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  • That Judaism Might Yet Live:Pastoral Care and the Making of the Post-Holocaust Conservative Rabbinate
  • Benjamin Steiner (bio)

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, 19681

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 [End Page 265] 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 [End Page 266] 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...


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