That Judaism might yet live: pastoral care and the making of the post-Holocaust conservative rabbinate.

Author:Steiner, Benjamin

Gauged both by consumer demand and by the clergyman's self-evaluation, the chief business of religion in the United States is now--and probably has long been--the cure of souls.

--William Clebsch, 1968 (1)


In 1963, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the flagship rabbinical school of the Conservative movement in America, received a three-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to develop curricula and train students in the art of pastoral counseling. (2) In the postwar years, many people turned to clergy to address their emotional problems; (3) the NIMH sponsored programs to arm them with the skills to respond. To the extent that other religious institutions, Jewish and Christian, also received funding, the JTS grant is best understood in light of the NIMH's broader probe of the interaction between religion and psychiatry at that time, as part of a growing social movement. (4) Conservative leaders, however, harbored an added intention. They yearned not just to educate clergy to emotionally aid the parishioner, but also to actively strengthen the role of clergy in American Jewish life after the Holocaust. This serves as the point of departure for my analysis.

Recently, historians have explored the development of rabbinic authority and the concomitant growth of denominationalism in American Judaism. Rabbi Zev Eleff probed the gradual process through which religious leadership passed from lay persons to rabbis during the nineteenth century. He emphasized synagogue leadership and arbitration of religious law as the fundamental barometers of transformation. (5) Rabbi Joan Friedman illuminated the later Reform context in her work on Solomon Bennett Freehof, documenting the return of Reform rabbis to classical rabbinic texts for "guidance" if not "governance" in the post-World War II era. (6) Michael Cohen reinvestigated the development of the Conservative movement through an examination of its leadership. (7) Yet Eleff does not explore the twentieth century, and Friedman does not address the Conservative movement; Cohen examines identity formation through the question of change to Jewish law, but does not address the strength of the rabbi in American Jewish life. And while Rochelle Indelman and Mortimer Ostow, longtime employees of JTS's psychiatry department, each wrote about the impact of the NIMH grant, they did not address its historical significance. (8) Given these omissions, this paper fills a lacuna in the scholarship; it revisits the primary sources and offers a more contextual and comparative examination of the developments.

Part I of this paper maps the cultural landscape: the profound impact of the Holocaust on Conservative rabbinic leadership and, concurrently, the growing prominence of psychoanalysis in all sectors of American life. Part II explores the history of the psychiatry department at JTS between 1954 and 1966, and, specifically, the protracted struggle of its faculty to implement a systematic strategy for pastoral education. All agreed that pastoral care by rabbis was a good, but none could articulate precisely what it should look like. This debate reveals much about the faculty members in question as they struggled to square their embrace of religion with a steadfast commitment to scientific progress. Part III compares the JTS experiment with that of the Orthodox Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) at Yeshiva University (YU), which received two NIMH grants of its own. Those projects would be focused on a different set of objectives.

Part I

When Crisis Commands Creativity

The epicenter of global Jewish life shifted from the Old World to the New World after the Holocaust. Conservative rabbis responded with grave concern. They found in the destruction of European Jewry an existential mandate to bring American Jews back to religion. American Jews were now tasked to save all of Jewry, they insisted, so they could not afford to fail. The Conservative rabbis of the 1950s were not the first to worry about continuity, to be sure; in the terms of Jewish philosopher Simon Rawidowicz, one might even say that there is something qualitatively Jewish about the fear for Jewish survival, so that every generation fancied itself the last. (9) In the aftermath of the Holocaust, however, the debate in the United States acquired an unprecedented tenor of urgency. The response of Conservative leaders was two-pronged.

The first response has been oft-cited. As a group, Conservative leaders aimed to effect strategic changes in Jewish law to encourage observance more generally. This informed the urgent tempo of a movement-wide conference on Jewish law held at JTS in 1948, entitled "The Halakha and the Challenge of Modern Life." (10) There, leaders of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the Conservative rabbinic body, strengthened their commitment to religious moderation. Critical of Orthodox Judaism to the right and Reform Judaism to the left, Conservative rabbis had long hoped to carve out a pathway between the ancient prescriptions of legal tradition and the pressures of modernity. Yet the dire circumstances of the hour propelled more drastic measures than had previously been taken. For the first time, the RA members also resolved to breach Jewish law, if necessary, in order to achieve their bigger objective of maintaining a viable Jewish life.

Conservative Rabbi Morris Adler, chairman of the newly formed Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), and a former army chaplain in the Pacific theater, spoke explicitly to the crisis at a 1948 convention for the lay leaders of Conservative synagogues.

When we spoke [before the Holocaust] of reinterpreting or restructuring the tradition, we were placing a superstructure of interpretation upon a base sufficiently solid and strong to support our revisions. Whether we were aware of it or not, our amendments to Judaism had as their background the full-blooded Jewish center with its Volozhins, Vilnas, Odessas and Warsaws--the home of [the Vilna] Gaon, Baal Shem [Tov], student, scholar and saint. Today our adaptations have as their background inertness, flatness and a process of pervasive corrosion and disintegration. Ours is the God-like task of creating a world to supplant the world that has gone down in destruction and ashes. (11) By shifting the focus to America, the Holocaust had accentuated the weaknesses of American Jewish life, which was then marked by ignorance toward religious practice and a rejection of rabbinic authority. Conservative rabbis mourned for what had been and what could have been as they sought to forge a sustainable future. As chairman of the CJLS, Adler would try to capture unity from amid the wide religious diversity among Conservative rabbis; only a definable Conservative movement could become the new organizing center of Jewish life that its leaders envisioned.

Yet the search for definition was not itself new. By T919, the relationships among law, belief, practice, and denominational orientation were the variables in the (albeit less urgent) RA discourse about religious life, and they continue to be definitive in Conservative discourse to the present day, (12) spawning numerous articles and books. Conservative rabbis, however, embraced an additional, equally significant goal in their efforts to encourage religious observance--one without an equivalent literature. They attempted to expand the rabbi's role in American Jewish life. Adler made the case for expansion within the 1948 convention address. Postwar American Jews needed more than just a jolt of halakhic adrenaline, he insisted. They needed rabbis responsive to the emotional toll of the modern condition:

The rabbi must be trained in handling insecurities, fears, loneliness, guilt complexes and others symptoms of basic maladjustment of men and women. Our synagogues cannot overlook this field, and should accept as not the least of their functions the obligation consciously to aid in bringing about better emotional balance and more wholesome attitudes towards self, towards others, towards the whole of life on the part of those in the community who need guidance and psychological reinforcement. I believe that if we are aware of the problem and accept our responsibility with regard to it we shall muster the wisdom necessary for meeting it. (13) Growing Pains

Adler's dream--a dream shared by many of his colleagues--of rabbis responsive to the religious and psychological concerns of their congregants, encountered a significant complication. If, as Adler envisioned it, the rabbi of the European shtetl once ministered to the needs of the community outside the realm of synagogue life, then the gaps formed by the narrowing of the religious domain in America had been filled by other cultural institutions. The postwar suburbs to which Jews flocked promised a life less saturated with Judaism, more enmeshed in the broader American environment. Conservative rabbis lamented the shrinkage of religious life, but to expand it again, they would need to contend with the burgeoning fields of psychology and psychoanalysis that had superseded it.

Rabbi Robert Katz recognized as much in a 1952 article about the relationship between pastoral psychology and the modern rabbinate. (14) Katz taught psychology at Hebrew Union College (HUC), the Reform seminary, but his insight illuminates the broader Jewish sphere. Perhaps more than his Conservative counterparts, Katz understood the historical factors that caused the contraction of rabbinic authority in America, especially the modern bifurcation of the rabbi's roles as a communal functionary and as a pastoral counselor to troubled individuals:

In more modern times the rabbi tended to lose his communal position and authority and no longer had a formal association as a religious leader with the institutions meeting welfare needs. With the impact of modern science, democratic culture, and civic emancipation came the...

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