Jewish Law Meets German Law


Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, who lives and works in Manhattan, will look out the window from a lecture hall in the former East Berlin next week and see Germany’s Nazi past. He will look straight ahead and see its repentant future.

The rabbi, who has lectured on Jewish law and other Jewish topics at Humboldt University since 2007, will serve, starting this semester, as the Meyer Struckman Professor of Jewish Law at the university’s law school. The only rabbi teaching at Berlin’s oldest and most prestigious university, he now becomes, as far as is known, the only person with such a visiting professorship in Jewish law at a European university.

Humboldt University, known as Frederick William University until 1949, was the site of book-burnings of books by and about Jews during the Third Reich. The burnings took place in a plaza outside the law school. Among the participants were law students, the predecessors of the students in Rabbi Blanchard’s classes.

His current students, including some from other European countries, are Germany’s best and brightest, the next generation of the country’s attorneys, judges and political leaders.

In outside-of-class conversations — the rabbi has taught himself German but lectures in English — the students apologize for Germany’s wartime sins. They are “ashamed,” they tell him, saying, “We are not the same people who ran the country under the Nazis.”

Rabbi Blanchard, director of organizational development at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and a teacher of Jewish thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, is Orthodox, the first Jewish person that many of his students, and many of the participants in his other frequent public lectures, have met. “It’s a deep responsibility,” he says.

Rabbi Blanchard, who has doctorates in philosophy and psychology, was invited to Humboldt after Bernhard Schlink, a professor at the Humboldt law school and author of “The Reader,” the novel that became a 2008 Oscar-winning film, heard the rabbi lecture at Fordham University.

The rabbi accepted, he says, because “it’s part of my work at Clal” — to bring “Jewish wisdom to the wider world.” He was initially surprised by Germans’ level of interest in his subject, and in restoring Jewish scholarship. “They want to bring Jewish things back.”

Of some six dozen students in his introductory Jewish law course each spring, only a few are Jewish.

He calls his work in Germany “tikkun,” repairing the damage done to Jews and Judaism during the Holocaust.

“Are you comfortable? Are you safe?” in Berlin, Rabbi Blanchard’s Jewish friends here ask. His answer: “Yes and yes.”

And Rabbi Blanchard plans to teach at Humboldt each spring as long as he is able. “They expect me to keep coming back.”