Changing Tide of Jewish Expression - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

Changing Tide of Jewish Expression

Main Content
Monday, November 1, 2004

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 "d class," 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, was formed.

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 today.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.