In his farewell address, the outgoing chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary delivered a scathing attack on his students for craving "instant gratification" rather than "dense and demanding discourse," and on his own Conservative movement for too easily permitting "fundamental changes."
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who is retiring as chancellor June 30 after 20 years, also lashed out against "the primitiveness of rap" music and decried the abandonment of "great scholarship" that had been the hallmark of the movement and that had "set us apart as the vital center of modern Judaism."
And he reserved some of his harshest words for the movement’s Chumash (the Five Books of Moses), "Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary," which he said is largely devoid of spirituality. He made the comments during his keynote address at the seminary’s 112th commencement exercises May 18.
"After 20 years in the saddle, obviously he had a lot of frustrations and it got to him," said Rabbi Alvin Berkun, president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
Among the issues Rabbi Schorsch is concerned about, Rabbi Berkun said, is upholding the movement’s ban on the ordination of homosexuals.
"He sees it as something that is going to undergo change and it worries him, obviously," he said.On the Web blog Jewschool, an unidentified person who attended the commencement commented: "Dr. Schorsch delivered a speech full of veiled and not-so-veiled insults to the very people he was addressing: the students, families, scholars, and clergy of the Conservative Movement. … The audience was more subdued than I would have imagined after Schorsch had just insulted his graduating students, but all around me I did see people whispering and shaking their heads."
In an interview this week, Rabbi Schorsch said he has received "very nice responses" to his remarks, "but I obviously ruffled feathers. I’m pleased about that. It was my intent to challenge the weakening of our halachic [Jewish law] resolve. … The character of Conservative Judaism is what is at stake. And if we don’t reaffirm the halachic centrality of Conservative Judaism, we will become carbon copies of Reform [Judaism]."
In his commencement speech, a copy of which was provided by the seminary, Rabbi Schorsch spoke of his disappointment with "Etz Hayim."
"Our impoverishment is sadly exemplified by the ambivalence toward critical scholarship in ‘Etz Hayim.’ … As commentary, [‘Etz Hayim’] is so eviscerated as to betray not the slightest trace of the plenitude of the original to generate spiritual meaning through empathetic scholarship. As exposition, the end notes, with a few striking exceptions, are spiritually inert. Their rabbinic authors go through the paces without passion, making no effort to extract religious significance from the scholarship being mediated."
The editors of "Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary," Rabbi Jules Harlow and Rabbi David Lieber, could not be reached for comment.
In the interview, Rabbi Schorsch said he has not spoken with either of them about the volume. But he said the work exemplified what concerns him about the movement.
"There is a great deal of resistance within the Conservative movement to serious, historical inquiry and when historical inquiry is done, it is done without a trace of spiritual richness. That is why I focused on ‘Etz Hayim.’ The essays in the back are lifeless except for a few that are largely written by scholars and that pulsate with spiritual meaning."
In his commencement remarks, Rabbi Schorsch told the 144 graduates (20 of whom were ordained by the rabbinical school): "As opposed to the dense and demanding discourse of scholarship, students crave instant gratification. The way to the heart is not through the circuitous and arduous route of the mind but the rhythmic beat of the drums. …The primitiveness of rap and the consumerism of the mall threaten to trivialize the literary culture that is the pride of Judaism. Kitsch has become kosher. A synagogue out of sync is deemed bereft of spirituality. … Our addiction to instant gratification has stripped us of the patience to appreciate any discourse whose rhetoric is dense and demanding. Mindlessly, we grasp for the quick spiritual fix."
One of those in attendance, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director or the Jewish Outreach Institute who has two sons studying at the seminary, said he was "disappointed" that Rabbi Schorsch "did not speak positively about what is going on in the movement and only negatively."
"At my own ordination, the president used the opportunity to encourage and charge the group of people going out to serve the community," he said. "I don’t think he [Rabbi Schorsch] did that. … He criticized most things in the movement, short of intellectual contributions of seminary faculty members."
In his remarks, the chancellor also lamented the loss of "great scholarship," which he said has "ceased to energize [the movement] as it had in the past."
"Once, the polarity of truth and faith at the seminary had made it home for the acme of 20th-century Jewish scholarship, a venue of ferment and fertility," he said. "Faith once moved us to study our heritage deeply, which truth asked of us that we do it critically, in light of all that we know. Willful ignorance was never an acceptable recourse. The interaction set us apart as the vital center of modern Judaism. But no longer."
Although he did not spell out what he was referring to, Rabbi Schorsch added: "With frequency, fundamental changes come more easily. Our forebears embraced history to enlarge and enrich Jewish observance; we wield it, if at all, to shrink it."
He was apparently referring to the ordination of homosexuals, a proposal he has vehemently opposed but one that is now under active consideration.
Rabbi Berkun, the RA president, said that although Rabbi Schorsch’s commencement remarks presented a "different message" than others he has made of late, the chancellor had spoken critically of the movement when he addressed the RA convention in March. In the interview, Rabbi Schorsch said that although he had "said many of those things in Mexico City, for the commencement address I wrote it up." His remarks at the RA convention, he said, were "not as tightly" woven.
"I was attempting to reaffirm what I believe to be the true character of Conservative Judaism, a character that is very much under attack from within the movement," he said. "When the spiritual soil is gone, then the halachic plants are in danger. And that is what is happening to Conservative Judaism."
But the anonymous blogger on the Internet chat room said he came away with three messages from Rabbi Schorsch: "The Conservative Movement has gone to the dogs, it’s everyone else’s fault but his own (he blamed the students, the rabbis, Etz Hayim, new liturgical music, etc.), and the only thing that will save the movement is not a clear-eyed evaluation of how the movement got into this mess … or a sober acknowledgement of contemporary realities such as intermarriage or an embrace of this fuzzy-wuzzy musical sort of spirituality, but rather a return to ‘our glorious past.’"
In response, a number of people posted their own observations. One said: "I can appreciate Schorsch’s commitment to academic study, but it’s sad to see an elder scholar who expresses mistrust of the next generation and insists that the only way forward is a return to the past. One would think that as a historian, Schorsch would realize that generations do differ from one another and that his response to those differences is an oft-repeated cliche. Here’s hoping Dr. Eisen will come up with a better attitude."
He was referring to Arnold Eisen, who has been selected to succeed Rabbi Schorsch as chancellor.
Another blogger wrote: "If he were a leader, he would accept some responsibility. After all, however the graduates entered JTS, they’ve been under his influence for the past several years. If they haven’t become who he wants them to be, who’s fault is that?"
But another said the chancellor should not be blamed, pointing out that his position "doesn’t guarantee that your views or policies will be carried out. He wasn’t the king, just an elected official. I suspect that he spoke out of years of frustration dealing with donors, board members, students, and others who probably wouldn’t listen to him. … Good for Dr. Schorsch for letting loose with both barrels."
Wrote another: "Schorsch is honest. In time, when Reform and Conservative Judaism merge, folks will quote his speech. Very impressed."
And someone who said he spent seven years working for the movement’s youth program (including serving as a regional director) said he found "much of what Schorsch states is sting-hurtin’ true."