Jan 3, 2010

from Time.com: a 1951 article on Chancellor Louis Finkelstein: "Religion: A Trumpet for All Israel"

Time.com "Religion: A Trumpet for All Israel"

Time Magazine
Monday, Oct. 15, 1951

Wrapped in his long-fringed, white prayer shawl, and dressed in a white linen robe, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein stood on the dais; looking to the East, with his back to the congregation, he faced the Ark of the Covenant. On the lectern before him lay the great scrolls of the Torah, the book of the law of Moses. Rabbi Finkelstein's clenched right hand beat upon his breast in the traditional gesture of sorrow. Clear and strong, in the twang and guttural of the Hebrew chant, his voice rose:

"Elohenu velohe abotenu — Our God and, God of our fathers, let our prayer come before thee; hide not thyself from our supplication, for we are not arrogant and stiff-necked, that we should say before thee, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, we are righteous and have not sinned; but verily, we have sinned."

Thus in Manhattan, and in almost every other corner of the world, one day this week, as they have for thousands of years, Jews prayed to the God of their fathers. It was the most dreadful and solemn day of the solemn and dreadful Jewish Year—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During the ten-day period of penitence beginning with Rosh Hashanah, tradition teaches, each man's deeds are judged in heaven, to be punished or rewarded in the year ahead.

It is for this that Jews call the ten days the Yamin Noraim—the Days of Fear. But when the trumpet call of the ram's-horn shofar has split the air for the last time on Yom Kippur, the mood traditionally changes to one of joy and hope. The New Year has indeed begun.

For Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, teacher of future rabbis at Manhattan's Jewish Theological Seminary and leader of perhaps the most influential school of Jewish theology in the U.S. today, the shofar will herald the most stirring joy and hope of a lifetime. For he believes—and on abundant evidence—that U.S. Jews are returning to their synagogues and temples as never before.

The old, half-deserted synagogues are filling up again, new congregations are forming, new synagogues are being built. Young married couples are sending their children to religious schools to learn the fundamentals of their faith—then forming study groups so that they will know what their children are talking about. The word that such young Americans use, over & over again, when they are asked what they are looking for, is "heritage."

"When I was a seminary student 40 years ago," says Finkelstein, "it seemed so clear to us that our faith could not survive here that we even wondered for what purpose in the Divine Economy the Jews had been brought to the New World." The ghetto and the pogrom had annealed Judaism in the hearts of countless generations of Jews, almost since the great dispersion. But in the freedom and prosperity of the Melting Pot, that branded faith seemed to be fading out. Says Finkelstein:

"Then came a tragedy which none of us had foreseen. The great First Century Rabbi Eliezer once said: 'The Messiah will never come until the Jewish people repent.' When they asked him, 'What if the Jews do not repent?' he answered: 'The Lord will raise up a king worse than Haman* to smite them, and then they will repent.' This is just what happened. Hitler was something we never thought possible.

"I remember how stricken we were when 47 Jews were killed in a pogrom in the Ukraine. We had days of mourning and fasting. But six million! That dreadful calamity—and the whole spiritual and material crisis of our time—are bringing American Jews back to the faith of their fathers."

The Law Endures. There is no one spokesman for U.S. Judaism, no central authority, no High Priest. All good Jews, in varying degrees of literalness, believe in the Law, but U.S. Judaism is a spectrum shading off by minute gradations from ultra-orthodoxy to ultra-modernism. In this spectrum, Finkelstein, a traditionalist with one keen, dark eye on the future, stands almost dead center.

Judaism's spectrum can be roughly divided into three parts, roughly equal in number of active followers† and reflecting three traditions in U.S. Judaism:

Orthodox Judaism tries to maintain the letter of the Law. To the outsider it sometimes looks like literalness and nothing else. It is a religion that demands strict, hour-by-hour adherence to sacred custom. Promptly at sundown each Friday night, the Sabbath begins, and Orthodox Jews are required to be indoors (to travel in a vehicle on the Sabbath is counted as a sin). Twenty minutes before sundown, the housewife lights the candles which will burn through the Sabbath's 24 hours; any other lights must be turned on before that time. Synagogue services are entirely in Hebrew, and men & women sit apart, with their heads covered. The Orthodox Jew is expected to study the Torah every day and to observe the dietary laws with such strictness that separate plates and utensils must be used for cooking milk and meat dishes. On Yom Kippur, Orthodox Jews keep an absolute fast for 24 hours, and should spend about 13 hours at the synagogue in five services. Their strictly regulated life sets them apart from the rest of mankind, and is intended to: with a persistence undiminished by centuries, they feel themselves to be the Chosen People.

Reform Judaism in the U.S. is barely 75 years old. It was affected almost equally by 19th Century idealism and 19th Century skepticism. Its first leaders were German rabbis, some of whom carried the new doctrines to Britain, France and the U.S. Reform Jews pay scant attention to dietary laws, hold their services mainly in English, the principal one on Friday evening instead of Saturday (a few hold it on Sunday), and stress the ethical teachings of the prophets more than the ritual laws of Torah and Talmud. With the Reform Jews, the sense of being a chosen people is dim or extinct.

Conservative Judaism is newer still, and born in the U.S. It represents a middle way between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. Its founders considered Orthodoxy too adamantly withdrawn from U.S. life, Reform too spiritually attenuated. They fashioned a synagogue service in which English is used but Hebrew predominates. Men & women sit together, as they do in Reform congregations; the men cover their heads, as among the Orthodox. Conservative Jews are taught that, as Jews, they have been chosen by God for a spiritual purpose—but that those of other faiths, including Christians and Moslems, have also been chosen. Conservative Judaism is the middle ground on which Rabbi Finkelstein has taken his stand.

"Service Is Not Exclusive." The citadel of Conservative Judaism is the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Finkelstein has been its president for eleven years. With his flashing eyes, floating hair and black beard heavily streaked with grey, he looks, at 56, like a reasonable modern facsimile of an Old Testament patriarch. Sometimes he talks like one, sometimes like the scholar he is—and sometimes like the successful fund-raiser that he is, too.

His personal life is Orthodox enough to satisfy a Pharisee. Each morning he rises at 5 :30 so that he can attend synagogue services before breakfast. Then for an hour or two before the day's work at the seminary, he prays and studies the Torah. Most of his faculty are equally observant of Jewish law and tradition. But Orthodox Jews are scandalized that some of the seminary's 23-man board of directors are members of Reform synagogues.* And even some Conservative Jews are shocked at Finkelstein's habit of inviting Christian theologians (e.g., Reinhold Niebuhr, of Union Theological Seminary, just across the street) to talk to his students. President Finkelstein has an answer to such objectors: "The job of special service to God is not exclusive to the Jews."

The Great Confession. Louis Finkelstein was born in Cincinnati on June 14, 1895. His father, Simon J. Finkelstein, a strong-minded Orthodox rabbi from Slobodka, Lithuania, moved to a congregation in Brooklyn when Louis was seven. It was there, in Brooklyn's heavily Jewish Brownsville district, that Louis grew up.

The everyday routine in an old-school Orthodox home might make a Scotch Presbyterian Sunday seem frivolous. But Louis seemed to have been born with a rabbinical cap on his head. "I can't remember a time," he says, "when anything meant more than the study of the Law."

Like every Orthodox Jewish boy, he first learned the great monotheistic confession of faith which every devout Jew hopes to have the strength to repeat on his deathbed: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One." He learned the complex system of ritual blessings with which the Orthodox Jew sanctifies every important action of the day: the thanks on awakening (for the day, for the power of sight, for the creation of the earth, for the power to walk, for the renewal of his strength, for not being an idolator or a slave or a woman*), the blessings before & after meals, and the special thanks to be offered on such occasions as the sight of trees in springtime, the ocean, a rainbow, or the getting of new possessions.

He learned the 13 points of the creed of the great 12th Century rabbi, Maimonides, the Jewish Aristotle: the belief in God's existence, in His unity, incorporeality, timelessness, and approachability through prayer; the belief in prophecy, in the superiority of Moses to all other prophets, in the revelation of the Law and its immutability, in Divine providence, Divine justice, the eventual coming of the Messiah; the belief in the resurrection and in everlasting life. He memorized the civil and canon law of the Talmud in great early-morning gulps, often leaving home at 5:30 a.m. to study in the synagogue before school. For at least an hour a day, with a rabbinical tutor, he puzzled out the vowelless Hebrew and the interpretations of the sacred text.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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