When the religion of Judaism speaks in its contemporary modulations—whether Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or integrationist-Orthodoxy—we should hear many voices. But instead we hear one: the voice of left-liberal politics. With the exception of self-segregated Orthodoxy, most (though, happily, not all) rabbis preach a secular doctrine of leftwing orthodoxy. That is puzzling, because the Torah—Scripture (the “Old Testament”) and the Mishnah, Talmuds, and Midrash that record the oral revelation of Sinai—presents a remarkably conservative vision of the social order. “Judaism” favors gay rights—except in the Torah. “Judaism” favors “a woman’s right to choose,” even at the very end of term—except in the law of the Torah, which deems the fetus to have a soul at a specific point in the pregnancy. “Judaism” opposes the death penalty—except in the Torah. Compose a list of liberal shibboleths, and I will cite, chapter and verse, rabbinical sermons and the resolutions of their associations that identify them as “Judaism.” And that is not to mention secular Jews and their organizations.

What explains the gap between the teachings of the Torah and the position of its contemporary masters, the rabbinate of today? The failure of the rabbinical schools to set forth a coherent intellectual structure and system resting on Torah learning has produced a generation of rabbis with little or no Torah to teach. By “Torah,” I speak of a basic philosophy—a core theology—that guides the everyday encounter with the crises of life, both public and private, and that accords with the revelation by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. In general, rabbis do not refer back to a common body of learning that marks them as rabbis—not professors, not social workers, not community administrators, not ethnic cheerleaders, nor any of the myriad roles rabbis define for themselves by reason of the intellectual bankruptcy of the rabbinate.

The exceptions today, and they are not few, prove the rule. But in prior generations, one could look to Reform and Conservative rabbis as well as to synagogue- Orthodox rabbis for a distinctively rabbinical message. Prior generations made the effort, at least, to deliver a religions message, and if they took a political position, it was in dialogue with the Torah. Today, they do not even try. The American rabbinate once took for granted that a rabbi is someone who knows specific things and believes them. These specific things always included Scripture as mediated by the rabbis of the Mishnah, Talmuds, and Midrash compilations, as well as the body of received exegesis of Scripture produced by Rabbinic Judaism from antiquity to our own time. Rabbinic discourse reflected two things. The first was sheer knowledge of “the Tradition,” which was defined as Scripture and Talmud, broadly construed. The second was something harder to identify but just as palpable: a certain attitude of mind, a philosophy, a theology, formed in dialogue with Scripture and Talmud. Given the contents of the Torah, this attitude reflected conservative values.

Reconstructionist rabbis are an easy target, since their seminary includes in its faculty so few heavyweight scholars. And Reform rabbis, with their investment in Jewish ethnicity, political liberalism, Israelism, and holocaustism, as well as their frequent substitution of personality for intellectual perspicacity, scarcely care about Torah learning. If the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College sets the low water mark for scholarly inconsequence, how many important books have come from the entire faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, New York City, and Jerusalem? The intellectually rigorous work of Eugene Borowitz does not stand entirely alone over the past ten years from that faculty, but it also does not occupy a crowded platform.

How the JTSA has fallen! I studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America from 1954 through 1960, abandoning my Reform upbringing to get what I then conceived to be a better Jewish education in Conservative Judaism than I believed I could get in the Reform seminary. It was a difficult venture, but worth the anguish because of the galaxy of intellectual and scholarly superstars Louis Finkelstein had assembled. (He would replace them with mediocrities in the next generation, many of them JTSA alumni, who would find their way into the academy and out of Jewish-sponsored institutions entirely.) One need not reach the stratospheric level of an Abraham J. Heschel or a Mordecai Kaplan or a Shalom Spiegel to serve as an intellectual model for generations of young rabbis. Even second-rank players such as Saul Lieberman and Moshe Zucker and Judah Goldin and Chaini Zalman Dimitrovsky made an impact. Today’s JTSA faculty has no Heschel. I consulted the faculty listing on its website, and I was astonished by the low scholarly aspirations of most, though not all, of that mostly mediocre collection of never-wases-pretending-to-be-has-beens (a phrase someone once used of the Boston Hebrew College of a prior generation).

Ah, but what of Orthodox rabbis? Surely, they bring to the Jewish community a deep knowledge of the sources of Judaism? That intuitive judgment is both right and wrong. Yeshiva-Orthodoxy, segregated in its educational world, with its emphasis on Talmud study and on Torah learning, produces large numbers of young men who have encountered the Talmud and know this and that. When I meet such young men and ask them what they are studying, I am usually puzzled by their low educational ambitions. This is summed up by an admittedly extreme case. When I was lecturing in Moscow last year, I was introduced to a young man who told me he was studying Talmud in some yeshiva in that city. I asked, “What chapter?” He didn’t know. “What tractate?” He still didn’t know! “Well, what did you study this morning, what Mishnah rule?” He was not sure. I said, “Could it have been . . . ?” Ah, yes, that’s it!

But there are universities and then there are universities, and the same is so in the yeshiva world. While the alumni of the best of them exhibit certain intellectual deficiencies—they find it difficult to construct a lucid, logical proposition and argument but are very good at lowbrow exegesis of words and phrases—yeshiva-Orthodoxy does meet the expectation that a rabbi will base his teaching on the Torah. I have never heard of a rosh yeshiva (a professor) of a reputable yeshiva lacking substantial mastery of the texts, their theology, or law. And they live by the ideals of what they learn, or try to.

But in the pulpit-Orthodox rabbinate, that part of Orthodoxy that is integrationist and that chooses to address the world of Judaism, the situation hardly proves more promising than the Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist rabbinate. A kippah on the head of an Orthodox rabbi does not guarantee Torah inside. More to the point, while the Orthodox rabbinate knows things, it is rare that such rabbis can make a coherent and compelling case for the Torah, viewed as the source of culture and sensibility of the holy community of Israel, God’s people.

Writing in the Jerusalem Report, Ze’ev Chafets recentiv challenged the intellectuals of Judaism to answer a simple and reasonable question: “What’s it good for?” We in the academic humanities have to answer that question every day. Our students ask it, because we are not training them to get good-paying jobs when they graduate but educating them for a long life of the intellect. No one takes the question as effrontery or interprets it as an attack on the fields of philosophy, literature, history, or the academic study of religion. We answer that question not only by what we say but by what we do in the classroom every day. But responding to Chafets, Berel Wein, writing in the Jerusalem Post of October 29, 1999, saw his question as an attack on the Talmud. How does he respond to Chafets’ question?

It was and is the study of the Torah, above all else, that has preserved the Jewish people to this day. The impractical, uneconomical, otherworldly study of Torah is the main force that has kept the Jewish people alive, vibrant, creative, and stubborn to the core.

Alas—the argument from ethnicity once more! Rabbi Wein does not argue about the merits of what is studied, only about the results. But such an appeal to the practical consequence the socially desirable result of keeping Jews Jewish—surely validates studying many things, not just the Talmud. If Jewish education were devoted to the holocaust, or if it consisted of constant pilgrimages to the state of Israel, the same result might occur—or perhaps even a more satisfactory one, since an appeal to emotions (holocaustism) or the experience of ethnic loyalty (Israelism) demands much less than is required by an appeal to intellect. It is easier to face than to think, and emotions always trump reason, except among the educated few. Rabbi Wein’s incapacity to formulate a compelling answer out of the Torah for the value of studying the Torah exemplifies the intellectual limitations of integrationist Orthodoxy—the Orthodoxy that reads, in English, the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Report and chooses to engage with the rest of Jewry.

With significant exceptions, in integrationist-Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Jewish-Renewal/New Age Judaisms, we find rabbis without Torah. That represents the failure of a generation of rabbinical seminary professors. The chain of tradition is as strong as its weakest link.