Anger Over Schorsch Speech Fuels Questions About Seminary’s Role

As anger reverberates through Conservative Judaism in the wake of a downbeat farewell address last month by the retiring chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, concerns are mounting over a perceived leadership vacuum within the movement and the seminary’s ability to maintain its leadership position.

The chancellor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, addressing his final graduation ceremony as seminary head and titular leader of Conservative Judaism, delivered a stinging jeremiad in which he rebuked his movement’s congregants, rabbinical students, pulpit rabbis and even its much-praised biblical commentary. Officials of the movement’s congregational union, rabbinical association and West Coast seminary all have expressed to the Forward dismay over Schorsch’s criticism. Many called the remarks “inappropriate” for a graduation ceremony, and some noted that as chancellor for the past two decades, Schorsch was in a stronger position than anyone else to chart the movement’s course.

The flap over Schorsch’s speech comes as Conservative leaders face what some seminary insiders are describing as the prospect of a power vacuum at the institution during the coming year, while the incoming chancellor, Stanford University religious studies professor Arnold Eisen, commutes from California. Eisen plans to work part time for a year before moving his family to New York. He had turned down the job initially, movement sources say, in part because he was committed to remaining in California during his son’s senior year in high school.

Eisen’s appointment has generated considerable excitement throughout much of the movement, despite some anxiety over the interregnum. In recent days, however, Schorsch’s gloomy speech and the ensuing backlash, which some said called attention to the leadership vacuum at the top, has heightened the anxiety.

Several movement leaders predict a more multi-polar model of leadership developing within Conservative Judaism, in part because Eisen is not a rabbi and could have difficulty attaining the level of religious authority enjoyed by previous chancellors.

At the seminary itself, day-to-day affairs are to be overseen during the coming year by a three-person committee that includes chief operating officer Rabbi Michael Greenbaum; development director Carol Davidson, and the academic provost, Professor Jack Wertheimer.

Judith Hauptman, a Talmud professor at the seminary who has differed with Schorsch on several fronts, expressed worries about the upcoming year while predicting that Eisen would be worth the wait. “Just on general principles, having an interim year is making me a little queasy,” Hauptman said. “There is going to be this troika who are going to be running the place.” At the same time, Hauptman said that allowing Eisen to delay “is the price the search committee decided to pay, and I totally agree with the price.”

Schorsch, who retires June 30 after 20 years as chancellor and will resume teaching in the seminary’s history department, did not return requests for comment through the seminary’s media relations department.

In his May 18 commencement address, Schorsch criticized the seminary’s students for choosing “instant gratification” over “the dense and demanding discourse of scholarship” and said that “kitsch has become kosher” across the movement.

Those remarks were nestled into a larger defense of the seminary’s traditional emphasis on critical historical scholarship as a key to deepening faith and the movement’s commitment to observance. The speech was similar to a March address he gave before the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. However, numerous Conservative rabbis and activists said, the decision to give such a talk at his last commencement is what particularly unnerved critics.

Several attendees at the commencement described the reaction to Schorsch’s address as one of shock and offense. “You could see pockets of people sort of muttering to each other,” said Elizabeth Richman, a third-year rabbinical student who heads an organization that advocates the admission of gay and lesbian students to the seminary. “What he said felt very insulting to the class that was graduating and to the rest of the movement. It just didn’t feel appropriate.”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at Los Angeles’s University of Judaism, told the Forward that he, too, was surprised at the tone of Schorsch’s remarks.

“As the head of one of the movement’s two spiritual and academic centers in North America, I would have expected him to express more pride and ownership in the vigor of Conservative Judaism,” Artson said. He added that on May 22, Schorsch offered more upbeat remarks to Ziegler’s graduates at a pre-commencement dinner during which he accepted the Rabbi Simon Greenberg Award for lifetime achievement.

On the wider issue of leadership, Artson said that in his view, the movement had gone beyond simply following JTS’s lead.

“What’s happened in the last 20 years is that the Ziegler school has emerged as another spiritual and academic center alongside of JTS, and we’ve entered an age in which there is no longer a single head of the movement,” Artson said. “There are multiple heads of the movement. So the leaders of the Women’s League [for Conservative Judaism] and the [Federation of Jewish Men’s Club] and the United Synagogue [of Conservative Judaism] and the Rabbinical Assembly and the Cantors Assembly, they also are heads of the movement, and voices for the movement, and this, I think, is a good thing.”

Among Schorsch’s targets was Etz Hayim, an edition of the Bible with a new translation and commentary published IN 2001 by the rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue, along with the Jewish Publication Society of America.

Schorsch wrote the foreword to Etz Hayim, in which he said that his “prayer” was for the work to “become not only the standard commentary for every Conservative synagogue but also the home study companion for every serious student of Torah.” But in his May commencement speech, Schorsch argued that the volume was marked by an “ambivalence toward critical scholarship.” He dismissed the 41 essays of modern commentary in the back, saying that most of them were “spiritually inert.”

“Their rabbinic authors go through the paces without passion, making no effort to extract religious significance from the scholarship being mediated,” Schorsch said. “While Conservative rabbis often chide the research-oriented faculty of JTS for allegedly doing just that in their classes, as transmitters of scholarship, the rabbis replicated what they condemn. Ironically, the rare spiritual voice to be heard in the end notes usually emanates from one or another of the academics in the roster.”

Rabbi Alvin Berkun, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue, defended Etz Hayim, saying that most congregations were very happy with it.

Now in its sixth printing, the commentary has sold about 215,000 copies, mostly in bulk orders by congregations, according to figures provided by the Jewish Publication Society.

The CEO and editor in chief of the JPS, Ellen Frankel, suggested that Schorsch did not fully appreciate the variety of commentaries in Etz Hayim and their various purposes. She also argued that his claim of the commentary not being grounded enough in scholarship reflected the persistent gap between the movement’s leaders and membership.

“Jews in the pews only have 15 to 30 minutes, about half an hour each week [at Sabbath services] to read the commentary, and most don’t have much time to read the essays,” Frankel said. “The expectations he has of the congregations reflect the disparity between the graduates of JTS and the congregations they are sent to serve.”

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Anger Over Schorsch Speech Fuels Questions About Seminary’s Role

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