be transformed by encountering the other. For example, approximately every other Autumn since 2000, Signer, in his capacity as Director of the Notre Dame Holocaust Project, has accompanied about a dozen of his Christian students from Notre Dame to international Jewish-Christian symposia in such places central to the Shoah in Poland and Germany as Oswieçim (Auschwitz), Kraków, and Nuremberg. 5 These symposia bring Jewish and Christian students and faculty from Poland, Germany, Israel, and the United States together: (1) to see places where the Nazis devised and executed their plan to destroy Europe’s Jewish population, such as the Nazi Party rally grounds in Nuremberg or the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, for example; (2) to hear historical lectures on such topics as Nazi ideology, Jewish life and culture in Germany prior to the Shoah, and Jewish-Catholic relations in Poland before and during World War II; (3) to read and study official Catholic documents such as “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” (1998) and Jewish statements such as “Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity” (2000); and (4) to dialogue about what they have seen, heard, and read. 6 Through these profound experiences, the Jew and the Christian together confront the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and triumphalism that paved the way for Nazi antisemitism and Jewish annihilation. They encounter one another as members of different religious communities that share certain things in common: they worship the same God,
principles of Torah, and are called to work together for a more just and peaceful world. They learn the profundity of Signer’s convictions that “the renewed relationship between Christians and Jews has a human face,” and “friendship and experience can have unprecedented consequences.” 7 In short, inspired by Signer’s learned and passionate leadership, they themselves engage actively in transforming relations.
That Jews and Christians worship the same God, share authoritative Scriptures, recognize the inherent and inalienable dignity of every human being, and have an obligation to cooperate in bringing about the kingdom of God are significant affirmations that Michael Signer and several other prominent Jewish scholars, together constituting the National Jewish Scholars Project, have jointly contributed to the dialogue in “Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity” (2000). 8 Many quarters of the Jewish community in the United States and elsewhere have been reluctant, for various valid reasons, to engage in dialogue with their Christian counterparts or even recognize the sea change that has taken place in Christian teaching on Jews and Judaism since Vatican II. Dabru Emet, which first appeared as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times on 10 September 2000 and gained the signatures of more than two hundred rabbis and Jewish scholars, marks the first major response from the Jewish community to Christian gestures of repentance and efforts at reformulating a more positive theology of Judaism. As a means of introducing a Jewish audience to Christian thinking on themes growing out of Dabru Emet (e.g., God, Scripture, commandment, Israel, worship, redemption, image of God), Signer and his National Jewish Scholars Project colleagues also edited a collection of essays published in 2000 entitled Christianity in Jewish Terms. 9 This
relationship between Jews and Christians. 10 Signer’s own essay in Christianity in Jewish Terms, “Searching the Scriptures: Jews, Christians, and the Book,” stands as a kind of snapshot of his scholarly work in the history of Jewish and Christian biblical exegesis and the motivations that underlie it. 11 His point of departure here is what he describes as “a significant point of contact between Jews and Christians,” namely, seeking the meaning of God’s word for their lives in authoritative Scripture. 12 Yet, throughout the history of the Common Era, this has been more a point of divergence than convergence. 13 The Jewish and Christian communities have distinguished themselves from one another by means of mutually exclusive and antagonistic exegeses. Indeed, Signer notes that while scholars are still engaged in explaining the initial “parting of the ways” between Jews and Christians, they are in agreement that “the interpretation of Scripture was at the heart of the separation.” 14 The many scholarly articles that Signer has produced astutely demonstrate that “[t]he history of scriptural interpretation provides a significant point of entry for understanding the nature of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity during the past two millennia.” 15 Signer has broadened our understanding of the interreligious encounter considerably by highlighting the mutually disapproving, divisive, and destructive nature of much historical Christian and Jewish exegeses, on the one hand, and by unearthing resources within the interpretive tradition of both communities that might be used to promote a more positive relationship in the present and future. First, Signer never shies away from the polemical side of the historical and exegetical Jewish-Christian encounter. In fact, because he believes that our blazing a new trail together necessitates knowing the path we have hitherto trod, his work takes
confrontation, sometimes to the reader’s surprise. For example, in his overview of Rabbinic literature in the Handbook of Patristic Exegesis, Signer explains that the development of midrash during the Amoraic period in Eretz Israel may partially be the result of Jewish efforts to confront their Christian counterparts. 16 Genesis Rabbah on the Akedah or sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:1Gen. Rab. 56.1-2) is the example of rabbinic response to Christianity that Signer offers. This midrash explains that once Abraham and Isaac see the “place” (Gen. 22:4; maqom, also a euphemism for God) where the former is to sacrifice the latter, Abraham commands the two young men accompanying them to “remain here with the ass” (Gen. 22:5) precisely because they do not see the place. Noting that other Jewish sources describe the Gentiles as “a nation resembling an ass,” Signer explains this midrash as affirming that Christians are like the ass, incapable of perceiving God. Furthermore, he situates this polemical reading within the vigorous Jewish-Christian debates of the third and fourth centuries concerning the verifiability of divine revelation and the possibility of God’s having revealed Himself to non-Jews at all. 17 This reading of Genesis Rabbah on the Akedah illustrates how Signer uses Jewish-Christian relations as a lens through which to re-examine long-standing views in new, thought-provoking, and fruitful ways.
Signer’s scholarship has also contributed much to our understanding of the myriad ways that Christian thinkers and exegetes in late antiquity and the Middle Ages interpreted scriptural revelation over against Jews and Judaism. In his article, “The Glossa ordinaria and the Transmission of Medieval Anti-Judaism,” for example, Signer demonstrates how the standard scriptural gloss used by twelfth- and thirteenth-century schoolmen conveys and even intensifies certain themes found in the ancient Adversus Iudaeos tradition. 18 For instance, he skillfully
malicious Johannine depiction of the Jews as children of the devil filled with vice. By means of interlinear glosses, the author interprets the Lord’s call to Abram to leave his country and his father’s house and journey to the land that the Lord will show him (Gen. 12:1) as really signifying the call from God the Father to the incarnate Christ to depart from the sins of the Jewish people from which he is descended as a human and from the home of the devil, and to enter into the land of the Gentiles of which the Lord would give him knowledge through the apostles. 19 Additionally, Signer illustrates how the glossator on the Pentateuch, again by interlinear glosses, brings terms that had for centuries been integral to the patristic anti-Jewish arsenal of accusations such as perditio, caecitas, duritia, and perfidia into the very text of the Hebrew Bible. 20 Comparison with other twelfth-century commentaries such as Hugh of St.
Victor’s Adnotationes on the Pentateuch, Andrew of St. Victor’s exegetical notes, Richard of St.
Victor’s Liber exceptionum, and Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica highlights the ardently anti-Jewish character of the Glossa ordinaria. Signer’s careful and contextual reading of the Gloss on the Pentateuch exemplifies the critical contributions he has made to our understanding of Christian anti-Jewish exegesis and polemic in the Middle Ages.
At the same time, Signer has shown that the history of Jewish and Christian interaction around the scriptural text is by no means entirely antagonistic. 21 In fact, much of his work seeks points of contact between the ancient and medieval Jewish-Christian exegetical encounter, on the one hand, and actual or desired efforts at cooperative study and dialogue since Vatican II, on the other. Indeed, according to Signer, “the most productive dialogue between Jews and Christians is grounded on face-to-face studies of texts in the Hebrew Bible through the lenses of premodern interpretations in both traditions.” 22 Signer has devoted much of his career to studying