The Decline of the Rabbi-Intellectual

By Zach Mann
Tuesday, April 30, 2013

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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