“I have one talent, and that is the capacity to be tremendously surprised, surprised at life, at ideas. This is to me the supreme Hasidic imperative: Don‘t be old. Don‘t be stale.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972) was born in Poland, and studied in Berlin: his doctoral studies were at the University of Berlin, and his rabbinic studies were at the Hochschule für das Wissenschaft des Judentums, an intellectual forerunner of today’s Zacharias Frankel College. He taught Talmud at the Hochschule, and after being deported back to Poland by the Nazis, managed to escape to the United States. He taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, was active in the civil rights movement, and was an inspiration to a generation of Jews looking for meaningful and relevant application of the Jewish traditions.
“A true Jewish apologetic, eschewing obscurantism, religious schizophrenia and intellectual dishonesty, will be based on the conviction that all truth, ‚the seal of the Holy One, blessed is He,‘ is one, and that a synthesis is possible between permanent values and truth of tradition and the best thought of the day.”
Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920 – 2006) was born to a Lithuanian family in Manchester. After studying in the traditional yeshivot in Manchester and Gateshead, he went to London for an academic qualification. There he encountered the findings of archaeological and textual criticism of the bible. His commitment to intellectual integrity, in the face of these findings, and his belief that this could be reconciled with traditional Jewish practice and theology became his legacy. His books, which promoted ‘halachic non-fundamentalism’, cost him the support of the traditional Orthodox establishment. In 1964, he and his supporters founded an independent synagogue dedicated to traditional Judaism in light of scientific knowledge and modern values. In the 1980s, other communities following this path founded the British Masorti movement.
“We have never hesitated to call things by their real names, nor have we ever tried to cover up any weaknesses [….] From our point of view, we would be committing a sin if we were to ignore the strict requirements of truth and religion for the sake of emancipation.”
Rabbi Zacharias Frankel (1801 – 1875) was born in Prague, and became the first rabbi in Bohemia to have studied in secular as well as religious academies. In 1836 he became the chief rabbi of Dresden, where he remained until 1854. During this time, he became the dean of the newly-founded Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, which drew criticism, praise and attention from across the Jewish world for its pioneering integration of academic methods with traditional texts. The school set itself apart from its Reform counterparts and distanced itself from radical innovations, yet advocated for a ‘positive-historical’ approach to Jewish text study, as well as a more accessible form of traditional Judaism, including sermons in German. Frankel’s studies in the Mishna and in early biblical translations showed his intellectual rigour and command. The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York continued Frankel’s legacy, and the Conservative Movement in the United States was built on the foundations that Frankel laid in Germany.