Rabbi Louis Finkelstein (June 14, 1895, Cincinnati, Ohio – 29 November 1991) was a Talmud scholar and expert in Jewish law. He taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the first American seminary of Conservative Judaism.
He was awarded a doctorate from Columbia in 1918, became a rabbi in 1919, and after many years as professor of theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary he was appointed Chancellor in 1940. He authored a number of books, including Tradition in the Making, Beliefs and Practices of Judaism, Pre-Maccabean Documents in the Passover Haggadah, Abot of Rabbi Nathan, (a three volume series on The Pharisees), and Akiba: Scholar, Saint and Martyr. He also edited a three volume series entitled The Jews: Their History (vol 1), Their Religion and Culture (vol 2), Their Role in Civilization (vol 3).
Dr. Louis Finkelstein, chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the dominant leader of Conservative Judaism in the 20th century, died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 96 years old.
Dr. Finkelstein died after a long bout with Parkinson's disease, a spokesman for the seminary said.
Dr. Finkelstein, a prolific scholar, was the head of the seminary, the intellectual center of Conservative Judaism, from 1940 to 1972. It was a period of extraordinary growth within the movement, as thousands of Jews living in America's cities moved to the suburbs and joined and built Conservative synagogues.
In the postwar period, the Conservative movement emerged as the branch of Judaism with the largest number of synagogues and members. It steers a middle course between the two other main movements in modern Judaism, Reform and Orthodoxy, espousing both fidelity to Jewish tradition and adapting Jewish religious practice and ritual norms to modern realities.
During the years of Dr. Finkelstein's leadership, the seminary flourished, growing from a small rabbinical school and teacher training program to a major university of Judaism. Dr. Finkelstein also established the seminary's Cantor's Institute, the Seminary College of Jewish Music and a West Coast branch of the seminary that later became the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University).
Interfaith dialogue was among his major priorities. He established the Institute for Religious and Social Studies, which brought together Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish scholars for theological discussions. In 1986, the name of the institute was changed to the Finkelstein Institute in his honor.
Dr. Finkelstein's contacts went well beyond the religious community. He was an intimate of leading political and judicial figures and in 1957, enticed Chief Justice Earl Warren of the United States Supreme Court to spend a Sabbath at the seminary in the study of the Talmud, the Jewish library of law and custom.
Dr. Finkelstein served as the official Jewish representative to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's commission on peace, and in 1963 President John F. Kennedy sent him to Rome as part of an American delegation to the installation of Pope Paul VI. He also offered a prayer at the second inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Even at his busiest, Dr. Finkelstein left time for scholarship. Friends said he rose every morning at 4 A.M. to study and write until he went to synagogue at 7 A.M. He was the author or editor of more than 100 books, both scholarly and popular.
His major scholarly pursuits were works on the Pharisees, a Jewish sect in second temple times from which modern Jewish tradition developed, and the Sifra, the oldest rabbinic commentary on the book of Leviticus, which was completed in Palestine in the fifth century.
Among his other works were "New Light from the Prophets," published in 1969, and "The Jews: Their History, Culture and Religion," a three-volume work last published in 1971.
He was born into a rabbinic family in Cincinnati on June 14, 1895. He moved with his parents to Brooklyn as a youngster and graduated from the City College of New York in 1915. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1918 and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary the following year. He joined the seminary faculty in 1920 as an instructor in Talmud and went on to serve as an associate professor and professor of theology. He later became provost, president, chancellor and chancellor emeritus.
Even in his retirement he continued writing, working at the dining room table of his Riverside Drive apartment to complete several annotated volumes of the Sifra. When he became frail in his later years and had trouble walking to the synagogue, his former students turned his home into a synagogue on Saturday mornings, assembling the quorum of 10 needed for prayer. This group gradually evolved into Kehilat Orach Eliezer, which means "Congregation of the Way of Eliezer" (Eliezer was Louis Finkelstein's given name in Hebrew--and the congregation is popularly abbreviated as "KOE"). This synagogue is notable for being a large halakhic congregation that nevertheless strives to accommodate women's participation in public prayer services as much as possible within the parameters established in halakhic Judaism. It meets on Manhattan's Upper West Side. 
Tolerant of Lapses
Dr. Finkelstein was exacting in his daily religious practice but was tolerant of others' lapses. "Judaism is very demanding," he said in an interview on his 90th birthday. "It demands of its people what other religions demand of those in religious orders. But because it demands so much, it never gets 100 percent. The fact that it gets any is remarkable.
"A rabbi today has his work cut out for him, but he should not despair if people do not do as much as they should," he said. "Every parent has that with children. God is merciful."