The creation of the academic discipline of Jewish Theology at a public universities should be seen in the context of the multilayered cooperation of religion and state in Germany. An alternative to models of strict separation, this approach has developed over centuries and out of a distinct tradition in Germany.
In January 2010, the German Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat), the highest advisory body on federal and state higher education policy, stated its conviction that public universities are the best framework for theological studies, both Christian and other. Generally, this model should take precedence over the creation of private institutions of higher education by churches and other religious communities. The Council explicitly recommended the further development of theological studies in the context of other scholarly disciplines within public universities. It also emphatically called for the restructuring of Christian theological studies and the creation of non-Christian theological studies within German universities, given the need for the training of theologians.
By establishing centers for Islamic studies in German universities, then-federal Secretary of Education, Annette Schavan, sent a signal for the academic training of imams. The Council, too, emphasized that religious traditions other than Christianity should have their place in the university, if only to prevent religious fundamentalism.
How does that relate to Judaism? – Rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810-74) as early as 1830 demanded that the training of rabbis should be placed on the same footing as that of Christian clergy. To him, this was the litmus test for the success of Jewish emancipation. Nevertheless, when the Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums was established in Berlin in 1872, it was not part of the public Friedrich-Wilhelms-University. It was only in 1912 that the Protestant theologian Martin Rade called for the creation of academic rabbinical training: “We demand a Jewish theological faculty in the interest of the German Kulturnation [nation of culture].” To which the renowned Old Testament scholar Hermann Gunkel replied: “What I personally got to know of ‘jüdische Wissenschaft,’ failed to instill any particular sense of respect in me. Our Jewish scholars have not even experienced the Renaissance!” Gunkel’s rejection won the day; the German Kulturnation put a cruel end to this discussion in the Holocaust.
Several generations later, the creation of the Potsdam School of Jewish Theology proves: Jewish Theology is a worthy scholarly discipline within the German university.
Further reading: W. Homolka/H.-G. Pöttering: Theologie(n) an der Universität. Akademische Herausforderung im säkularen Umfeld. München: Beck Verlag, 2013.