Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Responsa of Prof. Louis Ginzberg

If you've been following Joel Rich's excellent audio roundups, you're certainly familiar with the name R. Adam Mintz. He evidently gives a series of fascinating lectures in his synagogue, structured around themes. Pardon me for commenting on a lecture from two years ago, but I've only recently noticed the treasure trove of audio files on his shul's website and I'm still catching up.

I want to discuss briefly a lecture he gave on the respons1 of Prof. Louis Gizberg: link (second row). 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.

Click here for moreI 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.

Perhaps his famous grape-juice-for-kiddush-during-Prohibition responsum was written on a highly technical level, but that had to be due to its controversial nature. Although, of course, it is standard practice in even the Orthodox community to use grape juice for kiddush. But at that time it was a controversial ruling. That is why it was an exceptional responsum.

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.

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