Jacob Agus (1911-1986), Papers.

  • Dates: ca. 1938-1991
  • Size: 16 linear ft.
  • Number of Boxes: 14
  • Languages:
    • English
    • Hebrew
    • Spanish
  • Location: Special Collections Reading Room, Jewish Theological Seminary Library.
  • Restrictions: Reproduction of fragile items is not permitted; consult the archivist about literary rights.
  • Gift Of: Miriam S. Agus
  • Date: 1995
  • Related Collections: Theodore Friedman, Papers. An oral history interview conducted by Helen Sollins of the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland with Agus is available at the JHSM, 15 Lloyd St., Baltimore, MD 21202. Phone: 410/732- 6400.

JM, 5/20/99


Table of Contents:


A Note on Folder Headings

Individual folders are identified in the following way on the left side of each folder: Name of Collection, box #/folder#, as in Ben Zion Bokser Papers, 4/22. Please use this format in citations and when referring to files for any other reason.


Biographical Note

Rabbi Jacob Agus was a leading thinker of the Conservative movement's liberal wing, heading Rabbinical Assembly committees on the sabbath, prayerbook, and ideology of the Conservative movement. He was also a scholar, teacher, author, editor, long-time rabbi of Beth El Congregation in Baltimore, Maryland, and a promoter of interfaith communication - which he referred to as "dialogue" or "trialogue."

Agus (the family name was originally Agushewitz), was born in Poland in 1911 and emigrated with his family to the United States in 1927. He attended the Talumdic Academy, New York, graduating in 1929, received his bachelor's degree from Yeshiva University in 1933, and was ordained by YU in 1935. In 1940 he received a PhD in Jewish Thought from Harvard University and married Miriam Shore the same year.

Agus's rabbinic career took him to Congregation Beth Abraham, Norfolk, Virginia, 1934- 1936; Temple Ashkenaz, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1936-1940; Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation, Chicago, 1940-1942; and Beth Abraham United Synagogue Center, Dayton, Ohio, 1942-1950. In 1945 Agus formally affiliated with the Conservative movement by joining the Rabbinical Assembly. In 1950 he became the rabbi of Beth El Congregation in Baltimore, where he remained for thirty years, retiring in 1980.

As an influential member of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, Agus was active in the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, chaired the Prayer Book Committee (1952- 1956) and worked to define Conservative Jewish ideology through a series of conferences, committees and other gatherings, including the Continuing Conference on Conservative Ideology (1956-1963). With Morris Adler and Theodore Friedman he co-authored the "Responsum on the Sabbath," 1950, that allowed Conservative Jews to use electricity and drive on the Sabbath.

As a scholar, Agus produced several books on Jewish philosophy and many articles on this and other themes, and served as an advisor on Jewish topics for encyclopedias, including the Encyclopedia Britannica, and scholarly journals. He taught at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, St. Mary's Seminary and Ecumenical Institute (where he was also a founder of the Interfaith Roundtable), Temple University and Dropsie College.

In 1965 Agus accepted an invitation to teach at the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamerico in Buenos Aires. He remained in Argentina for two months, then traveled to Brazil where he spent two weeks lecturing under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee and the Brazilian Institute for Culture and Information. In Latin America Agus developed continuing ties with students and colleagues - among them Marshall Meyer, then director of the Seminario. These ties are documented by correspondence in this collection.

In addition to his rabbinical and scholarly work, Agus adopted the cause of interfaith and interracial relations, dubbing his forays into Jewish/Christian and Jewish/Christian/Muslim relations "dialogue" and "trialogue." As noted above, he was a founder of St. Mary's Seminary's Interfaith Roundtable. He also served on the boards of the Baltimore National Council on Christians and Jews, and the predominantly African-American Morgan State University, also in Baltimore.

Agus died on September 26, 1986.


Collection Description

Jacob Agus's papers consist of correspondence, documenting a wide range of scholarly, congregational, ideological, and political concerns, 1938-1991; manuscripts of writings, including sermons, lectures, articles, portions of books, and reading notes, ca. 1940s- 1980s; files documenting his work on and membership in the Rabbinical Assembly, 1944-1986; a fairly miscellaneous group of subject files, assembled by the Ratner Center, consisting of items both gathered and produced by Agus on a range of topics, 1942-1984; and tape recordings, 1957-1979 of lectures, sermons, and other talks mostly by Agus, with some by others. Since some material is undated, all dates given here are approximate.

The correspondence series (I) is the strongest in this collection. Covering all of his adult life - and all of his life as a working rabbi and scholar, it includes letters written by Agus as well as letters received by him. Like many rabbis, the distinctions between Agus's personal and several professional lives were blurred. Thus, even though the correspondence is divided fairly arbitrarily into three sections - reflecting, probably, whether it was kept at home or at his synagogue office - it should be used as a unit. In some cases a sequence of correspondence is divided in half, with Agus's letters in one section and replies in another. There is additional correspondence in the subject files and in the Rabbinical Assembly series.

The Rabbinical Assembly series (IV) includes correspondence, reports, writings, and notes written by Agus himself, but it also includes a fair amount of material that all members of the Rabbinical Assembly received.

The writings (Series II) remain partly unprocessed. The job of disentangling them awaits a scholar or doctoral student intimate with and interested in Agus's work. In the meantime, researchers are welcome to use them as best they can.


Series List

  • I. Correspondence, 1938-1991; n.d.
    • Personal, 1938-1991; n.d.
    • Office, ca.1966-1979
    • Office, ca.1976-1985
  • II. Writings, Manuscript, ca.1940s-1980s
    • Unsorted
    • Sorted Roughly by Title
    • Notebooks
  • III. Subject Files, ca.1942-1984
  • IV. Rabbinical Assembly, ca.1944-1986
    • Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, 1949-1986
    • Committees on Conservative Ideology, 1950s-1960s
    • Conservative Judaism, 1973
    • Prayer Book Committee, 1944-1960
    • Publications Committee, 1982
    • Synagogue Center Movement, RA Pronouncement on, n.d.
    • Sabbath Revitalization Committee, 1949-1952
  • V. Tapes, ca.1957-1979


Series Descriptions

I. Correspondence, 1938-1991; n.d.

Boxes 1-3

Agus's correspondence is divided into three groups: personal correspondence, 1938-1991, and two chronologically overlapping groups of office correspondence, 1966-1979 and1976-1985. These divisions were maintained in an effort to respect the form in which the correspondence was apparently created, even though topics, correspondents, and dates overlap. Researchers will do best to treat the three groups of letters as essentially the same, and to look in all three groups

The personal correspondence files contain letters that were found, sometimes on their own, sometimes in files, among the many boxes of Agus's papers as they arrived in the archives. These have been arranged in chronological order. A section at the end consists of separate files for individual correspondents that Agus himself presumably kept.

Most of the letters in the personal correspondence files were received by Agus, although a few drafts or carbons of his replies are included. Even though Agus did not write most of these letters, many of them consist of responses to Agus's views, as expressed personally or in his letters and writings. Agus's views were often controversial, and the length,detail and heat of many of these letters is evidence of the depth of feeling Agus often stirred up.

The correspondents here are: congregants and others writing on synagogue business; rabbinical and academic colleagues; people with whom he worked on interfaith matters; publishers and journal editors. There is very little here about personal or family matters.

Among the many themes covered are these prominent ones: Agus's opposition to Israeli militarism during the Mandate period; communications with members of the Orthodox world; discussions with Conservative colleagues about the definition of Conservative Judaism; Agus's defense of Arnold Toynbee, whose views on Jews were controversial (including correspondence with Toynbee); Soviet Jewry; the state of Jewish life in Latin America following his trip there in 1965; Agus's role as an editor or advisor on Jewish topics for many journals and encyclopedias; the publication of his scholarly books; and his efforts to promote interfaith dialogue.

The office correspondence, 1966-1979 and 1976-1985, consists of two groups of files that appear to have been kept at Agus's office at Congregation Beth El in Baltimore. Unlike the personal files, which consist mostly of letters received by Agus, these are carbons and drafts of letters written by Agus, with a smaller number of letters received. Each group forms a separate alphabetical sequence. In some instances, such as the extensive correspondence with Milton Konvitz, letters received from a correspondent are filed in the personal correspondence, while Agus's side of the correspondence is in the office correspondence.

While the office correspondence contains a higher percentage of letters on synagogue business than do the personal files, they also contain letters on scholarly, academic, publishing, editorial, interfaith, and other matters.

Correspondents found in some or all of these groups of correspondence include:

  • Kassel Abelson
  • Maxwell Abbell
  • Morris Adler
  • Irving Agus
  • William F. Albright
  • David Aronson
  • Salo W. Baron
  • Ephraim Bennett
  • Aaron Blumenthal
  • Gary Blair (about Camp Ariel, Chile)
  • Ben Zion Bokser
  • Samuel Berliant
  • Gerson Cohen
  • A.S. Diamond
  • Max I. Dimont
  • Samuel Dresner
  • Isma'il R. al Faruqi
  • Louis Finkelstein
  • Theodore Friedman
  • B.Z. Goldberg
  • Solomon Goldman
  • David Gordis
  • Robert Gordis
  • Solomon Grayzel
  • Simon Greenberg
  • George Grose
  • Gershon Hadas
  • Oscar Handlin
  • Jules Harlow
  • Will Herberg
  • Arthur Hertzberg
  • Abraham J. Heschel
  • William Ernest Hocking
  • Isidor Hoffman
  • Hubert Humphrey
  • Henry Hurwitz
  • Louis Jacobs
  • Max Kadushin
  • Horace Kallen
  • Mordecai Kaplan
  • Israel Kazis
  • Wolfe Kelman
  • Isaac Klein
  • Max D. Klein
  • Philip Klutznick
  • Hans Kohn
  • Milton Konvitz
  • Joseph H. Lookstein
  • Angel Kreiman-Brill
  • Bernard Mandelbaum
  • Jacob Rader Marcus
  • Leonard Montefiore
  • Jacob Neusner
  • Reinhold Niebuhr
  • David Novak
  • Simon Noveck
  • James Parkes
  • Fishel Pearlmutter
  • Jakob J. Petuchowski
  • Daniel Polish
  • Joachim Prinz
  • Stanley Rabinowitz
  • Yehuda Regarim
  • Cornelius A. Rijk
  • J. Coert Rylaarsdam
  • Samuel Sandmel
  • Mel Scult
  • Alexander M. Shapiro
  • Norton Shargel
  • Seymour Siegel
  • Phillip Sigal
  • Morris Silverman
  • Harry Z. Sky
  • John Slawson
  • Simon E. Sobeloff
  • Milton Steinberg
  • Marc Tanenbaum
  • Arnold Toynbee
  • Arthur Waskow
  • Herbert Yoskowitz
II. Writings, Manuscript, ca. 1940s-1980s

Boxes 4-9

The writings in this collection constitute a rich if disorderly trove of sermons, lectures, portions of books, articles, book reviews, notes on reading, and conference papers dating from the beginning of Agus's career to the end of his life. The majority of this material is in manuscript form (either typed or handwritten), and a small number of reprints and clippings of published articles are also included. Some of these writings were later published while others - such as the sermons, for instance - presumably were not. Some of this material is fragmentary, but much of it consists of complete drafts.

The writings have been very roughly arranged into three groups: unsorted writings, sorted writings, and notebooks. The unsorted writings await sorting, preferably by a scholar who will understand their import. The sorted writings were clearly identified by title, and have been arranged in alphabetical order. The notebooks were kept by Agus from the beginning of his rabbinic career. Many are dated and contain his sermons. Some also contain notes on reading, and drafts of writings or workings out of ideas.

Although much of this material is handwritten, or typed with handwritten notes, Agus's handwriting is clear and legible. Scholars interested in Agus's ideas or in the ideology of the Conservative movement should regard this series as a valuable resource.

III. Subject Files, 1940s-1980s

Boxes 9-10

The subject files consist of odd items on a variety of subjects, dating from approximately the 1940s to the 1980s, that were found in the collection when it arrived in the archives, and have been arranged by the Ratner Center in alphabetical order. Material both gathered and created by Agus is included here.

These files contain material about Agus, including a small amount of biographical material, programs and other printed material from events honoring Agus, programs from events he attended, and reviews of his books (some book reviews by Agus are also included). Also included are files documenting Agus's editorial work on encyclopedias and scholarly journals. Of note are the two files on his involvement as Judaica editor with the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1957-1978, consisting of Agus's correspondence with editors, and his commentary on articles submitted by contributors. Also included are files documenting Agus's career as a professor at Dropsie College and Temple University, both in Philadelphia. A small amount of material from Congregation Beth El is included here - but the office correspondence (see Series I) is a much better resource for information about Beth El.

Agus's 1965 trip to Latin America is documented by correspondence, Agus's reports on his experiences, and clippings of newspaper articles about the trip. The correspondence is with the American Jewish Committee, which sponsored the lecture tour in Brazil Agus undertook after teaching at the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamerico in Buenos Aires; with Marshall Meyer, then director of the Seminario, and with students, especially Mauricio Pitchon, then a student, later a leader of the Sephardic community in Chile. The letters from Rabbi Meyer and the Seminario students - particularly Pitchon, who kept up his correspondence with Agus for almost a decade after the trip - provide good insight into conditions for Jews, particularly students and scholars in Argentina and Chile during the 1960s and 1970s. Pitchon's letters describe the Chilean crisis of 1972-1973, particularly as it affected the Jewish community. Pitchon also describes internal community matters such as problems surrounding divorce, funding for religious programs, and tensions with Zionist organizations that promoted settlement in Israel rather than working to strengthen the Jewish community in Chile. Marshall Meyer's letters describe the Seminario, personal matters, and political affairs in Argentina, particularly as they related to the Jewish community there.

Agus's reports on the trip document his own concerns - on the appeal of communism for Jewish students in Latin American universities and the need, he believed, to establish alternatives; the need for Spanish-speaking rabbis in Latin America, and the state of interfaith dialogue in Latin America - are expressed in his letters and reports.

Also of note in the subject files are correspondence and legal papers documenting two disputes over mixed seating - one at Kehila Kadosha Adath Israel Congregation, Cincinnati, in 1954, and Katz vs. Singerman, New Orleans, 1957. Agus apparently acted as an advisor in both cases. A file containing opinions of Orthodox rabbis on mixed seating, 1950s, is included. This file (10/19) contains a resolution of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada opposing mixed seating and specifically condemning the Conservative movement and Rabbis Agus, Eisenstein, Graubart, and Greenfield.

For a more complete description of the subject files, see the box list, below, which lists each file.

IV. Rabbinical Assembly, ca.1944-1982

Boxes 10-12

Included here are files reflecting Agus's participation - in some cases leadership - of Rabbinical Assembly committees over nearly the whole course of his membership in the RA. The bulk of this material documents the work of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the Prayer Book Committee, and a series of committees that sought to work out the ideology of Conservative Judaism.

Files of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards consist of correspondence, minutes, responsa (with related informational material in some cases), and fragments of an undated constitution. What is most notable here is the correspondence, in which Agus engages with his colleagues on issues. The minutes and responsa materials are, for the most part, copies that all members received, but some notes and draft writings by Agus are included.

Agus headed the RA's Continuing Conference on Conservative Ideology, and correspondence, minutes, reports and statements of that and other efforts of the RA to define Conservative Judaism in the 1950s and 1960s are included here. One file of statements from a Task Force on Ideology, 1986, is also included. Additional records of the Continuing Conference are in Record Group 1, General Files, series B (1943-1944) and C (1945-1946).

Rabbi Agus was the chairman of the Prayer Book Committee that produced the RA's Weekday Prayer Book, published in 1961. Included here is correspondence, committee minutes, reports, and drafts of text, all of which document the ideological, literary, legal, and practical aspects of editing and publishing the prayer book.

In addition to these dominant groups, there are also small files containing the following: minutes of the editorial board of Conservative Judaism, the RA's scholarly journal, June 29, 1972; minutes of the RA's Publications Committee, October 5, 1982; an undated RA pronouncement on the synagogue center movement (possibly 1940s or 1950s); and correspondence, 1949-1952 of the Sabbath Revitalization Committee.

V. Tapes, ca.1957-1979

     Boxes 13-14

There are 48 reel-to-reel tapes, 1957-1976 and 43 cassette tapes, 1973-1979 (some tapes are undated). These contain recordings of lectures, sermons, and book reviews by Agus and, in some cases, by others, including speakers at Congregation Beth El in Baltimore. Also included are recordings of meetings, celebrations of Agus's anniversaries at Beth El, radio and television broadcasts, and music. Due to the fragility of the older tapes and the limited listening facilities in the library, access to some tapes may be restricted. Please consult the archivist.


Box List

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