restricted access A Century of Commitment: One Hundred Years of the Rabbinical Assembly (review)
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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 161-162



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A Century of Commitment: One Hundred Years of the Rabbinical Assembly. Edited by Robert E. Fierstien. New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2000. xi+292 pp.

The Rabbinical Assembly and the contributors to this account of its 100-year history are to be congratulated for having produced a creditable piece of scholarship and an honest presentation of the organization's accomplishments and problems since its founding.

The chronology of the RA is summarized in four essays covering the years 1901-1918, the 1920s and 1930s, 1940-1970, and the period between 1970 and today. Each of these periods is described against the tumultuous general and Jewish historical setting of the twentieth century. Robert E. Fierstien, Herbert Rosenblum, Pamela S. Nadell, and Michael Panitz describe the evolution and growth of the RA from its early days as an alumni association of Jewish Theological Seminary graduates to its current stature as an international association of some 1500 Conservative rabbis. The writers give a vivid picture of the problems that have confronted the rabbis, from their struggle to attain adequate compensation, financial security, and honored status to their ongoing efforts to define their function, to formulate an ideology for their movement and to gain partnership status with the JTS and their independence from the religious authority of their teachers. The historical sketches are notable [End Page 161] for the frank manner in which they portray the roles played by some of the classic figures in the history of the Conservative movement, including Solomon Schechter, Louis Ginzberg, Alexander Marx, Cyrus Adler, Mordecai Kaplan, Louis Finkelstein, and others. For the most part, the Seminary faculty held a tight rein, and it took decades before the rabbis succeeded in emancipating their Assembly from that control.

No one should fault the editor, Rabbi Fierstien, or the writers of the chapters on the RA in South America, England, Europe, and Israel for the imbalance between the story of the American branch and that of the other countries. The international spread of the RA is comparatively recent, with the exception of Argentina, where the late Rabbi Marshall Meyer established a vigorous Conservative movement following his arrival in Buenos Aires, in 1959. The historians of the other RA chapters had to rely on personal interviews and, to the extent they themselves were involved in the course of events, on their own memories. They had little or no documentary material at their disposal. Furthermore, the newer sections of the RA did not experience at first hand much of the Sturm und Drang which made the American experience as dramatic as it was. Nonetheless, these accounts add an important dimension to the more extended treatment of the American center.

The book is rich with its descriptions of the theological, ethical, and social tensions that continue to divide the members of the RA. Despite the formal commitment of the entire Conservative movement to halakhah, certain issues have never been resolved. Can traditional Jewish law be the basis of a democratic polis? What is the national role of halakha in view of the fact that non-Jews in the State of Israel are granted the right to vote and to participate equally in legislation and adjudication? Can rabbis and halakhic scholars exercise broad authority in an age of the voice of the people? Does ritual belong in the category of law or in that of education and spiritual and aesthetic taste? The book before us acknowledges the cogency of these questions, but I hazard the guess that it will take another century or so before Conservatism will be able to dispel some of the fog that still surrounds its search for answers. But this reviewer, for one, considers A Century of Commitment a step in the right direction.

Jack J. Cohen
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College



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