Our Forgotten Founder: Sabato Morais and JTS

In the former Library building (a"h) of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I am privileged to be a student, there was a quiet lounge that few knew existed and fewer spent time in. During my first years at the Seminary, I would often hide out in this lounge which was decorated with portraits of the JTS 'big-wigs.' Once, upon browsing, I happened upon the portrait of Sabato Morais, the caption of which read, 'Founder of JTS.' Founder? How could I have never heard of this dignified looking Sephardi gentleman or his ideas?

It turns out, that Sabato Morais was indeed the key personality in the founding of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and thus what would become Conservative Judaism in America. Despite his absolute centrality to the movement’s earliest history, he, and his ideas with him, are often excised from the narrative of conservative Jewish history. Many have said that Solomon Schechter’s ideas were the only ones guiding the early growth of the movement - but they are only right inasmuch as it is often perceived to be that way, rather then how it really is

In reality, Morais not only played a dominant role in American masorti Judaism personally - but he also put forward a cogent and nuanced ideological vision for the new Seminary. Morais understood his new project to be the cornerstone of an ‘enlightened orthodoxy’ which would help pave the way for a renewal of American Jewish life. He did not, contrary to the typical narrative, have any interest in promoting Zacharias Frankel or his school - rather, Morais represented, and sought to give voice to, an old and established Sephardic tradition of rationality and moderation.

Morais had an ideology - one he explored in a drafted a ‘Manifesto’ from 1876 that never made it to publication. We catch glimpses of it, for instance when he wrote that, ‘...‘the founders of the Jewish Theological Seminary hold as their Credo . . . that our sainted seers laid the greatest stress upon moral injunctions, simply because ceremonial observances were mistakenly regarded by many of their contemporaries as an exemption from principles of social rectitude.’’ Elsewhere we see some vision of the sort of rabbis that the new Seminary would train- Morais writes that:

The proposed seminary shall be hallowed to one predominating purpose—to the upholding of the principles by which my ancestors lived and died. From that nursery shall issue forth men whose utterances shall kindle enthusiasm for the Holy Writ but whose everyday conduct will mirror forth a sincere devotion to the tenets of Holy Writ.

We know also that he viewed the mitzvot as having a world-historical purpose (rather than a theurgic one). Morais wrote about the purpose of mitzvot, saying that they, "...are not indeed the ends, but they are the means ... External observances ... keep alive national sentiments, prevent the laws and the prophets from being forgotten, and ... are calculated to uplift our souls to their maker and thus withhold us from sin." This view of mitzvot, and of the purpose of religion, was one borne from Morais’ Livornese upbringing and American patriotism.

 

Clearly, the ideas that informed the creation of JTS and the religious basis of Conservative Judaism were not only Frankel’s - but also Morais’. As Arthur Kiron tells it:

Throughout his nearly fifty-year ministry in the United States Morais promoted his Italian Sephardi heritage as part of a programmatic vision of what Jewish life in his new American homeland might become. He offered a rationale for Jews to remain observant that addressed the open, pluralistic character of the American environment...It was Morais's outlook and program of religious education in short, and not, as has often been assumed, the positive-historical teachings of Zecharias Frankel, that ultimately provided the ideological underpinnings of the early Jewish Theological Seminary that he founded, aided by a group of supporters, in 1886.

Conservative Judaism, as it grew hand-in-hand with the Seminary, drew on these ideas. Many of the early leaders of the Seminary who followed Morais, such as Cyrus Adler, considered themselves his students. Solomon Schechter’s ideas of ‘catholic Israel’ were hugely important to the early years of the Seminary, but they were by no means exclusive. It seems that for a time, even after Morais’ death, Schechter’s ideas and ideologues were only one faction among those committed to creating a sustainable traditional American Judaism - Morais held sway over others, and there were probably many other influences which have been erased in favor of the historical narrative that Schechter founded both JTS and Conservative Judaism.

 

We too often reject one of the most interesting and most important thinkers in the chain of tradition which becomes Conservative Judaism. Surely there is some degree of prejudice behind the idea that Conservative Judaism begins with Schechter rather than Morais, or de Sola, or Mendes -- and surely it is the case that as Conservative Judaism developed (and the Seminary with it), it resembled less and less the ideas of Morais and his contemporaries - as it did less and less the ‘enlightened Orthodoxy’ which he hoped to create.

In short, Morais’ ideas may not have won the war of wills outside of the Seminary walls - but within it, his Sephardic background, moderate program for religious development, focus on values such as abnegation and humility, and his programmatic rethinking of how Judaism need look in America -- all have had some influence. Perhaps they still can if we are willing to dispense with the narrative that Conservative Judaism begins and ends with Solomon Schechter.


Morais’ vision need not be lost, and we would do well to refashion the our perception of Conservative Judaism in light of what he, our forgotten founder, had intended. In a Shabbat sermon he delivered at Shearith Israel in New York City on January 30, 1886, he said, ‘‘The basis of [the Seminary] shall be humility, not hostility, its sustaining pillars, steadfastness of purpose and fealty to ancestral traditions, not boastfulness and vainglory.”

May it yet be so.