Ginzberg was born into a religious family whose piety and erudition was well known. The family traced its lineage back to the legendary Gaon of Vilna. In his own mind, Ginzberg emulated the Vilna Gaon’s intermingling of ‘academic knowledge’ in Torah studies under the label ‘historical Judaism’. In his book "Students, Scholars and Saints", Ginzberg quotes the Vilna Gaon instructing, “Do not regard the views of the Shulchan Aruch as binding if you think that they are not in agreement with those of the Talmud.”
He writes in his memoirs that he felt saddened that he had grieved his father. Ginzberg recognized that his pious father was disappointed that his son chose to become a scholar in lieu of a gaon. Ginzberg first arrived in America in 1899, unsure where he belonged or what he should pursue. Almost immediately, he accepted a position at Hebrew Union College and subsequently wrote articles for the Jewish Encyclopedia. Still, he had not found his niche.
Judaism studied in a historical context
In 1903, he began teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City, where he taught until his death. Throughout his life, all of his works were infused with the belief that Judaism and Jewish history could not be understood properly without a firm grasp of Halakhah. Instead of just studying Halakha, Louis Ginzberg wrote responsa, formal responses to questions of Jewish law.
Many of Ginzberg's Orthodox Jewish peers had deep reservations about his choice to work at JTS. JTS explicitly encouraged its faculty and students to study rabbinical literature within its social and historical context; this was sometimes known as Wissenschaft, or the "scientific study of Judaism". As a result of this, many Orthodox Jews viewed his work as unacceptable.
On account of his impressive scholarship in Jewish studies, Ginzberg was one of sixty scholars honored with a doctorate by Harvard University in celebration of its tercentenary. Ginzberg’s knowledge warranted him the expert to defend Judaism both in national and international affairs. In 1906, he defended the Jewish community against anti-Semitic accusations that Jews ritually slaughtered gentiles. In 1913, Louis Marshall requested that Ginzberg refute a blood libel charge in Kiev based on Jewish sources.
Legacy at JTS
Ginzberg began teaching Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary from its reorganization in 1902 until his death in 1953. For fifty years he trained two generations of future Conservative rabbis. Ginzberg impacted upon almost every single rabbi of the Conservative Movement in a personal way. For some, Louis Ginzberg serves as a role model even today. Today’s leading Conservative posek in Israel, Rabbi David Golinkin, has written profusely on his mentor Louis Ginzberg. Golinkin has recently published a collection of responsa containing 93 questions answered by Ginzberg.
In the opening address, Ginzberg spoke of the need to keep Conservative Jewry under the rubric of Halakhah. The conception that in religious matters anyone, however ignorant, can judge for himself, is the direct denial of the old Jewish maxim, ‘The ignorant cannot be pious’ (Avot 2:5)… The majority vote of a Board of Directors of a synagogue is, after all, a negligible quantity when it is in opposition to the vote of historical Judaism with its myriad of Saints and thousands of Sages…The sorting, distributing, selecting, harmonizing and completing can only be done by experienced hands. Ginzberg’s initiative to base halakhic decisions on law committees and not laymen is the method employed by the Conservative movement today.
In 1918, at the Sixth Annual Convention, Ginzberg, as the acting president, declared that United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism stood for ‘historical Judaism’ and thus elaborates:
“Now let us understand the exact meaning of the expression historical Judaism…Looking at Judaism from a historical point of view, we become convinced that there is no one aspect deep enough to exhaust the content of such a complex phenomenon as Judaism…Accordingly, Torah-less Judaism… would be an entirely new thing and not the continuation of something given…
Responsa on wine during Prohibition
One of his responsa concerns the use of wine in the Jewish community during Prohibition. On January 16, 1920, the United States Government enforced the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which declared that “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within… the United States… for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” One of the three stipulated exceptions to the prohibition was for sacramental use. The Christian Church was able to successfully regulate the use of ceremonial wine. The clergy could easily monitor the nominal amount of wine that each worshipper drank especially because it was usually drunk only in Church and only on Sundays.
This was not the case for the Jews. Jews needed a greater quantity of wine per person. Furthermore, the wine was drunk in the privacy of the home on Shabbat, Jewish holidays, weddings and ritual circumcisions. This alone would have made the regulation of ceremonial wine complicated. It was not difficult for crooks to rig illegal ‘wine synagogues’ to trick the government to receive their wine which would then be bootlegged.
The Reform Movement in 1920 proclaimed that grape juice be used instead of wine further to eliminate future complaints. Shortly afterwards, on January 24, 1922, the Conservative movement publicized the 71-page responsa written by Ginzberg tackling the halakhic aspects of drinking grape juice instead of wine in light of the historical circumstances. Besides Ginzberg’s well-grounded decision to permit grape juice, he includes meta-halakhic reasoning:
“…The decision of the author of Magen Abraham that the commandment is honored best by the use of old wine is rejected. Even this authority would admit that it is better to pronounce the Kiddush over new wine than to desecrate the Name and to disgrace the Jewish people, and we well know the damage caused the Jewish people by the trafficking in sacramental wine.”
Five years later, Rabbi Isaac Simha Hurewitz, an Orthodox rabbi from Hartford, Connecticut, challenged Ginzberg’s ruling on unfermented wine. The critique did not appear in the newspapers for the masses to read; rather it was only to be found in his commentary, the Yad Levi, on Sefer HaMitzvot. Rabbi Hurewitz did not just challenge Ginzberg’s responsa based on legal logic. Part and parcel of Hurewitz’s attack is an attempted character assassination on Ginzberg himself:
Rabbi Hurewitz prepares a twofold attack. First he attacks the Conservative Movement by calling them Karaites and thus attempts to diminish Ginzberg’s status as a legitimate rabbinic authority. Though he does not mention Ginzberg by name, it is obvious that Hurewitz was familiar with both the activities of the Conservative Movement and Ginzberg’s responsa. Second, he attacks the erudition of Ginzberg. He says that ‘Ginzberg does not have a brain’ since even a non-Jewish child could tell you that wine is tastier and preferred to grape juice’. Thus, with this ad hominem attack he claims that all of Ginzberg’s intellectual arguments are invalid. Rabbi Hurewitz exemplifies the Orthodox stance that recognized Ginzberg as the leader of Conservative Judaism in the 1920’s, whether or not Ginzberg would have agreed.
Ginzberg was the author of a number of scholarly Jewish works, including a commentary on Talmud Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud) and his six-volume (plus a one-volume index) The Legends of the Jews, which combined hundreds of legends and parables from a lifetime of midrash research.
Legends of the Jews is an original synthesis of a vast amount of aggadah from all of classical rabbinic literature, as well as apocryphal, pseudopigraphical and even early Christian literature, with legends ranging from the creation of the world and the fall of Adam, through a huge collection of legends on Moses, and ending with the story of Esther and the Jews in Persia. Ginzberg had an encyclopedic knowledge of all rabbinic literature, and his masterwork included a massive array of aggadot. However he did not create an anthology which showed these aggadot distinctly. Rather, he paraphrased them and rewrote them into one continuous narrative that covered four volumes, followed by two volumes of footnotes that give specific sources. See Jewish folklore and Aggadah.
Apart from Legends of the Jews, perhaps his best known scholarly work was his Geonica (1909), an account of the Babylonian Geonim containing lengthy extracts from their responsa, as discovered in the form of fragments in the Cairo Genizah. This work was continued by him in the similar collection entitled Ginze Schechter (1929).
Professor Ginzberg wrote 406 articles and several monograph-length entries for the Jewish Encyclopedia (Levy 2002), some later collected in his Legend and Lore. He was an important halakhic authority of the Conservative movement in North America; for a period of ten years (1917-1927), he was virtually The halakhic authority of this movement. He was also founder and president of the American Academy of Jewish Research.
- Levy, David B. (2002). "The making of the Encyclopaedia Judaica and the Jewish Encyclopedia". Proceedings of the 37th Annual Convention of the Association of Jewish Libraries. Denver, CO. http://www.jewishlibraries.org/ajlweb/publications/proceedings/proceedings2002/levy.pdf. Retrieved 2006-12-04.