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The Decline of the Rabbi-Intellectual

Rabbi Jacob B. Agus

On March 21, The Daily Beast released its list of the top 50 rabbis in America.  The overwhelming majority of the honorees earned this accolade by creating innovative organizations, engaging in social action, or successfully building spiritually fulfilling communities.  Only a very few had risen to prominence through intellectual or scholarly achievement, though many are learned, some are published authors, and others are pioneers in the field of Jewish education.  This is not surprising.  Today’s American rabbi must preside over religious services, attend committee meetings, balance budgets, officiate at all sorts of life cycle events, and participate in social action, and consequently has time for little else.  But was this always the case? 

In the middle third of the 20th century, most congregational rabbis received some sort of academic training from the seminary where they studied, and some of them also received graduate degrees at American universities.  Even as they led congregations, many of these men maintained connections with institutions of higher education.  Some taught on a part-time basis at colleges or universities near their synagogues or were invited to do so at the seminary from which they had graduated; others published books and scholarly articles.  Few if any of these pulpit scholars remain household names, but they made solid contributions to American Judaism, on the local level and beyond.  Among the most important of them was Jacob B. Agus. 

Yaakov Dov Agushewitz was born in 1911 in Swislocz, a town just outside of Bialystok, a descendant of illustrious rabbinical families on both.  After studying at home with his father and in heder, he joined his older brothers at the Tachkemoni Yeshiva in Bialystok, a religious Zionist institution.  But as Poland re-emerged as an independent nation-state in the wake of World War I, increasing anti-Semitism and an ever-worsening economic situation led the Agushewitzes to leave for Palestine in 1925, where they remained for only two difficult years before heading for the United States in 1927. 

Once he was settled in New York City, Jacob Agus (as he would eventually be called) attended the newly founded Yeshiva College, earning both yadin yadin and yoreh yoreh semikha from Moses Soloveitchik.  He considered pursuing graduate study in chemistry, but took a pulpit in Alexandria, Virginia instead.  After publishing his first article, a critique of Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization, Agus entered Harvard University in 1935 to study the history and philosophy of religion (while serving as a rabbi at a congregation in Cambridge to help pay his way).  During these years he also studied the works of Maimonides and discussed the state of Orthodoxy in America with Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, who had settled in America a few years earlier.  Agus worked with Harry Austryn Wolfson, the great scholar of Jewish philosophy, and various Protestant theologians and philosophers of religion—chief among them was William Ernest Hocking, whose 1912 The Meaning of God in Modern Experience had a great impact on him. 

Agus’ doctoral thesis on the relation between God and man in the work of Hermann Cohen and Martin Buber served as the basis for his Modern Philosophies of Judaism.  This book included one of the first sustained studies in English of the thought of Franz Rosenzweig, as well as a very pointed critique of the thought of Mordecai Kaplan.  It also included shorter studies of various 19th-century German-Jewish philosophers of Judaism as well as nationalist thinkers like Nahman Krochmal, Ahad Ha’am, and Simon Dubnow.  This was the first of nine books that Agus ultimately published (along with dozens of articles). 

Agus did not proceed from Harvard to position in Jewish Studies at another university, as one might have expected.  Such positions scarcely existed in 1940.  Instead, at the behest of his mentor, Bernard Revel, the first president of Yeshiva College, he took a pulpit in Chicago.  Subsequently, Agus oversaw the consolidation of three Traditional synagogues in Dayton, Ohio.  It wasn’t long, however, before he grew impatient with Orthodoxy and what he saw as its unwillingness to adjust Jewish law so that it could deal with an American Jewish community that was drifting away from strict observance.  In 1945 Agus became a member of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, officially severing his ties with Orthodoxy.  The following year he published his second book, Banner of Jerusalem, which is perhaps the first book-length study of the life and thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to appear in English. 

Agus spent most of his career (1950-1980) as the leader of a single synagogue, Congregation Beth-El in Baltimore (located since 1957 in the suburb of Pikesville).  His constant involvement in the day-to-day operations of a large suburban synagogue-center did not prevent him from enjoying his most productive years as a scholar.  In 1959, he published his Evolution of Jewish Thought, which covered the development of Judaism up to the onset of modernity.  In 1963, he published The Meaning of Jewish History, a two-volume interpretative study of the entirety of Jewish history featuring a laudatory preface by Salo Baron, the greatest Jewish historian of the time. 

If The Daily Beast were to publish a list of the top 50 Judaica scholars in America today, it would include many whose publications would surpass those of Agus in sophistication.  But unlike Agus, these men and women do not have the demanding responsibility of running a congregation.  This might, on balance, result in scholarship’s gain, but it is certainly the Jewish community’s loss.  At a time when the average American Jew was increasingly well-educated in secular matters but had little access to Jewish knowledge on a high plane, Agus and many congregational rabbis of his day not only contributed to scholarship but strove to bring some of its riches to the educated layperson as well.  The congregation-based scholars of yesteryear labored to make Judaism intellectually stimulating as well as emotionally stirring and politically applicable. Our need for rabbis like them is as great today as ever, but if the Daily Beast's list is any indication of how things now stand, they seem to be in short supply. 

Zach Mann holds a Ph.D. in Modern Jewish Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary.  He teaches Jewish history at Brooklyn College (part of the City University of New York) and Jewish philosophy at Rutgers University.  

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Phil Cohen on April 30, 2013 at 7:11 am (Reply)
While I was working my way into Jewish life hoping to gain admission into rabbinical school, I had the privilege of studying with Jacob Agus. This was during the academic year 1977-78. He would hike in weekly from Baltimore to what was then called Dropsie University (formerly Dropsie College) in Philadelphia. As Dropsie was in decline and student enrollment was low, there was only one other person in his class. He gave a year course on the history of modern Jewish thought. I was simultaneously studying at Temple University, just down the road from Dropsie with other fine teachers. But the small class gave me the opportunity to get to know Rabbi Agus. We would often lunch at a local place where he would order a cream cheese sandwich, and we'd talk about philosophy and also about the rabbinate. He wrote a recommendation on my behalf to HUC-JIR and to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

I always thought of him as one of my early mentors, both because of his scholarship and precisely because he represented a breed of rabbi I early recognized as a dying breed.
Lance Sussman on April 30, 2013 at 7:28 am (Reply)
Thank you Dr. Mann! My experience as a Rabbi-Doctor in the pulpit for the last 33 years has been highly rewarding. In addition to our regular Adult Education lecture series, I also give lectures after services (and before the Oneg) on a wide variety of topics in Jewish History. Typically nearly 400 attend and as many as 700 have come. My sense is that there is a true hunger for rabbi-intellectuals in the pulpit today. Top 50 Rabbi lists are more about media needs, NYC hype and rabbinic salesmanship than grassroots American Judaism.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.
Senior Rabbi
KI, Elkins Park, PA
Adjunct at Temple Univerisity and Princeton
RAM on April 30, 2013 at 8:26 am (Reply)
Sophistication and philosophical knowledge without 100% commitment to Torah MiSinai certainly don't solve any spiritual problem.
Pinchas Giller on April 30, 2013 at 9:26 am (Reply)
A very worthy article. My teachers in Yeshiva University in the 1970's had tremendous regard for Dr. Agus. Two minor caveats: one contributor to the decline of the Rabbi/intellectual has been the growth of Jewish studies in the academy, which allows scholars to indulge in the scholarly life without the encumbrance of communal leadership. This has also removed the responsibility for communal responsibility from scholars, with the predictable result of such scholars belong utterly absent from, or even destructive towards the general community. Secondly, the reason that some contemporary scholarship might "surpass those of Agus in sophistication" has to do with the advent of personal computing, which has produced works of increasingly dense bibliographical character, along with a profusion of new sources. It took more work to write the sweeping overviews that Dr. Agus produced.
Abe Katz on April 30, 2013 at 10:06 am (Reply)
This article reminded me of one of the shortfalls of the Rabbinic program at Yeshiva University. The school touts the fact that the teachers in its Rabbinic school are students of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, z”l, whose 20th Yahrzeit the school recently commemorated. But are those teachers truly the students of Rabbi Soloveitchik? Did they pursue the type of secular education that Rabbi Soloveitchik undertook?

Anyone who ever attended any of the Rav’s lectures walked away knowing that they had just heard from an individual who had benefited both from Jewish learning and from a secular education. If Yeshiva University wants to hold itself out as the top Rabbinic school in the United States, it should insist that the teachers at its Rabbinic school obtain a PHD as well.

The secret of Jewish learning is that every intellectual pursuit translates into a greater understanding of Judaism.
Brooks Susman on April 30, 2013 at 11:38 am (Reply)
My influence was (and still is) Solomon Freehof, and others of his ilk who taught and published and helped create a philosophy for Reform Judaism. I learned that we truly believed in an intellectual Judaism that added meaning to custom and practice. Their influence has allowed me to teach in a sermonic mode as well as teach in our local college as an adjunct. I fear we are passing into a populism of "spirituality" instead of a pride of scholarship.
Allan Nadler on April 30, 2013 at 12:22 pm (Reply)
I propose that the Jewish Ideas Daily draw up its own list of the top rabbis in America AND CANADA, based on more scholarly and intellectual criteria; and the, that the Tikvah Fund awards these rabbis truly massive fellowships, so as to encourage others to join their ranks, and to help us, err...them continue to pursue scholarly work while serving our...I mean, their....communities.


Rabbi Dr. Allan Nadler
Congregation Beth El, Town of Mount Royal
Joan Myerson Shrager on April 30, 2013 at 12:33 pm (Reply)
This article reinforces what our members already know. Senior rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D. is the combination of all that the author nostalgically describes as the quintessential rabbi and more. During his 13 year tenure at Keneseth Israel Synagogue in Elkins Park, Rabbi Sussman continually earns our accolades by performing all that is required in this modern age through innovative programming, social action and community building at KI.
Above all he is a great intellectual, a published author who teaches at Princeton and Temple Universities as well as at our synagogue. His sermons are brilliant. His illustrated PowerPoint presentations delivered at Friday night services and at KI’s adult education classes Sunday mornings draw thousands to hear him delve deeply into the role of Jews and Judaism in history, American and European. This past year he traced the history of anti-Semitism from it’s early European origins to America and then back again to modern France. Last season he taught classes at KI in world religions. He has taught us about major figures in world history as they related to the Jews, from Napoleon to Theodore Roosevelt.
He has taught about The Holocaust and Art in his classes of teens in the Hebrew School. How amazing to see kids come to Hebrew School willingly and positively.
Somehow we missed the opportunity to nominate Rabbi Sussman to this list of accomplished rabbis but we at Keneseth Israel know him to be all of Zach Mann’s requisites and more. Rabbi Sussman is as much at home teaching in prestigious universities as he is in talking through puppets to our littlest kids. Rabbi Sussman does it all. He has the tremendous responsibility of running a congregation and also of managing to stimulate the intellectual growth of his congregants and the hundreds of non-members who also flock to his lectures. One non-Jewish friend always refers to KI as “my synagogue.” We at KI are indeed fortunate to be Rabbi Sussman’s groupies.
David E. Rosenthal, MD on April 30, 2013 at 4:20 pm (Reply)
I echo Joan Shrager's comments. Fir years, my congregation (Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, PA) swung between a brilliant, nationally recognized pulpit rabbi OR a soft, hāmish, warm pastoral rabbi. Then came Lance Sussman who was the embodiment of both, warm, endearing, sympathetic, caring, briliiant- truly a walking encyclopedia of Jewish history, able to speak for an hour on ANY subject, with names and dates, at a moments notice WITHOUT notes. He is reverentially respected and loved by his congregants. His positions in the broader community are detailed by Ms. Shrager. He is absolutely one in a thousand.
Jerry Blaz on April 30, 2013 at 7:16 pm (Reply)
I ended Zach Mann's article believing that Argus and Mordecai Kaplan were ideologically incompatible, but that is not borne out by the description of Kaplan and Argusthe introduction in William E. Kaufman's "Contemporary Jewish Philosophies." They both were philosophical pragmatists, nurtured by the writings of Dewey and others. As pragmatists, they both accepted the axiom of science that when something was disproven by newer evidence, that evidence should be accepted. Like Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, they both believed that secular education was important. In his life, Agus was close to the Reconstructionist movement, and taught for a spell at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical college. So the article fails both in describing Agus' outlook and the information this article purports to give the reader.
Rabbi Alan David Londy on May 1, 2013 at 8:22 am (Reply)
I was an assistant rabbi in Baltimore when Rabbi Agus was the rabbi emeritus of Beth El Congregation. He was a kind and gentleman. The members of the congregation loved him and revered. He did not simplify Judaism in his preaching and teaching. HIs intellectual interests were far-reaching. The comment that Rabbi Agus's scholarship would not be in the top tier of Jewish scholarship today is, in my opinion, untrue. He would have been a giant in any age both as a rabbi and scholar.
Ed Feinstein on May 1, 2013 at 8:24 pm (Reply)
Thanks to Dr Mann for a masterly introduction to the genius of Rabbi Agus. But I wonder if the question isn't backward....It's not why there are no rabbi-intellectuals in the pulpit today, but why it was that for a generation at the beginning of the 20th century, great thinkers like Rabbi Agus, and Milton Steinberg, Abba Hillel Silver, Solomon Goldman, Stephen S. Wise, and others, chose to enter the congregational rabbinate? What was it about that historical moment that encouraged the best and brightest among Jewish minds to become rabbis? What organization of community might tempt them to return?
mike on May 5, 2013 at 5:12 pm (Reply)
The great 'Rabbi Intellectuals' dissapeared because their students and followers intermarried or became completely secular and most no longer even identify as Jews. Hooray for the great Rabbi Intellectuals!
Intermarriage And The NY Jewish Community Study
06/12/2012 - 19:30
Y Rabinowitz on May 6, 2013 at 11:37 am (Reply)
Very interesting Dr. Mann. Surely small mention of his brother Irving is in order?
Ellen on May 6, 2013 at 4:48 pm (Reply)

Sadly, you are right on target. Praising these rabbi-intellectuals today is similar to the praise people used to heap on Moses Mendelson and his views, because they appeared to create an alternative to the ghetto Judaism that East European Jewry was accustomed to, which seemed completely out of place in 19th century Germany.

Yet, as we all know, Mendelson's own descendants converted to Christianity, not out of belief but out of a desire for social acceptance and upward mobility. Without a strong traditional Jewish education, they simply became apathetic to Jewish ideas and practice, and found German bourgeois and high culture more appealing.

Those Reform and Conservative Jews who listened to the Rabbi-Intellectuals mentioned in this piece did not produce another generation of Jews interested in listening to Rabbi-Intellectuals, let alone becoming one of them. This is the very definition of a dead-end culture. The Hassidim and Modern-Orthodox, by contrast, have produced new generations who listen to and become religious leaders in their own quite different molds.

As Woody Allen would say, 80 percent of life is just showing up. In this spirit, we could say that the Rabbi-Intellectuals did not produce a population that even bothered to show up.

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