Jane Eisner is editor in chief of the Forward.
We Jews are an argumentative people. We come by it honestly: Jews have been arguing since Abraham verbally jousted with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Talmud, the revered body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law, is essentially one long argument, in which rabbis debated matters from the grand to the petty as they crafted a new Jewish society removed from the ancient holy land.
So it should come as no surprise that when Jews began immigrating to another new land, the fledgling United States, their arguments burst into the open. Unfettered by Old World tradition, free to explore alternative theologies and modes of worship, Jews in 19th-century America grafted new ways onto old and shaped the modern Judaism we recognize today.
It wasn’t a smooth process. Backlash to reform was swift, passionate and lasting, enduring to this day. More than egos were bruised.
But as Steven R. Weisman details in his well-documented and compelling book, “The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion,” the result was an original version of an ancient faith and practice. Original versions, in fact. Weisman demonstrates that Judaism was able to adapt itself to the New World in multiple ways that, despite the ongoing challenges, continue to thrive.
“The thesis of this book,” he writes, “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. . . . The impact was different in the United States, however, where it produced a particularly American response.”
This American response disdained hierarchy, embraced distinctive understandings of God and built on the Christian social gospel to give Jews a new historical mission: not only to survive as Jews but to help build a more just America.
As much as I admire this book, I’ll say this: I didn’t understand Weisman’s title, “The Chosen Wars.” While the deep-seated arguments coursing through his narrative did once result in violence (see below), what he describes is more of a raucous, disputatious evolution than an all-out battle among Jews. In typical American fashion, the choices were not either/or. There was enough room in the sprawling continent, and enough Jews as migration swelled, to accommodate numerous visions for the future of Judaism.
This was a grass-roots evolution. While small Jewish communities predated the Revolutionary War, there was no government or rabbinical authority to establish and enforce rules, and no ordained rabbi in a rabbinical position until the 1840s. Early American Judaism was DIY Judaism, and its adherents soon chafed at the traditional restrictions that had served to define Jewish ritual and behavior for centuries.
Plus, the New World posed its own practical strains on that tradition. It was hard to keep kosher when roaming the countryside as an itinerant peddler. It was hard to make a living while observing the Sabbath if your grocery store was also barred from doing business on Sundays.
It was hard to resist the lure of the organ music heard at the neighboring church or the decorum of that worship, or the mixed seating of men and women in prayer.
And on an intellectual level, it was difficult for many Jews to resist the advances in science that inevitably confronted age-old beliefs like the historicity and divine origins of the Bible.
Against this backdrop, a series of visionary, courageous, often problematic and egotistical men propel Weisman’s story. Largely educated in Western Europe and influenced by the efforts to reform Judaism in Germany and elsewhere, these early Jewish leaders sought to bring change to communities up and down the East Coast and the Midwest, encountering varying degrees of resistance and support.
The drama begins in Charleston, S.C., home to one of the largest Jewish populations before the Civil War. A dispute between reformists and traditionalists over whether Congregation Beth Elohim should play organ music during services went to court in 1843; the reformists won, establishing the legal right for congregations to interpret Jewish law their own way.
Even more serious was the dispute over three foundational Jewish beliefs: the coming of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead and the eventual return of Jews to Zion, or what was then Palestine. Reformist rabbis like Beth Elohim’s Gustavus Poznanski, Baltimore’s David Einhorn and the soon-to-be legendary Isaac Mayer Wise ran into stiff head winds when they sought to abandon these core principles.
On Rosh Hashanah in 1850, this theological disagreement devolved into a riot at Wise’s synagogue, Beth El in Albany, N.Y. The congregation’s president slugged Wise as he was about to take the Torah scrolls from the ark, which set off a melee so tumultuous that several people were arrested and police closed the synagogue for the day.
And we think today’s disputes are vicious!
Wise plays an outsize role in this story, striving throughout his career to unite American Jews under the banner of a reformed Judaism, even creating a prayer book called “Minhag America,” or “American Custom.” He never succeeded, but he did establish the rabbinical seminary and associations for Reform Judaism that remain the pillars of the largest Jewish religious denomination in America today.
To his credit, Weisman doesn’t shy away from presenting Wise’s less-heroic moves: his neutrality on slavery, for instance, and his unfortunate dismissal of the Russian Jews who flocked to America in the late 19th century — “We are Americans, and they are not.”
Weisman’s detailed narrative essentially ends there; developments in the 20th century are related so quickly that the 1950s receive only one paragraph. I would have liked to learn more about how pursuing social justice became a central attribute of Jewish identity, especially since this social consciousness was propelled by the activist Eastern European Jews who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
And the focus on theological and ritualistic disputes among (male) rabbis left me wondering whether and how these tensions shaped ordinary Jewish experiences. Were women in the balconies always off stage or somehow involved in this messy process of Americanization?
These omissions, however, don’t lessen the power of a story that is both sobering and inspirational. This history reminds us that we Jews are not a settled people and that we have turned our deep arguments about core precepts and values into a capacity for reinvention, which continues to find fertile soil in America.
As Weisman concludes, “Jews did more than outwit the pessimists and survive. . . . They effectively redefined what it is to be a Jew, and what the purpose of a Jew in America should be.” That story is far from over.
By Steven R. Weisman
Simon & Schuster. 328 pp. $30.