Cohen, Gerson D.

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COHEN, GERSON D. (1924–1991), Jewish historian and leader of Conservative Judaism. Educated at Camp Massad, where he cultivated a life-long commitment to Hebraism and Zionism, at the *Jewish Theological Seminary of America (jts), and at Columbia University, Cohen specialized in the study of Jewish history and historiography. After the death of Alexander *Marx, Cohen served as librarian at jts, also teaching Jewish history and Talmud there. He left in 1967 to succeed his academic mentor, the historian Salo W. *Baron, as director of the Center for Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia University. After the Vietnam-era student riots at Columbia, Cohen returned to jts as the Jacob Schiff Professor of Jewish History and inaugurated the school's Ph.D. program in Jewish history.

Cohen's scholarly work transplanted and updated the *Wissenschaft des Judentums model of research in the light of 20th-century Conservative Judaism. In his publications, he combined meticulous textual study, epitomized by his critical edition of Abraham ibn Daud's Sefer Ha-Qaballah, with an inter-textual focus. Cohen's scholarly essays, no less than his programmatic ones, encompassed the many permutations of rabbinic culture, both classical and medieval. He highlighted the leadership roles of Jewish intellectuals in their societies, especially in medieval Spain, but also in ancient and modern Jewish centers. Cohen's scholarly and administrative insights coincided in his thesis that Jewish continuity has always depended on the creative tension of maintaining the centrality of Jewish religion to Jewish history, on the one hand, and openness to influences from the broader cultural context, on the other. Among his books are Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures (1994) and Jewish History and Destiny (1997).

In 1971, Cohen and Bernard *Mandelbaum jointly succeeded Louis *Finkelstein as leaders of jts. The division of the presidency and the chancellorship roles did not last for long. Within a year, Mandelbaum having resigned, Cohen became the chancellor of jts, leading and transforming the institution until his retirement in 1986.

Cohen's leadership of jts featured five emphases, in part continuations of the work of Finkelstein, but in large measure representing new departures: (1) The continued development of jts as a center for Judaic Studies, and in particular, the physical reconstruction of its world-class library devastated by a fire in the mid-1960s. (2) The continued cultivation of jts as a force for inter-religious dialogue. While maintaining his predecessor's initiative, the Institute for Religious and Social Studies, Cohen focused on inter-faith academic collaboration, fostering arrangements for student cross-registration and scholarly interchange with the Union Theological Seminary, a leading liberal Protestant divinity school in New York. (3) The administrative restructuring of jts and the development of an independent graduate school of Jewish Studies. In 1974, Cohen replaced the existing jts graduate program, the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, with a non-sectarian graduate school encompassing all non-theological graduate training. Under Cohen's aegis, the jts graduate school became the largest institution of its kind in the Diaspora, training many of the scholars filling the expanding number of Judaic Studies chairs in North American Universities in the late twentieth century. (4) The active engagement of jts as a resource for the development of Conservative (later, Masorti) Judaism in Israel. Cohen championed the twin concepts that jts could offer a unique contribution to Jewish life in Israel and that, to serve the movement worldwide, Conservative rabbis needed extensive first-hand experience in Israel. Cohen raised the profile of jts in Israel, expanding the school's Jerusalem campus, Neve Schechter, creating Midreshet Yerushalayim, a Conservative yeshivah program there, regularizing Israel residency requirements for jts rabbinical students and, in 1984, opening an autonomous Israeli Conservative rabbinical school, the Beit Hamidrash Lelimudei Hayahadut. (5) Most consequentially for American Judaism, the active reorientation of jts to a stance of closer involvement in the development of the Conservative movement. The leading issue that precipitated this change of course was the debate over the ordination of women as Conservative rabbis. Although initially opposed to that change, in 1977, Cohen consented to a *Rabbinical Assembly resolution that jts conduct a movement-wide study of the issue, and in the course of that process, he became an ardent proponent of women's ordination. While characterizing the proposed reform as fully within the parameters of Conservative Judaism, Cohen also argued that jts risked forfeiting its position as "fountainhead" of the denomination if it failed to ordain women, seeing that the Rabbinical Assembly was moving closer to admitting women candidates ordained privately or at other rabbinical seminaries. Although unsuccessful in his first attempt to persuade the jts faculty to approve the proposed reform, in 1979, four years later, when movement pressure for women's ordination had mounted and the composition of the jts faculty had changed, Cohen succeeded in changing school policy in this regard.


J. Wertheimer (ed.), Tradition Renewed, 2 vols. (1998).

[Michael Panetz (2nd ed.)]