Siegel, Seymour

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SIEGEL, SEYMOUR (1927–1988), U.S. rabbi, educator, and ethicist. Born in Chicago, Siegel was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary (jts) in 1951 and earned a Doctor of Hebrew Letters from jts in 1958. During a long career at jts as Ralph Simon Professor of Jewish Ethics and Theology he developed through books, monographs, articles, courses, and lectures a theory and literature concerning Jewish ethics, theology and political life. He was instrumental in consolidating the relationship between the jts in New York and the new rabbinical seminary of Latin America, the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, by spending summers teaching there (1962–64) and worked tirelessly on social ethics in American life and ecumenical issues. Siegel's unique view of Jewish ethics, theology, political philosophy, and politics helped shape American Judaism (but especially Conservative Judaism) during a critical period in the 1960s–80s and has left an important legacy followed by a number of Jewish legal and ethical researchers. As chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (1973–80) he served in a period of activism in the movement's formulation of policies regarding the status of women, conversion, kashrut, bio-medical ethics, abortion, birth control, artificial insemination, fetal and human experimentation, genetic engineering, war, and death and dying.

His idea of "ethical realism," or the need to formulate ethical decision-making on the basis of real circumstances (and only indirectly from idealized ethical principles), is basic to Siegel's Jewish ethics and view of politics. One of the most profound influences upon Siegel's formulation of ethical realism was Reinhold Niebuhr who taught at the Union Theological Seminary across the street from jts. Many of Niebuhr's life experiences and views are paralleled in Rabbi Siegel's experiences and views. Siegel's "epiphany" came as a result of political and social unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Siegel became politically more conservative in the 1970s and 1980s and became an advisor to three American presidents, Nixon, Ford and Reagan. President Reagan appointed him to be executive director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council (1982–85) that was charged with constructing the national Holocaust Museum.

Siegel was also influenced by Abraham Joshua Heschel (d. 1972) on a number of spiritual and philosophical issues, particularly Heschel's conviction that the Jews had a vision of society which could and should influence general society as much as the general society influenced Judaism. Siegel marched alongside Heschel in the civil rights marches of the early 1960s and this translated into his work with the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Bio-Medical Research (1982). His concept of "A Bias for Life" that he drew from Jewish sources and that summarizes his view of medical ethics was incorporated into some final statements of House of Representatives reports and of the President's Commission on Bio-Medical Research.

After his death, St. Lawrence University purchased his library and personal archives and has established the Rabbi Dr. Seymour Siegel Memorial Library Collection and Archives and the Seymour Siegel Memorial Lecture on Judaism to benefit Jews and non-Jews who wish to explore Jewish ethics, general ethics and politics.

[Richard Freund (2nd ed.)]