(b. 14 June 1895 in Cincinnati, Ohio; d. 29 November 1991 in New York City), chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary for more than three decades and author of scores of books about Judaism.
Finkelstein was one of five children born to Lithuanian immigrants Simon J. Finkelstein and Hannah Brager.
They settled in Cincinnati but later moved to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in New York City when he was seven years old. His father, an Orthodox rabbi, supervised his early Jewish education while he attended public high school for his secular studies. His mother was a home-maker. By the age of sixteen Finkelstein already had an extensive knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. After high school he simultaneously attended the City College of New York and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He graduated from the City College in 1915 and in 1918 received his Ph.D. from Columbia University. A year later he was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was the first seminary student to graduate earning hatarat hora’a, an advanced rabbinic degree that authorized him to render legal decisions in matters of Jewish law.
In 1920 Finkelstein took his first position as rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Israel in the Bronx section of New York City, where he officiated for ten years. However, he retained his close association with the Jewish Theological Seminary, returning there a year after his ordination to teach Talmud. On 5 March 1922 he married Carmel Bentwich, with whom he had three children. Finkelstein’s career as a teacher continued and in 1924 he began teaching theology, becoming a professor of theology in 1931.
As his career at the seminary blossomed Finkelstein began taking on greater administrative responsibility. In 1934 he became the assistant to the president and in 1937, the provost. In 1940 he began a thirty-two-year reign as president (in 1951 the title was changed to chancellor) of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
During the years that Finkelstein served as provost, Cyrus Adler, the seminary’s president, was ill. Consequently, Finkelstein ran many of the institution’s day-to-day operations. When Adler died, Finkelstein had already established his vision of leadership for the seminary: in addition to serving as a training institute for rabbis and teachers, it had to support the idea that religion can impact the quality of American life. His vision called for the institution to grow from a “school of Jewish history” to a “school of religion and ethics, not only for ourselves . . . but for the world at large.”
During Finkelstein’s tenure the seminary introduced many programs. In the early 1930s the idea of an Institute for Religious and Social Studies was born. Finkelstein developed this idea and in 1938 he established the institute, the seminary’s first, with a series of lectures. In 1944 the seminary inaugurated an Inter-American Commission on Judaism to encourage Jews from Latin American countries to attend the school. In 1946 the idea to open a West Coast branch of the seminary, named the University of Judaism, was presented. It was established in 1947, the same year that Camp Ramah, a highly intensive learning and religious camping experience for youth, was founded in Wisconsin. During the 1950s the Cantors Institute and the Lehman Institute of Ethics were created. In 1966 the library was ravaged by a fire and most of the seminary’s collection of Judaica was damaged. By 1969 the library had been restored and the collection of Hebrew literature replaced. Always an advocate for interfaith communication, in 1968 Finkelstein announced his last grand initiative before his retirement in 1972, an Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.
Finkelstein used his public relations skills well and he saw to it that the seminary achieved national prominence. On 15 October 1951 Finkelstein, with his bright eyes, flowing hair, and thick beard, graced the cover of Time magazine. In 1944 he arranged for NBC to establish a radio program under the auspices of the seminary to cater to Jews and non-Jews alike. The program succeeded in accomplishing several of Finkelstein’s goals: to heighten the spiritual level of the community, to promote Judaism, to bring people of all faiths together, and to highlight the seminary. In 1948 the seminary expanded to television, first on CBS and in 1951 on NBC. The program ran under the name The Eternal Light, and both the radio and television programs won numerous awards.
Finkelstein’s drive to put the seminary in the limelight served him well. He was a close contact and resource to many high-ranking political figures, and in 1957 he secured Chief Justice Earl Warren of the U.S. Supreme Court to spend a Sabbath at the seminary. In addition, in 1940 he was appointed to serve as the official Jewish representative to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s commission on peace. President Dwight D. Eisenhower invited him to give the invocation at his inauguration. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy sent him to Rome as part of an American delegation to the installation of Pope Paul VI.
In addition to his numerous tasks as president of the seminary, Finkelstein managed to make time daily for the study of Jewish texts and for writing. Friends said he rose every morning at 4:00 A.M. to study and write until he went to synagogue at 7:00 A.M. Some of the 337 works he published, including more than 100 books, art Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion, four vols. (1949); Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages (1924); and New Light from the Prophets (1969).
Finkelstein’s main interest was study and research into the history and literature of classical Judaism. One area of Finkelstein’s expertise was the study of the Pharisees, a Jewish sect in second temple times from which modern tradition developed. His interpretations caused controversy because of his claims that economic and social conditions influenced Pharisaic ideology. In addition, Finkelstein published more than 100 critical investigations of fundamental Jewish documents, searching for the historical and social conditions reflected in liturgical texts such as the Shema, the highest prayer in Judaism. In all his work Finkelstein paid fastidious attention to detail, especially to variations in texts.
Even in his retirement, Finkelstein continued writing and studying in his home. When he could no longer walk to synagogue for services, his former students turned his home into a synagogue, assembling the quorum often men needed for prayer. Finkelstein died in 1991 of Parkinson’s disease.
Finkelstein achieved his goals of widening Jewish life around the country, educating the non-Jewish community about Jews, and transforming the Jewish Theological Seminary into a major institution of Jewish scholarship. All the while, he continued his first love: the study of classic Jewish texts.
Finkelstein’s manuscripts and personal papers are in the archives of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Information about Finkelstein’s contributions to Judaism can be found in Herbert Parzen, Architects of Conservative Judaism (1964), band Marshall Sklare, Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement (1972). An extensive summary of his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary can be found in Jack Wertheimer, ed., Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary, vol. 1 (1997). Additional information can be found in the Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 6 (1971). Obituaries are in the New York Times (30 Nov. 1991) and Time (9 Dec. 1991).
Molly Jalenak Wexler
"Finkelstein, Louis." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 23, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/finkelstein-louis
"Finkelstein, Louis." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Retrieved October 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/finkelstein-louis
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