This Day in Jewish History / A Jewish Writer Who Defied Definition Is Born

Louis Ginzberg, writer of 'Legends of the Jews', continued the line of the Vilna Gaon - into very new directions.

November 28, 1873, is the birthdate of Louis Ginzberg, one of the great American rabbinical scholars of the 20th century, and author of the seven-volume compendium “Legends of the Jews.”

Louis Ginzberg was born in Kovno (today, Kaunas), Lithuania. In a memorial essay he wrote about his longtime colleague and friend at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Louis Finkelstein noted that “Through blood kinship and marriage, Professor Ginzberg was related to almost every outstanding Jewish scholar in Ukraine and Poland.”

Indeed, on the side of his father, Rabbi Isaac Elias Ginzberg, the family could trace its lineage back to 15th-century Porto, in Italy, and a long line of prominent sages. His mother, Zippe Jaffe Ginzberg, was a grandniece of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, the 18th-century Lithuanian rabbinical master.

A family tradition, wrote Ginzberg’s son, Eli Ginzberg, in a 1966 memoir about his father, had it that another gaon (Torah sage) in the family would be identifiable by his blue eyes, like those of the original Gaon of Vilna. And indeed blue-eyed Louis Ginzberg demonstrated great prowess for Torah learning from a young age.

Late in life, he commented that he had stored in his memory all 36,000 of the references that comprised the Talmudic and midrashic tales in “Legends of the Jews.”

After a traditional Jewish education in several different European yeshivot, and a year after earning a Ph.D. in 1898 from the University of Heidelberg, Ginzberg emigrated to the United States. Until he received an appointment at the JTS in 1903, he wrote articles - a total of 406 - for the Jewish Encyclopedia, which was then in preparation.

Henrietta Szold fell in love

At JTS, where he taught for half a century, from 1903 until just days before his death, Ginzberg was a professor of rabbinics and Talmud. Throughout his career, he elicited curiosity and sometimes criticism because he defied religious categorization: Raised and educated as Orthodox, yet teaching at a Conservative institution, someone devoted to the study of Halakha (Jewish law), yet not strictly Orthodox in his behavior, Ginzberg confounded and sometimes angered co-religionists who demanded clarity in such matters. He also was known for his wit and even playful mischievousness.

Beginning in 1903, Ginzberg, then still learning English, was assisted in the editing of “Legends of the Jews” by Henrietta Szold, of the newly founded Jewish Publication Society. Over a period of five years, the two were in daily contact, and her diaries reveal that she was very much in love with the scholar, who was 13 years her junior. Thus Szold was profoundly hurt when Ginzberg returned from a 1908 visit to Berlin with the news that he was engaged to be married to Adele Katzenstein, who was 13 years his junior.

Beyond his interest in Jewish folklore, he was an expert in halakha, in particular Jewish law as expressed in the Jerusalem Talmud, and he was probably the leading authority on halakhah in the Conservative Movement. Over his long career, Louis Ginzberg published more than 500 scholarly articles and books.

Ginzberg was often asked to render opinions on high-profile public cases that involved Jewish law. For example, in 1913, attorney Louis Marshall asked him to respond to the charge raised during the Beilis trial in Russia that Jews use gentile blood for ritual purposes. In 1922, during Prohibition, he wrote a 71-page responsum for the Conservative Movement explaining why it was permissible to use grape juice for Sabbath Kiddush in place of wine.

Perhaps it was in recognition of the general esteem in which he was held that, in 1936, Harvard University, on the occasion of its tercentenary celebration of Harvard University, selected Ginzberg as one of 60 American scholars to receive an honorary doctorate.

Louis Ginzberg died on November 11, 1953, a little short of his 80th birthday. He was survived by his wife, a son, Eli Ginzberg (1911-2002, who was a professor of economics at Columbia University), and a daughter, Sophie Ginzberg Gould (1914-1985).
 

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