Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Conservative Judaism Has Gedolim

  One is used to Haredim speaking about their leaders, both past and present, otherwise known as the Gedolim, in ways that imply veneration if not downright idolatry, complete with acronyms or the titles of their books. Modern Orthodox Judaism has their particular thing with Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik, the Rav. This is certainly not something that one would expect from the more liberal Jewish denominations. Joel L. Kraemer, in his biography of Maimonides, declares, while discussing Maimonides' view on women that Maimonides was largely operating within an Islamic framework of law, but that modern trends in Jewish law have taken the more liberal elements of Maimonides while discarding some of the particular claims troublesome to modern sensibilities:

In the modern period, the greatest Talmudist since the Gaon of Vilna, the Gaon Rabbi Saul (GeRaSH) Lieberman, an admirer of Maimonides, encouraged women to study Talmud and admitted them into his Talmud classes. (Maimonides: the Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds pg. 336.)

Rabbi Lieberman, who headed JTS' Talmud department and was the leading rabbinic figure of Conservative Judaism for much of the twentieth century, is certainly on my list of great rabbis and for more deserving of titles than just about any of the Haredi rabbis that I care to think of. For one thing Rabbi Lieberman was a legitimate scholar, whose published work truly did advance the field of Talmudic study, particularly in regards to the Jerusalem Talmud. Still I wonder what Rabbi Elijah of Vilna would think of the comparison.


Larry Lennhoff said...

I'd also add Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as a gadol in Conservative eyes.

YUngerman said...

Marc Shapiro's "Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox" is required reading; the Conservative biography of Grash by Shochet is fascinating as well. There are some Artscroll-worthy hagiographical stories there as well...

Garnel Ironheart said...

The greatest talmudist since the Vilna Gaon? Now that's bombast! Also, it's incredibly disrespectful to the Rav and Lieberman probably would have pointed that out as well.

However, a joke: a couple of years ago a Conservative who davens in our shul came over and announced that it was the yahrzeit of a greater leader of Conservatism, and did we know who it was?
Without hesitation I announced: AJ Heschel and he was thrilled that I was correct.
After he left, the guys sitting around wanted to know how I'd know. I explained: "When you've only ever had one gadol, it's easy to guess which one he's thinking of!"