The Responsa Of Louis Ginzberg

Rabbi Gil Student writes:

R. Mintz discusses a number of responsa of this leader of the Conservative movement in the early twentieth century and acknowledged talmudic expert. R. Mintz advances the theory that Prof. Ginzberg was trying to balance the demands of Judaism and being a good American, without compromising on Jewish law.

I saw something different in these responsa and another not mentioned. I’ll admit to not having gone through the responsa carefully. What I’m saying here is just an impression. But from what I’ve seen, Prof. Ginzberg had this tendency to rephrase obligations into terms of propriety. He tried to make Jewish law palatable by explaining them based on contemporary values. So, for example, when asked whether an opera singer can serve as a cantor, he could have quoted Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 53:25) and said, "No." Instead, he wrote that there is no technical prohibition but it is inappropriate, essentially what the Shulchan Arukh says.

When it comes to the use of an organ in a synagogue, he essentially takes the position of the Chasam Sofer but begins by stating that accepting an organ would be unfair because it would prevent those who oppose the use of an organ from attending services. My recollection of his responsa on mechitzah is that he terms it as a matter of fidelity to the Jewish tradition, the abrogation of which he only allowed in the direst of circumstances. He does not use halakhic terms like "minhag" or traditional halakhic sources.

Is his portrayal of Jewish law as matters of propriety due to the nature of his correspondents? Perhaps. Or maybe I just have a skewed perception of his approach because I haven’t seen enough of his responsa. Or maybe it was an intentional attempt to make Jewish law more acceptable to the populace by framing it in terms of values that they held in the highest regard. In that respect, I think it was a sad failure. People will do away with propriety when it is inconvenient. And when propriety lost its hold on society, sometime around 40 years ago when Joel Rich chose not to get stuck in traffic on the way to Woodstock, the entire enterprise became irrelevant.

Tzvee posts: "I think it was a sad failure." Tell that to 800 congregations with 1.5 million members.

Shaul posts: 800 congregations with 1.5 million members, and of all these members, maybe 5000 are Sabbath observant. You call that a success? And of the ones who are Sabbath observant, 95 percent of their children who remain observant end up in Orthodox shuls. usually the parents end up their first, because otherwise their kids have no one to play with who eat kosher and are observant. Don’t you get this Tzvee?

HESH POSTS: The Conservative movement was designed to work for a group of Jews that feel attached enough to general society that they can’t imagine their religion isn’t compatible with it, while the group is sufficiently distinct from the rest of society (whether due to Jewish pride or, more likely, anti-Semitism in the general society) that they are unlikely to assimilate into that culture. In addition, it helps if the general society is somewhat compatible with traditional Jewish values (as it generally was until Robert Zimmerman corrupted the goyim).

Modern Orthodoxy is distinct from right-wing Conservative in that we believe in the independent value of Torah, no matter the culture we are living. As an example, from this week’s parshah we learn out that while k’vod ha’briot is so great that it can trump a din d’rabbanan, but it can’t trump a din d’oreita, as who are we to say that our understanding of "k’vod" is greater than the work of HaKashosh Baruch Hu?

LION OF ZION POSTS: yossele rosenblatt refused to sing in a chicago opera hours and turned down $100k(in the 1920s!) to be in a movie. his voice was used in the movie (for 10k), but he refused to let them use his kol nidre.

NACHUM LAMM POSTS: Prof. Jonathan Sarna mentions the grape juice issue here and claims that Orthodoxy dug in its heels for political reasons (i.e., so as not to be seen as following Reform and Conservatism). If the main point of his article is correct, it’s sad that in the end, even Orthodoxy is in general agreement that grape juice is fine.

Lion of Zion, you didn’t mention that it was *the* movie- The Jazz Singer. Chazzan Rosenblatt actually died while filming another movie, focusing on his singing, in Israel.

(Oddly, the story you link indicates that Charlie Chaplin claimed Jewish ancestors. This contradicts stories I’ve read that Chaplin tried to avoid such claims, which, as it happens, would not have been true. Note that he supported Jewish causes during World War II *despite* his "fear" of being [wrongly, not that there’s anything wrong with that] "outed" as Jewish.)

In any event, Gil: Perhaps there’s a difference with a Chazzan who works in secular fields on the side and a secular singer who sides as a Chazzan? I can think of a number of examples of each- lots of Chazzanim back in the day sang on Broadway (of course, many weren’t so frum, but many were); Richard Tucker served as a shatz every now and then.

DF POSTS: You’re right that orthodoxy dug in its heels, but in the end, we all use grape juice today. The same is true for many things. 150 years, if you listened to certain rabbis, it was practically an issur doraisa to darshen from the pulpit in the vernacular, and 100 years ago it was ossur to use hebrew for divrei chol. No problem today, obviously. The same example can be multiplied 100 fold.

ANON POSTS: >Richard Tucker served as a shatz every now and then.

More than that, he was the cantor at the Brooklyn Jewish Center for a few years. Biggest Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn. Shoulda been Orthodox, but the Conservative faction had more money.

>grape juice … wine

Yeah, my mother gets into this argument with a lot of younger people, or people whose families came from Europe after the War. She grew up in a kosher home, in New York City in the 1940s, with Orthodox aunts & uncles.

She maintains that nobody used grape juice for kiddush, and therefore everybody she knew drank Welch’s without hechsher, because it was only fruit juice. Younger people argue that that’s wrong, that grape juice was always valid for kiddush, therefore always needed a hechsher.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Ginzberg’s teshuvah being "revolutionary" lends credence to my mother’s anecdata about the American scene. Her family was, as Jenna Joselit writes about, "New York’s Jewish Jews," her grandfather and great-uncle having started two of the most widely-known synagogues (O and C) of the period.

RAFAEL ARAUJO POSTS: Why someone would be even slightly interested in hearing an opera is beyond me. It’s just as boring and meaningless as classical music, which IMHO is used as the standard today to test to see if one is a member of the "wine and cheese" set, or, is a boor. Some people go to operas and listen to classical music for appearances only, but try to hide the Led Zeppelin CD in the glove compartment so nobody should know about their forbidden pleasure (not that I advocate listening to Led Zeppelin – its strictly shiny shoe Jewish music for me:))

JOEL RICH POSTS: I was at a frum wedding recently where the band was playing purple haze (instrumental) and all the youngins were dancing away – i just assumed someone had done a koshered version of it a la yidden.

My favorite though was at a very charedi wedding where the "dinner music" was Clapton’s "My darling you look wonderful tonight" I searched around in vein for someone to meet my eyes in recognition.

GIL POSTS: Rafael: You have to learn the intricacies of music to fully appreciate classical music and opera. Otherwise it just sounds like noise to you. Kind of like rap and contemporary music sound to many of us. But there’s art there if you understand it.

RAFAEL POSTS: Are you telling me that every person, or even every Rov, who attended an opera was already knowledgeable as to the intricacies of music? You don’t think most people attend because most attendees’ lifestyle calls for them to attend an opera? I personally believe that it is a class thing and part of being a member of the upper set to show others you enjoy the best things (of European origin) in life: opera, fine wines, fine art. Here in Canada there was a recent debate during the election campaign about PM Harper’s treatment of the arts in Canada. The class differences between respondents to this issue was quite illuminating.

STEVE BRIZEL POSTS: Rafael & Joel-anyone who lives in the NY area can tell you that "classic" rock and roll, can still be found on 104.3 FM, where there is a minimum of Kol Isha, for the most part, but highly questionnnable lyrics!

ANBO POSTS: Steve, funny you should mention 104.3 Before the summer of 1983, that frequency was WNCN, my parents’ favorite among the three classical stations in NYC. Then they were sold, and became Top 40. It has gone through a number of formats, but now you say it’s "classic" rock, as if that weren’t an oxymoron, when it used to be classical.

AFAICT, "classic" rock is subjective, meaning "that rock that was popular when I was in HS/college."

ObJewish: WQXR, the other classical station, carries Friday night services from Temple Emmanuel (R).

LAWRENCE KAPLAN POSTS: Rafael Arujo: You may find it hard to believe, bu many people, including myslf, were in tears at the recent Met production of Madame Butterfly. And speaking for myself I absolutely love Carmen, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte, Rigoletto, etc. The fact that you do not appreciate these or other operas does not mean that others also do not, and attend them only for show. I am surprised at at your narrowness of outlook.

As for clasical music, you are even more off the mark. I was at a recent performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio at Barge Music in Brooklyn. The audience was moved into stunned and enraptured silence. And don’t you know that one can love classical music and also Lead Zepelin or, as in my case, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

Y. AHARON POSTS: You don’t have to "understand" great music to appreciate it. The chorale in Beethoven’s 9th is stirring even if you don’t understand a word of German. If nothing in classical music has any interest that may be a sign of tone-deafness or a more serious intellectual or emotional problem.

EJ POSTS: I want to comment on this idea of 1 million Conservative Jews and only 5000 are observant. There is much truth in this claim, and whether the number is 5000 or 100000, if measured by the yardstick of halacha the movement is a failure. Because of the facts on the ground the entire ideological superstructure of Conservative Jewry, their halachic committees and responsa constitute a sort of rabbinical lala land, an imaginary that focuses the movement’s attention away from life as actually lived.

There are other yardsticks which are also important. One is the simple mission of keeping Jews from traditional backgrounds attached to Jewish life and the Jewish people. If the battle for Jewish survival can’t be won in the Conservative world what hope is there for the survival of American Jewry outside of Orthodoxy? Here I think the Conservative institutions, though no poster child for kiruv, have a much better record. My view is that many children who go through the SSDS –Camp Ramah circuits end up with enough Jewish consciousness that they live lives equivalent to committed Reform Jews whether as Conservative Jews or Reform or non denominational Jews. They stay Jewish in a nationalist volkish sense, far from all, but much more than 2% or 10%.

I think it is in every Jews’ political national interest to see this movement survive and do its work. Relying on kiruv barely compensates for the Orthodox who leave. I see the issue for OJ as a balancing between two impulses, the impulse to show how only Orthodoxy assures a Jewish future, and a recognition that the nonreligious part of the Jewish people, all 12 million of them are a valuable resource that must be preserved. It’s just possible that the Jack Wertheimer approach of constantly pointing to the failures and inadequacies of CJ accelerates the process it ostensibly is trying to prevent.

CHARLIE HALL POSTS: Up in the top balcony where the $25 seats are, where we sit, you find the real opera buffs. (The acoustics are better there.) I remember attending a performance of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg by Richard Wagner (may his name be blotted out) and getting into a discussion during an intermission with a frum woman about whether the Beckmesser character was really an anti-Semitic caricature. (I pointed out that in 16th century Germany it would have been inconceivable for a Jew to hold such an important office as Town Clerk. The question of whether the historical Hans Sachs was an anti-Semite awaits some grad student’s doctoral dissertation; Sachs was a big supporter of Martin Luther, may his name be blotted out, but I’m not sure how many of Sach’s many writings have been published, much less translated.)

What my rabbi told me was that The Rov held that the kol ishah prohibition was situational — that the prohibition applied only when the kol was likely to engender improper thoughts. He held that classical music, including opera, did not do that and therefore was mutar l’chatchila — live or recorded.

A CAREFUL READER POSTS: ej: You’re right that halacha is not the only yardstick of Jewish identity. But the minimal yardstick is avoidance of intermarriage, and the heterodox movements are not succeeding on this score.

It is very likely inevitable that any movement that doesn’t accept the binding character of halacha (or redefines it to meet current mores) will ultimately have high rates of intermarriage in our very cosmopolitan, mobile society.

MITCH POSTS: Prof Golinkin has a book of G’s responsa that is worth reviewing. i showed it to a well known YI/OU rabbi and he says G was a massive talmid chochom and his responsa are – with exceptionally rare exception – very solid. he cited the grape juice teshuva, which is exhaustive and impressive. he also said G recruited an all-star team of talmidei chochomim for the Talmud Faculty at JTS.
but it is clear that G was not going to follow in the footsteps of his ancestry. he was also mischievous, from childhood through adult, and he never liked authority. This leads me to the last point. His great failure, arguably, is he built the movement around a Law Cmte. he didn’t favor the idea of a Gadol, even though he surely was the Gadol of the C Movement in the 1st half of the 20th ctry. Had he assumed his rightful position – and had the C Movement followed his psak, instead of his psak floating in a vacuum – they would not have drifted in the manner in which they obviously did.
Gil, you’re spot on in that he was trying to create a "Classical Judaism" that could mesh with American Democracy.
his other great contribution is the EJ, which he worked tirelessly to secure funding.
final point is he drew very mixed reaction from major O rabbis. Rav Soloveitchik’s father appeared by his writings to have high esteem of G, while others like the Yad HaLevi considered him an apostate. all very interesting.

A CAREFUL READER POSTS: The RCA also had a law committee. That’s how organizations work.

Louis Ginzberg was a great lamdan and genius long before he had any affiliation with JTS. JTS at the time was far more halachically observant than the Conservatism movement as a whole. He didn’t have an easy time getting a job in the US despite his undoubted genius, and spent a couple of years writing articles for the Jewish Encyclopedia. JTS was not viewed for the most part as an anti-halachic institution when he joined. The YU world also doesn’t like the idea of a gadol, even though we have great reverence for the Rav. In fact, the idea of building a movement around a gadol is not how non-Hasidic Jews have ever done things.

Ginzberg was certainly more of an individualist than most rabbis in our camp.

ANONYMOUS POSTS: JTS at the time was far more halachically observant than the Conservatism movement as a whole. He didn’t have an easy time getting a job in the US despite his undoubted genius, and spent a couple of years writing articles for the Jewish Encyclopedia. JTS was not viewed for the most part as an anti-halachic institution when he joined.

Perhaps, but don’t forget that he was not hired by *HUC* because he accepted (at least at the time) higher criticism of the Bible. In his son’s biography story is repeated that after Alexander Marx asked him for a psak if going in an elevator is mutar on shabbos, and hearing it isn’t, Marx walked up the stairs only to be met by Ginzburg at the top. Marx expressed surprise; how could he take the elevator after giving a psak that you can’t? Ginzburg replied that he didn’t ask. His son also writes that he permitted his wife to use the telephone on shabbos, although he himself didn’t use it — except for the (non-emergency) time he did. The book includes pictures of him learning without a yarmulke.

The point is, he wasn’t exactly a tzadik and his "observance" is at least a little fudgy, if not to be questioned altogether. If he was the godol of the Conservatives, no wonder the Orthodox in general are not highly impressed by this knowledgeable, yet not so pious critical scholar, or C’s rabbis.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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