The Vocation of the Seminary
September 6, 2006
I've been welcomed warmly over the past few months by everyone here at JTS, and most especially by Ismar Schorsch, as well as by friends and supporters around the country. It gives me great pleasure this morning to be able, finally, to extend an equally heartfelt welcome in return to all of you.
In that spirit, I'd like to greet the new students entering JTS this fall—twenty-five starting programs in The Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, twenty-one taking up master's or doctoral work in The Graduate School, fifty-two enrolling in List College, eleven beginning the H. L. Miller Cantorial School, and, last but not least in this alphabetical ordering, the thirty-one starting work in The Rabbinical School. We are glad you are here. I wish you a start to your studies as energizing and fulfilling as the one that has been accorded to me. To the returning students—100 in The Rabbinical School, 34 in the H. L. Miller Cantorial School, 144 in List College, 129 in The Graduate School, and 98 in The Davidson School—I want to say thank you again for the role you have played in making me feel so at home here, starting with the afternoon when so many of you stood in line to meet and shake hands with me in the Kripke Tower. I promise that my colleagues and I will do all that we can to make JTS a nurturing and exciting community for the teaching and learning we shall do together.
I can't help but notice, looking out at this audience through the lens of the JTS history I've been reading lately, that the entering class includes a large number of women, 64 to be exact, bringing the total number of female students at JTS to 345, roughly half of the total student population. It is 100 years exactly since Henrietta Szold frequented and enlivened these precincts as an unofficial but full-time student—the only female student on the premises. She would be proud, I think, not only of the large number of women now following in her footsteps but of the institution that has come to appreciate and value your presence here.
JTS has long prized diversity—a commitment allied with its longstanding practice of tolerance and mutual respect. It has understood from the beginning that pluralism is crucial to all that we do in the classroom and outside it. You may not be aware, not having spent as much time reading the essays of Solomon Schechter as I have over the past few months, that Schechter's inaugural address, delivered in November 1902, devoted a great deal of attention to the matter of diversity. I've admired Schechter's writings since I first encountered them as a graduate student. This rereading reminded me just how great an educational theorist he was—and how fine a stylist of language. We read on the very first page of Schechter's first major address a remarkable statement celebrating "that diversity in feeling and variation in thinking which confer individuality and character upon each member of the species." Schechter then mentioned as fruitful context for the Seminary's work both the varieties present in Jewish communities around the world and the perplexing array of "Judaisms and no-Judaisms" evident on the teeming streets of New York. The Seminary, he declared, would never become a "partisan ground" for any one theological direction or a "hotbed of polemics" that pits Jew against Jew, theology versus theology. For, I quote Schechter again, "the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, is Peace."
I will have a lot to say about "The Charter of the Seminary," as Schechter formulated it, this morning. The bulk of my talk today will be given over to parallel reflections of my own on what I shall call "The Vocation of the Seminary." Institutions as well as individuals have callings, I believe. I want to think with you about the work in and for the world that we at JTS enjoy doing and do well—three critical elements of a vocation or calling. As further stimulus to that endeavor I want to place before you a few more examples of the bracing honesty and capacious integrity that Schechter sought to impress upon this institution. I hope these qualities shall guide all that we do as well.
Schechter hated ignorance like the plague. I take it we all agree with him on this score. He also had no patience for what he called "artificial ignorance," by which he meant pretending that history has not changed over the centuries and that this change need not be reckoned with in the teaching and practice of Judaism. Schechter's conviction that Jewish faith and Jewish scholarship "are not irreconcilable," as he put it in careful understatement, was fundamental to his vision. It is no less basic to mine. Faith and scholarship both remain essential to the task of ensuring that tradition is preserved even as it is transformed. That is why this institution must never become what Schechter called a "drill ground where young men will be forced into a certain groove of thinking, or, rather, not thinking." We, too, know that thoughtless conformity and comforting apologetics are inimical to good scholarship. Neither has a place in our classrooms for the same reason. The vocation of the Seminary is too important to allow it.
You will, I hope, forgive me for quoting so extensively from Schechter. His way with words was extraordinary and his mind discerning. Let me cite one final passage on the importance of diversity.
Nothing is further from our thoughts [than uniformity]. I once heard a friend of mine exclaim angrily to a pupil, "Sir, how dare you always agree with me? I do not even profess to agree with myself always." I would consider my work . . . a complete failure [Schechter went on] if this institution would not in the future produce such extremes as on the one side a raving mystic who would denounce me as a sober Philistine; on the other side, an advanced critic, who would rail at me as a narrow-minded fanatic.
I like to think this is why Schechter hired Mordecai Kaplan despite Kaplan's many alleged heresies and defended him time and again against colleagues who sought his dismissal. I think Schechter would have loved the vision of Kaplan and Heschel arguing in the hallways, as they do in my head almost daily, or at least arguing in the pages of their books, which I suspect they did far more than in the actual corridors here at 3080. I, too, dread the thought of a faculty or student body incapable of teaching me or challenging me because we agreed on everything. I look forward to many years of learned and respectful argument l'shem shamayim—conversation on matters of Torah that is worthy of the texts and history we have inherited. The creation and maintenance of real community in diversity, true respect across boundaries, genuine openness serving steadfast commitment, is a large part of what I think we are meant to do and to model.
Had we the time, I the eloquence, and you the patience, I would launch now into discussion of the crucial distinction between pluralism and relativism. I don't want anyone who hears me today to confuse the two. I am a professor who has something to profess. I am also enough of a scholar to know that truth is elusive, frustratingly so. But it is in principle attainable. So are moral judgments and existential commitments that are grounded in far more than personal preference. As a lover of Torah I am duty-bound to affirm that some books are more important than others, and, thanks to Torah, I am duty-bound by mitzvot that instruct me and raise me higher. Some actions are right with a capital R or wrong with a capital W. I hope we will never be talked out of these convictions.
Relativism is not for me, and I hope not for JTS. But let us never deny that joining commitment to criticism, faith to tolerance, rigor with passion, is a demanding path not well-traveled in our culture. It is our path, I think—one for which I am thankful. The vocation of The Jewish Theological Seminary requires searching out and arguing about truth even as we act on behalf of causes and human beings that cannot wait until we have figured things out and followed up every footnote. I hope that we will demonstrate the difference between pluralism and relativism by being who we are and doing well what we do best.
Let me now turn directly to formulation of the Seminary's vocation as I understand it. Just as Schechter and his successors formulated the mission of JTS in terms suited to their times, so, too, my sense of our vocation in 2006 and beyond is shaped by who I think we are, and what I think we can do and should do to "meet the demands of the day." Scholarship has to matter if we are to embark on it with the requisite passion. It must know and address the world. It must stand apart—but also come close, in care.
I've borrowed the title of this address from Max Weber's essay "Wissenschaft als Beruf"—"Science [or Scholarship] as a Vocation." I was privileged to spend an entire semester of my college years working through the essay line by line, at times word by word, with my teacher Philip Rieff, z"l, who passed away this summer. Weber, thanks to Rieff, is one of my chief intellectual guides and heroes. He raised profound questions about the value of modern scholarship when he was asked to address students at the University of Munich in 1918, in the immediate aftermath of the death and devastation of the Great War. Platitudes about advancing the frontiers of knowledge would not "cut it" in that time and place. The young men and women who had survived the war wanted to know the point of mastering facts and knowledge. What good did scholarship do? How could science truly be a worthwhile vocation if it did not do good? We meet today just a few weeks after another war—smaller in scope, thank goodness, but terrible enough. It impinges on our spirits and challenges our wisdom. I fear that we will be living with its consequences for many years to come. But even had the summer passed quietly for Jews and everyone else in the world, I think we would have been duty-bound to ask the question: learning and teaching for what? Why should we be here at JTS? What should we be doing together?
I'd like to share with you the beginning of my personal answer to those questions. I hope I will have a chance to discuss it with many of you at greater length in the months to come. Here is my statement of our tasks.
"The mission of JTS is to teach Torah to, and educate leaders for, the Conservative Movement, the Jewish people, and America."
Let me take a few moments to explain what I mean by this formulation of our collective vocation.
First, Torah. By this point in the history of JTS, it should not need saying, and therefore should be said all the more clearly, that Torah includes not just texts and ideas but lives and communities. Jews taught and learned Torah not only by words they said and heard but by actions they performed and the institutions they created. JTS has from the outset been committed to the idea that solid, critical scholarship is an integral part of the teaching and learning of Torah. We simply cannot know what it might mean to follow the Torah's teachings or walk in its paths or serve God or help one another unless we have so deeply explored the variety and complexity of meanings and paths generated over the years that we can knowingly carry them forward, keep them alive, in radically new circumstances. Exacting, comprehensive, and insightful scholarship is essential to that effort. So is immediate access to sources in their original languages. And so, too, are communities of caring and concern. Torah demands no less. We let down the tradition if we do not pass it on enlivened by this effort: rendered live to others because it has come to life in us.
JTS—need I say this—benefits from and requires the scholarship of individuals, male and female, Jews and non-Jews, who disagree with one another about the facts of history or text as well as about the interpretation that should be given to those facts. How can we gauge what Gerson Cohen provocatively called the "blessings of assimilation"—I think we would say: of "acculturation"—unless we can call on the nuanced knowledge of the past that he brought to bear on that question? How shall we chart new paths for women in the world without works such as Paula Hyman's or Caroline Bynum's that probe what Jewish and non-Jewish women have and have not done and thought, have and have not been permitted to do and think, over the centuries? What gives us the confidence to know that in changing tradition we are not rupturing it? Good scholarship, and only that, makes this possible—scholarship not tainted by apologetics or weakened by special pleading. That is what I mean by "teaching Torah."
I believe, in all humility, that Louis Finkelstein was right when he said that teaching Torah in this way, educating leaders in this spirit, performs a vital service not just for Jews but for America as well. He was determined that the individuals trained by The Jewish Theological Seminary would "prove helpful in building bridges across all kinds of differences in the world." I am too. Finkelstein established the Institute for Religion and Social Studies, you recall, and the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion, so that JTS would "become a school for religion and ethics, not only for ourselves, but taking the example of Maimonides, for the world at large." I too believe this. If we can bring text and history to bear on current dilemmas in all their complexity; if we can demonstrate commitment to our tradition along with true respect for other traditions; if we can show that critical inquiry is the friend and not the enemy of faith; if we can further honest dialogue between Jews and other religious groups in America—and especially, right now, with Muslims—if we can do these things, and educate leaders prepared to carry on such initiatives, we truly will have performed a great service to the United States and Canada, and by extension to the world.
This mission, to my mind, goes hand in hand with service to the Jewish people. We have a wealth of knowledge and insight in this building that can be brought to bear on the issues now confronting Jews. We have scholars in Hebrew language and literature, for example, including the reception of Hebrew culture in America, who can be instrumental in narrowing the growing divide between American and Israeli Jews. In doing so we can prove ourselves real heirs to Schechter, who exactly a century ago this year defied expectations and his board of trustees by issuing a historic and deeply learned endorsement of Zionism. We have experts in the history of Jewish community who can help train communal leaders in this country, elsewhere in the Diaspora, and in Israel. We have the faculty resources in place to host and lead research and discussions about how the political wisdom of our people can best be brought to bear on the awesomely difficult matters we face in these troubled times. And we have seminaries associated with ours in Moscow, Buenos Aires, and Jerusalem. These connections offer immense possibilities for bringing the Jewish people closer together.
Scholarship and teaching have to be at the heart of that effort. Leadership requires vision of where we should be going and how to get there, achievable only through in-depth knowledge and analysis of where we have been before, what we have thought, why we have at times failed.
Finally, rounding out its vocation, JTS of course bears a special relationship to the Conservative Movement. Schechter, as I mentioned earlier, was determined at the start of his career here to avoid denominational divisions. He wanted to serve "catholic Israel" as a whole. But the way he conceived the school charted a path that led ineluctably to formation of and close ties with one movement in particular. The Jewish Theological Seminary and its leaders have lived ever since in the fruitful tension between service and connection to Conservative Judaism (or, as Cyrus Adler preferred, "traditional" or "historical" Judaism) on the one hand and the broader missions that I, following all of my predecessors, have defined. This is not the time for detailed discussion of how we can best contribute to Conservative Judaism and help to lead it. I will be devoting a lot of the coming year to discussing this matter with Conservative Jews throughout North America. Suffice it to say that we do that job best by training rabbis and cantors, educators and scholars, lay leaders and professional leaders, who know how and why the movement evolved as it did, what it has stood for, why its pluralism too is not mere relativism and its middle path far more than just territory marked out between extremes, but rather a family of paths with distinctive content and purpose, bearing tangible advantages to heart and soul as well as mind. We do "know something," as Schechter put it. We will communicate what we know and put it into practice.
I hope that you will join me in seeing the several elements of our vocation as mutually reinforcing rather than conflicting. I trust that you will agree that the interaction of scholarship and professional training, while never free of tension, can nonetheless be productive to both, destructive to neither.
I hope that you, our future rabbis and cantors—and not only you—will be alert to these complexities and enriched by them as you learn to transmit tradition and build communities; that you, the students of The Davidson School—and not only you—will be better educators and scholars because your training has been adequate in its variety and depth to the students you will be teaching and the unprecedented realities through which you will be guiding them; that you, List College students—and not only you—will get more than exercise from the walks you take back and forth between JTS and Barnard and Columbia but will gain valuable skill in building the bridges between Judaism and the world, and among the various parts of your selves; and finally that you, students of The Graduate School—and not only you—will be good enough at what you do to challenge and instruct your teachers as we have tried to challenge and instruct ours. Push us, stretch us, lead us. Do the finest scholarship of which you are capable, without fear of upsetting our settled convictions. JTS, Torah, and the world will all be the better for it.
The Jewish Theological Seminary will be passing 120 this year, you know. "Ad me'a ve-esrim," we say to people who reach seventy, or eighty or, if they are truly fortunate, ninety or more. JTS has attained to a lifespan beyond the reach of any individual and surpassing the achievement of many a fine institution. I'm privileged to be arriving as we pass this milestone; I am excited to lead us into what I hope will prove a second and equally distinguished lifetime. Together we can make sure that no historian will say, looking back a century from now, that by 2006 the best years of JTS were behind it. This is a time of incredible opportunity for us all. There is a lot of work waiting to be done—important work, including much that we love doing. We are fully equipped to do it well. I'm ready. You are too. Let's get started.