Rabbi Louis Finkelstein

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Rabbi Louis Finkelstein

As chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein (1895-1992), a renowned scholar of classical Jewish history and literature, headed the American religious movement Conservative Judaism.

The son of Rabbi Simon and Hannah (Brager) Finkelstein, Louis Finkelstein was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 14, 1895. In 1902 his family moved to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. There, under the supervision of his father, Finkelstein continued his intensive religious education, rising early each day to pursue his religious studies prior to setting off for school. Finkelstein earned an A.B. from the City College of New York in 1915 and a doctorate from Columbia University in 1918. In 1919 he was ordained rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. In 1922 he married Carmel Bentwich; they had three children.

From 1919 to 1931 Finkelstein was rabbi to Congregation Kehillath Israel in the Bronx in New York City. At the same time he joined the seminary faculty, serving first as instructor in Talmud (1920-1924) and then as Solomon Schechter Lecturer in Theology (1924-1930). In 1931 Finkelstein left the congregational rabbinate to join the seminary full-time. He was promoted to full professor in 1931 and began to assume increasing administrative responsibilities, becoming assistant to president Cyrus Adler (1934-1937) and provost (1937-1940). Following Adler's death, he became president (1940-1951). In 1951 he was elevated to the newly created post of chancellor of the seminary (1951-1972), an institution, Finkelstein believed, that could synthesize modern American life with the traditional faith of Judaism.

Period of Expansion

When Finkelstein assumed the reins of leadership, Conservative Judaism was entering a period of extraordinary expansion. The number of synagogues affiliated with the movement more than doubled in the years between 1949 and 1963, and the funds raised for the seminary increased more than sevenfold between 1938 and 1944. This proportional growth enabled Finkelstein to expand the programming and educational activities of the seminary, bringing it to national prominence in Jewish and interfaith affairs. Under his leadership the seminary created the Jewish Museum in New York, sponsored the radio and television programs "The Eternal Light," founded the Institute for Religious and Social Studies to bring together clergy of different faiths, and inaugurated the Conference on Science, Religion and Philosophy to explore the moral issues of the new technological world. Finkelstein was determined to see Jewish civilization recognized as one of the great streams of thought in world civilization. He realized his goal as he saw many of the scholars trained at the seminary move out to teach in the more than 100 American universities sponsoring Jewish studies programs.

As the head of the largest denomination of Judaism in America, Finkelstein served as an adviser on Jewish affairs to President Franklin Roosevelt (1940-1945). He prayed at the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower and in 1963 was invited by President John Kennedy to join the American delegation sent to the Vatican for the installation of Pope Paul VI. He was also invited by President Richard Nixon to preach at the White House.

Literary Classicist

Finkelstein wrote and edited nearly 100 books on Judaism, religion, sociology, culture, and ethics. During the early years of his career he distinguished himself as an insightful scholar of the history and literature of classical Judaism. Among his most important works are Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages (1924); Akiba: Scholar, Saint, Martyr (1936), a biography of the second century rabbi and martyr to his faith at the hands of the Romans; and a work on the economic and social background of the second century B.C.E. Jewish religious sect The Pharisees (1938). He edited a major, three volume study, The Jews: Their History, Culture and Religion (1949), as well as American Spiritual Autobiographies (1948) and Social Responsibility in an Age of Revolution (1971). In 1985 he published the third and fourth volumes of a projected six volume critical edition of the Sifra, a fourth century commentary on the biblical book of Leviticus.

Finkelstein died November 29, 1991, at his home in New York City after a long bout with Parkinson's disease. He was 96 years old.

Further Reading

For additional information, see the article on Louis Finkelstein in the Encyclopedia Judaica (1972). For background on Conservative Judaism and on Finkelstein's role during its expansion period, see Herbert Rosenblum's Conservative Judaism: A Contemporary History (1983), available from the United Synagogue of America in New York City, and Marshall Sklare's Conservative Judaism (3rd ed., 1985). For Finkelstein's interpretation of Conservative Judaism, see his essay "Tradition in the Making," in Tradition and Change edited by Mordecai Waxman (1958). □

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Rabbi Louis Finkelstein