Commentary Magazine


When Secularism Came to Russian Jewry:
Even in the Old Country the Process Had Gone Far

It is a rare man who can see the true character of his ancestors clearly, and it is perhaps even rarer for a people to have a true notion of its own past. Rabbi Herbert Parzen here argues that our prevailing conception of the lives of our fathers and grandfathers in Eastern Europe is more mythical than true; that we have taken one side of this life—its piety, its unity, its devotion to tradition and the Law—and have ignored another significant element—its growing attraction to the values of the Enlightenment, its diversity, and its rejection of tradition and the Law. His thesis has significant bearing on the oft-expressed belief that the “old-time Judaism” was destroyed by the hostile modernity that America impressed upon the immigrant.

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A legend has been created by the spiritual leaders of what is the largest section of American Jewry—made up of those who came here in the second great wave of immigration, or their descendants. The legend is a labor of love and nostalgia, but hardly of authentic knowledge; fond, idealized recollection has gone into it, fed not a little by the needs of group pride and recognition—also by a large amount of sheer ignorance. The name of the legend is “The East European Jew.”

Unhappy over the nature and prospects of Jewish life in America, many rabbis and journalists have projected the wishful picture of a kind of holy, integral Jewish life, untainted by modernism, that is supposed to have been lived by our fathers in Eastern Europe. Against this, they point up what they claim is the disintegration and emptiness of present-day American Jewish life. By dint of repetition and accumulation and embroidery of sentimental details, wide acceptance has been won for that picture, so that today many Jews—thinking Jews—have become homesick for a home they never knew. And the fact that the true original of that picture has been destroyed, and destroyed horribly, has only made their nostalgia more intense.

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What do we see in this picture of East European Jewry? We see that all Jews were devout, that they lived in wholehearted conformance with the Shulhan Aruch, and were entirely dedicated to God and the Torah. Despite poverty and persecution, they lived serenely, even happily, prizing spiritual values more than material satisfactions, snug within a tradition that gave each individual self-fulfillment. They could thus remain indifferent to secularism and science, social and political innovations, and material improvements. In sum, the Jews of East Europe were immune to modernism because they were fully content with their traditional Orthodoxy.

The pendant of this picture shows the change these same Jews or their descendants underwent on American soil. Exposed to a materialistic environment and unsettled by the institutions developed by the earlier Jewish immigration from Central Europe, they abandoned their traditions, broke with their old religious practices, to become complete materialists, expending their abundant and unique energies in pursuit of the things of this world. They would not even provide decent Jewish educations for their children. True, there were some exceptions among them, devout men who tried to stem the tide and founded shulen in which custom and tradition were scrupulously maintained. But the rest, if they helped to build and maintain synagogues, did so only as a vicarious atonement for their betrayal of the old, true values.

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Both panels of this legendary picture, with variations of shading and emphasis, have come to be accepted as faithful versions of the truth. The fact is that at least one of the two is downright incorrect, uninformed, and unhistorical. In some respects, indeed, modern forces had a more upsetting effect on the Jews of Eastern than those of Central Europe. For the Enlightenment (in Hebrew, the Haskalah), with its faith in reason and individual conscience, and its opposition to rabbinic authority and the Synagogue, came to them far more suddenly, allowing no time for gradual readjustment. It rose on their horizon in the 19th century, fully formed and triumphant after three hundred years of gradual growth in the West, during which Jew and Slav alike had continued to live in the Middle Ages, largely unaware of what was happening elsewhere.

What had happened in the West happened again in the East. Assimilation, often meretricious, often servile, spread; apostasy took its toll. But because of the special conditions under which Eastern Jews lived, Enlightenment also produced some different effects. In the East, revolutionary politics attracted the new Jewish intellectuals; also nationalism in various forms; a Yiddish literature was created, and a Hebrew one revived in secular garb. All these developments were, however, remote from traditional Jewish practices and beliefs. Long before Hitler, the question of the dominance of traditional Judaism hung in the balance in the very heartland of East European Jewry.

Since the conditions of Eastern Jewish life constituted so massive a resistance to modernism, the fact that this resistance was in so many respects overcome by the end of the third decade of the 20th century is testimony to how attractive modern, Western culture was to the Jews of Eastern Europe, and also shows how vulnerable their traditional culture had really become.

The very size of the Jewish population was a primary factor in slowing the spread of new ideas in the Pale; Jews were shielded from outside influences by their own numbers and density. Another factor was the in-grown character of a way of life that for over a thousand years had been spiritually isolated from its social and political environment, and dependent largely on religious tradition for the content of its culture.

Economic circumstances too acted to keep the Jewish social order and way of life intact for a much longer time in Eastern Europe. Before the last decades of the 19th century, modern capitalist enterprise and industrialism had hardly struck root. The slow tempo of a pre-industrial life afforded leisure for an existence filled with ritual observance, especially in the small towns and villages. Furthermore, being concentrated occupationally almost entirely in petty trade and the crafts, Jews were as a rule masters of their own time. And since they made up the bulk of the urban and rural middle class and practically monopolized commercial affairs wherever they were thickly settled, they were able to carry on business almost exclusively with fellow Jews, who observed the same ritual schedule, or with peasants, who accommodated their hours of buying and selling to those of the middlemen. And so, in East Europe, one could fulfill all 613 precepts of the Shulhan Aruch, and devote much time to other forms of worship, and to study, without affecting one’s livelihood.

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Last, but far from least, there was the political regime under which most of the Jews of East Europe lived. The Jewish policies of the czars, contrary to the very purpose for which they were adopted, significantly helped maintain Jewish traditionalism.

The czars were inveterately hostile to the Jews and tried to restrict their numbers inside Russia to a minimum. When the empire was extended westward to embrace the densest areas of Jewish settlement, in Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, and elsewhere, Jews were still prohibited from traveling or settling within the borders of Russia proper without special permission. The “Pale of Settlement” was established in the conquered territories, and there the Jews lived as in a vast ghetto. And from the time of the defeat of Napoleon in 1812 to the Revolution of 1917 their legal and political situation deteriorated progressively. Nicholas I and his successors—except for Alexander II during a few liberal years—followed a policy of persecution, consistently and zealously. Veiled at first by terms like “educational” and “correctional,” this policy was openly avowed later on, and during the last decades of the 19th century the czarist government went to the point of declaring publicly and officially that there was no place for Jews inside Russia’s borders. It was envisaged, or hoped—in Pobyedonostzev’s famous formulation—that a third of Russia’s Jews would be converted, another third would emigrate, and that the rest would “the out.”

Nicholas I sought to “educate” his Jewish subjects by injecting modern methods and secular studies into their educational system. Coming under such auspices and with such an aim, little wonder that the Jews feared—and later events proved them correct—that all this fine talk was but an opening wedge to the actual conversion of their children. They resisted and sabotaged the plan; the czarist government then issued a series of “correctional” ukases; special economic restraints and tax burdens were imposed on Jews; measures were taken to destroy Jewish communal organizations; and young Jews were condemned to “correctional” military service. At the same time, however, they remained largely excluded from public institutions of learning, including the universities (except during the brief period of Alexander II’s liberalism).

Thus, Western culture first came to the Jews of East Europe as a threat to their very existence as Jews, not as something liberating and life-enhancing. And that some of the first proselytes of the Enlightenment prostrated themselves before the czarist officials, begging them to use police measures to compel the modernization of their fellow Jews, could only further prejudice its case. Loyalty to tradition became a test of Jewish self-respect. Even so, we know, on very reliable testimony, that by the fifth decade of the last century there were groups of Maskilim (“enlightened ones”) in almost every Jewish community in the Russian Empire. The historical forces on the side of modernity, as well as its own genuine values, were too strong to be checked by either the czars or the Jews themselves.

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How ripe many Jewish scholars and rabbinic intellectuals had become for enlightenment by the middle of the 19th century is shown in events during Alexander II’s famous liberal decade. Between 1856 and 1866, the government began to encourage Jews to attend its official institutions of higher learning, opened careers all over the empire to Jewish graduates, and held out hope of general social and political emancipation. It is very significant in the present context that Russian Jewry reacted to these progressive policies in very much the same way as the Jews of the West had when offered similar opportunities. They flocked to the Gymnasia, technical schools, and universities; deserted the synagogues, abandoned ghetto dress and speech, ghetto manners and fashions. They took pride in their “Russification,” and some even became apostates. Many, on the other hand, preserving a minimal loyalty to their traditional moorings, threw their energies and abilities into the Haskalah movement.

All this disappeared as though it had been a dream when, around 1867, the czar reverted to his old reactionary policies. The new rights of educated Jews were gradually withdrawn in almost their entirety; the higher schools again closed their doors to Jewish students. But Alexander II had loosed forces in the Jewish community that he and his successors were powerless to control. Despite all official obstacles and all sacrifices, Jews went on acquiring modern, secular educations—and this at the cost of a superhuman tenacity, for even when admitted to the higher schools they were subjected to much more difficult and exacting standards than their fellow students. Many of them solved the problem by going to universities abroad; these Jews, whether they returned or remained, abandoned the traditional life and became for the most part disciples of the various Russian revolutionary movements, or of various Zionist and other movements of Jewish national liberation.

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The leaders of the traditional forces in Russian Jewry did not sit idly by while all this was going on. In their struggle against modernism they went to lengths for which there was hardly any precedent in Jewish tradition itself, condemning the learning of any language other than Hebrew and Yiddish, and the very reading of modern literature no matter what the language.

The farsighted among the Orthodox resorted, however, to more intellectual weapons. A new Yeshiva was established in Telz in 1870, to counteract the inroads of the Haskalah among the intellectually inclined Jewish youth: it set up new teaching techniques, including the study of Musar—ethical and pietistic literature—in an effort to inspire its students with a new enthusiasm for tradition. This effort was influenced by the rising Moralist movement, which, under the leadership of the famous Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-83), attempted to breathe fresh life into the forms and principles of the Synagogue and to give all Jews, learned and unlearned, spiritual incentives that would lift them above the squalor and degradation of their physical environment.

The Moralist or Musar movement turned out to be Orthodoxy’s most important countermove to the Enlightenment. It emphasized that man’s feelings as well as his reason must be cultivated, and it revived the study of the moralistic writings of the medieval sages, not simply for the sake of edification and intellectual exercise but also for practical guidance in personal and social life. It encouraged a certain asceticism among its followers, and became in essence a law within the Law—described in rabbinic lore as “lifnim meshurat hadin”—that required the Jew to do more than was literally prescribed.

The Musar movement was fundamentally opposed to the Haskalah; but while it urged a renewed and more ardent devotion to tradition and tried to develop a religious philosophy based on a nice adjustment between reason and emotion within the framework of the Synagogue, it also endeavored, in its own way, to satisfy the growing need of Jews for wider horizons of culture and experience. And to some extent it did succeed in doing this by emphasizing the altruistic ideal of a Jewish personality wholly devoted to working for the general welfare.

Rabbi Salanter and his disciples were thus able for a time to stem the tide. Kovno, which was reputed to be the “most modern community in Lithuania” in 1849 when Salanter came to it, was left by him twenty years later a fortress of Orthodoxy. But he had come too late; his temporary victory only proved the strength of Jewish modernism; the forces behind the Haskalah could not be stemmed by one man, however saintly and however capable of revivifying tradition—and no matter to what extent he could exploit the identification of Jewish Enlightenment with ultimate apostasy. Salanter himself must have recognized the handwriting on the wall, for he actually went on record in favor of secular education for Jews in the West, and founded his opposition to it in the East only on his conviction that the secular Jewish schools sponsored by the Russian government were engines for the destruction of Judaism.

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The struggle to westernize Jewish education was begun in Hebrew, which was at the time the language of all lettered Jews. Later, particularly after Alexander II’s liberal decade, Russian served as the vehicle in which the more assimilated Russian Jews propounded their diverse answers to the Jewish “question”; still later on, Russian was also used, paradoxically, to win assimilated Jews over to Jewish nationalism.

However, it was Yiddish, the tongue of the majority, with Hebrew not far behind, that became the chief vehicle of popular enlightenment in the end. Not unimportant in the creation of the myth of the East European Jew among his descendants in America is the latter’s ignorance of the fact that Yiddish had actually become the main linguistic means of propagating new, and untraditional—indeed non-Jewish—ideas among East European Jews, and that renascent Hebrew also served the same end. The American Jew still thinks of Yiddish and Hebrew literature as traditional and authentically Jewish, and is unaware of the fact that while East European Jewish culture continued to be Jewish in language, it began to be increasingly non-Jewish and indeed anti-Jewish in content.

A modern literature, in Hebrew and Yiddish, sprang up and began to open the windows of the stifling Pale wider and wider to the currents of air astir in the Western world; the problems and ideals of Western civilization pressed in upon the Jewish consciousness, unsettled and aroused it. Dissatisfaction with the ghetto environment in all its aspects grew, and, with it, opposition to the social and religious status quo.

The Jews in whom this dissatisfaction was liveliest and most conscious split into two bodies of opinion. One was animated by the desire for absorption into the dominant society, and among these Jews there were intermarriages and even apostasy. Largely, the Jews of this group put their hope in the new revolutionary movements agitating the czarist empire in the last half of the 19th century; they felt that the overthrow of the czars, with the resultant social and political changes, would automatically solve the “Jewish question.”

The adherents of the other group, educated by neo-Hebraic literature for the most part, were more Jewish-centered in their interests and saw the liberation of Jewish life from ghetto wretchedness and the modernization of its culture as goals sufficient in themselves for the time being. These Jews, the direct heirs of the early Haskalah, had as their first program a minimal Judaism expressed in the slogan: “Be Jews at home and men on the street.” Some of them, among whom were scholars and rabbis, had tried without success to persuade the Synagogue to modify its attitude of obdurate authoritarianism. When their effort served only to stiffen its hostility, they became that much the more alienated from the Synagogue, the more inclined toward humanism and secularism. Others concerned themselves little with the official religious authorities, formulating independent conceptions of Judaism.

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Heterogeneous as these partisans of enlightenment were in other respects, they were at one in their revolt against the Synagogue, which became increasingly identified with all that was backward in the ghetto and its mentality, and with all that defended that backwardness. Regardless of their different programs for the reform of Jewish life, the enlighteners were unanimous in repudiating the Shulhan Aruch as the regulator of Jewish existence and the rabbinically controlled community as the authoritative center of Jewish life. The new Hebrew and Yiddish literatures were predominantly secularist and anti-religious in tone—certainly outrightly anti-rabbinic insofar as they sought “emancipation” from the Jewish religion as then practiced.

The sad fact was that, with the distinctive exception of Salanter and his disciples, the Orthodox Synagogue during the 19th century showed itself incapable of offering anything fresh and creative in its effort to dam the tide of modernism and maintain its authority. At the same time, the so-called “German” synagogues in large cities like Warsaw and Lodz, being antipathetic to the psychology and ideals of any Jew with real roots in the community, could win no more than minor importance either in influence or number of members. Thus, enlightened Jews with religious convictions had no religious institution to turn to.

Hence everything that had to do with the social and cultural renovation of Jewish life in East Europe was left in secularist hands. Almost every notable personality who shaped the new Jewish life and its culture—Sholom Aleichem, Ahad Ha’am, Peretz, Bialik, Tschernichowsky, Berdichevsky, Dubnow—from the last decades of the 19th century on was outside the existent Synagogue, unsympathetic to rabbinical authority, and in no sense an Orthodox Jew. Chaim Tchernowitz (“Rav Tsair”) was perhaps the sole exception; he too, however, was hardly Orthodox in ideology. By the end of the last century, the Synagogue had come to be regarded as a negligible factor, not only by the radicals who abhorred religion on principle, but by the nationalists and bourgeois assimilationists. Even those who led the struggle for a Jewish national reawakening were, for the most part, secularist; many among them revered Jewish tradition but refused to abide by the Synagogue’s interpretation of it. If our reading of history is correct, that “secularization of the leadership” of the Jewish masses which is now typical of the Diaspora and Israel alike was already pretty well manifest in the Russian Pale.

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It is worth underlining that Jewish nationalism itself, reasserting a primary Jewish loyalty, no less than Jewish radicalism, in which Jewishness took at most a second place, had its inception among the disciples of enlightenment. Political Zionism, with Hebrew as its language, was first conceived among the Maskilim. And though fashioned out of religious and traditionalist aspirations, Zionism was even in those days essentially a modern national movement of a kind that was indifferent to or competed with religion. Its first leaders were at the very least estranged from the Synagogue, and Zionism has always remained “neutral” in religious matters, if not completely unconcerned. It very early became necessary to have a special, religious Zionist party, the Mizrachi, to represent traditional elements who otherwise would have found it impossible to identify themselves with the movement.

Even more estranged from the Synagogue was the Folkist movement which the historian S. M. Dubnow founded at the turn of the century, and which was chiefly recruited from forward-looking middle-class Jews with a sprinkling of intellectuals. This party, a political force in Poland between 1918 and 1939, demanded cultural autonomy for the Jewish people wherever they were gathered in large numbers. Like the radical Jewish parties, the Folkists were oriented toward Yiddish as the true language of the people, and Yiddish literature as embodying their most real and intimate sentiments.

The socialist Bund, made up of workers and intellectuals, was opposed to the Synagogue for the same and other reasons-reasons grounded in Marxist ideology. This also applied to the Poale Zion, the socialist wing of the Zionist movement that was founded in 1905 by a dissident fraction of the Bund and became the forerunner and progenitor of the Histadrut development.

True, these political groups never embraced an actual majority of the Jews in East Europe, but the historical record shows that they furnished what were undeniably the most creative and dynamic elements of Jewish public life during the half-century following 1890.

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Even at that, the Jews of East Europe were not exposed to the full stream and power of secular, modernizing, and assimilatory forces until after 1918. For in the newly created Polish state, containing a full half of Eastern Europe’s Jews, no small effort was made to transform the Jews into citizens on the Western model by the reactionary and anti-Semitic military clique in control of the country.

Ironically, Poland’s rulers turned to the upholders of the religious tradition for their instrument toward this end—the secularized Jews were, after all, socialist or nationalist, and as such confirmed opponents of the regime. The Agudas Yisrael, created when the Hasidim and their opponents, the Mitnagdim, joined together to oppose secularism, was the only organized Jewish group that maintained relatively satisfactory relations with the government of independent pre-war Poland. It received the bulk of the rather small funds which that government appropriated for Jewish education, and in return it scrupulously conformed to the educational standards and policies prescribed by the Polish ministry of education. The incidental result was a tremendous revolution in Orthodox educational practice.

The Agudah continued to maintain traditional chedarim and yeshivoth in its school system for boys, known as the Horev schools. But in a large proportion of its schools—that is, those receiving government support—from twelve to fourteen hours a week were set aside for instruction in secular subjects in the Polish language, as over against from eighteen to twenty-two hours for Jewish and religious studies. This was a very revolutionary step for Orthodox Jews; equally radical was the founding of the Beth Jacob schools for girls, with a curriculum much the same as that of the Horev. By 1937 these girls’ schools had an enrollment of 35,000 students, and there is evidence that the Agudah planned to spread these reforms to its chedarim and smaller yeshivoth as soon as finances would permit, and also to introduce the study of the natural sciences in the higher yeshivoth.

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What effect these changes would have had on the life of Polish Jewry in the long run will never now be known. Orthodoxy’s reversal of attitude toward women’s education was perhaps as promising of far-reaching consequences as its new tolerance of secular learning as such. It is part of the larger Jewish tragedy in East Europe that these new developments were killed in the bud by Hitler. What remains, nevertheless, is the historical fact that the old educational policy of the Synagogue in Eastern Europe had for the first time been radically revised—and to the same extent, more or less, as advocated by the early Maskilim.

Elsewhere the stream of secularization ran much more swiftly. The Yavne schools, administered by the Orthodox Zionist Mizrachi, instituted secular courses with an emphasis on Jewish nationalism and Palestine, in addition to the prescribed religious subjects. The Tarbut system of schools, Zionist in inspiration and backing, were secular Hebrew schools in which Zionism and Palestine formed the nucleus of the curriculum. The Cysho schools, founded and financed by the Bund, were secular Yiddish schools with a socialist orientation. All three of these private educational systems were in essence the organs of political parties, and as such they saw it as part of their function to orient students towards the ideologies of their respective sponsors.

The great majority of Polish Jews, however, sent their children to the free public schools since they could not afford the tuition fees of the private Jewish school systems. The entire curriculum of the public schools was designed to create citizens who identified themselves with the Polish nation and state. Jewish children had the opportunity to attend exclusively Jewish public schools, open on Sunday and closed on Saturday, and providing four hours a week for Jewish cultural and religious subjects.

An important inducement impelling many Polish Jews to send their children to the public schools was the Polish government’s practice of giving public school graduates preference in admission to its institutions of higher learning. Moreover, in many towns, especially the smaller ones, there were no private Jewish schools. Not least, many Jews were without specific political convictions so far as Jewish life was concerned and, unable to decide among the competing claims of the various Jewish private school systems, solved the question by choosing public schools for their children—especially when these made it possible for them to observe the Sabbath.

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Not enough time elapsed between 1918 and 1939 for the effects of the new school situation to emerge in any marked way. But there can be no doubt that had the former Polish government followed a decent policy toward its Jewish citizens, “Polonization” would have become a vital factor; even within those twenty years it assumed significance. Yet the government consistently discriminated against Jews, denying them educational and occupational opportunities; thus, despite the development among some of the Jewish youth of a marked attachment to Polish culture, and even of Polish nationalism, the mass of the younger generation turned away from that Polish culture in anger and disgust. But if assimilation was definitely rejected in favor of Jewish solidarity, this solidarity did not stem the tide away from the Synagogue.

Driven in upon themselves by a hostile Polish officialdom which in many respects pursued toward them the same idiotic and contradictory policies as czarist Russia had—wanting to make Jews complete Poles yet at the same time strangling them economically and socially; wanting to make them speak Polish yet denying them real cultural and educational opportunities so long as they remained Jewish—the Jews of independent Poland created a modern cultural life of their own, and a Jewish one. Partly this was due to the necessity of asserting Jewish self-respect against the repressive policy of the government. Partly it grew out of the need to find some solution, both cultural and political, to the anomalous Jewish situation. The resultant Kulturkampf waged among the Jewish parties in behalf of their different programs—in education, and in every other sphere as well—supplied the ferment for a rich, intense, and creative cultural life. There was an efflorescence of Hebrew and Yiddish literature in which all aspects of contemporary life were dealt with. The terms were modern, bearing little reference to institutional religion; a common motif was dissatisfaction with the status quo, whether expressed in nationalist, Zionist, or socialist aspirations.

The fact that the only organized Jewish grouping to collaborate with the official regime was the Agudah served but further to compromise Orthodoxy in the eyes of the socially conscious groups of East European Jewry. The anti-Orthodox elements set the prevailing tone, convincing more and more of their fellow Jews that the modern movements stood for Jewish self-respect and Jewish survival, while Orthodoxy by and large meant the continuation of the stifling and degrading conditions of the ghetto.

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Thus it would not seem too much to say that the ideas of the Enlightenment, combining a rejection of traditional faith with acceptance of a fervent faith in reason, were on the verge of triumph among Polish Jewry in the years immediately before the outbreak of the war in 1939. What Hitler destroyed was not a totally traditional Jewry absorbed in the old medieval ways of Orthodox piety, but a Jewry agitated by new ideas and busy expanding its secular life.

East European Jewry was thus already faced with the problems that so agitate its American descendants today. Solutions to its problems were proposed in Yiddish and Hebrew—but the proposals themselves were engendered by the Enlightenment and represented a radical break with the Jewish past.

Indeed, when we consider the speed with which the overwhelming majority of the Jews who emigrated during the last half-century widened this break with the past, under the more favorable conditions of their new homes—in Western Europe, South Africa, North and South America—we may justly regard this zeal as a measure of how ripe those emigrants had already become to transform themselves into a largely modern people. Is it not clear that those who cry out today against the secularization of Jewish life in America must seek its origins not in the fleshpots of New York, but back across the sea in the supposedly piety-bound ghettos of the Pale?

If this is so, then we must look upon the pressing problems created by the decline of traditional Judaism—the loss of faith, the disintegration of rabbinic authority, the lapse of the centrality and unity of the Synagogue in Jewish life—as problems arising out of the internal development of Judaism itself in the modern world. America as such is not the destructive solvent of Judaism, but is at most a catalyst that has deepened and accelerated a process begun long ago. It is in terms, not of some new, disintegrative force found only on these shores, but rather of the continuance of processes that go back fifty years or more to the East European homeland, that we must view the impact of modern life on the religion and culture of the Jewish people.

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