The Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization began in 2004 as the Program in Jewish Law and Interdisciplinary Studies at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. The Program in Jewish Law was conceived as a forum for interdisciplinary dialogue among Jewish law, other religious legal traditions, Western legal theory, and the humanities. Founding director Suzanne Last Stone’s trailblazing scholarship, which merged the fields of Jewish law and comparative legal theory, served as a model for the type of work that the Program in Jewish Law sought to promote. The ambition of the Program in Jewish Law’s leadership was to develop a distinctively American contribution to the study of Jewish law, complementing and enhancing older, more established centers for the study of Jewish law in Israel. At the same time, by viewing Jewish law through the prism of contemporary intellectual discourse, the Program could bring the Jewish tradition into the marketplace of ideas, which, in an era of globalization, has become increasingly preoccupied with the importance of religion and law in global politics and the contribution of diverse religions to modern thought.
Housed at Cardozo, Yeshiva University’s law school, in New York City, the Program in Jewish Law capitalized on the unique resources available at the university. The Program in Jewish Law typified Cardozo Law School's broader initiative on interdisciplinary and comparative inquiry into law, and it drew on the talents of the Cardozo faculty in its various activities. Cardozo has particularly strong offerings in Jewish law, law and religion, legal theory, philosophy, and law and literature, and is home to several other centers, including the Floersheimer Center for Constitutional Democracy, the Program in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies, and the Program in Law and Humanities, with missions that were shared, in part, by the Program in Jewish Law. At the same time, the Program in Jewish Law took advantage of the deep interest in matters Jewish in other branches of the university. Yeshiva University is the nation’s leading institution of higher learning under Jewish auspices and is a magnet for students interested in the philosophy and theory of Jewish law. Professors from the university’s undergraduate colleges, graduate school of Jewish studies, and rabbinical school were part of the original core of the Program in Jewish Law’s intellectual community. Located in New York City, the Program in Jewish Law also tapped into the vibrant intellectual life in the fields of law, Jewish law, and Jewish studies throughout various universities and seminaries in the tri-state area. Regular participants in the Program’s activities hailed from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, Yale, Harvard, NYU, Princeton, NYU Law School, Rutgers Law School, Fordham Law School, New York Law School, and Brooklyn Law School, among others. In recognition of the Program’s success in changing the field of Jewish law, creating a vibrant, international, and interdisciplinary community of scholars and students, and uniting the disparate branches of Yeshiva University, in 2007 the university elevated the Program into the university-wide Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization (CJL).
The five initial goals of the Center were to:
- Create a new field, consisting of the study of rabbinic texts and the rabbinic tradition in light of legal theory and interdisciplinary approaches to law, especially law and the humanities.
- Design a program to train a new generation of scholars to think broadly and conceptually about rabbinic texts and deeply about the modern condition in order to bring the Jewish legal tradition into public discourse on the pressing subjects of our time.
- Advance understanding of civilizational issues, by studying Jewish law together with other religious and legal traditions, primarily American constitutionalism, Islamic law, and Canon law.
- Create an international community of scholars and students dedicated to the goals of the Center and engaged in ongoing collaboration with the Center and its programs.
- Educate the public, especially communal leaders and lay professionals.
All five of these goals have been met through a combination of graduate and postdoctoral programs and fellowships, faculty workshops, faculty reading groups, academic visits, colloquia, text-study workshops, conferences, and publications. More details on all of these programs can be found in the Center’s newsletter or elsewhere on this website.