Tradition: Adapt or Adopt?

Tradition: Adopt or Adapt?

Arthur Greene, former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, asserts that in American Judaism there are really only two movements: Orthodox and Heterodox, and that the heterodox communities are divided along religious lines. Put somewhat differently? Traditon, if by this we mean reliance on halacha, is represented by Orthodox and Conservative, who fight amongst themselves on the validity of their traditions; the remainder — Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal, are progressive. American Judaism is deeply divided, but this is Judaism’s history from Antiquity.

Yehuda Hanasi faced an immense task in the aftermth of the disastrous Second Jewish War, which culminated in the mass suicide at Masada. Rebbe was born in 135 CE, the same year the Jewish War ended in defeat for Israel. Even a casual reading of the Mishna shows that the tannaim were divided politically and socially: In Mishna Brachot, which is the first study listed in the Mishna, we meet no fewer than nine personalities and their perspectives in Chapter 1 alone. These nine, and their colleagues throughout the rest of the Mishna, are the tanna’im.

The tanna’im are largely named, which means that we have a personal relationship of sorts with them 1700 years later. They and their predeccessors faced opposition from within (the disputes between Sham’I and Hillel) and from others (such as the Tzaduqim and Essenes). Traditions emerged under these conditions, including a speculative Jewish tradition that became Christianity. But Jews and Judaisms were also divided by geography. Jewish Bavel was deeply divided from Israel after the Bavli yeshivot established supremacy over Israel’s. Nostalgia for what was lost as the old country adapts to the new is a constant theme in Jewish history.

This is prominent in American Judaism, but present also in the United Kingdom. The rabbis on this list, however, are American.

Tradition & Reform

Dr. Alexander Schindler (1925-2000) emigrated to America from Germany in 1937 to escape the Nazis. He was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1953. In 1973, Dr. Schindler became president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (currently the Union of Reform Judaism), the congregational organisation of American Reform Judaism. He also served as President of the Conference of Major His tenure was controversial among traditional Jews outside of Reform – Dr Schindler advocated patrilineal descent, the premise that children born of a Jewish father are Jewish if raised that way; he encouraged outreach to non-Jews who sought sincere conversion; he advocated inclusion of non-Jewish spouses into the social life of the Jewish community. Dr. Schindler believed that Reform Jewish observance was too lax and practised inreach – the Jewish tradition of establishing relationships with other Jews and their affiliations. In spite of major political differences, Dr Schindler established relationships with Menahem Begin and Julius Berman, former president of the Orthodox Union.

Tradition & Orthodoxy

Dr. Norman Lamm (1927- ), was elected president of Yeshiva University in August of 1976, succeeding Dr. Samuel Belkin. He is YU’s American-born President. He was ordained at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1951. Dr Lamm’s halakhic opinions have been cited in US law in US Supreme Court decisions on police interrogation of suspects and with respect to guarantees against self-incrimination. Dr. Lamm has also testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on the halakha of privacy rights.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1939-1951) was one of only a few American Jewish educators who specialised in teshuvah. R Kaplan was also a physicist and mystic. “Throughout history, Jews have always been observant,” he once remarked. “The teshuvah movement is just a normalization. The Jewish people are sort of getting their act together. We’re just doing what we’re supposed to do.” Rabbi Kaplan was a prolific author who published almost 50 books. His noteworthy achievements include The Living Torah (the first lucid and contemporary American English translation of Torah) and Jewish Meditation (a concise and clearly presented manual for exploring authentic Jewish meditation and mystical expriences).

Tradition & Renewal

Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank (1951-1998) was a Lubavitcher rabbi, healer, liturgist, translator, and commentator. In a very short time he influenced a generation in the Jewish Renewal movement his original manuscripts, Jewish traditional commentaries on the Siddur and Torah, and deep understanding of Zen Buddhism. Known throughout Jewish Renewal as Reb David, he began his rabbinic career teaching baalé tshuva in Lubavitcher yeshivot, especially working with former devotees of Eastern religious traditions. As a result of this speciality, he obtained a Zen Buddhist consciousness, studying with a roshi in San Francisco. He also began a personal journey which saw him obtain a degree in somatic psychology, as well as study Feldenkrais and other alternative therapies. Reb David was also a congregational rabbi, originally with the Aquarian Minyan in Berkley, California and later with Congregation Eitz Or in Seattle, Washington.

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I am concerned about Jewish ignorance, not Jewish divisiveness. A Jew without a sense of history, without a sense of culture, without a sense of language, cannot express her or his Judaism in a meaningful way.

There are many not included on this list. Some of my exclusions are blatantly political, such as Kaufmann Kohler, whom I feel contributed rationality but not Yiddishkeit to his presidency of Hebrew Union College, on whom more below. Others were towering figures that loomed far too large for a mere thumbnail sketch because the important contributions they made were either too historical or too marginal:

Louis Ginsburg and Saul Leiberman were important Talmudic teachers at JTS, but their impact was not felt by the Jew in his or her synagogue; Aaron Kotler and Yitzchok Hutner were tremendously influential Orthodox leaders, but they left a legacy of inreach, not outreach; how many non-Orthodox have even encountered their names? It is reasonable to conclude that I weight the profiles to traditional, halakhic movements.

Have I made a controversial decision? Nine of the profiles are Orthodox and four are Conservative – 13 from halakhic Judaism. Of the remaining seven profiles, two are Reconstructionist , two are Renewal, three are Reform, and I have ignored two Reform “greats” – Kaufmann Kohler and Abba Hillel Silver. The Fire Chapters, now concluded, consider Jewish tradition rather than what tradition contributes to the general culture. Kohler was a tremendous (though highly partisan) Jewish scholar and probably the single most influential authority of The Jewish Encyclopedia. His effect on Jewish tradition, however, was not felt, which tends to be the lot of any encyclopedist. Silver, a prominent Reform rabbi and Zionist, was a magnificent speaker and preacher. His principal interest, however was in interpreting Jews and Judaisms for non-Jews. He did this at an important time in America: the aftermath of the McCarthy Era, which disporportionally affected American Jews. He did not, however, leave a mark on understanding Jewish tradition.

Traditions: Adopt or Adapt? Rabbi Alexander Schindler Tradition: Adopt or Adapt? Rabbi Norman Lamm Tradition: Adopt or Adapt? Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan Tradition: Adopt or Adapt? Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank Traditions: Adopt or Adapt> Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver Traditions: Adopt or Adapt Rabbi Saul Lieberman