Is the Jewish Theological Seminary Jewish?

We don't really like to say, "Is the Pope Catholic" when we want to make a point that something is plainly obvious. So we now can start to say instead, "Is the Jewish Theological Seminary Jewish?"

Up until now that was not so plainly obvious. For decades the institution sought to promote "scholarship" which was not always directly supportive of Judaism. Peculiar forms of lexicography and arbitrary theories about the origins of texts abounded in the learning there and the laity in the Conservative movement wondered about the relevance of it all to Jews and Judaism.

It was relevant of course in the manner of all scholarship that underpins authority in a religious society. But not much coming out of the Seminary bestowed any direct meaning on the life of the plain Jew.

We thought it self evident that our teaching there this year should provide and provoke creative theology. That's what we worked for in our course on liturgy. Students rose to the occasion with brilliant work.  And our efforts have led us in a new and direction, now published as a paper and soon to be completed as a book. We think the results are directly relevant to all Jews who pray.

Now plans are in place that will change the overall direction of the Seminary. There is much work that needs to be done, a few people who can and wish to carry it out and a few who see and value that enterprise.

Jonathan Sarna is one of the few. He describes in an essay in the Forward with great precision and with personal reflection the potential value of the seismic shift that is underway now at JTS.
Goodbye Wissenschaft, Hello Relevance
Now and Then
By Jonathan D. Sarna

The Jewish Theological Seminary’s chancellor, Arnold Eisen, recently unveiled a bold new strategic plan aimed at transforming the school’s curriculum, redefining its purpose and setting forth its future direction. The plan called to mind a story that my late father used to tell about a modest change that he proposed to the JTS curriculum as a young professor there in the 1950s.

Dad had been asked to teach the school’s traditional course on the Book of Psalms. Looking through past syllabi, he came up with a new idea that he proposed to his senior colleagues at a faculty meeting. “How about revamping the class so that we teach those Psalms that appear in the Siddur,” he suggested. “That will make the class more relevant to rabbinical students. Down the road, they will be able to use what we teach them to instruct their own congregants in the meaning of the prayers.”

The members of the faculty, my father reported, were aghast. The very idea that the content of JTS courses should be influenced by what might be relevant to rabbis greatly troubled them....more...

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