Ginzberg, Louis

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GINZBERG, LOUIS (1873–1953), one of the outstanding Talmud scholars of the first half of the 20th century; leader and the major halakhic authority of the Conservative movement in North America. Born in Kovno, Lithuania, Ginzberg received a typical East European Jewish education: private tutors, four years of study at the Telz and Slobodka yeshivot, and academic studies at three German universities. After studying with *Noeldeke at Strassburg, he received his doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in 1898 for his study of the midrashim quoted by the Church Fathers.

Ginzberg was a direct descendant (sixth generation) of Abraham, brother of *Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna. He was acutely aware of his ancestry and refers to the Gaon frequently as "dodi zekeni" (my great uncle), "the pride of our family," my famous ancestor, and the like. Ginzberg's father and mother were extremely pious Jews and even though he became more liberal when he left home at age 15, he remained an observant Jew for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, he was plagued until his death by a certain ambivalence about following the path of Wissenschaft des Judentums.

Ginzberg was a brilliant polymath, "a walking encyclopedia." He knew most of the Bible by heart at age seven and had mastered much of rabbinic literature by age 14. His magnum opus, The Legends of the Jews, contains 36,000 references which Ginzberg kept in his head. In addition to rabbinics, Ginzberg was an expert in philosophy, Kabbalah, and mathematics and he knew at least 12 languages.

In 1899, Ginzberg immigrated to the United States at the invitation of Rabbi Isaac Mayer *Wise to accept a position as preceptor in Biblical Exegesis at *Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, but the invitation was withdrawn by the time he arrived. Wise changed his mind because he heard that Ginzberg was an adherent of higher criticism of the Bible and, paradoxically, because he was afraid that Ginzberg was too observant. He was hired by The Jewish Encyclopedia from 1900 to 1902, writing 400 articles, many of which have remained classics until today. In 1902, Solomon *Schechter invited Ginzberg to become professor of Talmud at the newly re-organized *Jewish Theological Seminary (jts). There Ginzberg made his academic and spiritual home for the next 51 years until the day he died.

As professor of Talmud at jts, Ginzberg had tremendous influence on the development of Jewish studies at jts and throughout the world. He brought young scholars such as H.L. *Ginsberg, Saul *Lieberman, Shalom *Spiegel, and A.J. *Heschel to jts. He was one of the founders of the American Academy for Jewish Research in 1919 and served as its president until 1947. He raised substantial sums of money for classics such as *Kasovsky's concordance of the Mishnah and Tosefta, B.M. *Lewin's Oẓar ha-Ge'onim, and *Schreiber's Meiri. He helped found the Institute for Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University and taught there in 1928–29. Finally, he played a major role in training and ordaining 650 rabbis over the course of two generations.

Ginzberg devoted most of his academic scholarship to three fields: Aggadah, the Jerusalem Talmud, and Geonica. In the realm of Aggadah, The Legends of the Jews (7 vols., 1909–38) remains unsurpassed. It also appeared in Hebrew translation (6 vols., 1966–75) and in a one-volume abridgement called Legends of the Bible (1956). It retells the story of the Bible from Adam to Chronicles, weaving together thousands of aggadot culled from early and late Midrashim, Philo, Josephus, the Apocrypha, and the Church Fathers. In other words, Ginzberg systematically collected and rearranged the aggadah, as Maimonides had the halakhah in his Mishneh Torah. In addition to his Legends, his dissertation was devoted to Die Haggada bei den Kirchenvatern (1899–1900) and in 1928 he published over 40 *Genizah fragments of Midrash in Ginzei Schechter, volume 1.

In the realm of the Jerusalem Talmud, his Seridei Yerushalmi (1909) remains the only published volume of Genizah fragments of this basic rabbinic work. His Perushim ve-Ḥidushim ba-Yerushalmi on Berakhot, Chapters 1–5 (1941–61) remains one of the only scientific commentaries to the Yerushalmi. He also wrote commentaries on several other tractates; his commentary on Pesahim was scheduled for publication in 2005–6, over 50 years after his death.

In the realm of Geonica, the first volume of Geonica (1909) remains one of the few English language introductions to the field. The second volume of Geonica, as well as Ginzei Schechter, volume 2, contain over 100 Genizah fragments of geonic responsa and commentaries and early Karaite works.

Ginzberg also wrote a book of biographies (Students, Scholars and Saints, 1928), an early study of the Zadokite Fragment from the Genizah which later turned out to be one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eine Unbekannte Judische Sekte, 1922; An Unknown Jewish Sect, 1976), and two volumes of collected articles (On Jewish Law and Lore, 1955; Al Halakhahve-Aggadah, 1960).

Ginzberg was a leading proponent of the "Positive-Historical School," which later became the Conservative movement. In an essay from 1901 about Rabbi Zacharias *Frankel (1801–1875), the founder of this school of thought in Germany, Ginzberg describes Frankel's historical Judaism, which was really Ginzberg's own: "We may now understand the apparent contradiction between the theory and practice of the positive-historic school. One may, for instance, conceive of the origin and idea of Sabbath rest as the professor of Protestant theology at a German university would conceive it, and yet minutely observe the smallest detail of the Sabbath observances known to strict Orthodoxy. For an adherent of this school, the sanctity of the Sabbath reposes not upon the fact that it was proclaimed on Sinai, but on the fact that the Sabbath idea found for thousands of years its expression in Jewish souls." In other words, the authority of Jewish law does not derive from a one-time event of revelation at Mt. Sinai but from the fact that Kelal Yisrael, the collective Jewish people, observed Jewish law for thousands of years.

Ginzberg believed that it was not possible to understand Jewish history and culture without a thorough knowledge of Jewish law ("The Significance of the Halachah for Jewish History," 1929). Furthermore, we now know from a recently published volume (The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg, 1996) that Ginzberg was a prolific posek (decisor) for the Conservative movement between 1913 and 1953. He wrote over 100 responsa, first as chair of the Committee on the Interpretation of Jewish Law of the *United Synagogue (1917–27), and then as a private posek. From his responsa, one can learn about his approach to Jewish law. On the one hand, he was quite strict with regard to liturgical and synagogue-related issues: "I am not one of those who likes 'new things,' and I have a special aversion to changes in the customs of the synagogue" (ibid., p. 99).

On the other hand, he usually judged a case on its own merits and frequently arrived at a lenient decision. Ginzberg occasionally prohibited something not because it was technically forbidden by Jewish law, but in order to preserve the "spirit of the law" or to prevent "mar'it ayin" (the appearance of impropriety) or "ḥillul ha-shem" (the desecration of God's name). He opposed introducing the organ into the synagogue because it would cut off American Jewry from Kelal Yisrael.

In Ginzberg's opinion, Jewish law is determined by the Talmud and the *rishonim (early authorities ca. 1000–1500 c.e.) and not by Midrashim, later customs, or the *aḥaronim (1500ff.).

Ginzberg was a lifelong Zionist. His second article, published in Dutch in 1899, was a "Plea for Zionism." He was a zoa delegate to the Zionist Congress in Basel in 1905. In 1918, he said that the United Synagogue of America "should take an active part in the work for the restoration of Palestine." He believed that the State of Israel must respect the Sabbath and kashrut and leave matters of marriage and divorce to the rabbinate. But he was opposed to religious coercion of the State against Jews who do not recognize the authority of halakhah. He was opposed to mixing religion with politics because it would lead to the weakening of religion and the corruption of politics. According to Historical Judaism, Jewish nationalism without religion is like a tree without fruit, and Jewish religion without nationalism is like a tree without roots.


D. Druck, R. Levi Ginzberg (Heb., 1934); A. Marx et al. (eds.), Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume, 2 vols. (1945), incl. bibl. by B. Cohen; E. Ginzberg, Keeper of the Law: Louis Ginzberg (1966, 19962); D. Golinkin, The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg (1996), incl. intro. and extensive bibl.

[David Golinkin (2nd ed.)]

Louis Ginzberg

views updated Jun 27 2018

Louis Ginzberg

The Lithuanian-born Jewish scholar Louis Ginzberg (1873-1953) was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America for over 50 years and was among the foremost Talmudic and rabbinic students of his time.

Louis Ginzberg was born in Kovno on Nov. 28, 1873, into a family with a tradition of distinguished scholarship. After studying at various rabbinic academies in Lithuania, Ginzberg pursued his studies at German universities, receiving a doctorate in Semitic languages from the University of Heidelberg in 1897. Emigrating to America in 1899, he served as editor of rabbinic literature for the Jewish Encyclopedia. In 1902 he became professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he remained until his death. He was a founder and the first president of the American Academy for Jewish Research and was among those awarded honorary degrees at Harvard University's Tercentenary Celebration in 1936. He married Adele Katzenstein in 1909.

Ginzberg authored over 500 books and articles on Talmudic and rabbinic literature; the earliest work was a study of Talmudic folklore (1899) in the writings of the Church Fathers. His Legends of the Jews (7 vols., 1909-1938) is an encyclopedic compilation of almost all the folkloric material in the Talmud and Midrash dealing with biblical episodes and personalities. (In 1956 a one-volume edition was published posthumously under the title Legends of the Bible. ) This material was again the subject of the first volume of the series Genizah Studies in Memory of Dr. Solomon Schechter (1928).

Ginzberg's chief area of interest, however, was the Halakah (Jewish religious law). His earliest book on this subject, Geonica (1909), dealt with the Halakah in the period of the Geonim (heads of Talmudic academies in Babylonia in the 6th to 11th century). He dealt with this period again in volume 2 of the Genizah Studies. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud) was his specialty within Halakic research. His earliest work in this area is a collection of texts, Yerushalmi Fragments from the Genizah (1909); his major work is a commentary on the Palestinian Talmud (1941 and 1961).

Research emphasizing Halakic literature was a reflection of Ginzberg's belief that only in the Halakah could one find "the mind and the character of the Jewish people exactly and adequately expressed." As the teacher of generations of Conservative rabbis, Ginzberg was mentor to Conservative Judaism in America for half a century. He died on Nov. 11, 1953.

Further Reading

Two collections of Ginzberg's essays are Students, Scholars and Saints (1928) and On Jewish Law and Lore (1955). A bibliography of his writings from 1894 to 1945 is in the American Academy for Jewish Research, Louis Ginzberg: Jubilee Volume on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday (1945). The biography written by his son, Eli Ginzberg, Keeper of the Law: Louis Ginzberg (1966), gives an intimate portrait. □

Ginzberg, Louis

views updated May 14 2018

Ginzberg, Louis (1873–1953). Talmudic scholar, an important figure in the Conservative movement. His major work was the 7-vol. Legends of the Jews (1909–38) in which he collected and combined hundreds of legends into a continuous narrative; and he was also the rabbinics editor for the Jewish Encyclopaedia.

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