Commentary Magazine


Jewish America

 

To the Editor:

In the course of his essay, “Telling the Story of America’s Jews,” [November 2004] David Gelernter reviewed Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism, but that review is a wish list of topics that Sarna supposedly should have covered rather than a serious engagement with what Sarna actually wrote. Mr. Gelernter was essentially looking for another book, one that treats the impact of Judaism—that is, Jewish ideas—on the American mind.

Michael Novak, in On Two Wings (2001), has already written that book, at least in part. What Novak calls “Jewish metaphysics” constitutes in his view one of the wings by which the American eagle takes flight. James Hutson, in Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (1998), covers some of the same ground. Sarna is well aware of this sort of literature. Indeed, he wrote a fine paper years ago on what he called “the cult of synthesis,” those popular and scholarly Jewish treatments of what Judaism contributed to Americanism.

This literature declined among Jews as their place in America became more secure. There was more to the genre than apologetics—I have argued so myself—but I cannot fault Sarna for steering clear of it. The fact that “Jewish metaphysics” influenced the founding via dissenting Protestantism raises thorny questions about what in it remained Jewish. Is Protestant Biblicism equivalent to Judaism? How can we decide? By all means, let us raise this theme again, but I doubt that Sarna’s book was the place to do it.

Sarna wrote a history of religion, of American Judaism, rather than a history of American Jews. Mr. Gelernter notes this but does not take its measure. Sarna’s framework is the history of religion in America, a discipline well advanced among Christians but less so among Jews. He shows how Jewish developments are essentially variations on American and, indeed, Christian themes.

Sarna also demonstrates how the problem of freedom is absolutely fundamental to the development of Judaism in this country, even before the founding. At the heart of his story is the accommodation of sacred patterns of self-understanding and communal organization to a republican and then a democratic culture where religious voluntarism is the rule. Mr. Gelernter ignores this fundamental motif. I guess that it is not in the book he wished to read.

Alan Mittleman

Jewish Theological Seminary

New York City

 

To the Editor:

Reading David Gelernter’s review of Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism reminded me of the woman who bought two ties for her son-in-law’s birthday. When he dutifully wore one of them at their next meeting, she groused, “What’s wrong? You didn’t like the other one?”

A book can contain only a limited amount of information between its covers. All a reviewer can do is assess whether or not an author has fulfilled the task he set for himself. In my judgment, Jonathan Sarna’s work is (as Mr. Gelernter himself says) “a masterpiece,” an excellent presentation in one volume of the nuances and complexities of American Judaism. Sarna draws upon the wide range of sources one would expect from a highly accomplished scholar, often places American Judaism in the context of other religious trends in America, and writes in an engaging style as one who clearly cares deeply about his subject.

What emerges most clearly from Sarna’s book is the extent to which many of the issues facing the American Jewish community today have been part of the historical experience of Jews in America—the bifurcation of the American Jewish “establishment” from the days of George Washington; anti-Semitism from the days of Peter Stuyvesant; the ongoing challenge of living a meaningful Jewish life in the absence of external pressures to do so from pre-colonial times. The historical perspective provides an important context for our current situation, for which we have Jonathan Sarna to thank.

[Rabbi] Jacob J. Schacter

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute

Boston, Massachusetts

 

To the Editor:

David Gelernter is widely recognized as one of the most brilliant computer scientists of his generation. But he was out of his depth in reviewing two recent books on American Jewish history.

Mr. Gelernter criticizes both Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism and Hasia Diner’s The Jews of the United States for failing to tell him more about things that interest him: prominent modern-Orthodox rabbis, theologians, scholars, and authors, and the development of modern Orthodoxy in general in the United States; Jews in the military, like Admiral Hyman Rickover; and Jews like himself who are uncomfortable with the drive for women’s equality in Jewish religious and communal life.

Blaming Sarna for failing to include someone like Rickover (who never was a practicing Jew) in an account of American Judaism is responsible and fair criticism only if the omission distorts Sarna’s analysis. It is Mr. Gelernter’s duty not merely to highlight the omission but to explain its significance according to a standard more demanding than his own curiosity.

Mr. Gelernter rides a few other hobbyhorses. Calling Diner a feminist (which he does not mean as a compliment) is not a legitimate critique in an essay with pretensions to scholarship. Mr. Gelernter is correct to note that few scholars have documented the rearguard action to keep women out of rabbinical seminaries and off the bimah in the United States; he, or qualified historians, should write these histories. But again, criticizing Sarna and Diner for failing to cover his own interests is inappropriate.

Mr. Gelernter is particularly incensed that neither historian has recognized what he considers the primary role of classical Israel in the development of the “modern liberal-democratic state” and America specifically. He takes Diner to task for stating the obvious: that no Jew signed the Declaration of Independence, was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, or was active in the campaign for ratification of the Constitution. As against this absence, Mr. Gelernter proposes that Diner and Sarna should have recognized the primacy and continuity of “Jewish influence” beginning with Puritanism and projected across several centuries to the founding of the United States and beyond. Unfortunately, Mr. Gelernter’s intuition about this supposedly “big issue” requires more support than the tenuous chain of evidence he offers.

David Solomon

Michael Feldberg

American Jewish Historical Society

New York City

 

To the Editor:

David Gelernter uncharacteristically stumbles when, in an excess of ethnocentricity, he claims that “the Hebrew Bible furnished a template for democracy” and that “Jewish ideas were decisive to the creation of modern democracy.” For all his invocation of what Puritan preachers and writers said a long time ago, Jewish sources and religious ideas have had no more than a negligible impact on how the American political experiment has evolved. In a fundamental document of American democracy like the Bill of Rights, it is impossible to locate a single directly Jewish antecedent.

There are, in fact, important questions to be asked about democracy and the development of American Jewry. Israel Friedlaender, a star at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote almost a century ago: “[W]herever our gaze turns, we witness the same spectacle—the decomposition of Judaism, of Jewish living and thinking, under the influence of freedom. . . . Judaism, which stood out like a rock amidst the billows of hatred and storms of persecution, is melting away like wax under the mild rays of freedom.” After referring to “our spiritual misery,” he argued that American Jews “are blind to the fact that the dawn of the Jews is the dusk of Judaism.”

As American Jews celebrate the past three-and-a-half centuries of Jewish life on American soil, the painful questions raised by Friedlaender about democracy and freedom should be the focus of our reflection. Jonathan Sarna, who is a terrific writer (another disagreement with Mr. Gelernter), touches on them only obliquely.

Marvin Schick

New York City

 

To the Editor:

In his review of two major new syntheses of American Jewish history, David Gelernter resorts to so many carping and capricious objections that the larger pattern of generalization in both books is obscured. But one of his criticisms merits attention. He notes that both Jonathan Sarna and Hasia Diner “have plenty to say about” the salience of the Jews in “modern feminism,” but then adds: “I would also be curious about their no less significant role in anti-feminism (not a word).”

No less significant? Library shelves bulge with monographs and manifestoes, with scholarly and personal accounts that testify to the inclusion of women in the religious and moral and social life of American Jewry. But how many Jewish books can be called explicitly anti-feminist? Is there any scholarship on this subject upon which Sarna and Diner could have been expected to draw? Even when the Jewish Theological Seminary debated the case for ordaining women as rabbis, foes claimed that the issue should be framed not in terms of female rights but in the light of Jewish law. Does Mr. Gelernter have reason to believe that the losing side of this debate was furtively anti-feminist?

Stephen J. Whitfield

Lexington, Massachusetts

 

To the Editor:

David Gelernter’s fine essay clearly identifies the unique contributions of Jewish thought to American democracy. The founders of our country, even the deists among them, were steeped in Hebrew literature, and regarded their revolution as the second-greatest liberation movement in history. Six months before the outbreak of war on the village green at Lexington, Thomas Paine, in his mutinous pamphlet Common Sense, called King George III the contemporary Pharaoh.

The single most important idea of democracy is what the Declaration of Independence calls the “consent of the governed,” a principle that stems from a seminal moment in the history of the Jews. Before stating the terms of the covenant, God told Moses to speak to the people and learn whether or not they agreed to become a nation under the sovereignty of God. Only when they accepted did the revelation proceed. Thus it was at Sinai that the first democratic mandate took place, and with it the idea that there can be no valid rule without the agreement of those affected by it.

Bertrand Horwitz

Asheville, North Carolina

 

To the Editor:

David Gelernter has done his usual insightful job. There are, however, a few interesting things to add to his review.

As an example of Jews being left out of history books, Mr. Gelernter cites the 7th edition of The Growth of the American Republic (1980), where Judah Benjamin is described as the “ablest member” of the Confederate cabinet and the “closest to [Jefferson] Davis,” but is not identified as a Jew. Mr. Gelernter is actually more right than he knows. The 3rd edition of that book (1942) identifies Benjamin as a “British subject and a Jew.” Thus, somewhere between the 3rd and 7th editions, his Jewishness was consciously deleted.

To add to Mr. Gelernter’s ideas about the Pilgrims and their harking back to the Hebrew Bible, the following quotations are of interest. From A Modell of Christian Charity, by John Winthrop (1630):

 

[W]ee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies. . . . And to shutt upp this discourse with the exhortacion of Moses that faithfull servant of the Lord in his last farewll to Israell Deut. 30. . . . [W]ee are Commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another to walke in his wayes and to keepe his Commaundements and his Ordinance, and his lawes, and the Articles of our Covenant with him that wee may live and be multiplyed, and that the Lord our God may blesse us in the land whether wee goe to possesse it.

In The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, Roger Williams’s 1644 dissent from the religious structure of the New England colony, he referred to that colony as the “State of the Land of Israel” with its “Kings of Israel and Judah.” William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth colony, wrote that the “colonists consciously intended to establish Zion in the wilderness.”

Of course, Jews as such were not welcomed by the Pilgrims, but there is no doubt that Judaism was their mother’s milk. The affinity carries on to this day and provides a good part of the explanation for the support of Israel by traditional Americans.

Sidney Brounstein

Redlands, California

 

David Gelernter writes:

Let me deal first with a theme that is common to three of these letters. Alan Mittleman describes my review of Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism as a mere “wish list of topics that Sarna supposedly should have covered”; Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter argues that “all a reviewer can do is assess whether or not an author has fulfilled the task he set for himself”; David Solomon and Michael Feldberg say that I have unfairly accused Sarna and Hasia Diner of “failing to tell [me] more about things that interest [me].”

All three letters share the same misbegotten theory of book-reviewing. It should go without saying that a reviewer must evaluate not merely the author’s handling of his topics but his choice of topics—what the author has put in, what he has left out. If you are rating a tour of Manhattan, you will consider the quality not merely of your tour-guide’s spiel but of his choice of sites—was it a good idea to include Bob’s Discount Hot Dogs and leave out Rockefeller Center? If a general survey of American history left out all reference to American Jews, a book reviewer had better point this out and take the author to task. Would such a reviewer risk being accused by Mr. Mittleman of belaboring the author with a “wish list of topics that supposedly should have been covered”?

Messrs. Solomon and Feldberg insist that a reviewer must work to “a standard more demanding than his own curiosity.” But authors write history books in order to satisfy their own and their readers’ curiosity—and I cannot judge a book by its success in satisfying Messrs. Solomon and Feldberg’s curiosity. Nor do I know which “more demanding” standards they have in mind. But a history book that satisfied a “higher standard” but did not satisfy me would be a failure by my lights, and my duty as a reviewer would be to say so and say why.

As for Messrs. Solomon and Feldberg’s contention that I was “out of my depth” in “Telling the Story of America’s Jews,” I could recite my credentials for their approval—but I’d hate myself in the morning. I will admit, for the record, that I am no prophet and no son of a prophet.

Now let me consider some of the more substantive comments in these letters.

Respecting the study of Jewish influence on the invention of America, Mr. Mittleman writes that treatments of this subject “declined among Jews as their place in America became more secure.” Here he has given us a one-sentence introduction to one of the worst maladies of modern Jewish scholarship. No one wants to be called “insecure”; such diagnoses should be handled as carefully as any other form of insult. Fearing this sort of attack, some Jewish scholars are actually afraid to investigate and celebrate Jewish achievement.

But to call a Jewish author “insecure” simply because he celebrates Jewish accomplishment and genius is usually a gross and silly violation of Occam’s razor, which tells us not to posit complexity unnecessarily (or in other words, to choose the simplest explanation that covers the facts). If a Jewish author writes about Jewish achievement and then refuses to publish what he has written, he might indeed be insecure. If he writes about Jewish achievement and does publish what he has written, he is far more likely to be proud.

In any case, Mr. Mittleman is convinced that Sarna was right to “steer clear” of the subject of Jewish influence on the founding fathers and the invention of America, because his “framework is the history of religion in America”—and classical Israel’s influence on Puritan and early American ideas took place before (or outside of) the events that fall within that framework. If I understand Mr. Mittleman right, he is wrong. Classical Israel and the Hebrew Bible were indeed major influences on Puritanism in Britain. But in America, these influences (naturally) took on a new and distinctive significance; in America, after all, Puritanism was the majority religion, and countervailing influences were minor compared to what prevailed in Europe.

Finally, Mr. Mittleman accuses me of ignoring a “fundamental motif” of Sarna’s book: “the accommodation of sacred patterns of self-understanding and communal organization,” and so on. But at this point I am afraid that his letter has become merely a wish list of topics that Gelernter supposedly should have covered rather than a serious engagement with what Gelernter actually wrote.

For their part, Messrs. Solomon and Feldberg, extending their criticism of my methods as a reviewer, write that “Blaming Sarna for failing to include someone like [Admiral Hyman] Rickover (who never was a practicing Jew) in an account of American Judaism is responsible and fair criticism only if the omission distorts Sarna’s analysis.” False—unless Sarna’s book were nothing but analysis, and Sarna had (furthermore) declared non-practicing Jews to be off-limits. (In which case we could have argued about this declaration instead of about Rickover.) In fact Sarna has written a history book for general readers, and he does include non-practicing as well as practicing Jews. His first duty is accordingly to tell readers what happened and who did it; and he ought to have included Rickover—not only because Rickover’s work was monumentally important to America but because Rickover’s Jewishness was evidently a significant (negative) factor in his Navy career.

Messrs. Solomon and Feldberg’s objection to my calling Hasia Diner a “feminist” is bizarre. Readers want to know an author’s angle of attack, assuming it affects the finished product—and Diner’s feminism certainly does.

On this same subject, I disagree with Stephen J. Whitfield’s suggestion that “bulging library shelves” are a measure of a topic’s significance. It is true that there are many more feminist than anti-feminist books, but the anti-feminist books are a lot better. I would suggest to Mr. Whitfield that he start with Midge Decter’s An Old Wife’s Tale. (I do not mean that this book is merely “anti-feminist”; but it certainly is anti-feminist, among many other things.)

Mr. Whitfield asks whether I have “reason to believe that the losing side” of the debate at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) over the rabbinical ordination of women was “furtively anti-feminist.” Of course, but there was nothing furtive about it. During the late 60’s and the 70’s, as Mr. Whitfield is well aware, “feminism” came to stand not for the equality of men and women but for their interchangeability—a doctrine that is profoundly incompatible with Judaism and (for that matter) with human dignity. I was on the losing side of the debate myself; so were many other formerly Conservative Jews, male and female. Surely Mr. Whitfield does not believe that the argument was restricted to JTS faculty meetings. The Jewish community has yet to recover from the blow to its unity that was struck at that tragic moment.

As for Marvin Schick’s comments regarding the views of Israel Friedlaender, these have become truisms and have been discussed at length for decades; I doubt whether Sarna could have beaten anything more out of this particular dead horse. In any case, the facts show that Friedlaender’s ideas are ripe for the trash. Today Orthodox Judaism flourishes in free and democratic America; try telling American yeshivas that they’d be better off in Czarist Russia! If America has been bad for liberal Judaism, it is just possible that the problem lies not with America but with liberal Judaism.

I thank Bertrand Horwitz and Sidney Brounstein for their comments, and Mr. Brounstein for his strikingly germane observations.

 

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