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From Breslau to Jerusalem: Rabbinical Seminaries as a Reflection of Jewish Renewal

| 13/04/2010

As the Jews entered the modern period in Europe, the question of the role and the future of the Rabbinate took on great importance. Issues surrounding the future training, ordination and role of rabbis, and even a skepticism about the relevance of the Rabbinate in the modern Jewish world, embodied broader dilemmas touching on the role of tradition and halakha in the changing world of the new Jew. The establishment of a rabbinical seminary in various centers in the Jewish world, beginning in the mid-19th century and continuing till today, reflects a range of significant attempts to cope with the problem of formation of Jewish identity and religion in the modern period.

In 1854 the Breslau Rabbinical Seminary in Germany was founded. At its head was Rabbi Zechariah Frankel, a renowned scholar in Jewish Studies. The trustees of the Seminary chose Frankel because he supported scientific development in Halakha based on the needs of the time, but opposed change that was, in his opinion, detrimental to the historical continuity of the Jewish experience. The trustees believed that Frankel’s approach was well suited to the ‘spirit of the times,’ and would facilitate garnering a broad base of support for the institution and its students, particularly from newly developing urban Jewish communities.

From the beginning, the new Seminary could not be mistaken for a traditional yeshiva. Here one did not find scholars in the classical mold who studied Torah for its own sake; they were, rather, a group of academic specialists who brought an aspect of research and professional development to their students. The Seminary was thus aligned with the modern middle class value system then adopted by German Jews: on the one hand, placing a high value on its professional mission and on its courageous identification with the surrounding culture; and, on the other, recognizing the importance of cultural continuity and of a religious value system in the modern world. Ironically, the academic level of the new institution benefited from the Prussian empire’s discrimination against Jews, which prevented their advancement to professorship, thus attracting the best of Jewish scholarship, including the historian Heinrich (Tzvi) Graetz.

Although the Seminary defined itself as a Jewish theological institution of learning, Frankel made textual analysis its central focus, deeming it a misplacement of priorities to lay the main emphasis on canonical theological precepts. Instruction at the higher levels was not limited to Bible, Talmud and Halakhah, but aimed to give students a broad perspective on Midrash andAggadic literature. The success of the Breslau Seminary revealed both the dilemmas and the advantages inherent in the middle path between Reform and Orthodoxy. One of the central values upheld by the institution was community solidarity – many graduates who served as community rabbis took pains to implement modest reforms that were sensitive to both the needs of the time as well as to tradition. Motivated by the principle of Klal Yisrael, they were thus able to prevent schisms that plagued other communities where extremism of both sorts reigned.

Following German unification in 1871, two additional institutions were founded in Berlin in the field of Jewish studies and rabbinical training: the School of Jewish Studies founded by Abraham Geiger, a proponent of liberal Judaism, and the Rabbinical Seminary headed by Azriel Hildesheimer, who was Orthodox. The three seminaries gradually became Jewish institutions of international standing, with an increasing presence of Jewish students from outside Germany. Later, additional rabbinical seminaries appeared in other European capitals, such as Warsaw and Budapest, influenced by the German Jewish models of rabbinical training. The German seminaries operated until the late 1930’s when they were shut down by the Nazis.

As in the case of European Jewry, American Jews also underwent a formative period that was brought on by mass immigration and creation of communities in areas void of Jewish tradition.  This new reality presented a challenge to the continuity of that tradition in general and of the role of the rabbi in particular. American Reform Judaism, directly influenced by the mother movement in Germany and even more radical in its views in the New World, founded the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati, Ohio, the first rabbinical seminary to be established in America. The first four graduates of that institution marked the completion of their studies in 1883 at a controversial event that came to be known as ‘the treifah banquet,’ noting the non-kosher food that was served. Several years later, a more conservative element in American Jewry brought about the establishment of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS). In its early years, JTS operated on a very small scale, re-opening in 1902 under the leadership of Solomon Schechter.  In its new guise, JTS became the seminal institution of the Conservative Movement, offering a Judaism that combined a halakhic tradition with modern thought, and was much closer to the world of the 2½ million Jewish immigrants who came to the United States during that period from Eastern Europe. Its conceptual approach, striving to encompass Klal Yisrael, and its location in New York City, which was fast becoming the stronghold of American Jewry, combined to make JTS the flagship institution for Jewish Studies in North America, then and even now.

The relationship between church and state that has developed in Israeli society has been a major hindrance to the advancement of modern rabbinical training here. Unlike the United States, where Jewish life developed in a society that separated church from state, the State of Israel granted a monopoly on the rabbinate to the Orthodox. The focus of formal training of Orthodox rabbis in Israel is on the study of Halakha, and in many cases, rabbinical ordination is a by-product of yeshiva study. Into this reality the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, has introduced a modern alternative that is more relevant than ever to training of contemporary rabbis. SRS strives to combine commitment to Torah and mitzvot with academic critical study, of a variety of Jewish and secular subjects, open to the entire community – women and men, of all religious and cultural backgrounds. In this, SRS has great potential to play an important role in redesigning Jewish identity and community life as it faces the challenges of the 21st century.

Translated from the Hebrew text by Penina Goldschmidt.

Guy Miron is a Professor of German and Central European Jewish History and a lecturer in Jewish History and Contemporary Judaism at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

This article appears as the Schechter Institute marks its 25thanniversary and the dedication of two new Jewish studies outreach centers in Jerusalem and in Neve Zedek, Tel Aviv. The article is based on the book From Breslau to Jerusalem: Rabbinical Seminaries, Past Present and Future, published in 2009 by the Schechter Institute and the Leo Baeck Institute, edited by Prof. Miron.

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