The Americanization of Judaism

Steven Weisman examines the rise of the Reform movement in the United States.

A FAMILY prepares for Passover at their home in Wisconsin. (photo credit: GARY PORTER/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL/MCT)
A FAMILY prepares for Passover at their home in Wisconsin.
In 1824, 47 members of the congregation of Beth Elohim, in Charleston, South Carolina, signed a petition calling for some prayers to be repeated in English, an “abridgment” of the Shabbat service, and an end to the practice of selling honors (such as reciting blessings before readings of portions of the Torah).
“We wish not to destroy but to reform and revise, the evils complained of; not to abandon the Institutions of Moses; we wish to worship God, not as slaves of bigotry and priestcraft, but as the enlightened descendants of that chosen race whose blessings have scattered throughout our land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
When the old guard rejected their plea, the reformers seceded from Beth Elohim and created A Society for Promoting True Principles of Judaism. Through this organization they declared that God does not intervene in daily affairs, made no mention of a Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, or the return of Jews to Zion, and professed their patriotism as citizens of the United States.
The spirit of the Charleston Manifesto, Steven Weisman, a former correspondent and editor for The New York Times, suggests, informed the behavior of many 19th-century Jewish immigrants, who felt free (in a religiously neutral state) to exercise their rights “to be Jews in American ways.”
In The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion, Weisman tells the story of Reform Judaism, a movement, he writes, that did not reject sources of Jewish traditions but adapted them to the circumstances of the time.
A synthesis of the research of historians of Judaism in America, The Chosen Wars is lucid, lively and largely celebratory. Among the many rabbis featured in the book (including Isaac Leeser, David Einhorn, Kaufmann Kohler and Emil Hirsch), Isaac Mayer Wise emerges as Weisman’s flawed protagonist. Popular, pompous and polarizing, Wise established the institutional foundations of Reform Judaism: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations; Hebrew Union College; and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He crafted Minhag America, his prayer book (1857), and The Essence of Judaism (1861), to help forge a consensus on the basic structure of Jewish prayers.
When Wise’s efforts to unify American Jews under the banner of “rational” religious practices “seemed to be on the verge of fulfillment,” Weisman reveals, he stumbled – not for the first time or last time – into controversy.
“To the surprise even of some allies,” Wise declared that Yom Kippur was based on a fallacy: the efficacy that God forgives individuals for their transgressions. By implication, Wise was questioning the principle of prayer itself. Wise’s colleagues rejected his views as Spinoza-like heresies and sidelined him from a unity conference of congregations.
Wise also played a pivotal role in the infamous “trefa banquet” in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1883. Convened to celebrate the first ordination of rabbis trained on American soil, the event was designed to advance the Americanization of Judaism. For some reason, however, the caterer prepared a grotesquely nonkosher meal of crabs, shrimp, clams and frog legs. Wise, unwisely, derided critics, many of whom resigned from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, as “stomach” Jews. The controversy, Weisman suggests, divided Jews into warring camps unwilling “to break bread together.”
The Chosen Wars, it is worth noting, deals exclusively with the religious practices of Jews in America. Weisman does not address the experiences of the large percentage of Jews (perhaps as many as 50%) who were unaffiliated with a congregation in the middle of the 19th century, or nonbelievers who became actively hostile to Judaism, embracing socialism or atheism.
And with the arrival of millions of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia between 1880 and 1925, many of them Orthodox Jews, Weisman acknowledges, the challenges to modernizers became even more complicated.
And so, Weisman emphasizes, Judaism evolved into a “cafeteria,” appropriate to the spirit of freedom Jews felt in the United States, with an array of choices about religion, ranging from deep faith to doubt. He maintains, however, that “for the most part,” Judaism in the 20th and 21st centuries has been dominated by “adjustments” to customs, law, ritual, theology and a commitment to social justice forged by 19th-century reformers. Although the Orthodox population is growing, more than half of American Jews adhere to mainstream Reform and Conservative branches, with unaffiliated Jews probably more in sympathy with them than with the traditionalists. Overall, the number of Jews in America appears to be growing, from 3.9 million in 2007 to 4.7 million in 2014.
“Judaism has been ‘dying,’ subject to internal conflicts, and persecution,” Weisman reminds us, “for as long as there have been Jews.” But “if the past has been any guide,” he concludes, with apparent confidence, “Jews will find ways to reinforce their identities... live in the modern world, retain their Judaism, and find new meanings within it” by embracing change qualified by tradition.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.