The Chosen Wars
Introduction JEWS IN AMERICA: A PART BUT APART
Hundreds of guests gathered at the magnificent Plum Street Synagogue in downtown Cincinnati for a joyful celebration on a warm and rainy afternoon on July 11, 1883. The occasion was the graduation of four American-trained rabbis at the new Hebrew Union College, the first ordination of Jewish clergy on American soil. Participants from across the country came to salute an event they felt certain was marking another significant step in the arrival of American Jews as equals to Christians in the Gilded Age. From the afternoon ceremony at the temple, a grand edifice of Moorish design crowned by minarets and illuminated inside by chandeliers and candelabras, the guests repaired to a funicular railway ascending Mount Adams, two miles away. They then crowded into Highland House, a banquet hall near the Cincinnati Observatory, overlooking the Ohio River, for a gala dinner and more festivities.
It was there that an extraordinary debacle took place.
The furor was provoked by the menu. For reasons that remain unclear, the caterer decided to serve crabs, shrimp, clams, and frogs legs to the guests, an egregious violation of kosher laws. Traditionalist rabbis for whom shellfish and amphibians were considered trefa, or forbidden by the Torah’s laws, were insulted by the mere sight of such a sacrilege at a Jewish occasion. Some of the rabbis stormed out, according to an eyewitness, and the event turned into a faux pas heard round the Jewish world. The controversy marked another step toward the unraveling of Jewish unity in the United States. And it would be known historically in Jewish circles as the Trefa Banquet.
The gossipy outrage was later ridiculed as overwrought by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of Hebrew Union College. He called it much ado about “stomach Judaism.” But the star-crossed banquet sounded a call to battle among traditionalists and helped drive American Jews apart into disputing (and disputatious) factions. Two years after the banquet, a convocation of rabbis declared a new set of principles for American Judaism in Pittsburgh, effectively establishing the Reform movement. In the following decades, the opposing factions coalesced into Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.
These developments, in turn, marked the emergence of an American Judaism, more than 200 years after the first Jews landed on American shores. Even the splitting of American Judaism into three main branches was a singularly American phenomenon. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville had observed the religious character of the American people, but also their propensity—so different from his native country’s Catholicism—to find their fragmented way through a diverse variety of practices and beliefs. “There is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” Tocqueville wrote, while noting the innumerable Christian denominations defining morality as a religious and not just a social tenet.1
In the late nineteenth century, the Jews were showing that their fissiparous tendencies were no different from those of many Christian believers. Like the proliferating Baptists, Southern Baptists, Episcopalians, Unitarians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, Lutherans, Mennonites, Millenarians, Second Adventists,
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Evangelicals, among others, Jews of traditional and nontraditional leanings were seeking their own distinct paths to God.
In 1880, the Jewish community in America was still small, though far-flung, barely more than a quarter of a million souls. Soon after that year, a flood of more than two million Jews, many of them Yiddish speaking, would be washing up on American shores over the next four decades. The new immigrants were escaping a wave of savage pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. They made a decisive impact on Jewish culture and belief, engulfing an established population that responded with mixed feelings about their arrival, especially in New York and other large population centers. They were also to become the forebears of most American Jews today. But when these new Jews arrived, they inherited and over time largely accepted the legacy of Americanized Judaism created over the previous two centuries. That legacy had altered Jewish doctrines, teachings, and daily customs as they had been passed on to succeeding generations, and it continues to largely define Judaism in America today. The historian of American religion Sydney E. Ahlstrom has called this period of change “a most remarkable accommodation to the American scene” and the institutionalization of “a new and distinct stage in the history of Judaism.”2
How American Judaism emerged out of turmoil and tradition to redefine itself in its distinctive forms at the close of the nineteenth century is the subject of this book.
The chronicle begins with the landing of twenty-three beleaguered Sephardic Jews who had escaped by sailing ship from Brazil to Nieuw Amsterdam (New York City) in 1654. In short order, there arose fierce divisions in the New World between traditionalists and those who wished or needed to adjust and even discard Jewish practices and doctrines. Disputes unfolded in many places, and Jews of all sorts joined the fray—rabbis, intellectuals, businessmen, educators, civic leaders, and congregants themselves. As communities were ripped apart by disagreements and challenges, a new generation of émigré rabbis and their followers codified American Jewish innovations in the early and mid-nineteenth century, influenced by
reformist initiatives taking place in German-speaking lands of Central Europe. Many American Jews and their spiritual leaders increasingly feared that acceptance by non-Jews might come at the cost of their religious identity. They wanted Judaism to survive. They believed it could do so only by adapting to the modern world.
Traditionalist foes of many of these adjustments waged a counterreformation of sorts in Europe, calling themselves adherents of orthodoxy. In America, these traditionalists failed to stem the tide of change for most of the nineteenth century, but their arguments lived on. They led to the establishment toward the end of the century of Orthodox Judaism and later in the twentieth century to the denomination known as Conservative Judaism, which embodied an attempt by traditionalists to Americanize Orthodoxy. Conservative Judaism, which held fast to an updated form of tradition, attracted many of the newly arrived Yiddish-speaking Jews in the 1880s who feared that the reforming rabbis and leaders were destroying Judaism in order to save it.
The rabbis and leaders who modified Jewish practices and doctrines did not see themselves as revolutionaries. Far from it. Rather, they argued that their modifications were themselves in the solid tradition of Jewish intellectuals and sages, over thousands of years. They certainly saw themselves as liberating Judaism from the legalistic explanations accumulated over the centuries, which they felt had become unreasonable and illogical. But they contended that the body of laws emanating from the ancient texts of the Talmud had themselves contained updated explications of biblical laws and narratives in response to contemporary demands and sensibilities. In a well-known example of such adjustments, the Torah commands “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth.” The rabbinic interpreters had long ago agreed that such a definition of punishment was not to be taken literally, but rather to be interpreted as calling for the guilty party to pay an appropriate compensation to the victim. Still another example of Jewish sages adjusting practice to contemporary needs, perhaps one of the most important, occurred in the closing centuries before the Common Era (i.e., BC)—their effort to elevate regular prayer and the reading of Scripture to a central place
in everyday piety, replacing the offering of animal sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple as the main act of worship in Judaism.
The thesis of this book is that the Judaism of America today—even as practiced by many in the traditionalist Orthodox branch—bears witness to a spirit of dynamism and change similar to what had existed among the rabbis and Jewish scholars throughout Jewish history. That spirit infused the rulings and actions of German reformers of the nineteenth century. The impact was different in the United States, however, where it 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 God.
This book is a work of storytelling. It is derived from the historical record that these contending rabbis and congregations left behind, and from research by scholars delving into the debates and those who shaped American Jewish history. Its focus is on the drama and personalities that make up a narrative that is unfamiliar to most Americans and even most American Jews. From the narrative in this volume, one can experience the early disagreements over mixing men and women in worship services, the use of English, the introduction of sermons, the elimination of many obscure poems and prayers, and the inclusion of live organ music and choirs of men and women. The story of American Jews seeking to make their services more decorous, and in some cases consciously like services at church, has a contemporary feel. In South Carolina, the fight over an organ was settled by a precedent-setting court case.
But a major focus of the disputes of this earlier era was more theological and existential in nature. It centered in America on whether Jews should pray for an altogether human messiah to deliver them back to the Holy Land, there to worship at the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem destroyed by Titus’s Roman legions in 70 CE. For as long as Jews have seen themselves as exiles—which they have done since that temple’s destruction—they have prayed for a return to Zion. But in early nineteenth-century America, where Jews were emancipated and accepted as equal American citizens, they
instead embraced the United States as their Zion. There was no longer a need in their view to pray for a messiah or for the prophet Elijah to come back to life and lead them away from the land to which they now happily extended their loyalty. The dispute over the Messiah grew so emotional that it provoked a fistfight and riot on Rosh Hashanah in 1850 on the pulpit of Isaac Mayer Wise’s synagogue in Albany, New York, and the sheriff’s police were called in to clear the sanctuary.
During the Civil War, loyalty tested the Jews in a different way. They divided over their fealty to the Union and the Confederacy but also over whether Jewish law permitted slavery. Many Jews, even in the North, noted that the Bible condoned slavery. But abolitionists invoked the biblical prohibition of returning a runaway slave to the master (Deuteronomy 23:16) and similar passages as evidence that slavery was morally unacceptable. In the eyes of many Jews, advocates of slavery who cited Jewish teachings legitimizing it did much to discredit the exercise of interpreting Scripture literally and yielding unquestioningly to its authority.
For all religious adherents, the nineteenth century was also a time of deep divisions over the difficulties of adjusting to a culmination in the influence of science, including Darwinism and recent discoveries in geology and paleontology. The divine authority of Scripture was also challenged by a growing realization, based on the work of biblical scholars following the practice of modern literary criticism, that biblical stories came from different authors and could no longer be taken literally. Many religious academics, Jewish and Christian, thought the Bible was to be understood as a collection of Bronze Age parables and legends, in which various personalities struggled over their own bad behavior, providing moral teachings for the ages. Thus, American Jews in the nineteenth century learned to seek the truth within the stories while not necessarily embracing their literal veracity. They found solace in the idea that some Talmudic scholars, at least, understood that the moral teachings were the point of the stories, irrespective of whether the events in the Bible occurred. Here again their search for deeper ethical meanings of ancient texts has a modern relevance.
Nothing less than an evolving mission of Jews in contemporary society
rose to prominence in the nineteenth century, redefined by reformers in a way that influenced Jewish beliefs among traditionalists as well. As Jews relegated to the sidelines the requirement to carry out hundreds of practices in clothing, diet, work, and prayer, they revised a fundamental tenet of the role of Jews in history. Instead of expressing belief in a messiah to reestablish the Kingdom of David in Zion, the reformers and Americanizers came to see the Jews themselves as a messianic people, a priestly tribe designated by God to bring the belief in one God to the rest of the world, not to bring about conversions but to set an example as created in God’s image to seek justice and charity on behalf of God.
The idea of a Jewish “mission” to spread morality in the world, including the non-Jewish world, had been incubated in Germany. But the concept of this mission was brought to full flower by American Jews, who aligned it with a patriotism shared by their fellow Americans. Today it dominates Reform Judaism, but it echoes through Conservative Judaism and some Orthodox circles as well. The history recounted here helps to explain why a majority of American Jews say that they regard social justice for all peoples, not just Jews, as a central tenet of their religious beliefs.
Idealism and commitment to exemplary works is built into the DNA of a great many Americans as well as American Jews. It can be traced to the audacious pilgrims aboard the Arbella who escaped persecution in England and organized themselves in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 around John Winthrop’s vision: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” American Jews have come to define a similar universalist mission from the divine message conveyed by the prophet Isaiah, translated as: “I the Lord have called you . . . and set you for a covenant of the people, for a light unto the nations . . .” (Isaiah 42:1–7). Some modern theologians say the distinctive Jewish mission has been to survive genocide, persecution, and dispersal because they were true to the mysterious and uplifting spirit of texts of disputed provenance from the mists of antiquity. But one insight becomes obvious. The struggles among Jews of today to define their special status and mission—to serve as the custodians but not sole proprietors of universally applicable ethical precepts—are rooted in the debates and skirmishes of the past.
BECOMING AN AMERICAN RELIGION
Three factors contributed to the transformation of Judaism into an American religion.
First came the practical exigencies of living, and earning a living, for Jewish immigrants in America—the fact that they traveled, often alone and isolated, from community to community. Jewish peddlers had to travel and establish roots in places that lacked kosher butchers or effective means to carry out other dietary restrictions, such as separating meat and dairy consumption, using different sets of dishes. Many Jews journeyed while subsisting on bread and butter to avoid eating forbidden foods, but others succumbed to pressures or simply hunger and abandoned their longstanding dietary laws. As they set up stores, they found it difficult to close them during the Sabbath holiday, especially in communities that required stores to be closed on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath.
To survive and prosper, many felt they had to adapt. Revising doctrine to justify such adaptations came later. It was only after changing their customs that Jews sought religious leaders to provide the rationale for the changes in practice dictated by circumstance. Yet for all these adaptations, Jews strove to retain their identity with prayer, liturgy, Sabbath observance, circumcision for males, and display of Jewish symbols, such as mezuzahs on their front doors, the Star of David, the Ten Commandments, and passages from the Bible featured on their sanctuary walls.
A second factor was the determination of Jews to conform to American culture. Accepted as equals in their adopted nation, they followed in the path of some Jews in Europe and rejected their identities as a separate nation following a rigid code of behavior governing diet, clothing, relationships between husbands and wives, how and when one prayed, and how one marked the Sabbath and other holidays. These practices were enforced by rabbinical authorities that ran Jewish affairs in Jewish communities, apart from the secular governments in which Jews resided. In many cases, the alien governing authorities in Europe were happy to cede their writ over social customs to rabbis empowered to set the rules, reinforcing Jewish
communities as a segregated and second-class or third-class grouping in ghettos. Jews could leave those communities to do business with non-Jews, always fearful of persecution and violence, but no one doubted their authority to govern themselves, until modern times.
In America, however, Jews lived in a secularly neutral state, with guarantees of being treated as equal citizens considerably beyond the rights obtained in parts of Europe. As the historian Jonathan Sarna has noted, they felt liberated in their new land, and confident enough to effectively reinvent their faith with new roots in America. Influenced by Jewish “reformers” in Germany, they embraced American culture on an equal footing with adherents of other religions and beliefs, each allowed to operate irrespective of the state. Exercising the right to govern their own practices in each community, American Jews could be Jews in an American way. They wanted no “chief rabbis” to dictate rules for a disparate Jewish population. They could, and did, elevate the role of women in Judaism, bringing them down from behind barriers and authorizing them to establish religious schools to educate children. They allowed men and women to sit together in family pews, a step that did nothing less than transform the relationship between the synagogue and its congregants, now participating in services as families. Even the traditionalist Jews instituted rules of decorum to reduce the mumbling cacophony of individuals chanting at their own speed, and make the service more like those at churches, with recitations and standing and sitting down in unison.
After a long history of following the teachings of the Talmud, American Jews wrested the leadership of their religion from rabbinical authorities. They did so in part because there were no rabbis in America until the 1840s, although there were learned lay leaders and hazans, or cantors. Even after rabbis arrived, it remained common for congregations, not rabbis, to assert the democratic spirit of their new country and dictate what went on at synagogues. It was believed that if democracy was good enough for American citizens, it was good enough for American members of Jewish congregations. Disputes between rabbis and lay leaders of their congregations became the norm. “We have no ecclesiastical authorities in America, other
than the congregations themselves,” lamented Isaac Leeser, a prominent exponent of Jewish orthodoxy. “Each congregation makes its own rules for its government, and elects its own minister, who is appointed without any ordination, induction in office being made through his election.”3
The terminology for what to call a house of worship also evolved. Following the practice of some Jews in France and Germany, American Jews adopted the word temple for their synagogues. Though temple was a universal term, it bore ideological significance especially for reformist Jews, who employed it to show that Jews did not need to pray for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem because they had temples of their own in America. Jews also established myriad civic, charitable, and secular organizations like B’nai B’rith (Children of the Covenant) to establish their identity outside the practice of religion, adjusting to American cultural norms even as they felt excluded from some clubs in their communities. These secular organizations emboldened lay leadership to take control of how their synagogues would be governed.4
A third and perhaps most American factor in how Judaism became an American religion was intellectual. Jews in America were educated in matters outside their religion. They had little choice but to come to grips with modern thought and the evolving revolutionary concepts of science, citizenship, anthropology, history, and literary analysis in an egalitarian democracy.
Scientific discoveries since Galileo had long rendered obsolete the religious cosmology of the sun revolving around the Earth. Galileo was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in 1633, but change in religious thinking was inevitable. Jews who were accomplished in medicine, the arts, and physical sciences had begun to thirst for secular knowledge in this same era. Shortly after Galileo, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated in Amsterdam in 1656, for unspecified “heretical” views. Spinoza later made clear that he could not believe in a god that designated Jews alone as his “chosen people.” Going further, like some of the founders of America who were enlightened Christians, many American Jews felt they could no longer believe in a god who intervened daily in world affairs. They saw that
stories of the Bible sometimes contradict each other or plain common sense. Whereas the prophets decreed that Jews were punished for their sins and rewarded for their virtue, the books of Ecclesiastes and Job teach the opposite, that reward and punishment are beyond human understanding. But it was discoveries in geology, paleontology, and archeology that shattered the literal foundation of the Bible beyond repair, just as Jewish populations proliferated in the United States. Although many Jews had always harbored skepticism toward biblical stories, 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. Darwin’s works challenged to the core the story of humanity’s creation in Genesis.
Along with the widening of physical and life sciences came changes in the science of history—the birth of historical relativism, or what is known as “historicism,” following the philosophy of Hegel that social norms are best understood as a product of a society’s historical context. In the late nineteenth century, the study of other religions in the ancient Near East—many of them with legends, rituals, and beliefs so similar to those of Judaism—led to the view of Judaism as a body of beliefs of a particular tribe in the region with its own God rivaling the gods of other tribes. Of course, the Bible itself makes clear that although “God is one,” other peoples of the region had rival gods that Jews were implored to reject. But scholarly explorations of these other sects, based on recovered artifacts, helped to ignite a passion for seeing Jewish history as a product of its time and place as well as an inspiration for universal truths.
The study of religious traditions from other cultures, including Asia, also contributed to an intellectual awakening to the universal impulse toward faith. The Torah (or Pentateuch, i.e., the first five books of the Bible), was clearly written by several authors, according to the work of German scholars. How, after all, could the Torah have been handed down to Moses on Sinai if Deuteronomy vividly describes Moses’s own death and burial? Many of the founding accounts of Judaism, even the Exodus story, came to be seen as etiological myths, written to explain and justify the origins and uniqueness of Jewish claims to the land of Canaan, or Palestine. Scholars
believed a history of the Jewish people that could be told without the legends and miracles of the Bible made it easier intellectually for Jews to adapt to modern cultures and demands.
A PART BUT APART
The historian Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, recounts a story of an itinerant peddler, Joseph Jonas, one of the first Jews to travel west of the Alleghenies, in 1817. A Quaker woman was excited to meet him. “Art thou a Jew?” she asked with wonder. “Thou art one of God’s chosen people.” But then upon inspection she expressed disappointment. “Well, thou art no different to other people.”5
For American Jews, the idea of “chosenness” has always presented problems of how to identify themselves as a people “apart” but also a people as “a part” of America, accepted by Americans, like all other people. The Bible, Eisen notes, refers at least 175 times to the Jews as chosen by God to fulfill certain roles in their redemption. Jews are identified as a “special treasure” of God at Mount Sinai, for example. But it is not until the chapters of Isaiah—which scholars believe were written much later than the period of the prophet himself—that Jews are described as chosen to be what is often translated as “a light unto the nations.” The special status of Jews in these passages has evolved, especially among American adherents in the nineteenth century, but also among many others, into “an explicit mission” for Jews to become “the servant of mankind”—and even that Jewish suffering is proclaimed as evidence of “the mark of election” to carry out this task.6
As Judaism came to flourish in the United States, American Jews struggled with this paradox: that Jews saw themselves as commanded to dwell separately from humanity to serve a divine purpose, as a beacon to humankind, but also to be grateful that they could belong in their new land as equal to others.
The growing acceptance of Jews by non-Jewish fellow citizens thus posed both a challenge and opportunity to integrate themselves in American society—while cherishing their separateness as a sacred mission. Many
American Jews reconciled these two imperatives by redefining the nature of their history of Diaspora, or exile. They saw these punishments less as retribution for misdeeds committed in antiquity and more as a sacred assignment to disperse, proclaim justice, and set an example for a world in need of repair.
For many Jews today, the embrace of a distinctively Jewish social gospel, akin perhaps to the social gospel of Christianity, is an important part of their faith. But it was through the process of Americanization that the social gospel entered American Judaism. Doing God’s work on Earth—a legacy of the Enlightenment, the Transcendental movement, the Second Great Awakening, Reform Judaism, and other intellectual strands in American history—is referred to by some American Jews today as tikkun olam (“repairing the world”), a distinctly modern phrase adapted and reinterpreted (indeed misinterpreted) from Jewish mystical writings. Some also use another contemporary term B’tselem Elohim (“in the image” of God), to describe the importance of treating all of humanity with compassion. But this task of religious believers tending to the secular world remains a contentious issue for Jews and non-Jews alike.
What is beyond dispute is that Jews are heirs to a long and much-debated history on this and many other issues. How could it be otherwise? The Bible recounts many stories of Jews arguing with God—from Abraham to Jacob wrestling with the angel and changing his name to Israel (“contending with God”) to Job to the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Jews willing to challenge God could not but share a history of challenging each other.
But the story of the journey and all these disputes among American Jews begins with the landing of the first Jews in New York City more than 350 years ago.