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Professor Michael Signer dies

Jenn Metz | Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Rabbi Michael Signer, Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture at Notre Dame, died Saturday. He was 63. Throughout his career and ministry, Signer followed what he once described as “the impulse to explore relationships between Catholics and Jews by encouraging students to investigate the darker moments of rivalry and even persecution that mark the pages of history to those invigorating engagements between scholars of our two communities.”

A member of the faculty since 1992, Signer, an international scholar, was a professor of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles from 1974 to 1991.

Specializing in the fields of Judaism and medieval exegesis, Signer was interested in the multiple relationships between Judaism and Christianity.

Signer once said he cherished his years at Notre Dame because they offered him “the opportunity to engage in the day-to-day lives of Christian colleagues and students as they wrestle with what it means to live their tradition in the modern world. Their struggle to discover how their faith can guide them as they negotiate a path to discover meaning in the pluralistic society that surrounds them without surrendering a distinctive religious identity awakens many echoes of the Jewish tradition which has in the past and continues to chart its course between assimilation and resistance to contemporary culture.”

“We are saddened at the loss of our dear colleague Michael Signer,” said John Cavadini, chair of Theology at Notre Dame. “His leading work in Christian-Jewish dialogue and his scholarship in medieval biblical exegesis made him a beloved teacher and scholar whose loss will be keenly felt not only by his colleagues and students in our theology department, but by the theological community worldwide.”

Signer graduated from the University of California Los Angeles in 1966. He earned a master’s degree from Hebrew Union College in 1970, the same year as his rabbinical ordination.

As a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, Signer became interested in interreligious affairs. While in Los Angeles, he taught Bible courses to Catholic seminarians, participated in dialogues between Catholic priests and rabbis and organized retreats for his Catholic, Protestant and Jewish colleagues.

Signer taught courses at the Institut Kirche und Judentum at Alexender von Humboldt University in Berlin, for the Catholic theology faculty of the University of Augsburg and at several Catholic universities in Poland, including the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow.

He was the author and editor of numerous books and articles on topics ranging from Medieval Latin biblical commentaries to contemporary Jewish-Christian relations.

Signer was one of the authors of “Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity,” a document signed by more than 220 rabbis and intellectuals from all branches of Judaism in 2000.

In 2005, Signer was designated a “Person of Reconciliation” by the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, an honor awarded annually to an individual advancing Jewish-Christian dialogue in Poland.

Signer also initiated and directed the Notre Dame Holocaust Project, an interdisciplinary group of faculty that designs educational opportunities for the study of the Shoah.

Kevin Hart, currently the Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Virginia, co-taught a Philosophy and Theology seminar at Notre Dame that focused on the theme of revelation in Judaism and Christianity.

Hart told The Observer “the death of Michael Signer has opened a void in all who knew him.”

Signer was especially talented at communicating with students, Hart said. He was “someone who could show them different ways in which to enter the vast, complicated, charged and wonderful world of modern Jewish thought and writing.”

Hart and Signer co-edited a book titled “The Exorbitant: Emmanuel Levinas between Jews and Christians” that will be published by Fordham University Press this spring.

“His spirit will live on in that book, and in the many memories of him by his generations of students and friends: his intellectual generosity, his almost childlike delight in learning, and his love of arguing about literature and theology,” Hart said.

Signer is survived by his wife, Betty, and their daughters Aliza and Hanna. A funeral service will be held Wednesday at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Donations may be made in his memory to the Michael A. Signer Memorial Fund at Notre Dame or at Hebrew Union College in New York City.

Cavadini wrote in a letter posted on the Theology Department’s Web site that he hopes to organize a memorial service for Signer sponsored by the department.

“I feel strongly that we should be able to commend him to the mercy and love of God in our own voices, and to memorialize his contribution in a way that is uniquely our own,” Cavadini wrote in the letter.

The Department is setting up a fund, known as the Michael Signer Graduate Research Fund, to help graduate students pursue research interests. Contributions are being collected by Dorothy Anderson in 130 Malloy Hall.