I knew when I was 12 that I wanted to become a rabbi.
I had already met Professor Louis Finkelstein, chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary from 1940 to 1972, when my uncle, a member of JTS's Board of Overseers, picked him up from the airport in my home town of Detroit, Michigan. I had already begun attending Camp Ramah each summer-something I continued to do for 35 years, most of those representing JTS as professor-in-residence. It was clear to me then-and became even clearer as I continued to learn and progress in studying Jewish subjects-that there was only one Jewish university I would even think of enrolling in, JTS.
JTS had the greatest scholars of Judaic studies in the whole world within its walls, and they covered virtually all fields of Judaic interest: Saul Lieberman, Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky, Moshe Zucker, Boaz Cohen, Shraga Abramson, and David Weiss Halivni in Talmud; H. L. (Harold Louis) Ginsberg and Robert Gordis in Bible; Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel in Philosophy; Salo Wittmayer Baron in History, to name just a few of the biggest names back then. What's more, almost all of these academics combined their scholarship with religious leadership-and that was exactly what I was looking for. It was my good fortune to study with almost all of these great individuals, all of whom impacted my life. If, over the years, I have been able to inspire my JTS students in any way comparable to the way that these scholars influenced me, my life has been blessed.
In 1962, I was admitted to The Rabbinical School of JTS and was invited to become a student in its Talmud program. The Talmud students were a hand-picked group of learners who were judged by the administration to have the potential for becoming not just rabbis, but scholars. The field was Talmud, and that was the field I was in love with. Of course, the program included Jewish Law as well. These two disciplines were, and remain, the loves of my professional life. I wanted to be as great as my teachers, both as a scholar and as a religious leader. I probably have not been, but I have surely tried.
In those days, all JTS rabbinical students received full scholarships, and in exchange were expected to do what was called "scholarship work." For many that meant serving as a research assistant to a professor. I, in 1965, began teaching Hebrew in the undergraduate school of JTS to fulfill my scholarship work requirement. I was supposed to be ordained in 1966, but JTS invited me to become a doctoral student (that's the way it worked then-you didn't apply, you were invited!), and I agreed only after having been promised that it would not affect my ability to become a pulpit rabbi. In those days, too, you had to go into the military as a prerequisite to membership in the Rabbinical Assembly. I passed my physical with flying colors, so my ordination was postponed in order to allow me to continue studying without first serving in the military. In 1968, I was given an official appointment to the faculty of JTS, in the Talmud Department, and was then ordained privately at a meeting of the faculty. To make a long story somewhat shorter, since arriving at JTS in 1962, I have not left.
I am now the Louis Finkelstein Professor in Talmud and Jewish Law at JTS. In addition to a critical edition, Sefer ha-Mordecai: Tractate Kiddushin, about the work of a medieval legalist, the Mordecai, on one tractate of Talmud, I have written The Halakhic Process: A Systemic Analysis, a book that describes the workings and theological underpinnings of the Jewish legal system. I have also written numerous responsa (answers to Jewish legal questions). These were mainly for the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, on which I served for 30 years, including eight as its chair; many of those responsa can be found on the RA website. I continue to be consulted on matters of Jewish law by other rabbis on a daily basis, receiving anywhere between 10 and 25 Jewish legal questions a day by phone or email. Three JTS chancellors have also asked me to serve as the kashrut supervisor of the JTS Dining Hall, which I continue to do. In addition, I am the kashrut supervisor for the Ramah camps, and their halakhic advisor.
I hope I've made clear that my commitment continues to be, and has always been, to both the institution called JTS and the Conservative Movement as a whole. In addition to my faculty positions, I have served JTS as the undergraduate dean of students, director of the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education, and associate dean and twice dean of The Rabbinical School. I have also chaired both the Talmud and Hebrew Language departments, and for a brief period, chaired them both at the same time. My academic interest in Talmud and Jewish Law has also been reflected in my service to the Conservative Movement. The RA has asked me to teach in the Brit Kodesh program (which it presents along with JTS), in which qualified doctors are trained to serve as mohalim (performers of ritual circumcision), and in the Rav ha Makhshir program, which trains rabbis as kashrut supervisors. I am also a member of the RA's bet din (court), on which I have sat since its founding.
I also continue to serve as a member of the National Ramah Commission, and am a rosh yeshiva (dean) of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The yeshiva operates under the sponsorship of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and under the academic auspices of JTS. I was there full time for about two and a half years, starting in 2001, when JTS gave me a leave for that purpose. Now I teach there every summer, and when I am in Israel during holiday breaks.
My entire professional life has been devoted to JTS and the Conservative Movement. I have spoken in so many Conservative synagogues that I have lost track of the number, which is in the hundreds. And this has been what my life has been devoted to precisely because I believe with every fiber of my being that JTS's academic/scholarly approach-coupled with its religious commitments and those of the Conservative Movement-is the most authentic expression of classical, rabbinic Judaism in the world. I knew when I was 12 that JTS was the only place for me, and I continue to know that now too, 61 years later.
Rabbi Roth's JTS Faculty Profile
Rabbi Roth's JTS Speakers Bureau Page