Rabbi David Davis, a theology professor who became known for highlighting Jesus’ Jewish identity, died July 7 of a heart attack at his home in Sun City. He was 84.
Davis graduated from Hebrew Union College and began his teaching career at Clark University. As a part-time teacher he was able to take on a clerical role in Massachusetts as well. “The clergy offered me the opportunity to speak and exchange ideas with people of all traditions,” he once said in an interview.
It was in the 1970s at the University of San Francisco — a Catholic university — that he made a name for himself teaching a class titled “Jesus the Jew.”
Melvin Swig, a real estate developer, wanted to create a place for non-Jews to learn about Israel and Judaism generally. Davis, who was also the senior rabbi at San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom, partnered with Swig. Then president of USF and Jesuit priest John Lo Schiavo joined forces with them and created a Jewish studies program — a first for a Catholic university. Davis served as its director.
The program, for which Davis was the first Mae and Benjamin Swig Chair, is now the only program to link social justice and Jewish studies, and offers an annual social jutice lecture and human rights lecture, an annual social justice Passover seder, intermittent films, presentations and workshops as well as a study abroad course. Davis was known for bringing world-renowned figures like Saul Bellow, Elie Wiesel and Abba Eban to speak to his classes.
Schiavo referred to Davis as a “one-man ecumenical movement” for his work in building bridges between the American Jewish and Christian communities.
Davis was a rabbi and a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as the chaplain for San Quentin’s prison in California for a time. But it was through his teaching, particularly of the Bible, that he became best known.
After 20 years as a professor at USF and five at Vanderbilt in Tennessee, he and his wife Patricia moved to Arizona to retire. However, his love of teaching and passion for lifelong learning couldn’t be sated in retirement and in 2001, Davis became a faculty member of Barrett Honor College at Arizona State University. His classes such as “The Bible: Is it still relevant in the 21st century?” and “Jesus the Jew” were very popular at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at ASU. He was OLLI’s first board member.
Davis’ classes were located at ASU’s west campus in Glendale, but former student William Feinberg said, even though it was inconvenient, not many people missed class. “He was very engaging and funny,” Feinberg said. “In an hour and a half you never once looked at your watch.”
Feinberg ended up taking four of his classes. “He was the kind of person you meet for two minutes and feel like you’ve known him your whole life,” he said. “He got me hook, line and sinker.”
“His commitment to excellence was unsurpassed; his passion for sense of purpose was inspiring; and his relentless love for all was a model for all to follow,” said Dr. Richard Knopf, OLLI at ASU director, via email. “He was our counsel, our visionary, and our chief fundraiser — the essence that literally gave birth to the fruits of the OLLI at ASU we all treasure today.”
“Rabbi Davis was a kindred spirit and treasured partner,” said Dr. Jonathan Koppell, dean of the ASU Watts College of Public Service and Community Service, via email. “It is heartening to know Rabbi Davis’ sensitivities, wisdom and commitment to social change will be interwoven in the OLLI at ASU community forever.”
“Rabbi David Davis was a fine scholar and an engaging teacher,” Davis’ friend, Rabbi Dr. Sheldon Moss, said in an email. “His lectures riveted our full attention. He punctuated every point with his still boyish smile as light danced behind his eyes. He was my friend and my rabbi. I will miss him for a long time.” JN