Strengthening the Bonds of Jewish Unity
Posted on Dec 01, 2015
JTS marked the hundredth yahrzeit of Solomon Schechter last week with a short service of commemoration at Minhah, a moving visit to Schechter’s grave at which I was joined by executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer Marc Gary and several recent JTS alumni, and a historic gathering of rabbis, educators, and leaders of all the major Jewish religious movements. I am proud JTS hosted this unprecedented conversation, which included the heads of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and Mechon Hadar, as well as graduates and students of those institutions, Yeshiva University, and, of course, JTS. We came together to explore the contemporary relevance of one of Schechter’s most seminal ideas—Catholic Israel—his term for the “living body” of Jews, not limited to any denomination, viewpoint, or professional elite, who in each generation assume responsibility for maintaining Jewish tradition and passing it on, compelling and whole, to the next.
Schechter first articulated the idea of Catholic Israel in the 1890s, several years before he arrived at JTS, and drew upon it to shape the institution from the outset. He declared in his 1902 inaugural address that he wanted his Seminary to “avoid sectarianism.” JTS would not give preference to “any denomination or sector theological Richtung (direction). They are all welcome, each working out its salvation in its own fashion. Schechter did hold firmly to certain truths: “I declare, in all humility, but most emphatically, that I do know something.” True religion could not be a “jack-of-all-trades. . . its mission is just as much to teach the world that there are false gods and fallen ideals as to bring it nearer to the true one. It means to convert the world, not to convert itself.”
In the case of Judaism, that meant fidelity to the study and practice of Torah: “There is no other Jewish tradition but that taught by the Torah and confirmed by history and tradition, and sunk into the conscience of Catholic Israel.” His Seminary would teach historical Judaism “in its various manifestations.” As an eminent scholar of Judaism, Schechter recognized the immense (if not unlimited) diversity of its “manifestations” over the centuries. He therefore respected adherents of other forms of Judaism than his own, and—rather than working to put an end to such differences among Jews—sought to unite them under the banner of Catholic Israel. Schechter also saw the need for further variety and change if Judaism were to meet the challenges of his own day.
I would argue that the same need for change-inside-tradition and unity-in-variety holds today. Ours is likewise a time of rapid and unprecedented upheaval: today, too, no one mode of Jewish living has a monopoly on the wisdom, authenticity, or truth with which to navigate the new terrain. Not every belief or practice of every Jewish movement will prove acceptable to every other—JTS cleaves to a distinctive path or practice and belief—but the commonalties among us, borne out by the discussion at JTS last week, remain far greater than our differences. Our group added love for and loyalty to the State and people of Israel to Schechter’s list of those commonalties, even as we continued to be divided on what it means to “stud[y] the Torah and live in accordance with its laws,” as Schechter put it. We also disagreedon the question of whether traditional boundaries separating Jews from others can—or should be—set or enforced in our day.
Much of the debate was about “saying yes” as opposed to “saying no.” “What is the price of saying no to someone who wants to come in?” asked one rabbi. To which another countered: “There comes a moment where we do stand for something. It should not be a surprise when the rabbi shows a religious commitment. . .We can only have a healthy religion when one addresses the costs of saying yes.” Added a third: “Identity is not just about how you feel, but about how your community responds to you.”
It was clear from our discussion that the three B’s of Jewish living—believing, behaving, and belonging—must all pass a bar of approval wielded by virtually every adult outside the Haredi world today to a degree that Schechter could never have imagined.The leaders trained by JTS must know how to attract such Jews with experiences of meaning and community at once grounded in the Jewish past and thoroughly engaged with the Jewish present. We also want them to be loyal to Torah—and, because of that loyalty, willing to adjust Torah to changing demands of the day. They need to be loyal to the Jewish people and Judaism–and, because of that loyalty—open to and respectful of human beings of other faiths and communities. They cannot do this if we say no to every innovation and cause—or always say yes.
Despite himself, Schechter ended up the founder of a movement. He established the Rabbinical Assembly for JTS alumni and the United Synagogue for the congregations they served. But even in his opening address to the latter organization, he added the words “or Orthodox, or Traditional,” every time he said the word, “Conservative.” And Schechter never abandoned his belief that Jews “stand now before a crisis” that mandated cooperation and mutual respect.
That holds for us too, I believe—and should impel the various movements to act jointly more than ever before. Our synagogues and schools could share facilities, staff, and—wherever possible—students; our Seminaries could, in addition, share faculties with one another as well as with neighboring institutions of higher learning. We should be building multipurpose campuses that house multiple Jewish organizations rather than only one; funders and foundations should provide incentives for such cooperation.
But, as Schechter firmly believed, such cooperation need not be merely instrumental. There is much substantive agreement that transcends movement boundaries, and Jews inside the circle of agreement that marks Catholic Israel can and should cooperate with those outside for the welfare of the Jewish people. Schechter’s endorsement of the Zionist movement—despite the militant secularism of some of its leaders—provides a notable example. I hope that members of last week’s gathering will soon exchange ideas on how to effect significant cooperation among us.
Let us, like Schechter, cleave faithfully to Torah and never cease “appreciating everything Jewish and falling in love with it.”