Jewish Theological Seminary
Jewish Theological Seminary
JEWISH THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
JEWISH THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY (jts ). jts is the primary educational and religious center of *Conservative Judaism and a leading institution for the academic study of Judaism. With its main campus in New York City, jts is currently comprised of a rabbinical school, a cantorial school, a graduate school of Jewish Studies, a graduate school of Jewish Education, an undergraduate school, a supplemental religious high school, and several research institutes. It houses a world-class Judaica library on campus; its museum, now called the *Jewish Museum, occupies another Manhattan site.
Inception and Early History
jts arose from the debate within the ranks of 19th century American Jewish leaders concerning the scope of religious reform. Its founders, a diverse group of religious centrists, with both traditionalist and modernist leanings, nonetheless shared the consensus that Reform was breaking too radically with Jewish norms. Responding to the highly-publicized banquet celebrating the ordination of the first class of rabbinical students at the Reform *Hebrew Union College, featuring a variety of non-kosher foods, and to the promulgation of the Reform movement's 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, dismissing biblical and rabbinic rituals regulating diet and dress as anachronisms, moderate rabbis and scholars, principally Sabato *Morais, Henry Pereira *Mendes, Alexander *Kohut, and Cyrus *Adler, organized support for the establishment of a new and more traditional rabbinical seminary. At the same time, the new academy was intended to reflect the 19th century Historical School's conception of Judaism as a developing religion. By January 1887, the Jewish Theological Seminary Association opened in New York City, with the mandate to preserve "the knowledge and practice of historical Judaism." The new school modeled its curriculum after the *Juedisch-Theologisches Seminar, Breslau, stressing biblical, historical and philosophical subjects in addition to the traditional Ashkenazi focus on rabbinics. As a self-consciously American institution, the Seminary Association sought to acculturate its largely immigrant student body to life in their new country. Despite initiatives in Jewish educational outreach and community organizing, however, Seminary Association leaders were not successful in creating a congregational base to sustain their school. Without significant congregational support, the school struggled financially during its first fifteen years and was at the point of closing in 1902. In this first phase of its existence, the Seminary Association graduated 14 rabbis and three hazzanim, including Joseph H. *Hertz, who became chief rabbi of the British Empire, and Mordecai M. *Kaplan, theologian, long-time faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and founder of *Reconstructionist Judaism.
Reorganization and Growth
While revered as the first president of the Seminary, Morais, occupied with his congregational duties, had never been able to attend to the school on a full-time basis. As early as 1890, lay leaders of the Seminary began circulating the idea of approaching Solomon *Schechter, and months before Morais' death in 1897 members of the Seminary Association board offered Schechter the presidency of their school. Fluent in traditional Jewish disciplines of study and loyal to norms of ritual behavior, and yet also a leading critical-academic Rabbinics scholar and a gifted popularizer of Jewish scholarship for an English-speaking audience, Schechter exemplified the kind of religious leader the Seminary backers hoped their school would train. As Adler and the financial supporters of the Seminary Association, Louis *Marshall, Jacob *Schiff, and Judge Mayer *Sulzberger, concluded that the school needed reorganization, they invited Schechter to become the president of the faculty of the new entity, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (jts), completing the transition in March 1902.
Schechter saw Judaica scholarship as an instrument for strengthening Jewish life, and thus embraced the vision that jts would provide leadership for American Jewry by training religiously observant and intellectually open-minded rabbis. To accomplish that goal, he focused on raising the level of scholarship practiced and taught within the school. Schechter engaged a faculty of young, promising academicians, including the literary scholar Israel *Davidson, the biblical scholar Israel *Friedlander, the talmudist Louis *Ginzberg, and the historian Alexander *Marx. Schechter and Marx oversaw the creation of what would ultimately become the largest Judaica library in America. Schechter transformed rabbinical training into a graduate-level course of study.
As regards undergraduate students, a 1908 New York City police report about Jewish criminality spurred Schechter to overcome earlier ambivalence on the part of the Seminary board and to extend the mission of jts to include training teachers. This was meant to create an additional channel for providing beneficial spiritual influences to the "down-town" immigrant population. In 1909, he appointed Mordecai Kaplan as principal of the Teacher's Institute. Over time, Kaplan broadened the scope of that school's activities to include general academic undergraduate courses, and in 1931, he became the dean of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies. Under Kaplan's direction, the Teacher's Institute/Seminary College imbued jts students with the values of cultural Zionism, Hebraism, and consciousness of Jewish community – in short, with a Kaplanian interpretation of Judaism as a religious civilization.
Schechter did not envision that jts would become the fountainhead of a new denomination, Conservative Judaism, but rather that it would offer an Americanized and enlightened traditionalist alternative to Reform. After Schechter's death in 1915, his successor at jts, Cyrus Adler (temporary president, 1915–24; president, 1924–40), maintained the school's ideological posture and social program, resisting calls to formulate partisan ideological platforms. Rather, he focused on the Seminary's institutional growth. During his tenure, jts graduated 236 rabbis and 364 teachers. Working with the *Rabbinical Assembly, the successor organization to the jts Rabbinical School alumni association, Adler began the process of professionalizing the placement of graduates in pulpits. Drawing on his experience as an administrator at the Smithsonian Institute and *Dropsie College, Adler systematized the Seminary's administrative procedures and, in 1925, amassed the core collection of its Jewish Museum. He presided over the construction of the Seminary's new campus at its current location in Manhattan. He labored to stabilize its financial condition and guided it through the difficulties of the Great Depression, while nonetheless adding to its library and hiring additional faculty members, including the Bible scholars H.L.*Ginsberg and Robert *Gordis.
The most consequential of those additions to the faculty was the hiring of Louis *Finkelstein in 1925 as a lecturer in theology. With an eye to an orderly succession, Adler promoted him steadily. By the time of Adler's final illness (1939–40), Finkelstein was the school's actual administrator and, in May 1940, became its president.
The tenure of Louis Finkelstein (1940–72), a jts alumnus himself, represents a coming of age of the institution. By these decades, jts was growing rapidly, and to staff its expanded programs, Finkelstein recruited administrators from the ranks of the Seminary's own graduates, notably Max *Arzt, Moshe *Davis, Simon *Greenberg, and Bernard *Mandelbaum. As part of the restructuring of administrative responsibilities, Finkelstein became chancellor, rather than president, in 1951.
While maintaining the largely traditionalist religious outlook of Schechter and Adler, Finkelstein dramatically revised the role of the Seminary. In the post-war and post-Holocaust era, jts was to be the leader of the effort to save American Jewry from assimilation and to inculcate in society at large the values of toleration, democracy, and respect for Judaism. Among the many programs he fostered, in support of the goal of having jts influence American Jewry and the broader American society, Finkelstein created ecumenical institutes, notably the Institute for Religious and Social Studies, and expanded jts educational outreach to include radio and television programming. The post-war Jewish reckoning, in which jts would help remedy the huge void in Jewish knowledge caused by the Holocaust, also figured in the reasoning behind the Seminary's opening a Cantorial School in 1952.
The expansion of the role to be played by jts included cooperative work with the neighboring Columbia University. In 1953, the two schools opened a dual degree program for undergraduates.
Moreover, jts moved into pre-undergraduate education. In 1945, jts sponsored a youth leadership program, the Leaders' Training Fellowship, and three years later, it embraced the recently-opened Ramah educational summer camps. In a similar vein, in 1951, jts opened the Prozdor, an honors-level Hebrew High School, and the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education in 1960. The Leader's Training Fellowship initiative waned by the 1970s, but the others have flourished.
Finkelstein also presided over the geographical expansion of jts, opening a West Coast affiliate, the *University of Judaism, in 1947, and a Seminary Center in Israel in 1962. All these activities succeeded in raising the profile of jts dramatically.
There were tensions at jts in the Finkelstein era. The revolutionary turbulence of the 1960s, which rocked many college campuses, also impacted on jts. Students lobbied for greater recognition from their teachers and administrators in the conduct of seminary life and learning, and also sought to synthesize their political views with their Jewish studies. They rallied around the theologian Abraham Joshua *Heschel, who broke ranks with the apolitical profile of jts by marching in the Civil Rights movement, working in the Soviet Jewry movement, and most controversial of all, voicing opposition to the Vietnam War.
Tension also mounted in the relationship between jts and the Conservative Movement. In matters of religious practice, the school was frequently more traditional than the denomination as a whole, as in the maintenance of separate seating, rather than mixed seating, in the jts synagogue. The faculty appointment of the talmudist Saul *Lieberman in 1940, and his designation as rector of jts in 1958, decisively reconfirmed the traditionalist atmosphere at jts for the duration of the Finkelstein administration. Finkelstein's critics, notably the leading Conservative rabbi Solomon *Goldman, criticized jts for refusing to position itself unambiguously as a denominational school and building up the institutions of the denomination. In fact, Finkelstein's focus on affecting all of American or even world Jewry was at cross-purposes with the agenda of denominational service.
The price of engagement of a broader public affected jts as well as the development of the Conservative Jewish denomination. During the Finkelstein era, jts successfully sought to train a group of rabbi-scholars who were to occupy academic chairs in the expanding field of Judaic Studies. Several of the most eminent of these jts alumni were honored at the 100th anniversary of jts, including Robert L. Chazan, Naomi Wiener Cohen, Seymour Feldman, Jonathan Goldstein, David Weiss *Halivni, Arthur *Hertzberg, Arthur Hyman, Baruch Levine, Samuel Morell, and Jacob *Neusner. While these scholars have enriched their Judaic Studies disciplines, most of them did not work in the schools or synagogues of the Conservative Movement. Moreover, by serving other schools of higher education, they advanced a decentralization of Jewish learning that denied jts the exclusivity that it once enjoyed.
During the tenure of Finkelstein's successor, Gerson D. *Cohen (1972–86), the tensions between school and denomination came to a head, precipitated by the debate over the ordination of women as Conservative rabbis. The influence of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s had led to the ordination of women in the Reform and Reconstructionist seminaries, and a growing number of Conservative rabbis and laity called for jts to admit qualified women to its Rabbinical School. Although initially opposed to that change, in the course of a movement-wide study process, Cohen became an ardent proponent of women's ordination. To his traditionalist critics, he insisted that women's ordination was fully within the parameters of Conservative Judaism. As custodian of his institution, Cohen also argued that jts risked forfeiting its leadership position within the denomination if it failed to ordain women rabbis, seeing that the Rabbinical Assembly was moving closer to admitting women candidates ordained elsewhere. In 1983, four years after the jts faculty rejected his first attempt to revise school policy, Cohen succeeded in gaining approval for the proposed reform. In the aftermath of that decision, with some movement traditionalists abandoning the Conservative denomination, the renowned talmudist, Weiss Halivni, resigned from the jts faculty. Weiss Halivni, whom Cohen had not appointed rector to succeed Lieberman, became the leading scholar at the rabbinical seminary of the break-away group, the Union for Traditional Judaism.
The evolution of jts policy on women's ordination reveals that, by the end of Cohen's tenure, the school having decisively embraced its identity as a Conservative Jewish institution, it thereby abandoned its earlier hopes to provide a non-denominational unifier for traditional and moderate American Jews. Consistent with this development, jts opened its Ratner Archives for the Study of Conservative Judaism in 1985. Cohen likewise aligned jts more vigorously with the development of Conservative (Masorti) Judaism in Israel. Cohen involved jts in several educational initiatives in Israel, requiring all jts rabbinical students to live and study for a period at the school's expanded Jerusalem campus, Neve Schechter, creating Midreshet Yerushalayim, a Conservative yeshivah program there, and, in 1984, opening a Masorti rabbinical school in Israel, the Beit ha-Midrash le-Limudei ha-Yahadut.
Cohen implemented changes in jts governance and presided over a process of curricular revision. He established a faculty senate, unifying the faculty of the Seminary's several schools and organizing them by academic departments, and revamped the rabbinic training program to take cognizance of the diminished level of Jewish knowledge and practice among entering students, as compared to students of earlier days. He consolidated the undergraduate programs of jts, merging the Seminary College of Jewish Studies with the Teacher's Institute. This further curtailed the Teacher's Institute's autonomy, which had begun to wane with Kaplan's retirement in 1945.
Extending Finkelstein's program of reaching audiences beyond jts, Cohen focused on influencing the study of Judaism on the secular college campus. In 1974, Cohen replaced the underperforming 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 Judaic Studies chairs in North American universities in the late 20th century.
The desire to remain in close contact with other institutions of high learning influenced the 1973 jts decision to remain in its Morningside Heights, Manhattan, location, despite rising crime in that neighborhood. Having decided not to relocate, jts intensified its collaborative work with the neighboring Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary. Cohen also presided over a major enhancement of the Seminary's physical campus, building a new library to replace the structure damaged in the Seminary's disastrous library fire of 1966, and dedicating the new library in 1983. The library has grown to over 340,000 volumes and houses the most complete collection of Judaica in the Western Hemisphere. Thirty years after the fire, jts refurbished its historic library tower, part of the continuing expansion of its physical plant. These building projects have strained the school financially but enhanced its capabilities.
When Cohen resigned in 1986, for health reasons, the jts board appointed as his successor its provost, Ismar *Schorsch (to retire in 2006). During his tenure, jts has built upon the developments of Cohen's era, opening a graduate school of Jewish education in 1996 and strengthening the Seminary's Israel campus. It has also embarked on new initiatives: In 1991, jts, yivo and the Russian State University for the Humanities opened Project Judaica, a Jewish studies training program in Moscow aimed at fostering the revival of Jewish life and learning in Russia.
As jts chancellor, Schorsch emerged as an outspoken advocate for Conservative Judaism, publishing a monograph outlining its fundamental tenets, speaking out against discrimination faced by Masorti Jews in Israel, and opening the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He also brought jts into closer relationship with the Conservative movement's network of Solomon Schechter Hebrew Day Schools. Schorsch disseminated a Conservative perspective to a wide readership, addressing the public directly in his weekly Torah commentary. On certain contemporary issues affecting jts, however, notably the debate over the acceptance of avowed homosexuals as rabbinical candidates, Schorsch's traditionalist position was challenged within the denomination. Moreover, as the leading spokesman for his denomination, Schorsch was also criticized for the declining percentage of American Jews who self-identity as Conservative.
The American Jewish community having decentralized, jts is no longer the sole Conservative Jewish center of higher learning and rabbinic training. In 1996, the University of Judaism opened its own Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. A harsh reaction by the mother institution led to a formal separation of the two institutions. Nonetheless, jts remains the most influential Conservative higher-educational institution in the world.
N.B. Cardin and D.W. Silverman (eds.), The Seminary at 100; M. Davis, The Emergence of Conservative Judaism; E. Dorff, Conservative Judaism; R. Fierstien, A Different Spirit; idem, A Century of Commitment; idem (ed.), Solomon Schechter in America; N. Gillman, Conservative Judaism; M. Greenbaum, Louis Finkelstein and the Conservative Movement; P. Nadell, Conservative Judaism in America; Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly; J. Sarna, American Judaism; M. Sklare, Conservative Judaism (1972); M. Waxman, ed., Tradition and Change; J. Wertheimer, A People Divided; idem., Conservative Synagogues and Their Members; idem (ed.), Tradition Renewed.
[Michael Panitz (2nd ed.)]