The Life and Sermons of Rabbi Israel Herbert Levinthal (1888-1982)(1)

By Caplan, Kimmy | American Jewish History, March 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Life and Sermons of Rabbi Israel Herbert Levinthal (1888-1982)(1)


Caplan, Kimmy, American Jewish History


Introduction

In a "prefatory note" to one of Rabbi Dr. Israel H. Levinthal's books, Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz (872-1946), Chief Rabbi of England, writes:

   Dr. Israel Levinthal sees in the pulpit the most important work of the
   Jewish minister; and he takes his pulpit ministrations not only seriously
   but sacredly ... his occasional addresses, while modern in form, have
   Jewish content and Jewish background. They must have been of telling appeal
   to those that heard them, and are sure to prove helpful religious
   readings.(2)

During the decade following the First World War, hundreds of thousands of Jews moved from New York's Lower East Side and other heavily immigrant-populated areas to the five Boroughs. In 1930, Brooklyn's Jewish population was more than 800,000 and that of the Bronx was approximately 600,000. Between 1920-1940, Jews in New York City were between twenty-five and thirty percent of the general population, and out of the Boroughs, Brooklyn was second to the Bronx in the percentage of its Jewish population-between thirty and thirty-six percent during this period.(3)

During these years, Brooklyn became the home of numerous Jewish communities and congregations, representing Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism. Many rabbis and preachers held positions in Brooklyn, however Israel Levinthal was arguably the most popular and well-known of them during the first half of the twentieth century. The popularity of his sermons and respect for his talented preaching among both Conservative rabbinical circles and the laity, make him one of the most central and influential communal leaders during this period.(4) Furthermore, the content and structure of Levinthal's sermons seem to denote a typical style of Conservative preaching, and, therefore, they serve as an important case-study.

This article offers some preliminary thoughts regarding Levinthal's life and sermons, in light of his personal background and the social historical context of Jewish Brooklyn in the first half of the twentieth century. Levinthal's popularity as a preacher spanned three generations, if not more, and we offer some possible guidelines to understand this unique phenomenon. Although the life and sermons of Israel Levinthal deserve a detailed biography far beyond the scope of this work, we hope to shed additional light on several topics and aspects of American Jewish religious and communal history.

From an Orthodox Home to a Conservative Seminary

Israel Levinthal, one of five children, was born in Vilna in 1888. His parents, Bernard-Dov Aryeh (1865-1952) and Minna (Kleinberg) Levinthal, Orthodox Jews, immigrated to Philadelphia in 1891. Rabbi Bernard Levinthal had received an invitation to serve in the congregation of his father-in-law, Rabbi Eliezer Kleinberg, soon after Kleinberg's death. Rabbi Bernard Levinthal remained all his life in Philadelphia and was one of the founders of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, founded in 1902 by a group of immigrant rabbis. He eventually served as its president (1906-1909, 1922-1925) and as honorary president (1910-1911, 1925-his death). Bernard Levinthal was active in numerous American Orthodox institutions, such as Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary, Yeshiva College, and the Mizrahi movement, and was very active in the Zionist scene in Philadelphia and later throughout America as well.(5) He understood the need for "Americanized" rabbis who could communicate with the children of immigrants, and was perceived as a model for a "modern Orthodox" rabbi. According to Israel Levinthal, many immigrant rabbis "even before [they] settled in any post, [they] would come to our home, to get father's advice and guidance."(6)

The strict Orthodox education in the Levinthal house left Israel's parents with no local option at the time but to send their son to public school. He graduated Philadelphia Central High School in 1905, and continued his studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

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