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From Breslau to Jerusalem: A Vision for the Future Based on the Past

Insight Israel

Vol. 5, Number 4

December ‏2004

On December 7-8, 2004, The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies held an academic conference in Hebrew entitled “From Breslau to Jerusalem: Rabbinical Seminaries in the Past, Present and Future”. Its purpose was to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Breslau Rabbinical Seminary and the 20th anniversary of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem. It was co-sponsored by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, The Leo Baeck Institute – Jerusalem, and the German Embassy in Israel, and was organized by Dr. Guy Miron, Senior Lecturer in Modern Jewish History and incoming Dean of the Schechter Institute. What follows is Prof. Golinkin’s lecture at the opening session.


*  *  *

 In memory of   

Munir Morduch z”l,

devoted caretaker

of the Schechter Institute,

who passed away suddenly

on 24 Kislev 5765.

Yehi zikhro barukh!



In the Yiddish Forverts of August 27, 2004, Mikhael Krutikov published a lengthy article under the title “The Forgotten Jubilee of the First Modern Rabbinical Seminary” (p. 19). It details the history of the Breslau Rabbinical Seminary from its founding in 1854 until it was closed by the Nazis in November, 1938.1 We at Schechter have not forgotten this anniversary. Indeed, that is why we are holding this conference: to remember Breslau and to celebrate Schechter.2

The 20th anniversary of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary – not to mention the rapid growth of its sister institutions the Schechter Institute, the TALI Education Fund, and Midreshet Yerushalayim – is a real accomplishment. There were many attempts to set up rabbinical seminaries in Israel beginning in 1924; The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary is the only one to have succeeded thus far.3

The subtitle of this session is “A Vision for the Future Based on the Past”. In a brief lecture, it is impossible to survey the history of all rabbinical seminaries4 and to arrive at some conclusions. Therefore, I shall speak about three Seminaries related to the Positive Historical/Conservative/Masorti movements: Breslau – the grandfather; the Jewish Theological Seminary – the father; and Schechter – the grandson.

  1. Breslau

What were the guiding principles of Rabbi Zechariah Frankel when he established the Breslau Rabbinical Seminary in 1854, which was, in effect, the first modern rabbinical seminary?5

  • He wanted to combine the traditional study of Torah, Wissenshaft des Judentums (the Science of Judaism) and secular studies. Indeed, the original seven-year curriculum included secular studies and the Breslau Seminary employed a professor of classics and a professor of math.6
  • He wanted to combine a rabbinical seminary and a teachers’ seminary. Indeed, the teachers’ seminary functioned from 1854-1887 and again ca. 1920-1938.7 According to Alfred Jospe, only 249 of 728 Breslau students were ordained as rabbis.7a
  • He wanted the rabbinical students (and education students) to learn the full range of Jewish studies. The original seven-year curriculum included the following subjects: Biblical Criticism, Bible, Hebrew, Aramaic, Geography of the Land of Israel, Mishnah and Halakhic Midrashim, Talmud in depth, Talmud – rapid reading, Talmud Yerushalmi, Midrash, Introduction to the Mishnah and the Halakhic Midrashim, Introduction to the Talmud, Practical Halakhah, Hoshen Mishpat and Even Ha’ezer; Philosophy and Ethics, Pedagogy and Catechism, Responsa, Jewish History and Literature, Homiletics, Targum (Aramaic and Septuagint), and Secular Studies.8 Most of these subjects were not taught, and are still not taught, at Yeshivot.9
  • Even though Zechariah Frankel was a firm believer in “Positive Historical Judaism”, as opposed to Reform Judaism or Orthodoxy, he wanted the Breslau Seminary to serve the entire Jewish people and not just one group nor just the city of Breslau.10


  1. The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS)

Solomon Schechter (1849-1915), who reorganized JTS in 1902 and whose influence lasted for decades, was himself a graduate of the rabbinical seminary of Vienna. Consciously or subconsciously, he too subscribed to the four guiding principle of Zechariah Frankel.

  • In contradistinction to the Reform movement in his day, he felt that JTS must teach a commitment to Torah and mitzvot. In 1902, he stated in his inaugural address as President of JTS:

Judaism in not a religion which does not oppose itself to anything in particular. Judaism is opposed to any number of things and says distinctly “thou shalt not”. It permeates the whole of your life. It demands control over all your actions, and interferes even with your menu. It sanctifies the seasons, and regulates your history, both in the past and in the future. Above all, it teaches that disobedience is the strength of sin. It insists upon the observance both of the spirit and of the letter; spirit without letter belongs to the species known to the mystics as “nude souls,” nishmatin artilain, wandering about in the universe without balance and without consistency, the play of all possible currents and changes in the atmosphere. In a word, Judaism is absolutely incompatible with the abandonment of the Torah.11

At the same time, he was devoted to, or obsessed with, the scientific study of Judaism. He stated in that same inaugural address that

“every generation”, the ancient rabbis say, “which did not live to see the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, must consider itself as if it had witnessed its destruction.” Similarly, we must say that every age which has not made some essential contribution to the erection of the Temple of Truth and real Wissenschaft, is bound to look upon itself as if it had been instrumental in its demolition.12

 In this passage, Schechter compares Jewish Wissenschaft to the Holy Temple (sic!) and views it as an essential aspect of Jewish continuity.

JTS also demanded a secular education. The 1886 curriculum required all JTS graduates “to have a secular collegiate education”. By 1892, applicants over the age of twenty had to present sufficient qualifications to enter college, and those over the age of twenty-five had to hold a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent. Later on, all entering students had to have a B.A.13

 2) Schechter and his successors combined the rabbinical seminary with a teachers’ seminary. Founded in 1904, the Teachers Institute really took off in 1909 when Schechter appointed Mordecai Kaplan as Dean. It later became the Seminary College and still later List College. In 1994, JTS founded the Davidson School of Education, whose goal is to train teachers for North American Jewry. In 2004, enrollment in the Davidson School is almost on par with that of the Rabbinical School.14

3) Schechter also believed that

the office of a Jewish minister is to teach Judaism; he should accordingly receive such a training as to enable him to say: “Judaeici nihil a me alienum puto” – “I regard nothing Jewish as foreign to me”. He should know everything Jewish – Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Liturgy, Jewish ethics and Jewish philosophy, Jewish history and Jewish mysticism, and even Jewish folklore. None of these subjects, with its various ramifications, should be entirely strange to him…It is with the purpose of avoiding this risk that we – my colleagues and I – tried to draw up the curriculum of studies for the classes, in such a way as to include in it almost every branch of Jewish literature.15

This policy has continued at JTS until today.

4) Even though Schechter belonged to “the historical school” which later called itself “the Conservative movement”, he wanted the JTS rabbinical school to serve the entire Jewish people and not just one denomination; world Jewry and not just American Jewry:

Nor must the teaching in the Seminary be over-much  burdened with the considerations of locality. The Directors of this institution, by terming it the “Jewish Theological Seminary of America”, have distinctly shown their intention of avoiding sectarianism; for it is an especial[ly] American feature that no preference is given to any denomination or sect or theological Richtung, [=tendency, direction]. They are all alike welcome, each working out its salvation in its own fashion…

Any attempt to confine its activity to the borders of a single country, even be it as large as America, will only make its teachings provincial, narrow and unprofitable.16

III) The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary (SRS)

The SRS, founded in 1984 as the Seminary of Judaic Studies, shared the same four guiding principles as Breslau and JTS:

  • It combined a commitment to Torah and mitzvot with the scientific study of Judaism and a secular education.17
  • It combined the rabbinical school with a school for educators. Originally there was a rabbinic track and an education track. Then students in both tracks had the option of receiving a teaching certificate. Beginning in 1990, SRS founded an M.A. program in Jewish Studies aimed primarily at Israeli teachers. It later became the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies (Graduate School), which has graduated 700 graduates to date and now has 460 students.
  • It teaches all areas of Jewish studies. For example, the academic bulletin of 1992 lists courses in Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Halakhah, Philosophy of Halakhah, Midrash, Siddur, Jewish Thought, the Masorti Movement, World Culture, Education, and Psychology. The 2004 academic bulletin has an expanded but similar list of courses.18
  • While SRS was originally founded as a rabbinical seminary for the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel, it quickly evolved into the Breslau/JTS model. The rabbinical and graduate schools have students from Kiryat Shemonah to Eilat; the rabbinical school has students from Israel, North America, South America, and Europe. The students in both schools hail from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and secular backgrounds.


IV) The Successes and Failures of Breslau and JTS

Breslau and JTS excelled at scientific scholarship. Their respective faculties were world-renowned. The Breslau faculty (1854-1938) included Zechariah Frankel, Heinrich Graetz, Jacob Bernays, Israel Lewy, Isaac Heinemann, Chanoch Albeck and Ephraim Elimelech Urbach. The JTS faculty (1902-1983) included Solomon Schechter, Louis Ginzberg, Israel Davidson, Alexander Marx, Mordecai Kaplan, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Saul Lieberman, H. L. Ginsberg, Louis Finkelstein, Moshe Zucker, and H. Z. Dimitrovsky.

The rabbinical students and graduates of Breslau and JTS were encouraged to receive a doctorate in Jewish studies and to engage in scientific sholarship, even though most of them worked as pulpit rabbis. Breslau and JTS graduates published scores of important books in various areas of Jewish studies, even though most of them did not work as academics.19

But this very success in scholarship led to the failings of Breslau and JTS.

First of all, there was little connection between what the students learned in the seminary and what they needed to know out in the field. For example, the first three graduates of Breslau received a traditional hattarat hora’ah in the intricate laws of kashrut and divorce.20 And yet how did they get a job as a pulpit rabbi? One of the three, Rabbi Moritz Gudemann, relates in his memoirs that he was hired as rabbi in Magdeburg after giving one trial sermon during Pesach of 1862! He further states that “the only person [in Magdeburg] with whom I could discuss Jewish science and literature was the very knowledgable Cantor Nathanson”.21

In other words, Gudemann spent seven long years studying both traditional rabbinic studies and every branch of Jewish studies – which, apparently, were totally irrelevant to his congregants!

Secondly, even though Breslau and JTS expected their students to observe the mitzvot, little attempt was made to connect the scientific study of Judaism with the observance of mitzvot and with the existential meaning of the texts being studied. Rabbi Israel Lewy (1841-1917) was an incredibly pious person who taught rabbinic literature in an extremely critical fashion. He made no attempt to reconcile the two.22

Dr. Heinrich Graetz was a sturdy champion of traditional Judaism and an uncompromising opponent of Reform innovations. Yet he emended the biblical text without hesitation. As one of his students put it: “How he reconciled this discrepancy in his views, I do not know”.23

A similar situation prevailed at JTS from 1902-1983. This disconnect was emphasized by many.24 It was nicely summarized by Charles Liebman in 1968:

Those closest to Finkelstein testify to his sincere belief in the importance of the JTS-sponsored interreligious programs, such as the Institute for Religious and Social Studies. These programs are not devices for fund raising or publicity, though they conveniently may serve this purpose. They stem, rather, from Dr. Finkelstein’s conviction that Judaism has much to say to the world in its present condition about problems of both immediate and ultimate concern; that it has a distinct ethical message. This philosophy, however, and the type of public program undertaken by JTS find little reflection in the curriculum. For the Chancellor, the interrelation of classical textual study and social ethics is obvious; the students can only wonder.25

V) The Challenges Which Lie Ahead

I believe that the SRS must face four challenges in the next few years, two internal and two external:

  • To a certain degree, SRS has the opposite problem of Breslau/JTS from 1854-1983. Schechter is sensitive to the field and the rabbinical students learn relevant subjects and sources with an emphasis on their meaning for our time. But its faculty and students rarely reach the scholarly level of the teachers and graduates of Breslau/JTS.
  • Another internal problem is how can we teach rabbinical students what they need to know in just four years. They need to learn: Torah, Talmud and halakhah in depth; Torah, Talmud and halakhah – rapid reading; all other areas of Jewish studies; practical rabbinics; specialized courses to prepare them to be congregational rabbis or TALI rabbis or Matnass (JCC) rabbis or hospital chaplains; and social activism. We could, of course, extend rabbinical school to seven years, but Rabbi Gudemann has already warned against such a lengthy course of study.26
  • After graduation, SRS graduates must confront the incredible ignorance of Judaism so common in Israel today.27
  • Finally, they need to confront the lack of halakhic commitment found among many Conservative/Masorti Jews.28

In conclusion, the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary has what to celebrate. It is the heir to many illustrious seminaries, but first and foremost to Breslau and JTS. In 20 years, its 60 graduates have made their mark in many areas – as congregational rabbis in Israel and Europe, as academics, as educators, as TALI rabbis and, most recently, as Matnass (JCC) rabbis and hospital chaplains. It hosts the one-year programs for rabbinical students from JTS, UJ and the Seminario. It has given birth to three other institutions – the Schechter Institute graduate school, the TALI school system and the Midreshet Yerushalayim outreach program for Russian Jews and immigrants – which are all having a huge impact on Israeli society. There is no question that the Schechter family of programs will continue to evolve as they rise to meet the difficult challenges of the 21st century.


  1. Most of the material about Breslau is in German. We will refer here primarily to Shaul Pinhass Rabinowitz, Zechariah Frankel, Warsaw, 1898 (Hebrew).
  2. Our thanks to Rabbi Gesa Ederberg of Berlin and Weiden, a Schechter graduate, who suggested this conference to me in February 2004.
  3. For previous attempts see Daniel Schwartz in Toledot Ha’universitah Ha’ivrit, Jerusalem, 1997, pp. 466-467; idem in Leo Baeck Year Book 36 (1991), pp. 267-283 and in Kiryat Sefer 64/3 (5752-5753), pp. 1077-1087; Mahlekhim 4 (November 1970), pp. 3-13 and 5 (September 1971) pp. 11-35; Shelomo Deshen, in: Haziyonut Hadatit Bitmurot Hazeman, Jerusalem, 1989, pp. 123-132.

HUC in Jerusalem runs a rabbinical program for Israelis but it is not a full-fledged seminary. The students spend over half the week doing an M.A. degree at other academic institutions.

  1. For a brief survey of rabbinical seminaries, see Encyclopaedia Judaica (=EJ), Vol. 13, cols. 1463-1465, s.v. Rabbinical Seminaries.
  2. The Seminaries in Metz (1829) and Padua (1829) had relatively little impact.
  3. Rabinowitz, pp. 157, 158, 164, 169-172
  4. ibid., pp. 162-167; EJ, Vol. 10, cols. 465-466

7a. Alfred Jospe in: Guido Kisch, ed., The Breslau Seminary, Tubingen, 1963 [hereafter: Kisch], pp. 384-387.

  1. Marcus Brann, Geschichte des judisch-theologischen Seminars…in Breslau, Breslau, [1904], Beilage I, pp. viii-ix.
  2. For the curriculum of Lithuanian yeshivot before the Holocaust, see Shaul Stampfer, Hayeshivah Halita’it B’hithavutah, Jerusalem, 1995, pp. 48, 241, 261 and cf. Mordechai Breuer, Oholey Torah, Jerusalem, 2004, pp. 67ff. regarding yeshivot which taught secular subjects.
  3. Rabinowitz, p. 161.
  4. Solomon Schechter, Seminary Addresses and Other Papers, [New York], 1959 [hereafter: Schechter], p. 22.
  5. ibid, p. 18.
  6. David Ackerman, Conservative Judaism 44/4 (Summer 1992), [hereafter: Ackerman], pp. 49 ff.
  7. David Kaufman in: Jack Wertheimer, ed., Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Vol. I, New York, 1997, pp. 566-629 and Mel Scult, Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan, Detroit, 1993, pp. 102-116. In 2004, the Rabbinical School has 132 students and the Davidson School 121.
  8. Schechter, pp. 19-20 and cf. Ackerman, pp. 48, 51, 59.
  9. Schechter, pp. 48-49.
  10. the Yedion of 5752 and the Shnaton of 5765. They both require the observance of mitzvot and the scientific study of Judaism. As for secular education, the 5752 bulletin requires at least two years of B.A. studies while later bulletins require a B.A. degree. For various visions of rabbinic education at the SRS in 1988, see Eit La’asot 2 (Summer 1989), pp. 13-29 (Hebrew).
  11. Yedion 5752, p. 5; Shnaton 5765, p. 11.
  12. Regarding the scholarship of Breslau graduates, see Jacob Mann in CCAR Yearbook 35 (1925), pp. 301-302 and the list of their publications in Brann (above, note 8), pp. 140-204 and Kisch, pp. 405-442. Regarding the scholarship of JTS graduates, see Schechter, pp. 131-132 and the list of their publications in the Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 34 (1970), pp. 226-241.
  13. For a list of the actual questions they were asked in their final semikhah exam, see MGWJ 11 (1862), pp. 161-162, also summarized by Rabinowitz, p. 168, note 1.
  14. Moritz Gudemann in: Monika Richarz, ed., Ezrahim al Tnai, Jerusalem, 1993, pp. 154-155. My thanks to Dr. Guy Miron who referred me to this Hebrew excerpt of his unpublished memoirs.
  15. Ephraim E. Urbach in: Kisch, p. 177 (in Hebrew).
  16. Bernard Drachman, ibid., p. 321. Italics added.
  17. Hershel Matt in: Daniel Matt, ed., Walking Humbly with God, Hoboken, 1993, p. 7; Saul Lieberman, in: Kitvey Ha’gaon Harav Yehiel Ya’akov Weinberg, Vol. 2, Scranton, 2003, pp. 449-450; Ackerman, p. 52; Jonathan Sarna in Wertheimer (above, note 14), Vol. II, pp. 55-80; Neil Gillman, Conservative Judaism: A New Century, West Orange, New Jersey, 1993, pp. 199-200; Lawrence Hoffman, quoted in Conservative Judaism 38/4 (Summer 1986), p. 24.
  18. Charles Liebman, American Jewish Year Book 69 (1968), p. 53. Italics added.
  19. Gudemann (above, note 21), p. 152.
  20. See my column Insight Israel, 4, No. 7 (March 2004), accessible at
  21. See David Golinkin, Conservative Judaism 46/3 (Spring 1994), pp. 29-39 and Danny Gordis, ibid. 47/1 (Fall 1994), pp. 3-18.

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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