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Jewish History is Like a Water Wheel

Insight Israel, Vol. 2, No. 3, January 2002

In the middle of a lengthy passage about tzedakah (charity), the ancient midrash of Vayikra Rabbah (34:9, p. 792, and cf. Shabbat  151b) says that “this world is like a water wheel, the full bucket becomes empty and the empty bucket becomes full”. We shall return to this imagery later on.

I am writing these words on a plane flying from Vienna to Ben-Gurion Airport on my way home from Budapest. I traveled to Budapest as a guest of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee (HAC) in order to participate in a sub-committee which would decide whether the Jewish Theological Seminary – University of Jewish Studies, Hungary may grant a Ph.D. degree in Jewish Theology.

This process is the culmination of eleven years of the Schechter Institute’s involvement in the revival of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest. That Seminary was founded in 1877 and it numbered among its faculty and graduates some of the leading Jewish scholars of pre-Holocaust Europe, including Ignaz Goldziher, Wilhelm Bacher, Ludwig Blau, Immanuel Low and Yechiel Michal Guttmann. The Seminary and its teachers’ seminary, the Pedagogium, were closed down by the Nazis in 1944.  In 1990, when the Schechter Institute got involved through its Midreshet Yerushalayim program, the entire institution in Budapest consisted of a few teachers and 7 rabbinical students.  Today, the Institution is called the Jewish Theological Seminary – University of Jewish Studies, Hungary and it has 230 students divided among five schools: the Teachers’ Training Institute (Pedagogium), the Jewish Communal Workers’ Program, the Rabbinical School, the Cantorial School, and the Jewish Culture Faculty.

This amazing growth and success is the result of the hard work and vision of Prof. Shmuel Glick, Rabbi Irwin Birnbaum, Rabbi Arnold Turetzky and the current Rector, Rabbi Dr. Yoel Schoner, who was sent to Budapest as our Shaliach (emissary) in 1998. Today, most of the rabbis and almost all of the Jewish teachers in Hungary are graduates of the Jewish University in Budapest.

Now let us return to the Accreditation Sub-committee. It consisted of five members: a professor of Bible from a Catholic seminary, Chairman,  a professor of Bible from a Protestant Seminary, a professor of Dead Sea Scrolls from a Catholic Seminary, Prof. Menachem Schmelzer, who was raised in southern Hungary and left Budapest in 1956, representing the Jewish Theological Seminary, and myself.

At first glance, our task was purely academic in nature – does the Jewish University of Hungary have the faculty, library and facilities to grant a Ph.D. in Jewish Theology.  Yet, everyone in the room understood that this was not just about academics but about history.  In 1941, there were approximately 850,00 Jews in Hungary; about 260,000 survived the Holocaust. Over 100,000 remain today and they have rebuilt Jewish life. After World War II, all of the Christian Seminaries in Hungary were given the right to grant a Ph.D. degree, all except one – the Jewish Seminary.  The reason: anti-Semitism.  Thus, the Christian academics in the room had to take into consideration the destruction of the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism of the Communists.

Prof. Schmelzer and myself were obviously aware of the same issues, but we had one more thing to consider.  The Jewish Theology Seminary of America, founded in New York in 1886, was the spiritual heir to the great rabbinical seminaries of Breslau, Berlin and Budapest,  while the Schechter Institute was founded by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1984.  The seminaries of Breslau and Berlin were destroyed by the Nazis; only Budapest survived.  So now the child (JTS) and the grandchild (the Schechter Institute) have a chance to help revive the grandfather (Budapest).

I am happy to report that the Accreditation Sub-committee did the right thing.  We recommended that the HAC grant the Jewish University of Budapest preliminary accreditation for three years, pursuant to various conditions, including visiting Bible and Talmud professors from the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Schechter Institute. This recommendation is subject to the approval of the HAC.

Jewish history “is like a water wheel, the full bucket becomes empty and the empty bucket becomes full”.  A circle is being closed. Am Yisrael Chai!

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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