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Louis Finkelstein and the Conservative Movement: Conflict and Growth.

By Michael B. Greenbaum. Binghamton, NY: Global Publications, 2001. xv + 308 pp.

A central tension besets the institutional history of the Conservative movement in Judaism. For most of the past century the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) was the only rabbinical training institution serving that denomination, and JTS remains the movement's preeminent school of higher learning until the present. At the same time the early twentieth-century leaders of the school envisioned its mission in trans- denominational terms. At first Solomon Schechter and his associates hoped that their seminary would unite all non-Reform segments of the American Jewish community. Louis Finkelstein, leader of JTS during the years of the Second World War and at mid-century, envisioned a still broader role and audience for his school. He made JTS a platform for outreach to the American Jewish community as a whole, and attempted to position JTS as a key facilitator of ecumenical dialogue across the religious spectrum of American society. The other movement-wide institutions of Conservative Judaism, principally the Rabbinical Assembly, its professional association, and the United Synagogue, its congregational arm, responded to the ambivalent tone set by JTS in kind. On the one hand, they accepted its claim as "fountainhead" of the movement (a curious image that merits elucidation), but, simultaneously, they criticized JTS for neglecting their denominational needs.

In his careful and competent study, Louis Finkelstein and the Conservative Movement: Conflict and Growth, Michael B. Greenbaum chronicles one chapter of this close but tense relationship between theological school and denomination. Greenbaum focuses on the years 1940-1955, when Louis Finkelstein developed the school's outreach to the American Jewish community and to an elite inter-religious audience. Finkelstein achieved considerable success at promoting the image of JTS as not only the center of a denomination, but also as a shaper of the spiritual climate in American society. One of the legacies of his accomplishment is that the JTS story is reasonably well-known. Less widely appreciated is the opposition that Finkelstein overcame. Greenbaum's chapter on the seminary's critics is therefore particularly valuable to the student of American Jewish religious and social history.

The reader should be forewarned of one conceptual difficulty in absorbing Greenbaum's study: In his introductory remarks the author establishes a polarity between the purely scholarly and the communal missions of the school. Until the final chapter, Greenbaum treats Finkelstein's focus on outreach to the American Jewish community as a whole and to the American inter-religious audience as an outgrowth of the academic side of the JTS mission, relegating the communal side of the mission to specifically denominational programs. The phenomena under study do not easily fit this conceptual framework. Rather the debate between Finkelstein and his critics involved two kinds of communal outreach: denominational and trans-denominational.

Only in the final chapter of the book does Greenbaum attempt to justify the counterintuitive placement of Finkelstein's trans-denominational programming in the realm of the academic side of the JTS mission, and his schema remains somewhat unconvincing. I suspect that the author was overly concerned to correlate his history of JTS and Conservative Judaism with historical studies of other theological schools and their respective denominations, and used models borrowed from those other studies with less than total success.

I would suggest the polarity of traditionalism versus progressivism as a clearer way of understanding the tension between Finkelstein and his critics. Engagement in the needs of the denomination necessarily involved taking stands on Jewish legal questions. One leading example of this was the Rabbinical Assembly's 1950 decision to permit driving automobiles to synagogue on the Sabbath. Finkelstein's understanding of Jewish law was traditionalist, and he promoted senior JTS faculty who shared that understanding. Both the disengagement of JTS from denominational needs during the Finkelstein era and the specific criticisms levied by Finkelstein's rabbinical critics within the movement may be clearly seen as an aspect of the tension between perspectives favoring tradition and those promoting change in official religious norms of behavior. Reaching out to the entire American Jewish community and beyond was part of Finkelstein's artful attempt to outflank his critics within his own denomination.

Finkelstein presided over significant institutional growth at JTS and equally impressive Conservative Jewish denominational growth. Tensions between the traditionalist and progressive elements within the denomination remained in check during his tenure in office, but they came to the fore in the 1970s after his retirement. Looking back from a twenty-first century vantage point, one can only speculate how the Conservative movement might have developed had the leaders of JTS defined their mission in denominationally specific terms. But it is clear that, by the priorities he embraced and the programs he developed, as well as by his choice of which needs to consign to the periphery, Louis Finkelstein was one of the shapers of the American Jewish scene at mid-century and beyond.
Michael Panitz
Virginia Wesleyan College


Michael Panitz is Rabbi of Temple Israel, Norfolk, Virginia, and Adjunct Professor of Religion at Virginia Wesleyan College. He earned a Ph.D. at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and his most recent publication is "Solomon Schechter and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America" in Solomon Schechter in America: A Centennial Tribute, ed. Robert E. Fierstien (2002).
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Author:Panitz, Michael
Publication:American Jewish History
Date:Dec 1, 2001
Words:860
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