Louis Finkelstein, Dead at 96, Was Chancellor Emeritus of JTS

Funeral services were held Sunday at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America for Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, its chancellor emeritus, who died Friday after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease. He was 96.

Finkelstein, who transformed the seminary from a rabbinical school to a prestigious institute of higher Jewish learning, had an impact that also reached to secular society.

Among those he brought to the institute of Conservative Judaism was Chief Justice Earl Warren, who spent a Sabbath studying Torah at the seminary.

So extensive was Finkelstein’s influence that in October 1951, the rabbi was the subject of a Time magazine cover story. On Jan. 20, 1957, he was invited to give a blessing at the second inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower.

Finkelstein, who was also the seminary’s Solomon Schechter professor of theology, had a long and distinguished career. He created the seminary’s Cantor’s Institute, the Seminary College of Jewish Music and a West Coast branch that became the University of Judaism.

He also founded, in 1938, the seminary’s Institute for Religious and Social Studies, which in 1986 was renamed the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies.

In 1939, he created the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion.

The son of Simon Finkelstein, an Orthodox rabbi, and Hannah Brager Finkelstein, he was born in Cincinnati on June 14, 1895. When he was 7, his father assumed a new pulpit in Brooklyn and moved the family to New York.

A 1915 graduate of the City College of New York, Finkelstein received his doctorate from Columbia University in 1918 and was ordained by the seminary in 1919. He was rabbi of Congregation Kehillath Israel in the Bronx until 1931.

In 1937, he was named the seminary’s provost. In 1940, he became its president, succeeding Dr. Cyrus Adler.

In 1951, when the post of president was abolished, he became the seminary’s first chancellor, which he remained until he retired in 1972.

PIONEER IN INTERFAITH OUTREACH

Finkelstein was a pioneer in interfaith outreach. Under his leadership, the Institute for Religious and Social Studies brought together Catholic, Protestant and Jewish scholars to discuss theological issues.

“He made the ecumenical world aware of the centrality of the Judeo-Christian heritage,” said Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the seminary’s current chancellor.

Finkelstein also authored numerous books. In addition to a four-volume work on the commentary on Leviticus, known as the Sifra, he wrote several books on the Pharisees, including the seminal volume, “The Pharisees: The Sociological Background of Their Faith,” which was written in 1938 and revised in 1963.

He “rehabilitated the Pharisees for Christian America,” said Schorsch.

Among Finkelstein’s other volumes were a biography of talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, which he wrote in 1936 and revised in 1990; a book about the Egyptian-born Palestinian scholar Saadia Gaon; and a work on Jewish self-government in the Middle Ages.

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