Faction of Conservative Movement is Starting a Seminary of Its Own

A faction of the Conservative movement of Judaism that opposes the ordination of women as rabbis, among other recent trends, is starting its own non-denominational rabbinical seminary for the study of what it calls “traditional Judaism.”

The formation of the Institute of Traditional Judaism was announced at a news conference here Wednesday by leaders of the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism.

Although the new institute claims to be unaffiliated with any one branch of Judaism, many see it as an academic alternative to the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical school, which in the past decade has promoted the ordination of women as rabbis and cantors.

“We want the institute to serve as a unifying force among the traditional elements within the Jewish community,” Rabbi Ronald Price, dean of the institute, said in an interview. “This is not a Conservative institution, it is independent and non-denominational.

“From our perspective, we are not setting ourselves up in competition with any institution that exists in the community today,” said Price. “Our goal is to work with as broad a spectrum of the community as possible. The labels are not relevant to us.”

PLANS TO OPEN IN SEPTEMBER

Many of the leaders of the new seminary are past and present members of the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, a group that formed in 1983 in direct response to the Conservative movement’s decision to allow the rabbinic ordination of women.

In that year, the union ruffled feathers with an advertisement it circulated throughout the Jewish news media, which said, “Leading Talmudic scholars of the Conservative movement have declared (the ordination of women) to be halachically wrong.”

The organization, which boasts a membership of 400 to 450 rabbis and approximately 5,000 lay families, also has opposed allowing women to participate as full members in minyanim and Torah readings, although it sanctions women leading segregated women’s prayer services.

The institute, scheduled to open this September in Mount Vernon, N.Y., will offer traditional ordination to male rabbinical students, as well as non-matriculated studies to students “regardless of age, gender or denominational affiliation.”

“While our institute will ordain only men,” explained Price, “that is not the primary raison d’etre of the school. The issue is our approach to Jewish law and the community.

“We are responding to a feeling that there is a need in the community for the leadership of rabbis who are fully traditional, passionately observant and faithful,” he said.

“The motto of our school is genuine faith and intellectual honesty. We see them both as religious imperatives,” said Price. “We don’t believe in closing our students’ minds to the modern world, but we want them to be passionately devoted to their own observance of Jewish law and tradition.”

The school, to be headed by Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, a prominent Talmudist at Columbia University, will offer a five-year program that includes intensive study of Talmud, codes and jurisprudence, and Bible, as well as courses in history, Hebrew literature, Jewish thought, community service and counseling.

Members of the academic advisory council include Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel; Horace Bier, who will also serve as chairman; Eliezer Berkovitz, David Novak, Charles Liebman, Ruth Wisse and Marvin Fox.

BID TO ATTRACT ‘MODERN ORTHODOX’

The institute’s “non-denominational” label may be intended to attract “modern Orthodox” Jews who feel increasingly alienated by the growing strength of the “ultra-Orthodox” movements of Judaism.

“There are people in modern Orthodoxy who will fit as easily into our camp as members of the traditional Conservative movement,” said Price. “We want to be a bridge between halachic Jews coming out of different backgrounds who feel similar needs for community.

“Until this time, there has been no institution whose main focus is on the ideals that we are presenting to the community,” he said.

But according to Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of JTS, the philosophy of the institute “seems to me to be identical with the educational ethos of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“If they seek to become part of the constellation of higher learning, they have a long road ahead of them,” he said. “An announcement is not a fact. So far they are non-accredited, they do not have a permanent full-time faculty or access to a major library.

“I think it has a long way to go before we can assess what implications it will have for the Conservative movement,” said Schorsch.

NEXT STORY