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Jewish Journal

The Intellectual Crisis of Jewish-American Life

by Jacob Neusner

November 9, 2000 | 7:00 pm

What would life be like for us if ideas mattered in the inner domain of Judaism? Let me give three criteria for the standard of a vital intellectual life, a religious community to which ideas make a difference. First, when ideas matter, people argue with one another about ideas, not just public policy; they deem much to be at stake in explaining things one way, rather than another, or in advocating this abstract proposition, rather than that. In the university classroom, such arguments go forward every day. That is what makes a university live. But in the Jewish community ideas are instrumental. People value rabbis who make them feel good, not those who make them think long and hard. Individuals who raise hot issues meet a cool reception. Above all, what is not obvious rarely gains a hearing.

Second, in an intellectually vital religious community the religious virtuosi - rabbis and their counterparts - not only write books of a demanding quality but come to the community at large with demanding, well-crafted messages. They speak up to the congregation of Israel, not down.

Third, in a religious community to which ideas matter, the synagogue is a place in which religious issues and ideas provoke vivid debates, in which the advent of a book represents a major event, in which newspapers and magazines bring weekly occasions for response and reaction.

Having used up the intellectual capital of a half-century ago, American Jewry has run out of ideas. It debates matters of practicality, issues of mere continuity. It argues about how to persuade the coming generation to continue the received enterprise of Jewry, not how to assess the worth and truth of that enterprise. Rabbis babble incoherently or tell jokes.

We are used to a rabbinate of manipulators of good will, back-slappers and name-rememberers. But there was a day when pulpit rabbis were scholars who published books. People admired their rabbis for the books they wrote, not only for the jokes they told. Celebrity rabbis made pronouncements of their opinions, on behalf of which they marshaled serious arguments. Stephen Wise and Julian Morgenstern were orators and sustained schools. When I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) - from 1954 to 1960 - the intellectual leadership of American Jewry indeed lay in the hands of the pulpit rabbinate, and pulpit rabbis wrote important books. In the Conservative rabbinate were Robert Gordis, Arthur Hertzberg and the genius of them all, Milton Steinberg; in the Reform rabbinate was Abba Hillel Silver, and in the Orthodox rabbinate was Emanuel Rackman, to name just a handful among a great many. The pulpit rabbinate of today, by comparison, has few of the many counterparts of the Gordises, Silvers, Hertzbergs and Steinbergs: scholars of substance and standing.

Where does the blame lie? It lies with the rabbinical seminaries that have produced a rabbinate without Torah: Hebrew Union College (HUC), JTS and the lesser centers of rabbinical education in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and the like. I also blame the Hebrew teachers colleges in Boston, Cleveland, Chicago and Baltimore, among other places. They, too, have failed us. Chicago had Monford Harris and Baltimore, Joseph Baumgarten. Today no equivalent figures exist in scholarship.

The rabbinical schools are somnolent; not much happens in them. The rabbinical seminaries are backwaters, out of the mainstream of contemporary Judaic debate. Fresh ideas circulate, new voices speak, but rarely in rabbinical schools or among the rabbinical associations. By contrast, the seminaries are inbred, staffed mainly by their own alumni, inviting to lecture mainly their own alumni. I looked at the web site of JTS to check out the credentials of its faculty. My general impression that the faculty included basically talented people was not confirmed: A great many of the teachers listed do not even hold doctorates and have published little or nothing of scholarly merit. So JTS and HUC no longer compete as important centers of scholarship on the American scene.

Faced with an offer from a college or university and a seminary or a Hebrew college, the young Ph.D. in any aspect of Jewish studies will choose the college or university position. Scholars rarely move from the research universities to seminaries. JTS (among seminaries) has found it exceedingly difficult to recruit faculty because it must compete with colleges and universities in America and in Israel. Then there is the problem of the dearth of students. The rabbinical schools simply are not attracting the numbers of rabbis or teachers that their respective synagogue sponsors require, nor the number required in new roles such as day school teachers, principals and pastoral counselors.

What about the universities and their lavish programs in Jewish studies? Cannot American Judaism turn to these? Few professors see their calling in persuading Jews to be Jewish or in constructing theological apologetics.

In colleges and universities the tasks are simply other. The university classroom is a location for critical analysis of ideas. It is not the place to argue out the principles of the faith for future advocates thereof. Donors may give money to advance the cause of Judaism or at least to influence the Jewish attitudes of students, but those teaching Jewish subjects on campus cannot imagine accomplishing the donors' goals. The intellectual crisis of American Judaism may be stated in a few words: Jewry has lost access to the Judaism that is embodied in our holy books. Few can read them. Fewer still interpret and mediate them to the circumstances of the new age. How, then, have we come to this, the circumstance in which Jews find themselves lacking access to the sustaining power of their own intellectual heritage? The seminaries get the credit for the age that is past and the blame for the age that is coming. The debate took place in the seminaries in the 1940s and 1950s and prevailed into the 1960s. Then it stopped. What changed? The advent of Jewish studies in universities challenged the seminaries to compete for faculty. They didn't, and they couldn't. The Jewish community lavished tens of millions of dollars on college professorships in Jewish studies and deprived the rabbinical seminaries and teachers colleges of the money they needed to do their work. That is why we are served by a rabbinate without Torah. But no community of Judaism has endured - or should endure - without constant renewal in sensibility, wisdom and learning in the holy books of Judaism, in the Torah broadly construed. That is not the argument from continuity, a threat deriving from sociology. It is an argument from merit: what should happen to a community that endures but, in an active, transitive sense, ignores.

This community will gain that continuity of which it speaks, which it seeks in tourism to death camps and to the state of Israel, only in the eternal dialogue with the mind of God that the Torah sustains. If ideas mattered, the crisis of American Judaism would be a crisis of the knowledge of God, made manifest in the Torah, and all of us would be preoccupied with that critical turning of eternity. The quest for God in the Torah - there is a worthy occupation.

Jacob Neusner is research professor of religion and theology and a senior fellow at the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College. This article is adapted from "If Ideas Mattered: The Intellectual Crisis of American Judaism," the Henry Kohn Lecture delivered at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale on Sept. 14.Reprinted with permission from The Forward.

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