Seeking mutual understanding

American Orthodox Judaism has undergone a revolution in recent decades, and one professor seeks to understand how.

US Orthodoxy judaism (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Orthodoxy judaism
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Fifty years ago, in an important essay titled “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life,” a young social scientist, Charles S. Liebman, boldly declared that “the only remaining vestige of Jewish passion in America” rested with the Orthodox community and its future.
Now, in Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism, Prof. Adam S. Ferziger not only offers an extensive exploration of the history of Orthodox Judaism in America – which he perceives as the only “authentic Judaism” – but also explains the community’s progression from uniformity of behavior and theological principles to a more attractive and passionate force.
Ferziger – who holds the S.R. Hirsch chair for the Research of Torah and Derech Eretz Movement in Bar-Ilan University’s department of Jewish history and contemporary Jewry – is also the author of the 2005 book Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity. His extensive scholarly engagement with North American Jewry began in 2001, and as an outsider – a member of the Bar-Ilan academic circle – Ferziger has the advantage of being objective in his observations.
What were the forces, influences and perspectives that brought this marked change in American Jewish life? In seeking to answer that question, the author begins his study with an in-depth presentation of the historical background of Jewish settlement in America – from the arrival of the first Jews in New Amsterdam in 1654, to the mass entry of European refugees in the period surrounding World War II.
In a chapter on the conflict between Hungarian Orthodoxy and American modern Orthodoxy, the author includes an interesting detail about the story of Rabbi Hayyim Hirschenson, who spent his childhood and early adulthood in Jerusalem.
Hirschenson’s progressive ideas on education and cooperation with Zionist lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda earned him an 1887 herem (writ of excommunication).
He became the rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he wrote in the 1920s that “sectarian dissension and multiplication of irreparable splits have long been the sickness of Hungary.”
The author devotes a whole chapter to a pioneering American rabbinical dynasty led by Rabbi Moses Zebulun Margolies (1851-1936) and Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein (1902-79). They promoted a new style of American Orthodox rabbi, whose “public worship would be as dignified as the most Reform and as pious as the worship in a shtiebel [a small, usually hassidic house of prayer].”
Each subject with which Ferziger deals could as well be published as a separate book, and it is the author’s achievement that he offers extensive and well-substantiated coverage of all of them.
He maintains that one of the primary factors in the change in Orthodox Jewish life was the creation of the movement to free Soviet Jewry. During the 1960s, the plight of Soviet Jews emerged as a major theme for the Jews of America and had an adrenalizing effect on the US Jewish world.
Another relevant factor, he says, was American Jews’ pilgrimages to Eastern Europe, which contributed to the national awareness and opened a window to the past that had perished with the Holocaust – entire generations of great Jewish scholars and thinkers. The trips often had an educational focus, honoring the memory of the victims while promoting a defiant message. By 1991, the yearly “March of the Living” program at Auschwitz gained steadily increasing numbers of post-highschool modern Orthodox American students.
The rise and intensification of religious feminism also led the drive for a revolution in modern Orthodoxy, Ferziger argues.
The question of women and their role in Judaism was and still is at the center of Orthodox discourse and debate in both America and Israel. But there is no doubt that expanding the role of women was the most vital contribution to the rise and power of modern Judaism.
The final chapters of Ferziger’s extensive research deal with the problems of rabbinical training and the silent revolution that has taken place in recent years among non-hassidic haredi women, who are increasingly taking on more prominent leadership rules. The author sees the rise of the female outreach activist as an additional manifestation of the ways ultra-Orthodox Jews may abandon their sectarian approaches to non-observant Jews. It will certainly lead to less rigid social and religious norms on the part of the haredi core constituency in America, and possibly in Israel.
In conclusion, the author quotes Rabbi Moshe Hauer, who declared in 2013: “It is well-established that principle limits Orthodox participation with other streams in religious matters, including joint membership on the communal Board of Rabbis. It nevertheless remains possible and appropriate for leaders and members of these various streams to build and maintain friendships and working relationships that build understanding, retain the sense of community between Jews of all streams and facilitate working together on issues of common concern.”
We can only welcome such an approach.