Louis Ginzberg

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Rabbi Louis Ginzberg was a Talmudist of the twentieth century. He was born on November 28, 1873, in Kovno, Lithuania; he died on November 11, 1953, in New York City.


Biographical background

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 had chosen a more liberal path with regards to Jewish law apposed to following the path of his forefathers. 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.

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