The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (or JTS) can be found at 3080 Broadway, New York, in the Morningside Heights neighbourhood of Manhattan. The attractive, quadrangle-style campus is on the corner of 122nd Street, opposite the Manhattan School of Music and Union Theological Seminary, and next to the Teachers' College of Columbia University.
JTS is the central institution of the Conservative Movement - certainly in America, and perhaps worldwide. This is certainly appropriate considering the place that Conservative Judaism occupies in contemporary Jewry.
It was also the first institution of Conservative Judaism, and its founding preceded the conscious formation of the Movement:
History & Ideology
JTS is an ideological descendant of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, which existed in what is now Wroclaw, Poland, until the Holocaust. This Seminary followed the method of "positive-historical" study of Judaism, created by the Seminary's first head, Rabbi Zecharias Frankel (1801-1875). This position, although many complain at this definition, fits between the doctrinal dogmatism of Orthodoxy, and the radical departure from tradition of Reform Judaism. The "positive" element is in the retention of traditional Jewish life and worship - a positive attitude to the tradition; "historical" refers to the understanding of texts in an historical framework, including the admittance of non-traditional scientific methods of determining the origin of texts, including the Torah.
Before the twentieth century, nationally organised American Jewry was almost entirely Reform. But, as in Europe, there was to be a split between the conservatives and the liberals. There was a dinner in 1883 to celebrate the first graduating class of new rabbis trained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinatti. Aware of the traditional leanings of some of the invited rabbis, the banquet was to be fish only, so as to avoid (to some extent) ensuring that the banquet was kosher.
However, the menu was full of non-kosher seafood. Whether or not this was meant or taken as a deliberate snub to the traditionalists who observed ritual law, for them, this was the final straw. This became known as "The Treif (i.e. non-kosher) Banquet", and is regarded as a turning point in the history of American Jewry.
Rabbi Sabato Morais and a group of his (mainly Sephardi) colleagues left the confines of the Reform Movement, and in 1886, the Jewish Theological Seminary was founded, with Morais as Chancellor. In 1887, the first class of JTS was taught, on the premises of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in New York City.
The first graduate of the class, in 1894, was Joseph Herman Hertz. He later became the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain and the Empire (as it was then known), and put together the edition of the Pentateuch with commentary which was, until recently, used almost universally in the English-speaking Jewish world. He was a proponent of "progressive conservatism," an ideology to the right of that generally classified as "Conservative" with-a-capital-"C", perhaps a direct predecessor of today's Modern Orthodoxy.
A group of synagogues loosely affiliated themselves to the Seminary. In 1898 the group split, with Dr. Henry Pereira Mendes of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue founding the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (now more widely known as the Orthodox Union, famous for their OU kashrut supervision). Eventually, with encouragement from the then-Chancellor of JTS, Solomon Schechter, the non-Orthodox elements formed the United Synagogue of America in 1913, a "broad church" synagogal movement, both traditional and modern. In 1992, well after it had become branded as "Conservative", it changed its name to "The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism", and today it is the second largest synagogal body in the United States.
JTS is now a formidable institution, renowned for its high academic standards. It is still most famous as a rabbinical seminary, but it also has a Graduate School in Jewish Studies, a Cantorial School, a school of Education, an undergraduate college (degrees awarded with Columbia University), various research institutes, and affiliate schools abroad, including the Seminario Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires and the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. It is also the governing body of the Camp Ramah summer camps. The rabbinical graduates of JTS automatically become members of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organisation of Conservative rabbis.
The administrative and academic head of JTS is the Chancellor. However, the Chancellor of JTS is expected to play a wider role in the Conservative Jewish world. He (and to date it has always been a he, although the ordination of women as Conservative rabbis from 1986 suggests that this will not always be the case) acts as a spokesman and ideologue for Conservative Judaism. This extension of a chief academic's role is in keeping with Judaism's emphasis on learned leadership - especially in the strictly orthodox world, where the heads of yeshivot are regarded with unparalleled respect. It also follows from the specific history of the Conservative movement as an offshoot of an academic perspective, and, an academic institution (i.e. JTS).
At the time of writing, the Chancellor of the Seminary is Dr. Arnold Eisen, only the second non-Rabbi to hold this post.
A Few Luminaries of JTS, Past and Present
Solomon Schechter (1847-1915)
Schechter was born in Romania, and ordained as a rabbi in Vienna, Austria. As a student at the University of Berlin, he met Claude Montefiore, a very important figure in Anglo-Jewry. He returned with Montefiore to London, where he married, and in 1890 he was given a position at the University of Cambridge. It was whilst based here as an academic, he was shown a fragment of a 2nd century copy of Sirach, an apocryphal writing. He travelled to Egypt, where, in the genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, he discovered a hugely important cache of Jewish texts, including what is known as the "Damascus Document" or "The First Dead Sea Scrolls".
In 1902, he was brought to New York to be the new Chancellor of JTS. Being a world-leading academic, he set the stage for an academic approach to Jewish study, and high standards. As well as a superb knowledge of academia and traditional learning, he was passionate about the Jewish community. The founder of the United Synagogue, he proposed the model of "Catholic Israel". This model is of one universal institution for all Jews, accepting wide variation of approach and practice within it. These ideas are still influential today. The day school network of the Conservative Movement is named for Schechter.
Mordechai Kaplan (1881-1983)
Born in Lithuania, he moved to the USA with his family in 1889. He graduated from College of the City of New York at 19, and then proceeded to receive rabbinic ordination from JTS and a Masters degree from Columbia University. After a period as a communal rabbi, he returned to JTS to teach, becoming professor of homiletics and the philosophy of religion.
Kaplan had a major impact in two distinct areas of Jewish thought. The first is theology. In his books Judaism Without Supernaturalism and The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, he proposed a naturalist theism. Rather than a personal yet transcendant God, Kaplan suggested an entirely imminent yet impersonal God. This, Kaplan believes, is the only rational way to think of God, as "the tendency towards salvation" in all things. This approach is obviously highly problematic for more traditional thinkers, as well as being a somewhat unattractive view of God.
The second area is that of communal Judaism. Most famously in Judaism as a Civilisation, Kaplan explores how the modern Jew can live a fully Jewish life. His convictions associated with this view of Judaism led to him founding the "Society for the Advancement of Judaism" and being the driving force behind the creation of Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) and the University of Judaism near Los Angeles, which today houses the other main Conservative rabbinical school in the USA, the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies.
Reconstructionist Judaism was founded by adherents of Kaplan's ideology, his theological views being rather too liberal for most of the Conservative Movement.
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)
Heschel grew up as the heir to a chasidic dynasty in Warsaw, Poland. Early on, he began a secular education on top of his religious learning. Eventually he left Poland and went to the University of Berlin to do a PhD and where he taught at the Liberal rabbinical school. With the approach of World War 2, he was brought out of Europe to America by Hebrew Union College, where he taught for some time, before moving to JTS in 1945.
He wrote several highly significant books, his primary works of theological philosophy being Man is Not Alone and God in Search of Man. He was heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement, opposed the war in Vietnam, and was also an early Zionist.
Coming from Quebec, Gillman became interested in existentialist Jewish philosophy whilst studying at McGill University as an undergraduate. He is now the Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Philosophy at JTS. His interest lies in reinvigorating theology in Judaism, a religion which often de-stresses matters of belief. He is regarded as a rebbe by some of his students, and is often regarded as a leader of the "left-wing" of the Conservative Movement.
Rabbi Roth is, conversely, regarded as the leader of the "right-wing" of the Conservative Movement. He is the Louis Finkelstein Professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at JTS, and is one of the world's experts on the Halakhic (Jewish legal) system. He sits on, and for eight years was chair of, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which makes legal decisions for the Conservative Movement in the USA. Known for his highly respected, small-"c" conservative legal rulings, he is also a very inspiring teacher, bringing religious passion to an area that non-Orthodox Judaism sometimes regards as dry. Roth is coming towards the end of his temporary leave acting as a head of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he is able to promote a traditional approach to Jewish learning within the Conservative Movement.
Apart from the criticisms that the Orthodox level at JTS for its heresy in teaching biblical criticism, and its historical approach in general, the students at JTS and others inside the Movement also complain about JTS, from time to time.
The students sometimes tire of the detached academic atmosphere of JTS. The rabbinic students are given a "degree of rabbinic ordination" rather than simply "semicha" (i.e. ordination, but the language makes a difference!). The use of the traditional model of learning in pairs (chevruta) has been increased due to student pressure, approaching the style found at yeshivot, including the Conservative Yeshiva.
JTS can also be perceived as "out of touch" with Conservative Jews. The ideology of the rabbinate of Conservative Judaism is at odds with the vast majority of the laity. Most Jews who identify as Conservative do not see full halakhic observance as a value, whilst the rabbinate does. The rabbinate are educated and observant, the laity are, by-and-large, neither. This gives the impression of JTS being an ivory tower.
These two issues reflect very well the challenge that centrist Judaism will always have, the challenge that JTS was founded to grapple with - full participation in both traditional Judaism and the modern world.
The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Fragments at the University of Cambridge,
15 January 2003
Schechter, Solomon (1847-1915) http://www.jajz-ed.org.il/100/people/BIOS/shechter.html,
The Department for Jewish Zionist Education,
15 January 2003
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America,
15 January 2003
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism,
15 January 2003
The Orthodox Union,
15 January 2003
Joseph Herman Hertz 1872-1946,
The Website of the Chief Rabbi,
15 January 2003
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983),
15 January 2003
Books In Review - Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness,
15 January 2003
Neil Gillman, Sacred Fragments, The Jewish Publication Company, Philadelphia, 1990