Commentary Magazine


American Jews & Their Judaism

In the 1940′s, Louis Finkelstein, the president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, invited a group of scholars to contribute to a two-volume handbook entitled The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion. To his astonishment, Finkelstein discovered that

There are probably a hundred people, and more, whose profession it is to discover all that can be known about the Jews in Jerusalem in the 1st century; there does not seem to be one who has the same duty for the Jews of New York in the 20th century.

These lines are quoted in a memoir by the late Marshall Sklare, the dean of American Jewish sociology, to illustrate the extent of the changes that had occurred over the course of Sklare’s own career.1 When he set out in the late 50′s to compile a reader in the sociology of American Jews, Sklare had to summarize the research of scholars who had dabbled in the field before turning to other topics. Even twenty years later, in the mid-70′s, although a large body of information had accumulated, much more work had to be done “to transform it into real knowledge.” But by the time of Sklare’s retirement from Brandeis University in 1990, he and a new generation of sociologists, many trained by him, had made America’s Jews almost hyperconscious of the trends, tensions, and ironies in their ongoing adaptation to the American environment.

As Sklare notes in several places in Observing America’s Jews, developments in the academic study of American Jewry have occurred in tandem with developments in the integration of the Jews themselves in American life. The first, classic work was Louis Wirth’s The Ghetto (1928), which traced the transformation of Jewish immigrant life from the traditional environment of a European village to the maelstrom of Chicago’s west side. Born in Germany, Wirth was an assimilationist by ideology; after the publication of his book, he did no further research on the Jews, announcing in the closing pages of The Ghetto that the Jewish community was an anachronism whose life had been artificially prolonged by Gentile prejudice. Sklare, who studied briefly with him at the University of Chicago, writes that Wirth was among those who felt that the American melting pot was not just a social phenomenon but a constitutional provision.

A second wave of American sociologists, labeled by Sklare “critical intellectuals,” arose in the immediate post-World War II years. While eager to affirm their roots, they also displayed a noticeable antipathy to the American Jewish community as it was then constituted. The increased acceptability of ethnicity in American society led these marginal Jews to pen nostalgic portraits of the immigrant generation (as in Judith Kramer and Seymour Leventman’s Children of the Gilded Ghetto) or of an idealized East European shtetl (as in Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog’s Life Is with People). A prime exemplar of the school was Melvin Tumin, who, involved with Jewish causes in the 1950′s, continued to espouse the leftism of his past and hardly concealed his contempt for Jews who had ascended into the American middle and upper classes.

Sklare located himself in a third wave, the “survivalists,” sociologists worried about the possible disappearance of the Jews as a distinctive group but scrupulous to avoid sentimentality in their work. That work tended to focus on the problems of Jewish identity produced by rapid upward mobility, the rise in educational levels, and the move to the suburbs. Sklare placed the secular Nathan Glazer at the “Left” end of this “survivalist spectrum” and the religious Charles S. Liebman at the “Right” end. By implication Sklare himself stood in the middle. Whatever one makes of his taxonomy, it remains true that Sklare’s own concern for the Jewish future in America, his love of Israel, and his respect for tradition give his writings (a number of which appeared in COMMENTARY) an ecumenical balance that continues to make them of wide interest.

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In a 1978 essay, Sklare asked why the old assimilationist school, which had posited the inexorable evolution of every American immigrant minority from self-segregation through acculturation to assimilation, had proved—so far—incorrect in the case of the Jews, who had continued, despite everything, to retain certain distinctive group characteristics. He focused on a number of factors, including the selective character of Jewish immigration; the relative weakness of American anti-Semitism; Jewish religious faith as an independent variable; a certain resonance between Jewish and American values; and the gradually emerging American philosophy of pluralism which offered options to minorities other than self-effacement. In addition, and paradoxically, the sweeping secularization of most American Jews (itself a matter of some puzzlement) acted as a “protective mechanism” to insulate them from conversionary efforts. Sklare concluded:

What is evident in the contemporary Jewish community is that while there is considerable intermarriage and numerous instances of assimilation, efforts are being made to stand fast and halt the cycle at the second stage—namely, acculturation. There is also the contemporary phenomenon of efforts to strengthen Jewish identity. Frequently these efforts take the form of a process that we may call “reculturation”—the return to Jewish forms and culture. . . . In some cases reculturation also includes the creation of new Jewish forms and culture.

These lines have a guardedly benign or even optimistic ring about them. As it happens, however, Sklare was capable of tough judgments on the direction at least some of the “new Jewish forms” he mentioned were taking. Thus, in “The Greening of Judaism” (originally published in COMMENTARY, December 1974), he took on The Jewish Catalog, a how-to book modeled on the then-popular Whole Earth Catalog and owing much to the anti-establishment tenor of the late-60′s counterculture. In particular, he pointed critically to the Catalog‘s fascination with the primitive and ritualistic side of Judaism, with folk religion and the occult, handicrafts and art, with “the side connected with issues of personal style, of taste, of aesthetic pleasure, rather than the broadly metaphysical, the ethical, or the social side of Judaism.” Thus, Sklare wrote acerbically,

For the Catalog the only Sabbath worthy of the name is one that includes homemade hallah and cake, as well as homemade wine, homemade chicken soup, homemade gefilte fish, homemade cholent, homemade kugel, homemade tzimmes, and homemade kreplach. And it goes without saying that . . . it is even more insistent on the lighting of homemade candles. The Catalog is in fact infatuated with candle-making, . . . expressing its regret that Judaism has no daily ritual requiring the lighting of tapers and few occasions that call for really substantial amounts of wax.

In retrospect, the Jewish Catalog, at least in Sklare’s reading of it, represented the surfacing of a phenomenon which has become quite conspicuous since the mid-70′s. This is the increasing privatization of American religion in general and of American Judaism in particular, a process in which religious feeling and even ritual are reworked in idiosyncratic ways by isolated individuals or new affinity groups who have little interest in joining an official religious community. What makes privatization a sociological phenomenon and not just a psychological one is that certain personalized choices resonate widely. As someone once quipped, people are never more conforming than when they think they are being individualists.

Nor was the privatization of Jewishness the only area in which Sklare captured new and potentially troubling phenomena in the making. Presciently, he noted indications of a forthcoming spectacular rise in the rate of intermarriage; a probable decline in Jewish philanthropic giving as Jews became involved in general American cultural causes; an idealization of Israel that was problematic to the extent that it was intertwined with American Jewish guilt about the Holocaust; and the corrosive impact on young Jews of the university environment. Sklare also touched upon other themes that have become current today, especially the shaking of the Jewish denominational structure and new questions about the relationship between Judaism and secular liberalism in America.

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Some of these themes are treated extensively in Jack Wertheimer’s A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America2 Focusing on religion, this informed and intelligent book seeks to map “the terrain of contemporary American Judaism and . . . to capture its bewildering diversity by examining Judaism against the backdrop of the larger American environment.”

Over the last 25 years, Wertheimer writes, the “popular religion” of the Jews (as opposed to the denominational institutions) has been marked by two opposing trends: a “drift to religious minimalism” on the one hand and “expressions of popular religious revival” on the other.

To begin with the first trend, the plain fact is that a rising percentage of Jews do not belong to any of the Jewish denominations. Although more of these unaffiliated Jews call themselves Reform than Conservative or Orthodox, they “do not invest their money in synagogue membership,” suggesting that they simply identify with a label that seems to entail the least amount of formal observance. These are the Jews most prone to intermarry, following the general trend in American life toward the melding of white ethnicity and the breaking down of denominational borders.

Do these and other data, such as indications that increasing numbers of parents offer their children little or no explicit Jewish education, show the truth of earlier predictions about the way acculturated minorities eventually assimilate? It is not that simple—if only because, ironically, these Jews are not conforming to the attitudes of most American Christians, who have retained their religious commitments. (Wertheimer quotes the sociologist Barry Kosmin to the effect that these Jews are assimilating, rather, into “a mythical . . . America that is only inhabited by a few Episcopalians and Unitarians.”)

Then there is the other end of the spectrum, made up of “a passionate minority of Jews that has invested a lot of energy in creating and nurturing innovative programs that encourage religious renewal.” These include members of havurot—small, intensely supportive Jewish groups that pray, study, and socialize together. Next, feminism has brought into what was once the predominantly male domain of formal Jewish worship new liturgies to celebrate “gender equality” and new ceremonies to sanctify the lives of women. Groups on the periphery that have sought their own modes of Jewish self-expression include gay and “humanistic” synagogues, rural New Age gatherings that combine Eastern and Jewish mysticism, and even experiments in synagogues for interfaith families. A special infusion of energies has come from the new wave of converts to Judaism (“Jews by choice”) and newly-involved Jews (baalei teshuvah).

As Wertheimer points out, many of these “special-purpose” groups, although starting outside the established denominational institutions, have tended in time to link up with them, contributing new energy and enthusiasm to the mainstream but also diffusing their own impact. It is to those larger institutions, “the fragmenting world of organized Judaism,” that he turns next.

Since the late 60′s, Reform Judaism has moved in contradictory directions at once. New prayer-books indicate a far greater acceptance of Jewish particularism and Jewish tradition than was once characteristic of Reform, but also an unwillingness to rule out any theological position whatsoever. (Wertheimer cites the historian Michael Meyer’s observation about the Reform movement’s Gates of Prayer, published in 1975: “Only the bookbinder’s art could press together so much contradiction between the covers of a single volume.”) More divisive still has been a series of controversies over rabbinic officiation at mixed marriages, questions of personal status, campaigns of outreach, and homosexuality. Of particular concern to Wertheimer are the consequences of the Reform legitimation of patrilineal descent—the view that a child may be considered Jewish if either parent is Jewish, rather than (as in the traditional understanding) only if the mother is Jewish.

If Reform has abandoned its classic ideology (or perhaps ideological consistency altogether) in order to reach out to as many as possible, Orthodoxy has gone in the opposite direction, raising the ramparts around its newly flourishing network of yeshivas, day schools, summer camps, and other organizations. Although the Orthodox are a minority, and, outside New York, a small minority, there can be no doubt about the overall growth in American Orthodox self-confidence, which Wertheimer instructively traces to a number of institutional moves. But he also suggests that the Orthodox “retreat into insularity” may reflect a hidden insecurity, visible in the recent shift of the whole Orthodox coalition considerably to the Right.

Occupying the middle ground, Conservative Judaism has been sharply affected by what has occurred on both sides, as well as by trends in general American life. Wertheimer relates the problems the movement has had in retaining its youth as they grow older (some seem to graduate to Orthodoxy, others to Reform), in making its positions on matters of Jewish law (halakhah) more flexible than Orthodoxy without breaking recognizable continuity with traditional understandings, and in maintaining unity in a time of fissiparous diversity.

The old Conservative Left, which was once represented by Mordecai M. Kaplan3 at the Jewish Theological Seminary, seceded in the 1960′s to form the Reconstructionist movement, with its own set of organizations similar to that of the other denominations; its place, says Wertheimer, is now on the far Left of the Jewish religious continuum. The Conservative Right, meanwhile, has been increasingly put off by innovations in halakhah, and especially by the decision of the Seminary to follow in the footsteps of the Reconstructionists and Reform by ordaining women as rabbis. Although Wertheimer concludes his analysis of Conservatism by observing hopefully that the movement shows “a new feistiness” in expressing its “modified, yet still centrist position,” another way of putting it may be that Conservatism is drawing in its wagons.

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As the numbers of identifying Jews shrink because of demographic change and growing apathy, the competitive rivalry among the denominations has inevitably sharpened, and relations have deteriorated. Wertheimer seems pessimistic about the chances of alleviating the situation. He singles out the patrilineal issue as an example of what he refers to, cumbersomely, as the tendency “to resymbolize Judaism according to contemporary assumptions”; this, he says, is the salient force subverting the ability of the community to cope with issues of unity and consensus.

It is possible he overstates here: there still are voices of reason in all the movements. But more important, perhaps, is the question of whether a viable American Jewish future really does hang mainly on a definitive solution to the admittedly vexatious issues of personal status.

It may not. For one thing, American Jewish pluralism will not just go away; while it breeds acrimony, it has also become a means of modern Jewish survival, and one that offers a wide range of options to a diverse and opinionated public. Whatever the weaknesses of Reform Judaism, for example, it has encouraged many to retain a modicum of Jewishness. Then, too, questions of status—“who is a Jew?”—may turn out to be less important than questions of meaning—“why be Jewish?” The swelling ranks of the indifferent are the result not only of social forces leading to the attenuation of old group boundaries, but also of the fact that to many Jews, much of Judaism has become merely rhetoric.

As long as the new extra-denominational energies Wertheimer describes do not come together synergistically—and they show no signs of this—the real challenge will be to hold the interest and retain the loyalty of at least some of those who are drifting away. That can only be done by articulating what Judaism stands for, both on the level of personal spirituality and in the public realm. Those two areas are closely connected.

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Which brings us to another important turn that has occurred since the early 70′s—and this concerns the public role of religion in American culture and society. There is as yet no comprehensive book dealing with this subject as it affects American Jews, but a recent collection of statements by almost 40 Jewish intellectuals and scholars, American Jews and the Separationist Faith,4 offers some guideposts.

By and large, the essays in this book, which originated in a symposium in First Things, are critical of the stance taken by Jewish communal agencies since World War II in favor of a strict “wall of separation between church and state.” Not that any of the contributors to American Jews and the Separationist Faith envisions bringing back the Inquisition, or even the milder discriminations of the 19th century. What they mainly urge is a rethinking of the abiding role of religion in shaping the American character and, therefore, in determining Jewish survival.

Certain motifs reappear in many of the essays. First, religion still has a crucial role to play in setting the moral tone of society—more crucial now, in view of the seepage of civility, self-restraint, and common purpose from American life. Jews in particular should realize that a complete secularization of American life poses a much more severe danger to them than the danger entailed in practices like the erection of a crèche or a menorah in American public places. Some of the contributors are quite willing to accept the principle of public financial support for parochial schools, and there are even those among them who sharply criticize the idea of an absolute “right” to abortion.

Second, and without minimizing for a moment the agonies of Jewish historical experience, Judaism has much to gain from a vibrant Christianity in an age when most Christian churches have repudiated anti-Semitism and “replacement theology” (the traditional view that Christianity completely replaced or superseded Judaism). Although the idea of a common Judeo-Christian heritage may lack a firm basis in theology, in the realm of ethics there are overwhelming commonalities between the two faiths. The whole tenor of Jewish-Christian relations has changed in the last decades; just as Jews expect Christians to be attentive to their concerns, so they need to be attentive to Christian feelings in turn.

Reading this book makes one ponder anew the stubborn American Jewish attachment to secularism. Where does it come from? In several of his essays, Marshall Sklare pointed to the fact that even before Jews left Europe for the New World, they knew that only a secular state would permit them to participate in public life on anything like an equal footing. In due course most modern Jews fashioned a dichotomy for themselves, one largely absent from the understandings of traditional Judaism: there was the public realm, to be kept scrupulously bare of religion, and then there was the private realm, where they would exercise such religious affiliations as they chose to profess. Indeed, the very designations Reform and Conservative emerged because of (in Sklare’s words) “the need to define oneself as an individual who upheld religious values despite apparent secularity.”

In America all this was made easier by the neutrality of the polity on questions of religious affiliation. “Jews could privatize Judaism,” Jerold S. Auerbach notes here, “while persuading themselves that they were staunch Americans defending the Bill of Rights.” The consequence was, however, that for many Jews, “strict separatism [between church and state] became a convenient constitutional rationale for strict secularism.”

But, in the last analysis, is a radically secular America adequate for either Judaism’s needs or Judaism’s vision? Almost all the contributors to this book believe that a commitment to the spiritual content of Judaism requires the affirmation of its values in the “public square.” To be sure, those values have to be presented persuasively and not apodictically; but doing so is a measure of Judaism’s being taken seriously as a modern faith—and as an American faith. What Jews need, these writers argue persuasively, is an intelligent religious revival, spilling over into civic life in unpredictable but transforming ways.

As the historian Jerry Z. Muller puts it here: “In a society as open as that of the United States, and in a population as educated as American Jewry, Jews are fated for complete absorption into non-Jewish culture unless they are intellectually prepared to confront that culture on Jewish grounds.” What happens fairly soon on this front may determine the future of Judaism in America.


Footnotes

1 In Observing America's Jews, a collection of Sklare's writings, edited and with a foreword by Jonathan D. Sarna; afterword by Charles S. Liebman. University Press of New England, 318 pp., $39.95.

2 Basic Books, 267 pp., $25.00.

3 In his new book, Judaism Faces the 20th Century (Wayne State University Press, 434 pp., $34.95), Mel Scult gives us a meticulously researched and nuanced biography of Kaplan which lays out the background to his call in 1934 for the “reconstruction” of Jewish life and ideology.

4 Edited by David G. Dalin; afterword by Irving Kristol. Ethics and Public Policy Center, 169 pp., $19.95.

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