November 19, 2018

Jewish Factions, Made in the USA

Only rarely does an author succeed in writing a book that reframes how we perceive our own history. “The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion,” by Steven R. Weisman (Simon & Schuster), is one such book, and it could not arrive at a more appropriate time in that history. Today, the Jewish world is deeply divided, and one of the most consequential points of conflict is whether the ordination of American rabbis — and the conversions and marriages that they perform — will be recognized at all in Israel.

Weisman, a veteran of The New York Times and the author of books on subjects ranging from morality (“The Great Tradeoff: Confronting Moral Conflicts in the Era of Globalization”) to taxation (“The Great Tax Wars”), invites us to explore both the roots and branches of American Judaism, a religious culture that “emerged out of turmoil and tradition to redefine itself in its distinctive forms,” as he explains. “Even the splitting of American Judaism into three main branches was a singularly American phenomenon.”

He opens his fascinating and provocative book by harking back to — and demythologizing — one of the most notorious events in American Jewish history. On July 11, 1883, the first rabbis ever to be ordained on American soil were honored at a banquet at the Plum Street Synagogue in Cincinnati. “For reasons that remain unclear, the caterer decided to serve crabs, shrimps, clams, and frogs to the guests, an egregious violation of kosher laws,” he reminds us. “Some rabbis stormed out, according to an eyewitness, and the event turned into a faux pas heard round the Jewish world.”

Thus began the fracturing of Judaism in America. “[T]he star-crossed banquet sounded a call to battle among traditionalists and helped drive American Jews apart into disputing (and disputatious) factions,” he writes. Within a couple of decades after that fateful afternoon, “the opposing factions coalesced into Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.” 

While Weisman acknowledges that “a spirit of dynamism and change” has always characterized the history of Judaism, he insists that the Jews who came to these shores from all over the world “produced a particularly American response, influenced inevitably by the culture of a country that disdained religious hierarchies while allowing and even encouraging citizens of all faiths to create institutions reflecting their own, distinctive understanding of God.” The result, he declares, was that “American Jews could be Jews in an American way.”

Diversity and disputation have always been facts of life in Judaism, but the core values of American democracy encouraged even greater independence of mind.

The Americanization of Judaism, as he shows us in a narrative both colorful and powerful, manifested itself in every aspect of life, faith and community. Jews could not afford to close their businesses on both Saturday and Sunday, and so they felt compelled to adopt the Christian practice of Sunday closing if only because their Christian customers vastly outnumbered their Jewish ones. They now enjoyed the personal freedom that came with life in “a secularly neutral state,” and they wanted “no ‘chief rabbis’ to dictate rules for a disparate Jewish population.”  And, once exposed to the discoveries of modern science, “it became impossible in the modern era for educated and uneducated alike to think that the Earth was six thousand years old or created in six days.”

Jews may have arrived in the New World as “converts or secret Jews aboard one of Columbus’s ships in 1492,” Weisman suggests, but we know with certainty that 23 Jewish victims of the Inquisition sought refuge in New Amsterdam in 1654. Conflict was always a fact of life in the American Jewish community; as early as the early 1700s, the author writes, “Ashkenazi arrivals often viewed their Sephardic brethren as elitist, complacent, and more lax in their observances, but many Sephardim argued that the opposite was the case, looking down on Ashkenazi Jews as abrasive and uncouth.” By 1795, the first Ashkenazi synagogue in America was established in Philadelphia by “Germans wanting to pray according to the German and Dutch rules.” A synagogue founded in New York in 1825, B’nai Jeshurun, became the first synagogue in America to conduct its services in English.

At least one signal event in American Judaism started with a controversy over the use of an organ in the synagogue and ended with a landmark ruling on religious liberty. When a reform-minded congregation in Charleston, S.C., installed an organ in 1841, a few dissenters filed a lawsuit in the state courts, where the ruling in favor of the “organ congregation” was based on the fundamental notion that “religious laws were not enforceable by civil courts in the United States, as they had been in Europe.” Thus did the Jewish reformers establish “the principle that each Jewish community should determine its own practices, based on a democratic process and without interference by a minority citing traditional Jewish law.” 

Of course, diversity and disputation have always been facts of life in Judaism, but the core values of American democracy encouraged even greater independence of mind. “The fight among rabbis, and between rabbis and their congregations, focused on how much Hebrew to include in the service, which prayers to eliminate, and whether to permit men and women to sit together,” Weisman writes. Even more consequential matters — above all, the scandal of legalized slavery — divided the Jewish community: “[L]acking a clear direction or interpretation of the Bible, Jews tended to adhere to the beliefs of their neighbors, whether North or South — another example of their desire to Americanize their identity.” 

We learn from “The Chosen Wars” that one early leader of American Judaism, a rabbi who arrived from Bohemia at the age of 27, aspired to create “a uniquely American prayer book, which he wanted to call “Minhag America (American Custom).”  His goal was “to unite the disparate elements of the Jewish community,” but the impossibility of his project was obvious even to his contemporaries: “The German will not give way to the Polish, nor he to the English, nor the latter to the Portuguese Jew,” according a Jewish periodical that considered the project in 1847.

Yet Weisman allows us to glimpse the traditions of diversity and debate that have always characterized the Jewish community in the New World, and he invites us to recall and honor “the heritage American Jews received from their turbulent past.” That is the true American minhag.


Jonathan Kirsch, attorney and author, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.