Support is mounting for a prominent pulpit rabbi from Los Angeles to become the next chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, after he delivered an enthusiastically received speech last week on the future of Conservative Judaism.
Rabbi David Wolpe, the charismatic leader of one the country’s largest congregations, L.A.’s Sinai Temple, urged his audience at JTS to convey the movement’s ideology in simple terms that would galvanize lay people. In particular, he argued for the movement to adopt a new name: Covenantal Judaism.
Seminary insiders told the Forward that the speech, titled “What Does Conservative Judaism Have To Say to the Twenty-First Century?” was perceived as a “tryout” for the top job at JTS, a position historically viewed as the movement’s bully pulpit.
Before the speech, Wolpe dined with the co-chair of the chancellorship search committee, longtime JTS board of trustees chairman Gershon Kekst. Wolpe once served as an assistant to the seminary’s retiring chancellor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch. At the event, his former boss introduced him warmly.
Several members of the search committee, including Kekst, attended the speech, which was billed as the Henry N. Rapaport Memorial Lecture. The lecture, an annual event at JTS, has been delivered each year in March, including this year. The apparent shift in scheduling fueled speculation that Wolpe was being presented with a showcase before the search committee makes its final choice in the coming months.
The search for a new leader of Conservative Judaism’s flagship institution has crystallized an ongoing debate about how to reinvigorate the movement — once America’s largest — after years of dwindling numbers. Traditionalists want to hold steadfast to a committed, albeit smaller, core group of followers, while other movement rabbis and lay leaders have pushed for new approaches to prayer as well as a more open policy on interfaith couples and gays and lesbians. Schorsch, who assumed his post in 1986, has opposed lifting the seminary’s ban on gay ordination. This past June, he announced that he would retire at the end of the current school year.
In sharp contrast to Schorsch and to several previous chancellors, Wolpe does not have a doctorate and generally is not viewed as a top-notch academic scholar. Two of the other frequently mentioned candidates, Rabbi Gordon Tucker and Jack Wertheimer, brandish more respected academic credentials, though they come with other perceived shortcomings. Is it widely assumed that Tucker, who resigned from his post as dean of the JTS Rabbinical School in 1992, was forced out by Schorsch over his support for ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis and over his outspoken political liberalism. Wertheimer, a historian and the seminary’s provost, is a respected scholar and administrator, but he is not a rabbi. He has upset many movement members with his hardline approach to fighting intermarriage.
On what continues to be one of the most contentious issues facing the movement — the question of whether to ordain gays and sanction mixed marriages — Wolpe told the Forward that he preferred to “sidestep” the question, which he believes “should be decided by a movement and not by an individual.” But on several other fronts he is viewed as a liberal innovator who is willing to expand boundaries and court controversy. He allows the use of musical instruments, forbidden in many Conservative synagogues, during his congregation’s popular Friday Night Live service. In 2001, he sparked a major controversy with Passover sermons in which he allowed for the possibility that the biblical story of Exodus never happened. But while Wolpe has displayed a maverick streak, he also hails from a prominent Conservative family. Most notably, his father, Gerald Wolpe, was a pulpit rabbi at a major Conservative congregation in suburban Philadelphia and has maintained strong ties to the seminary.
“It’s this trust factor,” said Baltimore Hebrew University’s president, Rela Mintz Geffen, another lifelong member of the movement. “You feel you can trust someone that comes out of this milieu, even though they seem to be doing something a little radical.”
Wolpe said that he was happy in his current job and has no plans to leave Sinai Temple, but declined to say he wasn’t interested in the seminary’s chancellorship. However, he dismissed the notion that the lecture was part of an informal plan to test the waters at JTS. Wolpe said that the idea of giving the lecture was first brought to him about six months ago by the seminary’s vice chancellor of institutional advancement, Rabbi Carol Davidson, a close ally of Schorsch.
A JTS spokesperson wrote in an e-mail to the Forward that the selection of all speakers is “an internal, administrative process.” Other insiders were similarly tight-lipped. “I thought it was a wonderful speech; however, I’d prefer not to comment, thank you,” said Arthur Spar, a search committee member contacted by the Forward the day after the event. He added, “I’m going to have to leave it at that.”
In his November 10 speech, Wolpe argued that the Conservative movement often seems opaque and paradoxical to lay people who are craving a clear vision and message. “I’m from L.A., the land of simple marketing,” he quipped. “But I want to tell you that simple marketing does not mean simple ideas, it means simple expression of ideas.”
Wolpe said that his proposed name change to “Covenantal Judaism” was meant to capture the profound importance that Conservative Jews place on three central relationships — between Jew and God, Jew and Jew, and Jews and the world. Conservative Jews, he added, view Halacha, or rabbinic law, as the language for engaging with God, and like any good conversation, it is dynamic and evolving. Wolpe contrasted this understanding with both Orthodoxy, which he said tends to view Halacha as a set of fixed laws, and Reform Judaism, which does not accept Halacha as obligatory.
This theological approach appears to have endeared Wolpe to those pushing for greater acceptance of gays and lesbians, despite his lack of public pronouncements. “He certainly believes in following through on the principle of inclusion, and I think that gives him a very high standing,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor, who recently started an online petition for rabbis in support of gay marriage and ordination. “He would be, I think, a very warm leader.”
At JTS, the crowd of several hundred applauded him heartily. Younger attendees were particularly exuberant.
“You’ve been saying things all night that I’ve been wanting to hear for as long as I’ve been a Conservative Jew,” cantorial student Asa Fradkin, 24, said during the question-and-answer period. “Where are we going to go, and how can I get behind it?”