If you’re not interested in the Conservative Movement, feel free to skip this one. But for those who are, read on about soon-to-be-ex-Chancellor (as of June 30th), Ismar Schorsch.
Last Thursday, Rabbi Dr. (or just “Dr.,” as he seems to prefer) Ismar Schorsch delivered the keynote address at the 112th JTS commencement. This was Dr. Schorsch’s swan song, his opportunity to address the faithful after having served as the titular head of the Conservative Movement for twenty years. His speech was breathtaking, though, unfortunately, not in a positive sense. Dr. Schorsch delivered a speech full of veiled and not-so-veiled insults to the very people he was addressing– the students, families, scholars, and clergy of the Conservative Movement. I wish I could post a transcript here, but it hasn’t been made public. Here are some highlights, with the caveat that everything not in quotation marks is how I remember it and not necessarily a direct quote.
Dr. Shorsch’s speech began with an anecdote about this year’s students at JTS that led him to the following conclusion: Today’s generation has no interest in wrestling with difficult texts or in deep scholarship. According to Schorsch, this generation refuses to delve into anything dense or complicated, shying away from texts that require hard work and deep thought. This is a particular travesty since true spirituality comes from academic study, particularly the study of history. (Schorsch is a trained historian.) The audience was more subdued than I would have imagined after Schorsch had just insulted his graduating students, but all around me I did see people whispering and shaking their heads.
Schorsch then talked at length about spirituality, which he called the “aquifer” that feeds and supports halakhic observance. (I see this relationship as precisely opposite, but that’s not surprising). Again, he seemed to be talking primarily about a spirituality gleaned from academic study and spoke against the contemporary focus on music as a source of real spirituality in prayer. Bizarrely enough, in the course of this discussion Schorsch very explicitly and very publicly tore apart the Etz Hayim Humash. Its editors and authors, he declared, had thoroughly “eviscerated” the JPS Torah Commentary that it was based on and de-scholared the whole enterprise. The only “true spirituality” to be found in Etz Hayim, he claimed, was in selected footnotes and essays from the academic commentators, not the rabbinical commentators. All in all, I think Schorsch ranted about Etz Hayim for at least five minutes. I haven’t used Etz Hayim enough to assess his claims, but it was crazy for the outgoing head of the Conservative Movement to heap such public scorn on a publication whose tagline is “a publication of the Conservative movement, produced through a joint venture of The Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and The Jewish Publication Society.”
My favorite line of the whole speech (favorite mostly because I can’t believe someone said it in public and at a graduation no less) was a stinging rebuke to this generation of (and here I quote) “pampered and promiscuous individuals who scorn all contemporary norms.” Again, it was unclear whether Schorsch was referring to his students, to Conservative Jews, or to Jews in general, but it was wild.
But this was the general tone of Shorsch’s speech. The clear underlying message was 1) the Conservative Movement has gone to the dogs, 2) it’s everyone else’s fault but his own (he blamed the students, the rabbis, Etz Hayim, new liturgical music, etc.), and 3) the only thing that will save the Movement is not a clear-eyed evaluation of how the Movement got into this mess or an openness to different approaches to Judaism and Jewish education or a sober acknowledgement of contemporary realities such as intermarriage or an embrace of this fuzzy-wuzzy musical sort of spirituality, but rather a return to “our glorious past.” By which I gather he meant a return to the Conservative Movement’s academic heyday, and not a return to the shining and glorious 1950s-on era of sterile suburban synagogues, organs and choirs, Jewish illiteracy, disaffiliation, and disaffection.
A final anecdote: At the end of Schorsch’s speech, a highly-placed employee in the JTS development office was asking nearby attendees what they thought of Schorsch’s speech. In response to one person’s answer that Schorsch had been insulting and demonstrated how out of touch he was, this person replied, “I know. We saw an advance copy of his speech and we asked him to tone it down. But I think he actually ratcheted it up.” This reply was punctuated by lots of regretful, disbelieving shakes of the head.
Schorsch’s whole speech was quite a performance. Did anyone else experience it differently? Or have thoughts about what was driving it?