Monday, November 30, 2009

Mordecai Kaplan and Jacob's struggle with "the ish"

This week we read parashat VaYishlach, which features the famous passage of Jacob fighting with his adversary, perhaps an angel of God, perhaps Esau’s ministering angel, perhaps a “man” he encounters on the road. While described as an “ish,” a man, in Genesis 32:25, after the night-long encounter Jacob exclaims, “I have seen a divine being face to face yet my life has been preserved.” This “ish” similarly will not tell Jacob his name (32:30), perhaps a virtue of the fact that the name is too Holy for human ears, or at the least is not meant for Jacob. Whether this is a “man” or another figure, he most certainly is not a simple mortal.

The peshat, the plain meaning of the text, does not necessarily indicate that this mysterious “ish” is a negative character in relation to Jacob. Perhaps it is a test for Jacob, and by virtue of the fact that he emerges triumphant at the end of the night, he receives the name Yisrael, indeed a prophetic name in reference to the future of the Jewish people.

The derash, the interpretative method of the Rabbis, meanwhile almost exclusively reads this “ish” as a negative adversary, out to destroy Jacob. For example, Shir HaShirim Rabbah (Parasha 3, Siman 3) posits a parable of a chief bandit fighting with the son of the king. The bandit raised his eyes and saw the king looking at the two of them and the bandit in turn weakened himself. So, too, the midrash posits, did the angel shrink from attacking Jacob because it saw God looking at the two fighting.

In many ways this midrash reminds me of the Lion King. Think Mufasa, Simba and Scar.

This is one example of such — this was not a wrestling match, but an attempt to destroy Jacob, and in turn, his lineage.

As we studied these passages today in class, I remembered that Agudat HaRabbanim’s official excommunication against Mordecai Kaplan uses this very formulation to castigate the reconstructionist leader.

In the document “Nosah Hahlatat HaHerem,” page 3, the paragraph reads in full (my translation):

Those who ask why Agudat HaRabbanim did enact a herem against the Reformers, who also printed a prayer book, and added and removed from the liturgy whatever to their hearts’ content, and also are inciters and instigators, the answer: These same Reformers have already separated from the community of Israel, for every man of Israel knows that he does not have any connection with them (the Reformers). And the geonim of Israel already declared in their time, such as the Gaon Rabbi Akiva Igger, the Gaon Rabbi Moshe Sofer, and the Gaon Rabbi Yehudah Melisah, and the Gaon Rabbi Hermann Baneth, who were alive during that same era, the begins of the creation of Reform Temples, and there they fought with them with all of their might and strength. For there were greats of Israel in that day who said, “It is more comfortable for a Jew to enter a Church and not to enter a Reform Temple”… But this same man, Dr. Kaplan, he is within (emphasis mine) the children of Israel, speaking and behaving as a Jew, and he has a synagogue where Jews make mistakes by following him and come there to pray. And he serves as an educator of the children Israel, and it is said about him “vayaavek ish imo” (Genesis 32:25). And as it our sages said (Babylonian Talmud Hullin 91), “Like a sage he appeared, and took honor from Jacob;” see the interpretation of Rashi on this passage. So too is the man Dr. Kaplan dressing himself as a sage (Talmid Haham), bringing Jews to follow after him, and he is leading them astray from belief in God and His Torah, which is far worse than the Reformers. And therefore they did as they did, according to the law of the Torah, lawfully and justly.

The text asserts that the Reformers already separated themselves so much from traditional doctrine that they were no longer a threat to the core, which was not the case with Kaplan, who “clothed himself” as a traditional Jew and sage. Additionally, the great sages of the nineteenth century had already fought the battles that needed to be fought with the Reform movement, and thus Agudat HaRabbanim, which formed in 1901, did not feel the need to continue this battle. The Biblical quote in the passage comes from the narrative of Jacob wrestling with the “Angel,” suggesting that Kaplan will both physically and spiritually injure the Jewish people, Israel.

The Talmudic citation from Hullin, as interpreted by Rashi, comes as part of a discussion of how the Angel appeared to Jacob in Genesis. Rav Acha states that the angel appeared to Jacob “clothed” as a Torah scholar, and therefore Jacob positioned himself on the left side of the angel, as Mar said, “One who walks to the right of his teacher does not possess proper manners.” For that reason, the Angel was able to attack Jacob’s right side. In the same way, this text suggests that Kaplan appears to Israel as a talmid hacham but really is an angel out to fool and injure the Jewish people, even destroy it outright if he were able to accomplish the task.

The analogy by definition is subjective. All are, I suppose.

Indeed the document explains why Agudat HaRabbanim deemed Kaplan to be so threatening, as opposed to other “heretics” who had so clearly separated themselves from the norms of Jewish religious practice that traditionalists would not go near them in the first place.

While I believe that the excommunication decree was both xenophobic and inherently counterproductive in 1945, the organization uses the sources quite well. Agudat HaRabbanim believed that Kaplan was out to destroy the Jewish people, and citing this midrash, in turn, is thus quite apt. To Agudat HaRabbanim, Kaplan was PRECISELY this arch-angel.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

29 November on 29 November

A note of advice before the core of this post — a recommendation to all, really. Walking home from the Conservative Yeshiva tonight, Ethan and I were looking for a garbage can to throw out the pizza boxes we had taken from the Yeshiva. Good citizens, and whatnot.

The first garbage can we happened upon was at the Schocken Center on Balfour Street — across the street from the Prime Minister's house. We throw out the pizza boxes, walk back to the street and are met by a man showing us his badge.

"What were you doing there," he says in the gruff voice you would expect from a security guard across from Bibi Netanyahu's residence.

The giant gun would have been enough, but thanks for the id, too.

He took us back to the garbage can and asked us to show him the inside of each subsequent pizza box. We then both wished each other a good night. Suppose I should have seen that one coming.

Ethan and I made the requisite jokes about the event after we cleared the security territory. Laila tov, officer, indeed.

The pavement of Israel speaks with each step people take.

The street signs tell a narrative history of the entirety of Jewish nationhood, neighborhood by neighborhood.

We at Bustenai 11/7 live in the neighborhood devoted to the Israeli War of Independence. Our cross-street is 29 November, the day of the U.N. vote for the partition of Palestine.

Today it was 29 November on 29 November.

Voted in the General Assembly of 29 November 1947, there were 33 affirmative votes, 13 against, with 10 abstentions to recommend the division of British Palestine in two, with Jerusalem remaining an international territory, governed by the UN.

Six months later, on 14 May, 1948, (ה' אייר) David Ben-Gurion and what was at the time collection of Jewish upstarts, declared Israeli independence in a Tel Aviv basement — the day before the British were officially designated to leave their favorite Middle East port.

In terms of international recognition, it all started on 29 November. It continues on today.

And it was precisely at this time that international voices said that Israel was handed over on a Silver platter, the namesake for this blog, and my rabbinic name, even. After the Holocaust, what other choice did UN members have? — so goes the argument.

Indeed, as Natan Alterman states both lyrically and assertively, the one percent of the population which fought and died in the Israeli War for Independence (1 PERCENT!), and the remainder of the population that lived through the 1948 war were that מגש הכסף, the silver platter, that upon it a Jewish state was given.

62 years later, people continue to build the state upon the foundations which were laid with the blood, the tenacity of those who dared to dream.

In my neighorhood it is kaf tet b’November on kaf-tet b’November. Just another day in the neighborhood, living the status quo in the land of Israel.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Yahrtzeits of Conservative Movement gedolim: Sunday, 12 Kislev; The man who was named after a day school

I present this two days early. But I understand that there are some (ok, one) who print out my blogs and bring them to Shul on Shabbat.

This post is long. But Solomon Schechter (1847-1915, הרב שניור זלמן בן יצחק הכהן) is a man whose ideologies are the foundation of my worldview. So read to the end. See who this man is:

There are portraits throughout JTS of great minds of the past.

There’s a cluster right next to Alperin Lobby.

Cyrus Adler guards the bathrooms on the first floor.

Abraham Joshua Heschel gets his spot in the library.

But Solomon Schechter’s portrait gets its own location. His piercing eyes stare out of a face with a disheveled beard, his body draped in an enveloping red cloak. In some ways it’s a little like Hogwarts, Schechter’s eyes following you each time you head to the cafeteria line.

Mel Scult’s article on Schechter in Tradition Renewed dubs JTS “Schechter’s Seminary,” a feature of the influence he had when he led the institution, and the vision he had into the future, as well.

To say that JTS is still “Schechter’s Seminary” is hyperbolic. Yet that Chancellor Arnold Eisen’s 2007 inaugural address featured the living ideologies of Schechter’s 1902 inaugural speaks volumes of Schechter’s transcendent message. As Eisen stated two years ago, after African drums ushered him in:

“Let me remind you, as I did at the opening assembly last year, of Solomon Schechter’s emphasis on diversity in his inaugural address of 1902, and particularly of his horror at the thought of a faculty and student body who always agreed with him. We are not here to nod pleasantly at one another. For we have important work to do. If the year ahead passes without the unsettling of some settled convictions and the questioning of at least a few truths until now deemed self-evident, we all will have failed to meet one fundamental purpose of our teaching and learning together…

At JTS we have always known that honest difference for the sake of heaven makes us stronger—just as in-depth knowledge and thoughtful criticism of our tradition make Torah stronger. As Schechter put it in his inaugural lecture, “Faith and scholarship are not irreconcilable…

He meant that as an understatement. So do I. Shamor and zachor must be part of every dibbur we utter at JTS. Nuanced remembrance is key to all that we observe and preserve, including most especially what we preserve by changing it. This is never simple, of course, and there are many who would see the fidelity to both scholarship and Torah as an oxymoron.”

Schechter lays out the Seminary mission quite explicitly: a no-apologies engagement of Jewish tradition in the modern world. It is no surprise that the mission is so applicable to Jewish life a century after his first Seminary address.

A glance at Schechter’s eulogies gives perspective to the scope of his influence during his life (click for the NYT editorial):

“Not only American Jewry, but the Jewry of the world, may well exclaim in the words of old, talmid hacham shemet mi mevi lanu halifto “A great scholar died; who shall bring unto us a substitute for him?” stated Reform Rabbi Samuel Schulman. “As the distinguished and revered president of the Hebrew Union College (Kauffman Kohler) and co-worker in a great enterprise with Solomon Schechter already said, ‘There is no substitute for Solomon Schechter.' And truly it can be asserted that no one can take his place. There was a romance in the life of Solomon Schechter. And this romance reflects the romance in the life of the modern Jew. Many a Jew in this last one hundred years began his career in an humble town within the ghetto walls and, under God’s blessing, unfolded his powers, assimilating all that the modern spirit had to offer and becoming an influence of international scope.’” 1

As Mordecai Kaplan described in his journal:
"The crowd of people that had gathered though large (about 1,500-2,000) was by no means commensurate with the significance of Dr. Schechter to Judaism. We may now be prepared for changes of an eventful character." 2

Schechter lived the final thirteen years of his life in America. Yet he pioneered unique and fitting visions for the American Jewish scene with the eyes of an outsider. Small examples include that he claimed that every rabbi should know how to play baseball — there was no way to bring Judaism to American society without it. His collection of essays, Seminary Addresses and Other Papers features an essay on Abraham Lincoln, on his 100th anniversary, a beautiful ode to the American bridge-builder (I shall editorialize here that Googlebooks rocks).

Brought from Cambridge University specifically to lead the newly reestablished Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Schechter’s scholarship of the Cairo Genizah, secular education and scientific approach to Judaism preceded his arrival to America.

Even before activating change at the helm of the Seminary, the American Jewish Yearbook gave him a prophetic billing: “In the near future, [America will become] the centre and focus of Jewish religious activity and the chosen home of Jewish learning.” 3

Schechter’s death marked much more than the death of just a man; people despaired that no individual could possibly replace him on the American Jewish scene, and thus the religion as a whole would suffer drastically.

Along with a certain mystique in the walls of the Seminary, his philosophy of Jewish life would reappear throughout Kaplan’s conceptions of Jewish peoplehood and community, and in Finkelstein’s attempts to secure the Seminary as the centerpiece of religious life in America, even the world, during his tenure.

While Schechter did not dub Judaism a “civilization,” his vision of Judaism as an all-encompassing entity, defined in both universal and national terms rings with Kaplan’s conceptions of viewing Judaism as an evolving civilization. Though Schechter would not go near to allowing his greater theology to change the nature of halakha, perhaps the reason why Kaplan was most thoroughly castigated, Schechter viewed Judaism as an evolving religion:

“Judaism was an organism with a natural growth, rooted in the Torah… That certain foreign beliefs and foreign usages should creep in was unavoidable, as Israel neither could nor would shut itself from the influences of the outside world.” 4

Schechter is widely known for his conceptions of the Jewish people being a nation of “Catholic Israel,” an ideal which manifested the unity of the Jewish people throughout the course of Jewish history. Kaplan, in fact, used Schechter’s rhetoric to describe the nature of the Jewish people being an organic community:

“Since the interpretation of Scripture or the Secondary Meaning is mainly a product of changing historical influence, it follows that the center of authority is actually removed from the Bible and placed in some living body, which by reason of its being in touch with the ideal aspiration and religions needs of the age, is best able to determine the nature of the Secondary Meaning.” 5

With the belief in the authority of community, Schechter thus philosophically felt that a unified body, not a denomination would shape the modern American experience; specifically for Schechter, the Seminary would seek to be the embodiment of Catholic Israel, thereby giving the institution the ability, even the mandate, to integrate modern sensibilities with Judaism. 6

Of course, this assumes that there is an entity that could possibly represent the views of the entirety of the Jewish people.

Granted, the Seminary could not truly be the centerpiece of world Jewry, as modernity allowed and mandated for personal autonomy and freedom of thought. However, Finkelstein’s efforts to position the Seminary as the beacon of Judaism gave it a particular influence whose base was set with Schechter.

In his inaugural speech, Schechter articulated the notion of the Seminary being a location for all Jews to study – this would not be the headquarters of Conservative Judaism, rather the epicenter of Judaism at large:

“Such a community is indeed a mystery. And this has become perplexing; for it is amidst all these Judaisms and non-Judaisms that my colleagues and myself are called upon to create a theological centre [sic.] which should be all things to all men, reconciling all parts and appealing to all sections of the community. If I understand correctly the intention of those who honored me with their call, and if I interpret my own feelings aright, this school should never become partisan ground or a hotbed of polemics, making ‘confusion worse confounded.’” 7

Defining the Seminary in the broadest possible terms, particularly at its inception, should not be surprising. As with a presidential inauguration, Schechter sought to give a vision for his entire career at the helm of what he hoped to be the bastion of Jewish learning in America. But the speech particularly resonates with Schechter’s ideological conceptions of “Catholic Israel,” which could have functioned independently from his helm at the Seminary. As Mel Scult explains, at least from the outset of his tenure as head of the Seminary, Schechter sought for the Seminary to what Kaplan would later dub, “adjectiveless Judaism.” 8

Finkelstein would seize upon these founding principles as a particular justification why he reached outside of the Seminary during his term, stating in 1945:

“I do not think it is an accident that the Seminary should find itself pushed, as it were, out of the Jewish scene and on the world scene. It did not do it out of choice. It was not that all of a sudden we got a brainstorm and decided we must go had and try to help build peace in the world. It is because the institution itself was built on these very foundations of peace and understanding people who are different, encouraging differences and being grateful for differences.” 9 [emphasis mine]

Schechter’s influence in the Jewish community, as well as his personal qualities, were omnipresent at the Seminary under Finkelstein’s term, so much so that over forty years after he gave his inaugural speech, this precedent could be used as a particular strong reason for why Finkelstein would foster a particular spirit at the Seminary.

If Schechter viewed denominationalism at all during his term, it was between Reform and everybody else, and as Neil Gillman described, the Seminary represented, “everybody else.”

Yet Schechter worked toward including the Reform factions in the community of Catholic Israel despite the deep ideological divides, notably stating in a 1913 speech:

“Thank God, there are still a great many things and aims for which both parties can work in harmony and perfect peace, and unite us… There is also the great work which Judaism can do for humanity at large, in which both parties can combine... We have become so infatuated with the doctrine of the survival of the fittest that we have lost all sensibility to the great moral catastrophes which are passing before our eyes.” 10

During a time when Reform Judaism attracted the largest portion of American Jews, Schechter did not try to convert Reformers to his viewpoint, but rather viewed that notions of denominationalism were particularly dangerous to the fabric of Judaism as a whole. 11

However, anyone else was welcome, anyone “who [had] not accepted the Union Prayer Book nor performed their religious devotion with uncovered heads.” 13 In his 1915 Seminary, Schechter again differentiated between “Reform and everybody else”:

“The greater part of a rather lengthy lecute is devoted to proving that not only was the application of scientific methods to Jewish studies not incompatible with the spirit of conservative 14 , but that it was largely conservative Jews, or at least, men indifferent to Reform tendencies, who availed themselves of the scientific method and became subsequently the most prominent representatives of the scientific movement….” 15

Notably, Rabbi Robert Gordis pointed to the qualification of the term Catholic Israel to illustrate that Kaplan could not be included in this community because of his abandonment of religious law as a binding factor in Jewish life. 16

With the justification of unifying Catholic Israel, Schechter established the United Synagogue of America, an organization that sought to unify the traditional forces in America, manifesting in its name its status as a non-denominational entity. 17 As Finkelstein would indicate in the forties, Schechter saw a unification of American Jewry as the only way to overcome what were inevitable struggles Judaism would have within the scope of modernity.

In his 1913 platform for the United Synagogue, Schechter explained that without a unified front against the inherent problems that would beset Judaism, the religion would dissolve:

“Yes, in view of the danger threatening the historic faith dear to Conservative and Orthodox alike, we regard is as a sacred duty that all forces unite, irrespective of the differences which otherwise divide them. Such cooperation should not be construed as the organization’s approval of all those innovations which some of its bodies have introduced….

Close observation for ten years and more has convinced me that unless we succeed in effecting an organization, which loyal to the Torah, to the teachings of the sages, to the traditions of the fathers, to the usages and customs of Israel, shall and the same time, introduce the English sermon and adopt scientific methods in our seminaries, in our training of Rabbis and schoolmasters for our synagogues and Talmud Torahs, and bring order and decorum in our synagogues, unless this is done, I declare unhesitatingly that Traditional Judaism will not survive another generation in this country.” 18

While “Conservative Judaism” may have been implanted on the movement from the outside, like with the name of the United Synagogue of America, Schechter noted that the name of the “Jewish Theological Seminary of America” was quite purposeful, chosen because it did not include references to a particular branch of Judaism; the directors of the institution had “distinctly shown their intention of avoiding sectarianism, for it is an especial American feature that no preference is given to any denomination or sect or theological richtung. All alike are welcome.” 19

Kaplan’s rhetoric more than forty years later in an address commemorating the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Seminary Teacher’s College resonated with Schechter’s inclusive ideology, seeking to create a Seminary that was true to the realities of its name:

“The precedent of having undergone metamorphoses twice before in the course of its career, as well as the inner restiveness both on its career, as well as the part of its graduates and lay adherents, should impel the Seminary to measure up to the need and opposition of these new times, and become the kind of institution that would resurrect the Jew’s faith in his people and its religion. In order to achieve this, the Seminary must avoid the pitfall of denominationalism.”20

Schechter’s emphasis to unite all non-Reform forces in America seems to indicate that he sought particularly to enact his ideology of “Catholic Israel” at the Seminary; certainly, the lack of a strong statement such as Reform’s 1885 “Pittsburgh Platform” marked the Seminary as not following the only known precedent for creating a new movement in Judaism. Additionally the Wissenschaft scholarship of the Seminary differentiated the institution from those to the right of Schechter’s Seminary. However, this situated the Seminary as a special subset of traditional Judaism, not a new movement in toto.

From his opening address, Schechter emphasized the importance of studying the gamut of the history of the Jewish religion, where he specifically named the importance of the scientific study of approach to Judaism, not necessarily as the Truth, but as a viable approach in the history of the religion:

“We cannot, naturally, hope to carry the student through all these vast fields of learning at the cultivation of which humanity has now worked for nearly four thousand years. But this fact must not prevent us from making the attempt to bring the students on terms of acquaintance at least with all those manifestations of Jewish life and Jewish thought which may prove useful to them as future ministers, and suggestive and stimulating to them as prospective scholars….

[Founder of the Wissenschaft approach to Judaism, Leopold] Zunz’s motto was ‘Real knowledge creates action’ and the existence of such men as R. Saadya Gaon and R. Hai Gaon, Maimonides, and Nachmanides, R. Joseph Caro and R. Isaac Abrabanel, Samson Raphael Hirsch and Abraham Geiger, and an innumerable host of other spiritual kings in Israel, all ‘mighty in the battles of the Torah,’ and voluminous authors, and at the same time living among their people and for their people and influencing their contemporaries, and still at this very moment swaying the actions and opinions of men – all these bear ample testimony to the truth of Zunz’s maxim.”21

For Schechter, incorporating the entirety of the Jewish experience was the only educationally honest way to approach learning; ignoring Wissenschaft approaches because of the antagonistic argument that deconstructing religious texts with modern techniques was heretical, was an evasion of the issues. (It should be noted that Biblical criticism was not studied at the Seminary until well into Finkelstein’s term as the head of the institution. During the first several decades of the 20th century, Biblical criticism was wielded as an anti-Semitic axe).

Jews, he said, had an obligation to question, and an additional approach did not have to be threatening: “There is no cause to be afraid of much learning, or rather, of much teaching. The difficulty under which we labor is rather that there are subjects which cannot be taught, and yet do form an essential part of the equipment of a Jewish minister.” 22

Schechter emphasized a complete involvement in Wissenschaft, to the exclusion of other aspects of a rabbinic life, even disliking the term “rabbi” itself.

Schechter sought to establish an institution that, above all, sponsored a feeling of intellectual freedom:

“The Torah gave spiritual accommodation for thousands of years to all sorts and conditions of men, sages, philosophers, scholars, mystics, casuists, school men and skeptics; and it should also prove broad enough to harbor the different minds of the present century…. The teaching in the Seminary will be in keeping with this spirit, and thus largely confined to the exposition and elucidation of historical Judaism in its various manifestations.” 23

The portrait of Schechter hanging down the hallway from the library gives me goosebumps nearly every time I pass it. His visions for living an immersive Jewish and American life still resonate with me unlike many other thinkers in Jewish history. In addition to studying the gamut of Jewish studies, his vision for being a vivid and vital rabbi in America still pushes me as I continue in my rabbinic journey.


1. Rabbi Samuel Schulman, “Solomon Schechter,”
Proceedings, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1916

2. Kaplan journal, Nov. 20, 1915 in Communings of the Spirit, 98

3. Jonathan Sarna,
American Judaism (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2004)188

4. Myer S. Kripke, “Solomon Schechter’s Philosophy of Judaism,”
The Reconstructionist, 1937

5. Kaplan, “Toward the Formulation of Guiding Principles of the Conservation Movement,” to be delivered December 6, 1949, labeled confidential, Ratner Center; also published as a supplement to
Conservative Judaism, Vol. VI, No. 4, May, 1950, 1-24

6. The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1904, s.v. “Judaism

7. Solomon Schechter, “Inaugural Address of Solomon Schechter as President of the Faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America,” New York, 1903, delivered Nov. 20, 1902, 7

8. Scult, “Schechter’s Seminary,” in
Tradition Renewed, 59

9. R.A.,
Proceedings, 1945 in Greenbaum, Louis Finkelstein and the Conservative Movement, 235

10. Herbert Parzen,
Architects of Conservative Judaism (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1964), 53

11. Ibid., 52

12. Ibid., 73

13. Ibid., 72

14. Schechter used the term “conservative” several times throughout his career as an adjective to describe the type of Judaism practiced at the Seminary. He never used Conservative with a capital “C” to describe the movement, however.

15. Schechter, “The Preface,” in
Tradition and Change, 100

16. Gordis, “Authority in Jewish Law,” Proceedings, Rabbinical Assembly, 1942, 83

17. In 1991, the Union would change its name to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, illustrating its commitment specifically to the Conservative movement.

18. Report United Synagogue of America, 1913, in Parzen, 68-69

19. Max Arzt, “Conservative Judaism as a Unify Force,”
Conservative Judaism, Vol. V, No. 4, June 1949, 13

20. Kaplan, “From Strength to Strength: A Proposal for a University of Judaism,” delivered February 4, 1945, Ratner Center Archives, 13

21. Solomon Schechter, “Inaugural Address,” 18-19

22. Ibid., 19

23. Ibid., 24-25

Thursday, November 26, 2009


In honor of Thanksgiving, a group of us headed over this morning to Gan Sacher and transformed it into Gan FOOTBALL.

Losers have to introduce themselves for the next week as follows: "Hi, I'm ____ and I'm a rabbinical student at JTS."

Good times.

A few West Wing Thanksgiving classics to warm your hearts before you warm your bellies.

And most importantly, the official transcript of President Obama pardoning the turkey:

For Immediate Release November 25, 2009



North Portico

11:41 A.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. Welcome to the White House. On behalf of Sasha and Malia and myself, we're thrilled to see you. I want to thank Walter Pelletier, chairman of the National Turkey Federation, and Joel Brandenberger, its president, for donating this year's turkey. His name is "Courage," and he traveled here from Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he was raised under Walter's own precious care.

(Turkey gobbles.)

THE PRESIDENT: There you go. (Laughter.)

Now, the National Turkey Federation has been bringing its finest turkeys to the White House for more than 50 years. I'm told Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson actually ate their turkeys. You can't fault them for that; that's a good-looking bird. (Laughter.) President Kennedy was even given a turkey with a sign around its neck that said, "Good Eatin', Mr. President." But he showed mercy and he said, "Let's keep him going." And 20 years ago this Thanksgiving, the first President Bush issued the first official presidential pardon for a turkey.

Today, I am pleased to announce that thanks to the interventions of Malia and Sasha -- because I was planning to eat this sucker -- (laughter) -- "Courage" will also be spared this terrible and delicious fate. Later today, he'll head to Disneyland, where he'll be grand marshal of tomorrow's parade. And just in case "Courage" can't fulfill his responsibilities, Walter brought along another turkey, "Carolina," as an alternate, the stand-in.

Now, later this afternoon, Michelle, Malia, Sasha and I will take two of their less fortunate brethren to Martha's Table, an organization that does extraordinary work to help folks here in D.C. who need it the most. And I want to thank Jaindl's Turkey Farm in Orefield, Pennsylvania, for donating those dressed birds for dinner. So today, all told, I believe it's fair to say that we have saved or created four turkeys. (Laughter.)

You know, there are certain days that remind me of why I ran for this office. And then there are moments like this -- (laughter) -- where I pardon a turkey and send it to Disneyland. (Laughter.) But every single day, I am thankful for the extraordinary responsibility that the American people have placed in me. I am humbled by the privilege that it is to serve them, and the tremendous honor it is to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the finest military in the world -- and I want to wish a Happy Thanksgiving to every service member at home or in harm's way. We're proud of you and we are thinking of you and we're praying for you.

When my family and I sit around the table tomorrow, just like millions of other families across America, we'll take time to give our thanks for many blessings. But we'll also remember this is a time when so many members of our American family are hurting. There's no question this has been a tough year for America. We're at war. Our economy is emerging from an extraordinary recession into recovery. But there's a long way to go and a lot of work to do.

In more tranquil times, it's easy to notice our many blessings. It's even easier to take them for granted. But in times like these, they resonate a bit more powerfully. When President Lincoln set aside the National Day of Thanksgiving for the first time -- to celebrate America's "fruitful fields," "healthful skies," and the "strength and vigor" of the American people -- it was in the midst of the Civil War, just when the future of our very union was most in doubt. So think about that. When times were darkest, President Lincoln understood that our American blessings shined brighter than ever.

This is an era of new perils and new hardships. But we are, as ever, a people of endless compassion, boundless ingenuity, limitless strength. We're the heirs to a hard-earned history and stewards of a land of God-given beauty. We are Americans. And for all this, we give our humble thanks -- to our predecessors, to one another, and to God.

So on this quintessentially American holiday, as we give thanks for what we've got, let's also give back to those who are less fortunate. As we give thanks for our loved ones, let us remember those who can't be with us. And as we give thanks for our security, let's in turn thank those who've sacrificed to make it possible, wherever they may be.

Now, before this turkey gets too nervous that Bo will escape and screw up this pardon -- (laughter) -- or before I change my mind, I hereby pardon "Courage" so that he can live out the rest of his days in peace and tranquility in Disneyland.

And to every American, I want to wish you, on behalf of myself, Malia, Sasha, and Michelle, the happiest of Thanksgivings. Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.)

END 11:48 A.M. EST

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Yahrtzeits of Conservative Movement gedolim: Yom Louis

Today, 4 Kislev, marks the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Louis Finkelstein (1895-1991) and Rabbi Louis Ginzberg (1873-1953), two luminaries in twentieth century Jewish studies, and Finkelstein a figure who transformed the landscape of American Judaism during the mid-twentieth century — הרב לוי בן הרב יצחק והרב אליעזר בן הרב שמעון וחנה. (Click for NYT obituaries).

The first rabbi to be featured on Time magazine, the article describes Finkelstein as follows:

“There is no one spokesman for U.S. Judaism, no central authority, no High Priest. All good Jews, in varying degrees of literalness, believe in the Law, but U.S. Judaism is a spectrum shading off by minute gradations from ultra-orthodoxy to ultra-modernism. In this spectrum, Finkelstein, a traditionalist with one keen, dark eye on the future, stands at the center.”1

The two renowned Louises were close both personally and academically, dating back to Finkelstein’s days as a rabbinical student at the Seminary. Finkelstein, who was a rising star in his days as a student, as well, was the first JTS student to receive the traditional rabbinic semikha (ordination) of Hatarat Horaah. Ginzberg examined Finkelstein for the exam.2

Ginzberg’s brilliance is the likes of few individuals of the past century. His masterpiece Legends of the Jews synchronizes all of Rabbinic midrash into a continuous narrative — and he did so before the computer was even conceived of. During a tour of the Penn library’s Jewish and Near Eastern Studies Room with my class on the Passover Haggadah (JANES is on the 4th floor in the back, if you’re curious), Professor David Stern pointed us to the six-volume set and declared that what took Ginzberg ten years to write would have taken any other person two lifetimes.

Ginzberg’s photographic memory and propensity for logic extended beyond the Jewish cannon. Following Albert Einstein’s arrival to the United States, Ginzberg engaged the physicist in both an academic and collegial relationship. Ginzberg’s ability to discuss math with Einstein was so great that it led him to think that he was the JTS professor of math!

“In all innocence, Einstein asked [Seminary chairman] Judge [Iriving] Lehman why the Seminary needed a department of mathematics,” Finkelstein recalled in a retrospective on Ginzberg’s life. “He got the impression from the conversation that Professor Ginzberg’s specialty was mathematics.”3

Among his many academic accomplishments, Ginzberg was the first Jew to receive an honorary doctorate from Harvard University, an honor he addressed as follows:

“I would have felt very sad if they would have ignored ‘Judaism’ or would have asked a so-called ‘representative’ Jew to represent Judaism. I am very happy that neither case happened; as far as I am concerned I am of course glad but not particularly so. I never craved for ‘fame’ which means a desire to be known by them who do not know you.”4

Throughout it all, Ginzberg was first and foremost a rabbi and religious Jew, seen in the title of his biography, Keeper of the Law. Rabbi David Golinkin's collection of his legal responsa illustrates the priority he put toward halakhic decision-making.

While Finkelstein’s influence stretched well beyond the walls of the academy, his intellectual acumen intimately affected both the scholar and the lay-person.

While in rabbinical school at JTS, Rabbi Alan Lucas did a favor for the Chancellor, and Finkelstein offered him a book a copy of The Jews as a thank-you. Rabbi Lucas responded that he already had a copy of The Jews, but would love a copy of the Sifrei (the Tannaitic midrash), if that would be okay. He then asked if Finkelstein would sign the copy.

“If you had asked for a copy of The Jews, I would have signed it for you,” he said. “But I didn’t write the Sifrei!”

And a sense of humor, to boot.

Even physically, he was a towering figure over American Judaism. An unofficial second-in-command at the Seminary during the thirties, he was the clear successor to Cyrus Adler, assuming the role of President of the Seminary in 1940 (the title chancellor would officially be given in 1949; he served as the leader of the institution until 1972).

A full biography of both Ginzberg and Finkelstein takes a book, and those books are well worth the read (Louis Ginzberg: Keeper of the Law and Louis Finkelstein and the Conservative Movement: Conflict and Growth). For now, some of my own reflections.

In 1950, Finkelstein dubbed the decade “more miraculous” even than the Exodus from Egypt, with “the manifestation of the Deity readily… discerned in almost any aspect of the downfall of Hitler.”4 So he placed religion in modern society — a dynamic engagement with the modern predicament.

Directly after one of the biggest public relations disasters in the history of the world, Finkelstein mandated a joining of disparate parties, particularly across religious spheres, to discuss and engage the problems of humanity.

“The waste of effort, the friction, and the controversies which this institutionalism involves are doubtless one of the most serious social problems of our age," he continued in the 1950 article, "and certainly is one of the most serious faced by the Jewish people.”5

Thus Finkelstein proposed a meeting of all groups in the community of Israel, because this moment in time particularly mandated it:

“I do know that if the participants are well chosen; and that if they are moved (as if properly chosen they inevitably would be) with the tragedy of all mankind, divided through barriers of misunderstanding, they will find a way to progress toward team-thinking; and with that toward appreciation of the real problem of our age – that of realizing the greatness of its potentialities, the miracles it has witnessed and the manifestation of God that has been granted it.”6

He manifested these goals nowhere more than in the symposia on Science, Philosophy and Religion. In the first ten years of the program, beginning in 1939, Finkelstein chaired conferences on the following subjects: Approaches to World Peace; Approaches to National Unity; Approaches to Group Understanding; Conflicts of Power in Modern culture; Learning and World Peace; Goals for American Education and Perspectives on a Troubled Decade.7 The names alone indicate how Finkelstein sought to bring together people from across faiths and backgrounds during a decade that he judged to be more tumultuous than any in the history of mankind.

In this vein, perhaps this quote manifests Finkelstein’s values more than any other:

“The era of isolationism is at an end, whether it applies to the isolation of nations, of peoples, or of cultural spheres…There can be no religious piety without social justice, no lasting economic prosperity without the sense for the spiritual, no political stability without compliance with moral principles. There is one God, one mankind, one law. The spirit of life is indivisible…

This reorientation is long overdue. The effort to effect it began with the birth of Judaism and it is of profound significance that the overwhelming insight into the need of such reorientation should come with a war which has brought the Jewish people unparalleled sorrow…

The problems of the ethical and social life transcend any group. Cooperation among scholars of all faiths concerning such problems is part of the Jewish tradition. We deem it appropriate to seek the clarification of the philosophical and moral problems in our time, insofar as they affect all men and require skills to be found in all groups, through cooperation across all differences and boundaries. We shall seek to further this cooperation because we believe that it can only lead to the deepening of our faith in Judaism, to the deepening of devotion to the true spirit of the Prophets among out neighbors.”8

Finkelstein was at the forefront of the underlying thesis which I have outlined elsewhere, that religion inherently was a moral force in the world, and that the manifestation of Nazism related the uniform failure of all religions to activate their moral norms. In plain terms, if religion had been doing its job, World War II would not have happened. Thus, as the leader of the Seminary, both during and after the war, Finkelstein brought together leaders from across the religious world.

As he expressed in 1941:

“The Seminary must always call attention to the long-range view… it is a grave matter to enter a war, without adequate military preparation; it may prove fatal to come into peace, without moral and religious preparation. It is with these thoughts in mind… that this Seminary has undertaken various talks looking toward the increase of understanding among various faiths, and also among the various intellectual disciplines, with a view to strengthening the moral and spiritual fiber of the American people. We realize that Judaism as a faith can survive only in an atmosphere of general faith.”9

In 1955, sociologist Will Herberg published his manifesto Protestant, Catholic, Jew, a testimony to the status to which Jews had risen in American civil life.1010 With synagogues across the suburban landscape of America and Finkelstein’s presence shining forth from 3080 Broadway, Conservative Judaism was at the center of that Jewish presence with the surrounding religious community. And perhaps the title of Herberg’s book manifests the Jews place in American society best: Herberg situated Jews in America alongside Protestants and Catholics as one of three contributors to the “American Way of Life.” Throughout American Jewish history, Jews had to struggle with the dialectical tension of acculturating into the American community while retaining a traditional Jewish life. Now, however, Herberg suggested that it was impossible to be American without being Jewish.

Finkelstein strongly believed that anti-Semitism was rooted in simple ignorance of the American populace. Thus, he brought Judaism to America. If Americans knew about the Jewish people, their behaviors and nationhood, they would welcome them as part of the melting pot. The NBC Eternal Light radio television series brought Judaism to the nation, a fact that Kaplan stressed often:

“The time will come when Jewry will be grateful to Dr. Finkelstein for having widened the horizons of Jewish life in the country, and having taught the Jewish people to realize that it must serve the general community and bring to bear the best in its tradition upon the development of the general life about us.”11

By no means did all Conservative rabbis endorse the Seminary expansion patterns, plans which gave more resources to relationships between world religions than movement synagogues. Conservative Movement luminaries Rabbi Solomon Goldman of Ansche Emet in Chicago and Rabbi Milton Steinberg of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York particularly berated Finkelstein’s efforts.

As Steinberg stated in a draft of a letter to Goldman:

“Too many movements for the vitalization of Conservative Judaism have died amidst those conferences, round-table discussions, etc. of which Dr. Finkelstein is so fond…. My discontent isn’t something that is to be arbitrate[d]…. And last of all, I want the Seminary to take the lead in making Judaism really historical Judaism. That is to say, both traditional and evolving. I want the Seminary to do something practical about the Jewish law of divorce, about Shabbos Observance, Kashruth, about vitalizing Jewish worship. What else are the Seminary and Conservative Judaism for?”12

The Conservative movement became the most visible Jewish movement on the American scene during the 1950s, both physically and ideologically. The movement manifested a spirit of religious pluralism, and people felt that it fused both Americanism and Judaism into a reality that did not have to sacrifice one ideal for the sake of another. Of course, sociological realities redefined religion during this period, which certainly no longer meant religion in the form of traditional observance.

But for Finkelstein, this era represented what retrospectively appears to have been prophetic revelation. Though he did not talk of the importance of the synagogue, Finkelstein paved an ideology for reciprocal dialogue between America’s religious communities, a condition that would become essential during the suburban life of America’s Jews, who, for the most part, no longer lived next to other Jews.

At least in the fifties, people flocked to the movement, seeking the pluralistic ideology that Finkelstein had established for the Seminary.

1. “A Trumpet for All Israel,” Time, October 15, 1951, 52-59

2. Kaplan Journals, Oct. 17, 1922, in Communings of the Spirit, 169

3. Finkelstein, CJ, Winter 74

4. Finkelstein, “The Jew in 1950,” Conservative Judaism, Vol. VI, No. 4, May, 1950, 1

5. Ibid., 4

6. Ibid., 5

7. Lymon Bryson, Finkelstein, R.M. MacIver, eds., Perspectives on a Troubled Decade (Harper and Brothers, New York: 1950), vi

8. Statement by the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1946 in Michael Greenbaum, Louis Finkelstein and the Conservative Movement, (Binghamton, N.Y. : Global Publications, 2001), 67

9. Report to Board of Directors, 6 April 1941, in Greenbaum, “The Finkelstein Era,” in Tradition Renewed, 167

10. Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in Religious Sociology (New York: Doubleday, 1956)

11. Greenbaum, Louis Finkelstein and the Conservative Movement, 241

12. Jacob J. Weinstein, Solomon Goldman: A Rabbi’s Rabbi (New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1973), 44

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Yahrtzeit of the greats of the Conservative Movement; today: R. Mordecai Menahem Kaplan, 2 Kislev

Often we speak of our lives in terms of “aha” moments. In turning points.

It never is so simple. Lives don’t exist in vacuums as such.

Yet our lives still can be defined by specific moments which manifest these larger trends.

Educationally, an internship at the National Museum of American Jewish History served as a springboard to much of my current interest in modern Jewish history and overall exploring Jewish identity in the modern world. There I began work on a paper about the excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan. In the coming year, a version of it will be published in the American Jewish Archives Journal. Keep your eyes peeled.

The assignment was to originally write a 20-page paper on anything I wanted. That semester it ended up being 60.

The following semester, I decided to turn it into a formal thesis. The topic consumed me. And it really has only blossomed from there.

In the process of writing the thesis, I studied the history of the Conservative Movement, with particular attention paid to the Schechter and Finkelstein years (heads of the Jewish Theological Seminary between 1902-15 and 1940-72, respectfully) .

For a whole host of reasons, the history of JTS and the Conservative Movement as a whole is my favorite academic subject. I read this stuff for fun. Both for the fun facts — and the macro ideologies. (I am pained when apartments such as those on the fifth floor of 515 W. 122nd St. use Tradition Renewed as a TV stand — I'm talking to you Loosh).

With this said, I’ll be sharing a series of posts commemorating some of the giants of the Conservative Movement on each respective yahrtzeit (anniversary of the day that an individual died, literally, a year of time in Yiddish).

They have a special spot on the Bustenai Google Calendar (that's right. If you are visiting, you'll be featured prominantly) and will on this blog, too.

This is not meant to “Lionize” the individuals. Though it might do so in the process.

Mostly, it’s a chance to give credit where it’s due.

Today, the second of Kislev is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Mordecai Menahem Kaplan, הרב מרדכי מנחם בן הרב ישראל. He lived for 102 years, between 1881 and 1983.

For an incredible set of interviews that Professor Mel Scult conducted with Kaplan, see this .

I presented the following text four years ago to the Conservative Yeshiva, with some modifications I have made since then. Below that are some additional sources to consider:

Here’s as quick a resume rundown I can do for a man that lived 102 years and was one of the most influential Jewish leaders in America for almost that entire time. Kaplan graduated in 1902 from the Jewish Theological Seminary and during the next twenty years alone he did the following: was the rabbi at Kehillat Jeshurun in New York, where he was the first to institute English sermons in an Orthodox synagogue, professor at the Seminary beginning in 1909 until 1963, founder of Young Israel, founder of the Teacher’s Institute at the Seminary (now List College), rabbi of the New York Jewish Center – he was also one of the chief candidates to be the chief rabbi of Great Britain, though he turned down the offer (that’s a little known fact, courtesy of this interview. Impress your friends).

Fast forward a bit and he founded and was rabbi of the Society for Advancement of Judaism synagogue, officiated at the first Bat Mitzvah in America (his daughter), founded an ideology that would lead to its own movement, founded another synagogue in Israel and greatly shaped the consciousness of being a religious Jew in America. That was the recap.

Yet through all of this, he remarked in his journal during the mid-twenties about how he was deeply disappointed in about how he had not published. Let's just say he caught up.

To my mind, the most remarkable part about Mordecai Kaplan rested in how he evolved and enunciated a philosophy and then found a way to activate it in modern American life. He literally translated ideology into action. Of course, to his mind, there really was no choice but to do this – if he didn’t American Judaism was bound to die. As he wrote in, Judaism as a Civilization: “The truth of the matter is that what is at stake is the very maintenance of Jewish life as a distinct societal entity. Its very otherness is in jeopardy.”

But in many ways, the fifties in American Judaism epitomized his vision 20 years prior – the Finkelstein era of the Seminary had the base-ideology of Kaplan, though Finkelstein would never say this aloud. His very ideology sparked the action of an engaging pluralism in American Judaism.

During a talk at Brandeis Hillel, when he was well into his nineties he remarked a statement that continues to resonate with me: “those who did not agree with his viewpoint on Judaism had a right to be wrong — but in his estimation they were still wrong.” This view is common in modern discourse, but in the seventies was well ahead of its time.

His main philosophical thesis is now common in academic circles – that each era of Jews have evolved over the course of time, that each “civilization” represented different cultural significance and therefore had to be judged on its own merit, particularly when discussing halakhic norms. Ironically oft-quoted by the Reform movement now, ironic because he polemicized against Reform throughout his career, Kaplan thus stated that “halakha has a vote but not a veto.”

Meanwhile, his theological naturalism served as the backbone to associate with a modern manifestation of God, what Kaplan referred to as “the Power that makes for salvation.” For Kaplan it was not a matter of what God “is” but how God interacted with the world.
Ira Eisenstein, Kaplan’s chief disciple and son-in-law, once found him “davening from Dewey” – one of Kaplan’s “rebbes” of naturalism.

The fact that Kaplan created tangible ways for people to interact with his vision of Judaism made the religion a communal venture, which was ultimately his goal in the first place. And that was what people most feared.

It is why the ENTIRE faculty of JTS issued a unanimous letter to Kaplan berating him for the changes he made in his New Haggadah of 1941. It’s why Agudat HaRabbanim excommunicated him in 1945 and subsequently burned a copy of his prayer book as part of the formal ceremony.

As the formal text reads of the excommunication (herem) reads:

“Dr. Kaplan has published a new monster that was prepared in the name of a prayer book [their emphasis]; its contents were shown to the eye of every heretic and heresy before the God of Israel and the fields of the faith of Israel’s Torah… Because every Jewish Haredi knows from a Reformer, that he needs to stray from them, but the Conservative clothe themselves in a new Judaism after them stream Haredi Jews, because they think that it is the same as ours.”

A book that could simultaneously lead haredim to think that it was a traditional siddur and lead them to complete heresy? That’s something.

The only people that get excommunicated are those that have serious influence. You have to have some serious tochen (substance). Traditionalists feared Kaplan because he had power in the community, and used it to lead people toward his conception of relating to Jewish Civilization in the modern era. Say what you want about his theology, his manipulation of the liturgy — his impact on building communities is admirable.

In the past decade, people would call him a community organizer. But his efforts went way beyond that.

People often assign the term “modern prophet” to certain monumental icons of the modern era. They give the term to giants such as Lincoln and King. But what exactly does the term mean? For me, a modern prophet is one who assigned his entire existence to end the iniquity of a particular status quo. Kaplan certainly would apply here.

On Kaplan’s 90th birthday, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said of his fellow modern prophet: “I have a suspicion that just as the mystics of old used to stay up at midnight worrying about the Shekhina, he stays up at night doing Tikkun Hatzos (midnight prayers of repairing cosmic damage) and worrying about the Jewish people.”1

Sitting now in the Israeli state with such disparate communities, Kaplan’s vision for community building, for organizing, would have particular merit for 2009. His words still ring true 75 years after the publication of his manifesto, Judaism as a Civilization.

Some food for thought, selected paragraphs written by Kaplan:

On Jewish prayer:

“Unfortunately, we Jews have limited prayer to the deadening routine of reciting the few meager passages which make up our official prayer book. If I [had] anything to do with prescribing the rules of prayer… I would have insisted that the vast storehouse of religious poetry be drawn upon continually.”

“A liturgy, like every vital living organism, should be a growth and not a manufactured article like a piece of haberdashery, or a sort of charade. It should be the incarnation of the Godly life of a people’s soul…."2

Recognition of Benedict Spinoza's precedent in modern Jewish thought:

“What Spinoza really did was to shatter once and for all the pretentious claims of the philosophers of the traditional religions that they were able to harmonize the theurgic conception of God with the philosophic conception. And his second achievement is in demonstrating that the philosophic conception of God can serve as the basis of an ethical program. To be sure even in this respect he was anticipated by the Stoics. But there is a difference between saying a thing for the first time, and reaffirming it in the face of universal denial and opposition.”3

Commentary on Halacha, using the example of a Herem (excommunication decree) as a particular precedent for the human politicization of God’s law (3 years prior to his own excommunication):

“What was intended to be only divine law was translated into human sovereignty. The abolition of the Herem has brought about the need for rethinking our position from that moment on. Jewish law is based on voluntarism. There cannot be any more the sanctions which make law, if you are going to use the term law in a pulpit sense.”4

Kaplan, after the excommunication:

“Here is where the nazi [sic] pattern of struggle for power beings to emerge,” explained Kaplan in his journal. “The Nazis – the spokesmen of a people trying to overcome its sense of insecurity by a violent struggle for power – singled out the democracies as the object of attack. In order to bring about inner division among these democracies the nazis [blamed] the Jews, who were the most conspicuous beneficiaries of democracy …. In like manner the most conspicuous beneficiaries of the liberal policy of the Conservative movement is Kaplan whose atheistic philosophy is the dominant philosophy of the movement. It is therefore urgent that we must stop him. Now that he has come out with a prayer book in which he openly aims his heresies is the most opportune time to launch an attack against the entire Conservative movement.”5


"I have always had nothing but profound contempt for the rabbis associated with the 'Union + C.' I had enough of a close-up view of them to know their unusual dealings... This bastardly action of theirs at the present time when even the greatest reactionaries are still lying low and dare not violate publicly the four freedoms for which the war against Germany was suffered and won is liable to render us Jews odious even to the more liberal elements of the general community. What a shattering effect this exhibition of moral [degeneracy] on the part of men who call themselves rabbis has upon me I can hardly express. All my efforts depend upon faith in the Jewish people. With so much corruption wherever I turn, I find it exceedingly hard to carry on the struggle for Jewish survival. Truth to tell I experience neither the sufferings nor the consolation of a martyr.

If I were asked what I regard as the most disheartening aspect in Jewish life as reflected in the tragi-comedy of the herem, I would say that… we have rabbinical gangsters who resort to nazi methods in order to regain their authority and on the other hand our Jewish journalists are cynical about the whole business and treat the very attempt to articulate religious values in terms of a modern outlook in life as silly and superfluous."6

Commonality/”Pluralism” among the Jewish people

“Driven underground, our differences will only cancel out one another, leaving us completely neutralized. Brought to the surface and granted the normal interchange in the free market of ideas and ideals, our differences will enable each group among us to further in its own way what we all agree on as essential to the future of Judaism. We shall thus all be partners in the great adventure which all of us who have anything to contribute to the revitalization of Jewish life should be permitted to share.”7

On the mission of the Seminary

“It is that policy which Dr. Finkelstein has had the occasion to translate into deeds in a more strenuous time and under more difficult conditions those with which Dr. Schechter had to cope…The great function of reconciling all parties and appealing to all sects of the community, Dr. Finkelstein has shown himself as capable of carrying out in a manner so masterly, so skillful that we ought to be thankful to God that at this time when there is so much danger from divisiveness in the life of the Jewish people, that a leader has been given [to] us who is making of this institution a power for Jewish unity by none on the American scene.”8


“The precedent of having undergone metamorphoses twice before in the course of its career, as well as the inner restiveness both on its career, as well as the part of its graduates and lay adherents, should impel the Seminary to measure up to the need and opposition of these new times, and become the kind of institution that would resurrect the Jew’s faith in his people and its religion. In order to achieve this, the Seminary must avoid the pitfall of denominationalism.”9

Reflections on chaos breaking out in his classroom, an anomaly for the gifted teacher, but manifest of him never feeling at home in the Seminary.

“Before I knew it I realized that I had started a hornet’s nest. I was stung more than once by some of the remarks of the students. A battle royal broke out between the rightists and the leftists and between all of them and the Seminary as a while as represent at the moment by myself…[The rightists] referred particularly to my course. That hurt me keenly because I know that their attitude is entirely the result of the efforts of men like [Simon] Greenberg, [Moshe] Davis & [Bernard] Mandelbaum to foster a yarmulke and minyan kind of piety in the institution and of Prof. Abraham Heschel to counteract my influence by making my position out to be merely that of sociology and psychology without any understanding of the meanings of religion.” 10

On the founding of the University of Judaism:

“The decision of the Seminary authorities to develop their institution in to a university of Judaism is not prompted by love of bigness. They are impelled to take that step by the exigencies of American Jewish life. They realize that, if our children are to accept themselves as Jews, they must be provided with trained leadership not merely for their religious interests, but for all their Jewish interest, including the secular [emphasis his]. The problem of how to get our children to accept themselves as Jews is a very different one nowadays. We have to think and act anew.”11

1. S. Daniel Breslauer, Mordecai Kaplan’s Thought in a Postmodern Age, (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1994), 283

2. Kaplan Journal, May 21, 1933 in Jack Cohen, Major Philosophers of Jewish Prayer in the Twentieth Century (New York : Fordham University Press, 2000), 64

3. Kaplan Journals, Sept. 10, 1928, published in Communings of the Spirit: The Journals of Mordecai Kaplan, ed. Mel Scult, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press and The Reconstructionist Press, 2001), 265

4. Kaplan, “Comments on Dr. Gordis’ Paper,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, 1942, 97

5. Kaplan Journals, June 23, 1945

6. Kaplan Journals, June 16, 1945

7. Kaplan, R.A. Proceedings, 1945, 202 in Greenbaum, Louis Finkelstein and the Conservative Movement, 253

8. R.A., Proceedings, “Testimonial to Rabbi Louis Finkelstein,” 1945, 201

9. Kaplan, “From Strength to Strength: A Proposal for a University of Judaism,” delivered February 4, 1945, 17, Ratner Center, 13

10.Kaplan Journal, 25 January 1950, in Scult, “Kaplan’s Heschel: A View from the Diary,” Conservative Judaism, Summer 2002

11. Kaplan, “A University of Judaism,” Conference on a University of Judaism, November 1946, 4, Ratner Center

A response to Halkin — from a teacher

One of the educators on our Thursday informal programs through Israel recently published what I read partly as a response to Halkin's talk with our group. Alex Sinclair's article Why Silence over Israel's wrongs is anti-Zionist mandates American engagement with Israel, and condemns Halkin's explicit Israel-centrism of the relationship.

It's well written. Based on what you know from the previous post, I'd be interested in your feedback on how it relates to my own thoughts.

Follow-up questions for Alex are how to make these proposals happen in the micro, on the ground.

Below is the article from Haaretz:

Why silence over Israel's wrongs is anti-Zionist
By Alex Sinclair

Israel is not living up to its potential, and one reason for that is because American Jews have not insisted that their voices be heard.

The recent flood of articles and essays about American Jews "losing their love" for Israel is based not only on a misguided conception of Israel-Diaspora relations, but also on a misguided conception of what a loving relationship is about.

There is a famous Rashi on Genesis 2:18, in which God decides to create a partner for Adam. The Biblical narrator has God say "It is not good for man to be alone; I will make him a helper against him." The Hebrew here, "ezer k'negdo," is tricky, and has always perplexed translators. Some try "corresponding to him," some try "beside him," some try "fitting." None of these captures the oddness of the Hebrew.

Rashi comments as follows: "If he is worthy: a helper; if he is not worthy: against him, to fight with him." Generations of rabbis have used this beautiful comment to talk about the complexity of the relationship between spouses, and to suggest that a true marriage is based on the ability and willingness to give honest and critical feedback to one's spouse if they lose their way. A spouse is not a yes-man (or woman); a spouse is someone who disagrees with you when you are wrong.

The current crisis - and it is a crisis, make no mistake about it - in the relationship between American Jewry and Israel is because we have forgotten this Rashi.

We need to remember this Rashi because it suggests that American Jews should offer angry, vocal, confrontational critique when they feel that Israel is practicing particular policies that they find unworthy. Note the word that Rashi uses: "to fight." Not just to critique, not just to gently remind, not just to seek to influence, but to shout, to confront, to demand to be heard.

If we want American Jews and Israel to be in a truly deep relationship, then we need to enable American Jews to be the ezer k'negdo, the helping spouse who fights. After all, they do enough helping. We can't ask American Jews to support us, visit us, give us their money, and be inspired by us, without allowing them - demanding of them - to tell us what they think. It is taxation without representation. It is an abuse of the relationship between us. It is blasphemy to the very notion of a Jewish state.

This approach will ultimately lead to a much richer marriage between American Jews and Israel. Young American Jews throw their weight behind other causes, causes where demands are made on them, where they are encouraged to fight against injustice, to debate, to create change. We don't give them these opportunities with Israel. Go and change the world, we say; but when it comes to Israel, you must close off your creative energies, your critical thinking, your fiery emotions, and just support politely from the sidelines. No wonder they are not interested.

Young American Jews will not develop renewed commitment to Israel unless we demand that they make demands; that they become the ezer k'negdo. Every Jewish day school should require every single student to join an Israeli political party. Every synagogue should do the same for its members. When American Jewish groups come here on missions, they should be doing so not just to support, but also to demand, to critique, to tell us where we are going wrong.

The lack of American Jewish voices in modern Israel is a tragedy. Israel, for all its wonders, its achievements, and its robustness, is not living up to its potential, and one of the reasons for that gap is the lack of American Jewish voices in its culture, religion, and politics.

Thomas Friedman writes more perceptively about Israeli politics than any Israeli journalist or politician; why are his pieces not regularly and immediately translated into Hebrew? Abraham Joshua Heschel revolutionized our understanding of Jewish spirituality; most religious Israelis have never heard of him. Diaspora Jewish educational thinkers and practitioners have made enormous strides in working out how to get Jews of different religious streams to sit, talk, and learn together; Israel is decades behind. There are countless other examples. Both sides are at fault. Israelis have been too stubborn, too arrogant, or too busy, to listen; but American Jews have not been willing to be the ezer k'negdo, the spouse who fights.

Israel is not living up to its potential, and one reason for that is because American Jews have not insisted that their voices be heard. This is scandalous. It is anti-Zionist. It is suicidal. It must change

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Supporting Israel from the Diaspora — What does it mean?

Israel is one of the greatest human adventures of all time. A people absent from its land for 1500 years, whatever, driven from one corner of the earth to the other. Standing up for its beliefs. Suddenly comes back and reconstitutes itself as a full functioning society. Where else do you have such a story in the annals of the human race? Such tenacity! Such identity! To be able to come back to the original source and reconstitute itself. We have stood up for the rights of small people as no other has. We stand up for others — we want to save the whales, the whooping cranes. The struggle of the Jews is the struggle of small cultures everywhere — of the Indians in the Amazon, of the Inuits in Alaska, the Tibetans in China. We are one of the few people that has survived as a culture. The story of Israel is the story of survival of the small culture.
- Hillel Halkin, author and translator, from a meeting we had on Thursday, 12 Nov. in Zikhron Yaakov, Israel.

On Thursday we journeyed north to Hod HaSharon, Kfar Sababa and Zikhron Yaakov to visit Masorti Congregations and speak about Conservative Judaism in Israel.

Hillel Halkin, who writes for Commentary, has written a few books of his own and translated some of the Israeli classics, concluded the day. He got us all thinking. (for a few articles, see here and here).

It’s not that he doesn’t care about American Judaism. It’s that he wants us to care more about Israel than he does about America. And he realizes that this is hypocritical.

He voiced particular displeasure toward the recent actions of the organized American left (read JStreet) voicing opinions in moral absolutes, as voyeurs on a situation which they interact with from afar.

He voiced frustration with the very formulation of moral absolutes, particularly in terms of defense. American liberals really can attempt to explore the moral ramifications of checkpoints?

Why support the government of Israel? Because they are the democratically elected representatives of the state. After one takes part in that democratic process, protest away — but be a part of it first.

The issue transcends the particularist political view, though. For right-wingers, as well, supporting the settler movement from the Diaspora was encouraging an oppressive state. If people had such ideologies, they should get up and find their favorite hill in the Shomron (Samaria).

What does all this practically mean? He compares the ethics of the Diaspora toward to those of his youth, when he and other like-minded Jews headed down to Alabama during the Civil Rights movement. They did good work for a year. But in the end, they left after a year. And Black Alabamans stayed living in Alabama.

“The ethics of the Diaspora are like the ethics of Jews like me in Alabama — doing a little here and a little there,” he said. “Here everything is our problem. This is the test of Jewish ethnicity. If we can’t make it work here, then it’s not worth anything.”

It isn’t that there is not a role for Diaspora Jews in Israel. But that there should not be an illusion of what that service is.

I picked up Halkin’s book, Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist's Polemic, Sunday at the library. It still has me thinking, frustrated and confused. What is my place here as a continual visitor in Israel? Is there a place for support from the outside? Am I really “on trial” during my visit to Israel, as he stresses repeatedly during the book? Should I be?

In many ways, I felt that Halkin was speaking directly to me on Thursday. I’m about a third of the way through his book — same story.

He presents the metaphor of a person who enters a synagogue and wants people to come up and welcome him:

“There is still a third possibility. This time our visitor has no wish to evade the ambiguous nature of his relationship, it s in the hope of resolving it that he has so eagerly looked to his visit, although at the same time he is apprehensive of being questioned by the congregants and unsure of what to reply. Inside he is disappointed to find that the building is not terribly attractive and that he service is noisy and indecorous; yet he is nevertheless drawn to its dramatic location and to the stark but haunting view with its powerful associations by feelings he cannot deny. In fact, when he rises to leave in the end, he lingers for a moment by the door in the hope that he will be approached after all, since there’s a thought he needs to get off his chest— and this doesn’t happen he lapses into dialogue with himself. “Will you join our congregations?” he asks, taking the part of an imaginary congregant. And he answers: “Your question doesn’t surprise me, and I’m even glad that you asked. Yet, if I may speak frankly, your building is too unattractive to me and your service too foreign for this to be possible. I could never feel ant home with them, and I would be untrue to myself if I allowed myself to think that I could. But I will continue to take and interest in your fortunes, which I know are related to mine, and to remember you fondly when I leave; and I will certainly make every attempt to visit you here again soon.” And with that he drops a modest sum, though it’s perhaps all he has in his pockets, into the donation box, makes a humorous remark to keep the moment from becoming too solemn and walks pensively out the door” (30).

Underlying this paragraph is that one needs to have more than a “shrug and nervous laugh” in relationship to why not live in Israel — particularly after spending a significant amount of time here.

It assumes, in Heschelian language, that Israel is the “ontological presupposition” of Jewish peoplehood, that the experience of Israel and engaging with the fullness of the Jewish nation in Israel presupposes any knowledge of the reality as such.

And while I rarely hear things framed thusly, perhaps there’s something to it — Why aren’t you living in Israel?

Maybe that should be the formulation of the question. Are we afraid of it?

I have several reasons why living in America is best for me individually, and communally, too. A few for why living in Israel isn’t the right fit, as well — some of which are selfish in orientation, some which have more solid backing.

But through this all, what then does it mean to “support” Israel from the Diaspora. Political support? Louis Brandeis’ monetary Zionism of the second decade of last century? Education about Zionism as a fundamental component of Jewish identity?

Halkin comments:

“It all very kind of Jews in New York or Los Angeles to wish to express their solidarity with us in the face of such a scandal and to find no better way to do so than to wear “I am a Zionist” buttons like carnations in their lapels, but since a Zionist is precisely what none of them is — for what Zionism happens to involve is the Jewish decision not to live in Los Angeles or New York — they are doing no one any service by confusing the issue even further” (19).

This is an oversimplification, to be sure.

But castigating it just for the reason that you disagree with it is also silly. What is wrong about the statement? Formulate an alternative in positive terms.

In my mind there is a combination of factors which contribute to answer this central question, chief among them education about Israel’s place in the history of the Jewish people. Putting on a button, waving a flag, very well might be a part of the emotional outpouring of the relationship with Israel, in fact it probably has to be. But that is not the relationship at its core.

Halkin cites a series of statistics about the downfall of Judaism in the Diaspora, of ignorance, of assimilation. While it is not “assimilation,” as such, I could just as easily cite the similar religious ignorance in Israel, even in an enveloping Jewish state, a lack of Zionist ideology, as well.

Halkin himself stated on Thursday that "The age of ideology is dead — now the hard work begins." That is not unique to Zionism, but indeed a primal factor of life in the post-modern world, a term which I dislike, but recognizes this paradigm shift most readily.

Such is the polemical approach, one which I wish Halkin didn’t take. He didn’t needed it, and it is counterproductive.

The underlying question in my mind is there such thing as Jewish nationhood outside of Israel. Is there such thing as it in general, quite frankly?

On Thursday, Halkin suggested that Israel represents Jewish ideology and ethics in action, the activation of a living tradition, the test of the fabric of the religion itself.

Indeed, Israel Friedlaender (my favorite Zionist, if you’re keeping track at home) voiced this sentiment 100 years ago, while the state was but a dream:

We Jews love Palestine, not because it tickles our political ambitions, or allures us with material prospects, but because we fervently hope that those great ideals which were proclaimed in ancient Palestine thousands of years ago may once more be realized in modern Palestine, not only for the benefit of the Jews, but as an object-lesson for the whole of humanity. “For out of Zion shall come forth the Law, and the word of the Lord out of Jerusalem."1

Goosebumps, really. Beautiful stuff. Friedlaender was killed by a gang in 1920, in his forties, while on a relief mission to Russia. It is amazing to think what he would have accomplished with more years.

Yet where Halkin differs from Friedlaender is his polemic against the Diaspora. These pillars of Jewish peoplehood, of nationhood, are not irreconcilable poles, but necessary compliments to the other. I understand that, again, I cite from a document a century old. But the contemporary relevance is uncanny2 (this is a long source, but is gold, Jerry, GOLD. Read to the end, please. I also guarantee that you haven’t read it — unless you hang out in the JTS archives):

As one who follows carefully your public utterances, I may be forgiven for saying that your remarks about Nationalism and Zionism do not seem to me to be wholly justified. I would not say a word if Nationalism and Zionism would actually be guilty of what you attribute to them. We would simply have to respect your convictions, though they be unfriendly to us. But, it seems to me that neither Nationalism nor Zionism, as generally understood and advocated by their representatives, deserve your strictures. When Jewish nationalists speak of the Jews as a Nation, this does not at all imply that they have, or should have, a political government. The word is merely used in the meaning, which it has all over Europe, i.e., in that of a community bound together, not only by the ties of religion, but also by the bonds of common birth (from the Latin natio), in the same way as they speak in Europe of a Polish nation…. It is true, the term “nation” has assumed a somewhat different connotation in America, but I am sure that few, if any, Jewish nationalists use the word in the sense which you attribute to them. The best proof for this is the fact that there are thousands of Jews, right here in this city, who call themselves Jewish nationalists, but are not Zionists and are, in many cases, even anti-Zionists.

As for Zionism, you [sic] contention would be justified if Zionism were to teach that all Jews must leave the lands of their abode and settle in Palestine. Such exaggerated notions may have found isolated expression in the first beginnings of the Movement, when the wonderful personality of Dr. Herzl made the impossible appear possible. But, I can assure you that no responsible advocate of Zionism upholds this idea. All that Zionism, as generally understood, hopes and works for, is that of the twelve million Jews, who are scattered all over the world and are, or should become, part and parcel of the commonwealth in which they live, a fraction, let us say, one or two millions, shall settle in the land of their Ancestors where, undisturbed by any non-Jewish or anti-Jewish influences, they may develop a genuine Jewish culture and may give full and unrestricted expression to our great Jewish ideals. If I may speak for myself, I am a strong believer in the future of American Jewry, which, I hope, will grow in numbers and in powers and will be equally American and Jewish, and I dream of the time when American Judaism will be as great and as glorious as was Judaism in Spain. But I cannot possibly see any contradiction in believeing [sic], at the same time, that there will be a Jewish settlement in Palestine, which, under the suzerainty of Turkey, will live the life of a free people, will build up our historic home, will speak our historic message, will cherish our great religion with its historic institutions and will foster our lofty historic ideals, so that, far from interfering with the Jews in other countries, the Jewish centre in Palestine may be a source of inspiration and instruction for them and that the law may once more, come forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.3

Thus, education about Judaism fundamentally is also teaching about Jewish nationhood. Jewish nationalism fundamentally is not restricted to Israel, though Israel is an, even the, essential part of this discussion in 2009. Is Jewish peoplehood really dead, as Halkin suggests here?

I have more faith in Judaism than that.

The above thoughts didn’t emerge from Halkin alone. Such feelings don’t exist in a vacuum.

After a long talk with a good friend, I no longer feel the painful discomfort that I had over the past week. My autonomy really does matter, as do the contributions which I hope to contribute to Jewish nationhood, to Jewish civilization, in the Diaspora. The discomfort will undoubtedly reappear. Israel has had that affect on people for centuries.

Halkin’s views certainly have merit. To dismiss them is easy to do because of simple discomfort. But that precisely is the “nervous laugh” which he pins right back on the individual. Encountering this view is an essential component of being honest to the very fabric of her being.

Israel perhaps should be the ontological presupposition of modern Jewish nationhood— we should at least think to frame it in those terms.

And some do.

In Hebrew the letter “Vav” (ו) can be both conjunctive and disjunctive. Two years ago, we studied an example in Talmud where Rashi and the Ritba read the course of a sugya in completely opposite ways, depending on whether that vav meant “but” or “and.” I’ll leave it ambiguous here, too.

Vav there’s good stuff happening in America. I’ve seen it. There’s a need for hard work across the Jewish nation.


1. Friedlaender, “Palestine and the Diaspora,” in Past and Present, (Burning Bush Press: New York, 1961), 333

2. Chancellor Arnie Eisen also noted the startling parallels:

It is positively eerie to read Israel Friedlaender’s essay of a century ago and consider how utterly contemporary its formulations remain. The awesome events we call the Holocaust and Israel still lay far in the future. The successes of the present-day Jewish community in this country were unimagined and unimaginable. Yet the quandaries Friedlaender posed are still our quandaries for the most part, his commonplaces and assumptions closely resemble ours, his evasions are the ones to which we too resort. Even the conception of the American Jewish situation as ‘problem’ remains in full force despite achievements and opportunities which should have made us, long since, far more confident of our present as well as our future.

See: Eisen, “The Problem is still very much with us,” Conservative Judaism, Volume 56, Special Supplement, 2004, 20

3. Letter from Friedlaender to Jacob Schiff, April 10, 1911, Archives of the Jewish Theological Seminary