Commentary Magazine


Soviet Jews; American Orthodoxy

De-Stallnization or Re-Stalinization?

When Khrushchev expelled Stalin from his tomb, after the last congress of the Soviet Communist party, most of us were amused. I was too, until a friend suggested to me that Khrushchev was de-Stalinizing in a rather Stalinist way. The old joke was that Stalin once warned Krupskaya that she had better watch out or he would replace her as Lenin’s widow. It is no joke that normally Stalin would first destroy someone before adopting his line—for instance, Trotsky, before the industrialization à out-rance of Stalin’s five-year plans. The attack on Stalin in 1961, therefore, could mean re-Stalinization rather than de-Stalinization. But probably my friend is wrong, and probably the Stalinist era, with its insane blood-thirst and terror, is over.

Still, the sentencing of members of synagogue boards for alleged espionage and the removal of others—not to mention the many synagogues closed in the past year or so—are uncomfortably reminiscent of Stalinism. In a country where legally the Jews are supposed to be first and foremost a secular nationality, the only place where they can meet together, take comfort from each other, and strengthen and encourage each other, is the synagogue. There is, of course, the new Yiddish bi-monthly journal, but it is primarily an article for export, designed to persuade Jews abroad that the Soviet government is not really anti-Jewish. In any case, a journal is read in privacy and cannot give the intimate, physical sense of community that coming together in one place gives. Though normally only the old and old-fashioned still go to the synagogues, on certain holidays large crowds of younger, obviously untraditional Jews gather in and around them, sometimes quietly and sometimes festively, each warming himself by the others’ presence and all tacitly demonstrating against their fate. And as if that were not odious enough, the synagogue is where foreign Jews go. Israelis, Americans, Frenchmen, who for years may not have seen the inside of a synagogue at home, find their way in Russia to the place where they can meet Jews and, if not talk freely with them, at least give them an implicit assurance that they are remembered.

For the Soviet authorities all this is not only an annoyance, it is subversion, even treason. Clearly, they are determined to make the synagogue revert to what it was in the last years of Stalin’s life—di shvartse yorn, the Black Years, as the Jews call them. At most, the synagogue is to be for a human dust waiting to be buried. Preferably, it is to disappear altogether.

In Soviet law each Jewish congregation is an isolated body, administered by a committee of twenty—dvadtsat’ka in Russian—whose names are registered with the authorities. No dvadtsat’ka, no synagogue. (Judaism is the only religion in Russia, besides a few millenarian sects, that is kept so atomized. In varying degrees, every other religion is allowed some measure of central organization and of communication.) In the best of times a man must be courageous to serve on a dvadtsat’ka. Now who will be foolhardy enough to take the place of a man imprisoned or deposed? Of those who are already members, who will not be tempted to resign? The Soviet newspapers printed nothing about the synagogue trustees until the outcry abroad caused Tass to affirm that the three men arrested and sentenced in Leningrad were spies. (It was silent about the others.) In the Soviet Union what is not printed is rumored. The arrests and convictions were sinister enough in themselves, but the initial decision not to report them made them doubly sinister.

In its statement Tass was able to include a quotation from a speech by Nahum Goldmann of the World Jewish Congress denying that the Soviet government is anti-Semitic. And indeed the government is not anti-Semitic. It only dislikes Jews, Judaism, and a Jewish community.

More or less simultaneously, the Soviet press was mounting a campaign against embezzlers—reporting arrests, naming names, and announcing several executions. The names tended to be Goldman, Ganzenfranz, Epelbaum, and others of the same kind. Was it a coincidence? Marxist-Leninists do not believe in coincidence; after “as is well known” they like “it is no accident.” Besides, there is the Stalinist precedent. In Stalin’s last years the names of people accused or convicted of embezzlement had a way of being Jewish, like the names of cosmopolitans, agents of imperialism, and bourgeois nationalists.

After what Khrushchev himself has revealed about Soviet justice, the guilt of the so-called embezzlers who were executed cannot be taken for granted. Anyway, surely execution is a bit severe. Where are the humanitarians, individually and in their organizations? They protested about Caryl Chessman. They are protesting about Adolf Eichmann. They have not protested about the Soviet embezzlers.

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An Unknown Jewish Sect

The late Louis Ginzberg’s unbekannte judische Sekte is now generally thought to be the same as the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, two thousand years ago. In their own way, the Orthodox Jews of America are an unknown sect too.

The data on Judaism in the United States!—the number of congregations, the number of synagogue members, etc.—are notoriously to be treated with reserve, and the data for the Orthodox with the greatest reserve. Their central organizations are multiple and weak, many of their congregations and rabbis having no affiliations at all. Their people are more diverse in class, occupation, education (general and Jewish), national origin, and distance from immigration than the people of Reform or Conservatism—more diverse, even, in belief and practice. “Non-observant Orthodox,” which is self-contradictory, has lost its power to surprise. German philosophers and Polish Hasidim are among their rabbis, and Arabic, German, and the varieties of Yiddish and of American English are among their languages.

Men and women brought up in Orthodoxy continue to join Conservative and Reform congregations, or none, and young men trained in Orthodox schools continue to become Conservative and Reform rabbis. At the same time, a new Orthodox influence is making itself felt in Jewish education and social work. Today in Jewish centers one can see something new—social workers with covered heads, all trained in professional schools and some also ordained as rabbis. In Jewish schools, even non-Orthodox schools, principals and teachers are often Orthodox, devout, and ordained. Such men enter social work and education for many reasons, not least a traditional Jewish reluctance to use a rabbinical qualification as a means of earning a living and a scarcity of congregations that are observant enough as well as a distaste for the activities and style of life expected of an American rabbi. Their very readiness to work at jobs that pay less and command less respect than the rabbinate, in posts and in institutions where they teach and guide the young, may help to restore commitment to Orthodoxy by American Jews, or at least respect for it. If I were an Orthodox master planner, I would not be sorry to see my boys in the Vs and schools.

In general, the most acculturated of the American Orthodox rabbis are those who were ordained at Yeshiva University. It is they who make up the bulk of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox rabbinical association that sounds and looks most American. Typically, they serve “modern Orthodox” congregations—at least one member heads a Conservative congregation—and they preach in English. The Rabbinical Council publishes a quarterly, Tradition, now in its fourth year, which is the best of the three rabbinical journals in English, livelier than Conservative Judaism or the (Reform) Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Journal.

Tradition is about the only rabbinical journal in which you can find a really good discussion of church-state issues. With rare exceptions, what the others print on that subject is apt to be a restatement of the classical separationist position. Tradition is not editorially against separation, but neither is it for the kind of separation that most liberals, including liberal clergymen, are for. Its neutrality reflects the debate going on among the Orthodox, a debate long since settled everywhere else in the Jewish community in favor of a strict interpretation of separation. The latest issue has a piece on Sunday laws from which I learned things that I had not known before and which recommends a strategy for the Orthodox that seems to do justice to their distinctive values and requirements but that is likely to make other parts of the Jewish community unhappy. Some pages later there is a rejoinder to an argument in an earlier issue for federal aid to religious schools. (Between the two is an article on whether Judaism is an optimistic or pessimistic religion—a good, unusual question, handled well.)

A useful new feature is a report on religious (i.e., Orthodox) trends in Israel. We are apt to forget how important religion and the religious people are in Israel; I was startled to learn from someone who should know that nearly a quarter of all Israelis will not turn on their radios on the Sabbath. When one considers the place of radio in Israeli life, that is a high proportion, and if so many will not even turn on their radios, many more must think of themselves as being essentially religious in some more or less traditional way. One thing I learned from the magazine is that the older immigrants want their synagogues and their rites to be like landsmanshaften, recalling the old country and the good old days, but that the native-born, whether of Occidental or of Oriental stock, dislike community-of-origin synagogues and seem to be converging toward one rite and prayer book, of a generalized Hasidic character. The report is by a man who knows what is going on, is familiar with both the rabbinical and the wissenschaftlich scholarship, and does not hesitate to apply realistic sociological analysis where it fits.

Initially I felt about Tradition as Dr. Johnson felt about women preaching—surprised that it was done at all. This sort of thing is new for the Orthodox in America. To be sure, there were Orthodox Jews here long before the immigrations from Central and Eastern Europe, and some of their descendants are still members of such synagogues as the Spanish and Portuguese, but, as Nathan Glazer has pointed out, theirs was a respectable rather than an intellectual or a fervid Orthodoxy. Orthodox rabbis with a good general education and a tolerable command of English are not new, but not until now have there been enough of them to keep a journal like Tradition going. Even the impulse to publish it is new. Do they feel more confident of themselves now? Are they better able to handle it? Can they count on more colleagues who will read it? Or is the existence of the journal less a reflection of trends than of a chance coming together of a few people? I suspect that it has something to do with a trend and that it says something, obscurely, about our times.

I also suspect that the editors and contributors are not so self-confident as they would like to think. After all, Orthodoxy may be making some gains in this country, but it is sustaining more losses. More importantly, the Tradition people must feel an intellectual and religious uneasiness. A regular feature in their journal is a review of current responsa. This rabbinical-legal literature, like the Talmud itself, is always interesting for people with good minds who have had the necessary training—interesting, but not necessarily felt to be relevant; just as for a modern agnostic, medieval scholasticism may be interesting without being relevant. But Orthodox rabbis have to feel that rabbinical law is relevant. In the latest issue one of the responsa deals with a recurrent question, whether a refrigerator may be opened on the Sabbath. (Opening the door admits warm air and therefore activates the motor. It is taken for granted that the refrigerator may not be opened if the light bulb has not been removed.) A combination of learning and subtlety could lead to a decision that a refrigerator may be used on the Sabbath, and the exercise of learning and ingenuity is always satisfying. But can men like those who edit and write for Tradition believe unambiguously that such questions are serious?

It is precisely the Rabbinical Council, of all the American Orthodox groups, that most favors reviving the Sanhedrin. The Council’s members will not say it, perhaps even to themselves, but they must feel oppressed by the ever more constrictive interpretations and attitudes that have been accumulating about rabbinical law for many centuries, and they long for a body with the authority and courage to lighten their burden.

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“One of Our Own”
In the past few months the Jews of New York twice showed that they can easily resist the temptation to vote for a Jew. The first time was the Democratic primary, when Arthur Levitt, running against Mayor Wagner, got few of their votes. The second time was the election itself, when the Republican Louis J. Lefkowitz was not supported by many Jewish voters either. Wagner had what Levitt and Lefowitz did not have, the active approval of Senator Lehman and Mrs. Roosevelt.

If only because Jews tend to be ideological in their politics, they also tend to be relatively uninfluenced in a candidate’s favor by his being “one of our own.” (Upper-class Yankees in New England may vote more for “one of our own” than the Jews of New York do.) Of course, we do not yet know how Jews would vote in a presidential election with a Jewish candidate.

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