Changing Tide of Jewish Expression
by David Ellenson
Reprinted with the permission of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
Judaism has a long, complicated, fascinating history, and no chapter offers
developments more unique than those written in the 350 years since the Jews
first arrived in America. There are a number of reasons for this, although
the most illuminating is perhaps that offered by the late sociologist Marshall
Sklare, who noted that the United States was created as a fully modern nation
with no medieval past. For Jews, this lack of a medieval past - with its
institutional patterns and its established customs - meant that there were
no set communal structures in this country that would guide the directions
Judaism would take. America was a relatively blank slate, upon which American
Jews were free to draw new outlines of our own religion. And in many ways,
generation upon generation of Jewish immigrants did just that - each wave
adding another layer to what today has become one of the most pluralistic
and creative Jewish communities in the world.
The story began in Colonial times, when the first waves of Jews came here. While
admittedly the population of the Colonial Jewish community was small, the Jews
of that period established patterns of Jewish life and relation that have proved
surprisingly enduring and relevant for a comprehension of Judaism in America.
During Colonial times, the Jewish community numbered no more than about 3,000
souls in port cities that dotted the Atlantic seaboard from Newport in the
North to Savannah in the South. Sephardic Jews were dominant during this
period, and Sephardic patterns of worship and practice set the tone for the
synagogue and other public institutions of Jewish religious life. Letters
and other records indicate that the Sephardic Jews who dominated colonial
American Jewish life had what can be characterized charitably as ambivalent
feelings about their Ashkenazic co-religionists, thereby reflecting a model
of intrareligious/ethnic relations fraught with tensions as well as care.
All this was to change in the 19th century. Between 1815 and 1881, roughly
225,000 German-speaking Jews came to the United States from Central Europe.
These culturally homogeneous Jews were eager to reap the benefits that
American freedom could bestow upon them. They settled along the East Coast,
but also fanned out throughout the Midwest and the South.
At this time, no national Jewish organizations existed on American soil, and
men such as the traditionalist Rabbi Isaac Leeser and the more liberal Rabbi
Isaac Mayer Wise - later known as the father of Reform Judaism in America -
were convinced that the potential strength of American Judaism could emerge
only if a union were established that could unite all American Jews. Under
the leadership of Wise, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations was
created in 1873. Two years later he established Hebrew Union College (HUC).
Neither of these institutions bore the name "Reform" because initially Wise
did not believe he was creating a denominationally distinct movement. Instead,
he carved out a moderate Reform movement that he felt would - and that eventually
did - appeal to the overwhelming majority of these newly arrived German-speaking
immigrants. He also boasted that his seminary would produce rabbis who would serve
all sectors of the Jewish community.
This second prediction never materialized. Wise's dream of a united American
Jewish religious community perished in the 1880s with the immigration of hundreds
of thousands of Eastern European Jews to these shores. The cultural and religious
cleavages between the Eastern European immigrants and their earlier-arriving
German co-religionists were quite pronounced, and it soon became apparent that
a union between these disparate groups was impossible. Just as the Colonial
Sephardim viewed the Ashkenazic German immigrants that followed them as
"déclassé," so then did those same Ashkenazic Germans look down on their
Eastern European cousins.
One infamous story points out how the fissures caused by ethnic and religious
observance began to widen at this time. In 1883, HUC ordained its first class
of rabbis, and Jewish leaders throughout the United States were invited to the
graduation ceremony. At a banquet held to celebrate the ordained, traditional
Jewish dietary restrictions forbidding the mixing of milk and meat at the same
meal were flouted, and all types of forbidden seafood were served. While most
historians assert that what has come to be labeled as the infamous "Trefa Banquet"
was the result of a caterer's error, there is no doubt that this banquet delivered
a powerful message to Eastern European immigrants and other Jewish religious
traditionalists. Judaism - at least as the Reform movement envisioned it - no
longer was wedded to traditional Jewish law and practice. At this moment,
American Jewish religious denominationalism was born.
Reform Judaism gave explicit expression to this denominational stance in the
Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. Authored by Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler, this platform
asserted that Judaism was a universal faith ever striving to be in accord with
postulates of reason. Kohler looked askance upon Jewish ritual behaviors and
was a fierce opponent of Jewish nationalism. The posture that Kohler and the
Reform movement championed found practical liturgical expression within the
walls of Reform temples. The removal of head coverings for men during worship
now came to be a near-universal Reform custom, and in 1895, the Union Prayerbook
- composed almost entirely in English and highly universalistic in its orientation
- was adopted as the official liturgy of the Reform movement.
Eastern European Jews as well as other Jewish religious traditionalists looked
askance upon all these attitudes and developments, and these divisions among
American Jews found institutional expression in the birth of Conservative
Judaism. In 1886, Rabbi Sabato Morais of Philadelphia established the Jewish
Theological Seminary in New York as, in his words, "an opposition seminary"
to HUC, in an effort to champion an "enlightened traditionalism" on these
shores. With the arrival of the Cambridge University-based Romanian-born
scholar Rabbi Solomon Schechter in 1902, the seminary grew in academic
stature and the Conservative movement, under his leadership, thrived.
In 1913, the United Synagogue (later known as the United Synagogue of
Conservative Judaism), the congregational body of the Conservative movement,
Conservative Judaism considered itself bound by talmudic law, but believed that law
had evolved in our time and continued to evolve. This philosophy of historical
evolution gave rise to a more conservative wing, Orthodoxy, which coalesced with
the founding of the Orthodox Union in 1900.
Eastern European Jews were informed by a quest for upward social and cultural mobility.
They were neither particularly learned in classical Jewish texts nor stringent in
their observance of Jewish law. At the same time, they were favorably disposed
toward the nascent Zionist movement, and they affirmed traditional Jewish
liturgical and dietary religious practices - particularly in the public realm.
As they and their children successfully assimilated into America, the particular
blend of tradition and modernity that marked the Conservative movement possessed
great appeal to these Eastern European immigrants and their children.
As Jews of Eastern European background assimilated, the distance that separated
them culturally from their German Jewish co-religionists began to diminish.
Traditional attitudes toward religious ritual and Zionism began to make inroads
in Reform Judaism through the leadership of figures such as Rabbis Stephen Wise
and Abba Hillel Silver, as well as through the influx of large numbers of Jews
from Eastern Europe into Reform temples.
The 1934 publication of "Judaism as a Civilization" by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and the
ideal of Jewish peoplehood that stood at the center of his Reconstructionist philosophy,
also had a profound influence upon many in the Reform movement, and his role in the
transformations that began to mark Reform Judaism should not be underestimated. At
the same time, the influence and numbers of Conservative Judaism remained strong,
and Conservative Judaism became the dominant movement within American Judaism - a
position that the movement would maintain for most of the 20th century.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Orthodox Judaism began to establish itself more securely.
The Orthodox during this period represented the least successfully acclimatized elements
among the Jewish immigrant populations that came to these shores. However, under the
leadership of Rabbi Bernard Revel, a nascent, modern American Orthodoxy began to
establish real roots. In 1915, Revel merged the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological
Seminary with Yeshiva Eitz Chaim. With the establishment of Yeshiva College in 1928
and the incorporation of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary into Yeshiva
University, an institutional framework was provided that later would prove to be
critical for the growth of Orthodox Judaism in the United States.
The birth of Yeshiva University was complemented by the arrival of elite Orthodox
scholars such as Rabbi Moses Soloveitchik and his son, Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik,
to these shores in the 1920s and 1930s. Such men were able to spread the influence of
Orthodox Judaism among rabbis and laypersons alike.
One of these Orthodox immigrant leaders, Rabbi Aaron Kotler, established a traditional
Orthodox yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J., in 1941 and laid the groundwork for a cultural
resurgence of traditionalist, or "black hat," Orthodoxy. The appearance of large
numbers of Orthodox Hungarian Jews who entered America after World War II also
played a crucial role in rounding out the factors that would contribute to the
resurgence of Orthodox Judaism in this country during later decades by bringing
in a large Chasidic community.
By the 1960s and 1970s, many of the sociological factors that became seminal in shaping
the contours of American Judaism as we know it today had started to emerge. The American
Jewish community was no longer an immigrant community seeking to adjust to the United
States. Old ethnic patterns that formerly preserved and divided the Jewish religious
community no longer were present and the rivalry that had existed between American
Jews of German and Eastern European descent was no more than a historical memory -
if that - for most American Jews.
Jews were now fully accepted into American life, and Jews of all stripes and ethnic
backgrounds were now full participants in the cultural and economic spheres of the
United States. As a result, the attitudes and beliefs that had so sharply divided
Reform from Conservative Jews in the first half of the 20th century were now blurred
for many. A permeability was emerging, one that would allow for crossover between
the disparate movements.
Larger societal developments going on in the larger American culture also promoted
this crossover. With the rise in the 1960s of what came to be known as "the new
ethnicity" in the larger culture, an expression of ethnic allegiances unprecedented
in this nation's history appeared, and a religious revival and a renewed search for
religious and spiritual meaning accompanied this expression. These forces had a
decisive impact in promoting a renewed interest in Judaism among many, as did the
exhilarating 1967 Israeli victory in the Six-Day War. These dynamics propelled many
Jews to seek out the Jewish community and religion in an intensive manner that was
unknown to their parents earlier in the century.
The Chavurah movement of the 1960s and 1970s was a positive response to these developments,
and the appearance of what is today called "Jewish Renewal" owes its origins to those years.
The Reconstructionist movement opened the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1969,
and this movement has been the locus for a great deal of liturgical creativity as well
as social and political innovation in the contemporary Jewish world. Before 1969,
Reconstructionist synagogues were a subgroup within the Conservative movement;
they now emerged as a fourth, distinct wing of Judaism.
The inroads of feminism in organized Jewish religious life were evidenced first with
the appearance of the women's group Ezrat Nashim at this time, as well as the
ordination of Rabbi Sally Preisand by HUC in 1972. Today half the students at
all non-Orthodox seminaries are women. In addition, feminist religious thinkers
such as Judith Plaskow and Rachel Adler, liturgists and midrashists such as
Marcia Falk and Ellen Umansky, and scholars and activists such as Paula Hyman
and Blu Greenberg rose to maturity during these years, and their impact can be
felt in every sector of present-day American Jewish life.
The explosion of Jewish day school education in the United States, an increased
religious traditionalism among many, the opening of Jewish studies programs in
universities and the rise of trips to Israel among countless numbers of Jews
also have led to a renaissance in Jewish religious life. Indeed, many herald
the religious creativity and vitality of the current moment as signs of a
Golden Age for Judaism in America.
At the same time, the reality of acculturation has fostered Jewish assimilation and
record numbers of nonaffiliations. Jewish demographic mobility from places of origin
has led - as the National Jewish Population Surveys of 1990 and 2000-2001 attest -
to an attenuation of traditional Jewish associational and kinship patterns that
previously promoted Jewish affiliation and commitment among large numbers of
American Jews. As Jews have become fully accepted by non-Jews as social equals,
and as traditional Jewish attitudes that opposed exogamy have weakened,
intermarriage rates have soared and the cultural cohesion that now marks the
grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Jews of Eastern European and Germanic
descent surely has been matched by a lack of Jewish ethnic homogeneity as a
result of the high rate of intermarriage.
While large numbers of Israeli, Russian, Iranian and South African Jewish immigrants
have come to the United States in recent years, they now enter - unlike the Eastern
European Jews of the 1880s - into a well-established and fully organized American
Jewish community and into one that is largely composed of fourth-, fifth- and
sixth-generation American Jews. As these ethnic communities - particularly the
non-English-speaking ones - have entered into the United States, there have been
instances in which the cultural patterns of Jewishness they have brought with them
have clashed with the sensibilities of the contemporary established community. And
the nonreligious nature of the Russian community has posed particular challenges
for the "Russians" and the "native American" Jews alike as each side attempts to
adapt to what are unfamiliar patterns of Judaism.
However, none of this is unprecedented in American Jewish history, and numbers of
Russian as well as other recent immigrant Jews are beginning to appear in established
Jewish communal religious institutions and schools.
What all this means is that the denominational divisions that marked American Judaism
during the 20th century will be different in the future than they were in the past.
First of all, Reform already has become the choice of a numerical plurality of American
Jews. There are many reasons for this, but one is clear: In a community where estimates
of intermarriage rates fluctuate between 43 percent and 52 percent, the willingness of
Reform Judaism to embrace and welcome these couples and their offspring virtually
guarantees the numerical dominance of the movement.
And while their numbers may be smaller, the practices and beliefs of the membership
of Conservative congregations may well become more consistent with the ideological
commitments and ideals articulated by the elite leaders of the movement. It is this
challenge that confronts the leaders of the Conservative movement today.
The challenges that remain for Orthodox Judaism are essentially twofold. For the
traditionalists on the right, it remains to be seen whether a right-wing Orthodox
Judaism that claims to look askance upon American culture can withstand erosion by
its influences. And for those in the center or on the left, the issue is whether
they will succeed in maintaining the distinctive stance of a Modern Orthodox
Judaism that remains simultaneously faithful to the tradition and open to the
larger surrounding culture in the face of a seemingly sharp rightward drift in
the Orthodox world.
American Judaism today stands at a crossroads, where trends of weakened Jewish
commitments and attachments compete with pockets of intense Jewish revival and
knowledge. The task of Jewish religious leaders will be to strengthen these
pockets of revival and knowledge, and this will compel them to recognize that
such revival and knowledge take place both within and beyond traditional Jewish
institutional structures. The future of Judaism in the United States depends upon
their ability, no less than it did on those who forged the structures and
institutions of Jewish religious life in this country, to maintain and revitalize
Jewish religious tradition in light of the conditions that confront our community