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Jewish rabbi teaches Old Testament at Jesuit university

One of the Old Testament professors in the Religious Studies Department at Gonzaga University is a Jewish rabbi.

Elizabeth Goldstein
Rabbi Elizabeth Goldstein

Elizabeth Goldstein finds students she teaches at the Jesuit Catholic university interested in learning about Judaism, exploring the spiritual values of Judaism and interfaith work.

“At first, I felt different, but that difference is appreciated,” she said at the end of the semester.  “Students appreciate hearing from a Jewish perspective.”

Elizabeth will teach a class on Judaism in the spring, the first class on Judaism for at least a decade.  She said she has also submitted a suggestion that the Old Testament course she teaches be renamed “Hebrew Scriptures.”

For the spring, she is coordinating a Jewish Passover seder in April for the Gonzaga community, geared to educate them about the Jewish practice.  She is also planning a Holocaust remembrance.

Through University Ministry, she is working to connect with Jewish students and other Jewish faculty. She had one Jewish student in a fall class.

In addition, she hopes to be a bridge between Gonzaga and the Jewish community and in order to promote Christian-Jewish understanding.  Elizabeth is attending both of Spokane’s Jewish communities, Temple Beth Shalom and Congregation Emanu-El, keeping ties to both the Conservative and Reform traditions.

Elizabeth taught three sections of Old Testament in the fall semester.  For spring semester, she will teach one course on Judaism and two on Old Testament.

“I find students interested in learning about Judaism and its connections to Christianity.  They are interested to learn that the purity of animals in Leviticus is the basis for Jewish kosher laws,” she said.  “Some are curious about their own religion and sometimes need to look through the lens of another religion to learn about their own.”

She wants her students to learn about the biblical roots for social justice, stories that are problematic for women, literal reading vs. biblical interpretation, discussions of morality in the Bible and how they can learn to be better people from studying the Bible.

“Sometimes Scripture should impact moral decisions and sometimes it should not,” she said.  “Scriptures often play a smaller role in our moral ideas.”

As she teaches, she takes into account her path of learning about Judaism, growing up in Wyckoff, N.J., and attending an Orthodox Jewish day school, even though her parents were not Orthodox.

“I was exposed to traditional Judaism that was different from my family’s traditions,” she said.  “I gained views of the spectrum of the Jewish community and ideas about women.

“My parents were traditional in some ways and liberal in other ways.  Their synagogue, Beth Rishon, which did not affiliate, included Reform and Conservative Jews,” she said.
“I was introduced to shades of gray early.  That lesson takes one far in life,” said Elizabeth who studied religion at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., where she was exposed to other faiths.

A non-religious person taught that the Old Testament was written by human beings.
“The Torah became demystified, disconnected from God.  It was painful,” said Elizabeth, whose only Jewish community was the campus Jewish student group, Hillel.
While the deconstructionist approach distanced God from the Bible, years of life experience helped her realize God is greater than the Bible.

“I became less tied to the literal word and understood God is greater than any text and has a compassion for humanity,” she said.

“Some Christians have no problem seeing Hebrew Scriptures as written by people.  Catholics have had so much interpretation over the generations by church fathers that they do not read the Bible literally,” Elizabeth said.

Some Protestants she teaches at Gonzaga, however, struggle when they hear it is not the direct word of God.

After graduating from Dartmouth, she spent a year in Israel studying at an Orthodox Jewish school, Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.

“We studied the traditional Jewish sources all day, from 9 to 5,” she said.  “It was great preparation for rabbinical school, immersed in learning Hebrew.”

She returned to begin rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.  After a year at the Conservative seminary, she spent a year as a hospital chaplain in San Francisco, and then completed her studies in 2001 at Hebrew Union College at the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City, part of the Reform tradition.  In 2001, she was ordained as a rabbi.

After two years teaching at Jewish communities in San Francisco, she completed a doctoral degree in biblical studies at the University of California, San Diego, in July 2010.  She applied for an opening in teaching Old Testament at Gonzaga and began in September.

Elizabeth appreciates the interfaith aspect of her job at Gonzaga, an opportunity to expose students to Judaism, the biblical heritage in the context of the ancient Near East, and what the Bible means to Jews and Christians as sacred literature.

Elizabeth seeks to shed light on the Scriptures from understandings of her faith tradition.
For example, Numbers 6:24-26, “May the Lord bless and keep you, shine his countenance upon you and give you peace,” is used as an Irish Catholic priestly blessing and sending.  Protestants often use it as a benediction.

“Some Jews, believing they are descended from priestly tribes that served in the temple, would see the blessing as a channel of divine power,” she explained.  “It is blessing the community in a call and response.  The priests are in the front, not looking at the people, because their prayer shawls are drawn over their heads in a mystical ritual.  It’s a central prayer at the high point of the Sabbath morning liturgy.”

Elizabeth has been in Israel twice—three months in college volunteering with Ethiopian immigrants in 1992, and the year after college.

“It was a scary year.  A bus was bombed in Tel Aviv.  Israeli soldiers were captured.  The second intifada began.  Gaza was still part of Israel.  A high school friend went to the beach by bus one day.  The bus was bombed.  She was killed.  Another high school classmate died a year later in a bus.”

Those losses do not stir revenge in Elizabeth, who sees hope in efforts such as Rabbis for Human Rights, which she said is “on the left” of the Jewish community on Israeli politics.  Many Israeli leaders, she said, are on the right wing.

“There’s always the sense that we can’t critique Israel if we do not live there, but we can and have to when we see injustice,” she said.  “The way to peace is to make peace with Palestinians.

“Like any peace negotiation, there are three steps forward and then someone throws a bomb because of fear of financial loss,” she said, affirming that there are human rights concerns for both Jewish and Arab Israelis.

“It’s fair to criticize Israel and look at all issues.  Some do not understand that Israel lives surrounded by Arabs who don’t want Israel to exist,” she said.  “We need to not let fear get in the way of progress to peace.”

Fear means Israelis don’t let Arab families visit family members, or move freely to engage in business, so Palestinians are angry and economically impacted, Elizabeth said.
“I criticize, defend and love Israel, and I believe we need to make peace with Palestine if we are to exist there,” Elizabeth said.

For information, call 313-6788 or email


Gonzaga offers students perspectives from world’s religions

Linda Schearing, chair of the Religious Studies Department at Gonzaga University, said that hiring Elizabeth Goldstein was part of the department’s intentional effort to have someone on staff to teach Judaism.

Five years ago, the department hired John Sheveland to teach inter-religious dialogue and world religions.  His expertise is in the Eastern religions.    Father Patrick Baraza is a lecturer, teaching African Catholicism and Islam.

Next year the department seeks someone to teach fundamental moral theology, with a possible secondary expertise in environment and ecology.

“The fact that Elizabeth is a rabbi was serendipitous,” Linda said, adding her appreciation that the rabbi is also involved in outreach to Jewish students through University Ministry.

For information, call 313-6797 or email


Copyright © January 2011 - The Fig Tree