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Finkelstein, Louis


FINKELSTEIN, LOUIS (1895–1991), U.S. Conservative rabbi, scholar, and educator. Finkelstein was born in Cincinnati. His father, an Orthodox rabbi, supervised his early Jewish education. He graduated from the College of the City of New York (1915) and took his Ph.D. at Columbia University (1918). Ordained at the *Jewish Theological Seminary in 1919, Finkelstein served for more than ten years as rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Israel in New York City, but his close association with the seminary continued. A year after his ordination he began teaching Talmud there, and in 1924 he began teaching theology; from 1931 he was professor of theology. He rose to prominence early. He was president of the *Rabbinical Assembly from 1928 to 1930 at the age of 33. He was groomed by Cyrus Adler as his successor. He also assumed more and more administrative responsibility, as assistant to the president (1934), provost (1937), president (1940), and chancellor (from 1951–1972).

Under his leadership the seminary attained national prominence in both Jewish and interfaith activities, expanding its academic scope by initiating the Institute for Religious and Social Studies, for example, and its public education work through the *Jewish Museum and the radio and television program The Eternal Light, among other innovations.

Finkelstein was generally acknowledged to be the leading personality in the Conservative wing of Judaism and put his stamp on the movement, in general vigorously supporting more traditionalist segments, often over the initial opposition of the Seminary's alumni. The only other leader of Conservative Judaism who ever wielded such power and influence was Solomon *Schecter, but then the movement was small and its resources meager. In the Finkelstein era, the Conservative movement was the largest religious movement in American Judaism and the Seminary was the home of great scholars such as Louis *Ginzberg and Saul *Lieberman in Talmud and H.L. *Ginzberg in Bible. He recruited Abraham Joshua *Heschel to the Seminary Faculty in 1945 after Hebrew Union College had saved him from the Holocaust by sponsoring his immigration to the United States in 1939. The Seminary was a place of diverse views and differing ideologies. Kaplan and Heschel, Lieberman and Finkelstein coexisted and struggled for the loyalty of the students. Talmudic knowledge was most revered of all. The professors were described as cardinals, secure in their learning and stature, at a distance from their students and from the rabbis they had ordained.

Finkelstein oversaw attempts to create a Conservative movement-trained leadership and not to rely on recruiting the sons of Orthodox Judaism who sought entry into a wider American world. Leadership Training Fellowship was begun in 1946; Camp Ramah was inaugurated in 1947 and provided the leadership of the Conservative Movement for the next two generations.

Finkelstein became one of the most famous Jewish leaders of his age, at home with presidents and prime ministers. President Roosevelt in 1940 appointed him presidential adviser for Judaism on steps toward world peace; Finkelstein pronounced the prayers at the inauguration of President Eisenhower; President Kennedy appointed him to the U.S. delegation to the coronation of Pope Paul vi in 1963; President Nixon invited him to preach at special religious services in the White House. He was on the cover of Time Magazine.

At his core, Finkelstein remained a working scholar. He rose early and studied daily. He wrote and edited many books and articles on general problems in religion, sociology, culture, and ethics. He edited the widely used Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion (1949, 19603) as well as many of the publications of the seminary's Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion and the seminary's Institute of Religious and Social Studies. He not only stimulated and assisted the research of other scholars but continued his own primary research and publication. Despite his manifold administrative and communal obligations, Finkelstein's central preoccupation remained what it was in his student days: study and research in the history and literature of classical Judaism. He published more than a hundred critical investigations of fundamental documents of Judaism, exploring the historical and social conditions reflected in liturgical texts, for example in the prayers Shema, Amidah, Birkat ha-Mazon, Hallel, and proving their antiquity, dating some of them very early, possibly as biblical; exploring the composition of several of the tannaitic Midrashim; and investigating the principal teachings and doctrines of Pharisaism, His social and economic studies of the Pharisees, especially his Pharisees (2 vols., 1938, 19663), roused controversy because of his assertions that economic and social conditions influenced the formation of Pharisaic ideology. These studies lifted the discussion of historical problems from the parochial or purely doctrinal to the broad plane of social history. Finkelstein's Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages (1924, 19642) remained an important source for medievalists and students of post-talmudic halakhah and institutions. He also edited Commentary of David Kimhi on Isaiah (1926, repr. 1969) and wrote Akiba – Scholar, Saint, Martyr (1936, 1962); Ha-Perushim ve-Anshei Keneset ha-Gedolah ("Pharisees and the Great Synagogue," 1950), which carried on in depth the investigation of his Pharisees; and New Light from the Prophets (1969), in which he traced certain Pharisaic emphases and sayings in the early Midrashim to the time of the prophets. He was drawn to the early classical treatises, which gave him insight into some of the earliest halakhic trends in Jewish Palestine. He also published the Assemani Codex Manuscript of the Sifra (1956, reissued 1970); Sifrei (1939, repr. 1969); and Mavo le-Massekhtot Avot ve-Avot de-Rabbi Natan (1950), an introduction to these talmudic treatises.

In all his scholarly work Finkelstein exhibited a fastidious attention to detail, particularly to textual variants in manuscripts, early printed editions, and citations in geonic and post-geonic literary works, and an awareness of what is central in each period. In both his scholarly and his administrative activities, he made enormous contributions to the understanding and acceptance of the values and insights of talmudic-rabbinic Judaism.


H. Parzen, Architects of Conservative Judaism (1964); M. Davis, Emergence of Conservative Judaism (1963); M. Sklare, Conservative Judaism (1955); ajyb, 45 (1943/44), 63; Liebman, ibid., 69 (1968), 3–112.

[Judah Goldin /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]

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