Commentary Magazine

Our Jewish Community Pattern and Its Critics:
Why Single, Central Authority Is Not For Us

Most intellectualizing about the American Jewish community continues to be cast in terms of severe self-criticism, blueprints for wholesale reconstruction, and invidious comparisons with other times and other lands, as seems to be the ingrained habit with Jews—and Americans generally—when they examine the modes and structure of their informal social organization. Here Milton Himmelfarb, after an abbreviated tour of inspection of Jewish communties, past and present, in other countries where presumably they do things better, comes up with the startling surmise that the communal pattern established here may actually be that best suited for American Jewish needs— and offers some reasoning for his belief.



"They order this matter better in France.” Two centuries ago Laurence Sterne began the record of his Sentimental Journey across the Channel with these words, and provided the text for all later critics of manners and morals in their own countries. Critics of the way in which American Jews conduct their communal affairs are not different. The way American Jews do things is wrong, they say, and we should learn from other Jewish communities how to do them.

From the point of view of communal organization, American Jews differ in a major respect from those of all other countries that have significant Jewish communities. Jews in other countries have central communal bodies possessing generally the kind of authority that comes with legal standing, long tradition, or general assent. American Jews, on the other hand, have no recognized central organ of self-rule with authority to speak for all Jews as Jews.

What is the reason for this difference?



There was a time—the Middle Ages— when there were no basic differences in the organization of Jewish communities in different countries. The Jews, with their special position and status everywhere, were in, but not of, the general community. The Jewish communities, by the common desire of the Jews themselves and of their Christian rulers, had wide powers of self-government, which could vary in detail from city to city and country to country. (A Jewish court could impose capital punishment, for instance, only in Spain.) Similar conditions obtained in the Moslem countries.

In communal organization, as in so many other departments of Jewish life in Europe, the Middle Ages ended with the French Revolution. Either the Jews themselves or the state, or both, no longer wanted Jewish self-government. Its place was taken by various central Jewish communal authorities with powers and jurisdiction much narrower than those of their medieval predecessors.

In Eastern Europe, where emancipation came late or not at all, Jewish communal authority was least removed in spirit from the self-government of the Middle Ages. It is a return to essentially this type of community that autonomists, Reconstructionists, and others of a like mind have been urging on us for years. Of late, an emotional factor has been added to complicate the discussion. The Jews of Eastern Europe died martyrs’ deaths at the hands of the Nazis, and for martyrs we all acknowledge the particular force of de mortuis nil nisi bonum. These are days of mourning for their memory and affectionate nostalgia for their destroyed way of life. If, as a writer like Dr. Jacob Shatzky has complained, it is difficult to get even scholars and intellectuals to accept objective historical and social studies of pre-Hitler East European Jewry, it is hardly to be expected that politicians will not try to exploit this mood. One communal politician has gone so far as to suggest that a man who denied the appropriateness of the kehillah— the centralized, organized, and authoritative community—for American Jews was expressing contempt for East European Jewry.

Actually, the sharpest criticism of the communal organization of East European Jewry came from within. Maskilim, socialists, Zionists, and other progressives and modernizers condemned the old kehillah as an archaic obstacle in the way of progress, a bulwark of the unsatisfactory status quo, a creature of the wealthy, and the acquiescent instrument of governmental oppression.



The respectful nostalgia of many American Jews for the Judaism of Eastern Europe arises mostly from the guilt that sensitive people normally feel about their prosperity, especially when they suspect it is more a windfall than the proper reward of virtue. East European Jewry practiced plain living and high thinking; American Jewry often accuses itself of addiction to high living and no thinking. From guilt and a sense of our spiritual inferiority to the “real” Jews, the Jews of Eastern Europe, it is an easy step, if not a logical one, to a belief in the moral superiority of East European Jewry’s institutional arrangements.

Still, however reluctantly, most critics of American Jewish communal organization cannot help recognizing how different the conditions of Jewish life have become since emancipation—which means that the precedent of the East European kehillah cannot be very useful. At this point the critics fall back on a second line. What can be useful, they say, is the example of Jewish communities in countries with a firm tradition of emancipation.

In Great Britain, a Western country certainly possessed of both the reality and the tradition of emancipation, there is a central Jewish agency, the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The Board of Deputies is two hundred years old. Its central and representative character is taken for granted, and indirectly confirmed by law. It is one of the privileged bodies in Britain legally entitled to present an official address to the monarch on solemn occasions, and it is authorized to designate synagogues in which marriage according to the rites of the Jewish religion shall be binding in the eyes of the law.

In France the Consistoire Central is the central authority in matters relating to the administration of synagogues, seminaries, rabbinical placement, and the like. In Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary, and in their successor republics until Hider, Jewish communal bodies received the proceeds of a special government surtax on all income taxes paid by Jews. The only way for a Jew to avoid payment of this was to submit to the government an official declaration either of his conversion to Christianity or of his desire to be considered as without a religion (konfessionslos.) In Sweden the same system was in force until the end of 1951. In Italy the government still imposes a special tax on Jews for the benefit of the Union of Jewish Communities.

In Canada, Argentina, and South Africa there are central Jewish communal organizations generally recognized as representative of the Jews of their countries, although without special standing in the law.



The advocate of central communal authority for American Jews would argue from these facts more or less as follows: forget the details—taxation in one country, legal recognition in a second, general acceptance in a third. The important thing is that a central communal authority is not confined to pre-emancipated, pre-democratic countries. Here are many Western countries in which Jews with a long history of emancipation manage their affairs rationally and democratically—and, so to speak, patriotically—by means of a central authority for the entire community. So should American Jews.

This seems a plausible argument. Can anyone deny that Great Britain is enlightened and democratic? It has civil liberties, universal suffrage, popular government, a liberal tradition. British Jews are no less emancipated than we are. Why should we not learn from them and establish a Board of Deputies of American Jews?

The flaw in this reasoning is that British democracy is not American democracy, and British tradition not American tradition. Take as an example an issue of some importance for American society today, the relation of organized religion to the public schools. In COMMENTARY for March of this year, Emanuel Litvinoff, as though mentioning incidentally an established order of things that everyone takes for granted, writes about the experience of his children with religious education in their London public school (to use American terminology). For the United States, the Supreme Court has rejected a relation between religion and public education much more tenuous than what apparently prevails and is accepted without protest in Great Britain. Most Americans, and certainly most American Jews, would regard the introduction of the British practice of religion in public education, and of state support of sectarian schools, as a very serious blow to our democracy. This does not prove that Great Britain is undemocratic, but it does prove that British models may not be very useful for us.

This example of difference with respect to religion in public education is illuminating in an unexpected way. It is obviously only a particular facet of a problem that has dominated religion, politics, and social thought for centuries in the Western world —the proper relation between church and state. Is it entirely accidental that America, where Jews do not have a central communal authority, has a significantly different tradition of church and state from Europe—even democratic and emancipated Western Europe—where Jews do have central communal authority?

Great Britain is a country where religious freedom is as secure as anywhere in the world. In this coronation year, however, many of us are especially aware that the British monarch is still the Defender of the Faith, is still head of the Church of England, and still takes an oath to maintain the Protestant succession to the throne. Bishops of the Church of England still sit in the House of Lords, ex officio. It is still a moot question whether the Lord Chancellor, as “keeper of the King’s conscience,” does not have to be a Christian, or for that matter a Protestant.



In these matters what we may call Heine’s Law operates. Heinrich Heine is the reputed author of the witticism Wie es sich christelt, so jüdelt es sich— weakly translated: like Christian, like Jew. He was sarcastic, but he was also right. Without Heine’s Law, how could we explain the basically episcopal organization of Judaism in Great Britain? In classical Jewish tradition a rabbi’s authority is personal, in proportion to his reputation for learning and piety. Maimonides and Elijah Gaon of Vilna were not appointed to their authority; it grew out of a general recognition of their moral and intellectual eminence. But official British Judaism, which is Orthodox, is headed by a Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, who alone among rabbis is styled the Very Reverend and whose position and authority correspond (mutatis mutandis and lehavdil) to those of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Or take a trivial detail. The British rabbi wears a clerical collar. When he serves as a chaplain in the army he is called Padre by Jewish soldiers. That is because the clergy of the dominant Christian sect in England wear the collar and when they serve as chaplains are called Padre. If on particularly grand occasions the Chief Rabbi wears gaiters, that is because Anglican bishops wear them.

Among Christian churches in England, the Church of England has the position of primus inter pares; in Orwell’s language, all churches are equal but one is more equal than the others. This is also the state of affairs within British Judaism. The kind of Orthodoxy represented by the Chief Rabbi and his United Synagogue is “more equal” than other varieties of Judaism. So a new Liberal synagogue recently learned when it tried to get certification from the Board of Deputies as a congregation of persons professing the Jewish religion, which it needed if the marriages its clergy solemnized were to be legally valid. (The case of the Liberal congregation will be discussed more fully later.)

The Church of England, on the whole conservative in theology and ritual, is the denomination preferred by the upper class. As a general rule, the Jewish upper class in England belongs to the United Synagogue —which is also traditional in theology and ritual. The preference of American Jews similarly situated is usually for a less traditional synagogue. It does not seem very likely that this difference between British and American Jews of the same class is a true theological difference. Rather, it would seem to arise from different expectations. In England a solid citizen was more or less expected to identify himself with the conservative established church—which for Jews was the United Synagogue.

All that this means is that English Jewry is very English. The Board of Deputies is another expression of that Englishness: it is English to have quasi-corporate religious communities with some internal authority, and with official or quasi-official relations with the state. There is also the specifically British love of tradition and historic institutions. The Board of Deputies, after all, is two hundred years old and goes back to the days before Jewish emancipation in Great Britain. It is hard to say whether there would be a Board of Deputies today if more than half of Jewish history in England since the readmission of Jews under Cromwell were not a history of waiting for emancipation.

Most British Jews seem to be satisfied with the idea of a Board of Deputies, if not actually with the Board as it exists. That is no warrant for asserting that American Jews should establish their own Board of Deputies. Should Americans abandon the written Constitution because most Britons are satisfied with an unwritten one?



If englishness is the key to an understanding of the institutional arrangements of English Jewry, so Frenchness is the key to an understanding of French Jewry, Germanness to that of German Jewry (before it was destroyed), etc. Heine’s Law operates universally.

For Great Britain it is fair to say that the communal structure and habits of British Jews have evolved primarily by an absorption, both conscious and unconscious, of the dominant values of the larger society. In France, as everywhere else in the Western world, there was a similar evolution. But in France there was also another element of great importance, the dictation of the state. It was Napoleon who decreed the establishment of the consistorial form of Jewish communal organization, ranging from local consistories to the Consistoire Central. Essentially, his motive for regulating the character of Jewish communal organization was the same as for concluding the Concordat with Rome. Like many other rulers before and after him, he wanted to make religion, all religions, a buttress of the state. (Gibbon says of the Roman magistrates that they considered all religions equally useful.) Napoleon sought an effective apparatus for controlling the feelings of French Jews, for guiding them in the paths of patriotism, and for making sure they stayed there. From Christian ecclesiastical government he applied to the Jewish community not only the consistorial structure but also the notion of hierarchy and episcopal discipline. The division of the French rabbinate into ordinary rabbins, municipal and departmental grands rabbins, and the grand rabbin of the whole country is derived from the hierarchical division of the Catholic clergy. (The similarity in costume that prevails in Great Britain between rabbis and Anglican clergymen is matched in France by the similarity in costume between rabbis and Catholic priests.) Until church and state were separated in the early years of this century the French state subsidized the consistories and the rabbinate as it did the recognized Christian churches and ministries. Alsace-Lorraine was a part of Germany during the time of the Dreyfus case in France and the resulting separation of church and state. After 1918, the French government agreed to continue in the restored provinces the relation between church and state that had existed before Bismarck annexed them to Germany. In Alsace-Lorraine, accordingly, rabbis, like Catholic priests and Lutheran ministers, are still paid by the French government.

Whether by uncoerced conformity or by command of the state, the spirit and organization of Jewish communal affairs in Western Europe reflect the wider society.



In the newer countries—Argentina, Canada and South Africa—substantial Jewish settlement does not go back much beyond sixty or seventy years. Immigrants to those countries found few Jewish institutions when they arrived and had to create almost everything from scratch, on the model of what they had known at home. In Argentina, indeed, there was much to remind them of the old country: a dominant church and a peasant population. The combination of the newness of Jewish settlement and the resemblance of the new society to the old accounts for Argentine Jewry’s establishment of communal institutions resembling those of Eastern Europe.

In Canada and South Africa Jews found societies with sharp cleavages along religious and ethnic lines. In Canada there were English-speaking Protestants of British descent and French-speaking Catholics loyal to the traditions of Bourbon France, and neither group had much to do with the other. In South Africa there was first the division between the large native and “colored” majority, and the ruling white minority; and within the white minority coolness or actual hostility between Afrikaans-speaking people of Dutch descent, mostly belonging to a fundamentalist Calvinist sect and deeply suspicious of the modern world, and English-speaking people of British descent, loyal to Britain and mostly Anglican in religion.

Separateness according to descent and religion is so taken for granted in Canada and South Africa that their official censuses include quite elaborate data about ethnic and religious identification. The United States census does not. (Some American sociologists and demographers might like the government to gather such data in its censuses, but the Census Bureau knows that any attempt to do so would arouse an all but universal protest against official prying into matters relating to religion and the individual conscience.) In the Province of Quebec, to this day, there are only sectarian schools, mostly Catholic; Jewish children have a choice between Protestant schools and Jewish all-day schools. In the circumstances of Canadian and South African life it would have been strange if Jews had not thought of themselves as a kind of corporate religious and ethnic enclave in a society of corporate groups, and if they had not organized themselves accordingly.



America has no tradition of an established church or a link between church and state, with each using the other for its own ends. Its people belong to many sects. Jews have been associated with its history from almost the very beginning under conditions of substantial or full emancipation. Uniquely among “new” countries, the United States has had Jewish institutions from early Colonial days, and each of the many successive waves of immigration found a going Jewish communal concern on these shores; there was no need for creation of the community’s institutions ex nihilo, on the exclusive model of the communal structure in the old country.

The preeminence of voluntary association in our civic life has been a truism since Tocqueville wrote his Democracy in America more than a century ago. It is still true that the dominant force in the life of American society is the voluntary action of citizens cooperating in the pursuit of particular common ends. Thus our most famous and highly regarded universities—Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Chicago—are private institutions. On the continent of Europe the universities are state institutions. In Great Britain, characteristically, the relation between the great universities and the state is more ambiguous, but until only a few years ago the graduate of Oxford or Cambridge was represented in Parliament by an M.P. for his university, in addition to being represented by the M.P. for his district.

The uniqueness of Jewish communal organization in America corresponds to the uniqueness of American society and tradition; Heine’s Law operates on both sides of the Atlantic. Where the dominant spirit of society is the primacy of the state, or the link between church and state, or a division of the population into rigidly defined religious and ethnic groups, there will be a more or less corporate Jewish community with central authority. Where, as in the United States, the dominant spirit of society is voluntarism, separation of church and state, and multiplicity of sects and ethnic origins, Jewish communal organization will be plural and voluntarist.

In this country we take it for granted that despite differences in doctrine and practice, on the whole there shall be cooperation and mutual respect among the three major groupings of American Judaism. An occasional Orthodox rabbi may refuse to acknowledge his Conservative or Reform colleague’s rabbinical title, if need be conferring an honorary doctorate on him when speaking to or about him; but there is no serious attempt by any grouping to question the right of the others to be considered expressions of Jewish religion. The three taken together compose the Synagogue Council of America. Each provides a roughly equal number of chaplains for the armed services. A conference of one rabbinical body is quite likely to invite spokesmen for the two other bodies to address it. Each has its equal turn in representing Judaism on a television program like “The Week in Religion.”

Not so in Great Britain, where official Judaism is still not sure that Reform is Jewish. In the past few years the trouble encountered by a Liberal synagogue in obtaining from the Board of Deputies certification as a congregation of persons professing the Jewish religion has been a cause célèbre. The reluctance of the Board to grant the certification was not without precedent. In the latter part of the 19th century another Liberal synagogue had to have special legislation passed by Parliament authorizing its clergy to solemnize legally binding marriages, because the Board would not certify it. During the recent controversy the Liberal synagogue finally had to threaten to do the same and petition Parliament directly. In the letter columns of the London Jewish Chronicle outraged communications insisted that of course Reform Jews weren’t really Jews, and besides, didn’t the majority rule in a democracy, and wasn’t the majority Orthodox, or at least opposed to Reform?

If we are not beset by such problems, it is not because we are made of better democratic stuff than British Jews. They have central communal authority, and such authority offers a standing temptation to suppress or at least handicap minorities. The abuse that inevitably goes with authority was shown again by a recent and even more scandalous incident in South Africa. A Reform rabbi had to go to court to compel the kehillah in his city to bury his wife in the Jewish cemetery. The majority in the kehillah had held that a Reform Jew was not a Jew and was therefore ineligible for burial in a Jewish cemetery.



Freedom from intolerance and actual persecution is only one of the advantages of a voluntarist communal system. The Hebrew Union College was the first great achievement of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, created eighty years ago to represent not only Reform Judaism, as now, but American Judaism as a whole. Twelve years after the College was founded, Jews dissatisfied with it established the Jewish Theological Seminary. Supporters of the College resented and opposed the Seminary. If they had really had authority, they would have prevented its establishment. Ten years later, the relative indifference of both the College and the Seminary to the merger of Orthodox institutions into what has since become Yeshiva University is explained by the prevailing conviction at the time that Yeshiva’s Orthodoxy was a first-generation phenomenon without a future. If it had been taken seriously, Yeshiva would have been opposed; and if there had been central authority, the opposition might have been effective. The existence of the three institutions of higher Jewish education and rabbinical training has contributed much to Jewish religion in the United States. Central authority, however, would have felt that the three made a clear case of duplication. It would have preferred one.

Is a central communal authority necessary for maintaining or strengthening Jewish loyalties? Many so strongly believe it is that although they say their ultimate concern is with the things of the spirit, their actual behavior and exhortation deal almost exclusively with communal organization. It is true that there is a certain untidiness about a system without a sharply defined locus of authority; but it does not follow that if we had such a locus we would be better off. Sharp definition and tidiness, so tempting to the human love of order, act to exclude as well as include. (That is one meaning of the ancient challenge, “Art thou for us, or for our adversaries?”) There are many American Jews who, if they had lived in pre-Hitler Germany, would at the least have listed themselves as konfessionslos, and whose children would have certainly been lost to Judaism. Here we can never tell. Because the Jew is not forced to burn his bridges when he turns away from the community, his return is not so arduous.

A few years ago I had a conversation in New York with a man prominent in the affairs of the Buenos Aires kehillah. One of the things that had most impressed him about American Jewry was the sustained communal activity of Jews who in Argentina would have long since cut their last link with the Jewish community. Another thing was the not uncommon case of a son returning after his father had all but left. What the observer from Argentina had once been inclined to call our formlessness and anarchy he now thought to be pliability and diversity. These qualities, he felt, enabled American Jewry to retain loyalties which, if they were in some cases minimal, had at least not been transformed into downright abandonment. And these minimal loyalties could always change, perhaps from one generation to the next, into something more than minimal. In Argentina, he said, it seemed to be all or nothing with Jews, and he feared that the emphasis on organization and communal authority was in part responsible for a growing tendency to choose nothing.



Dr. Samuel Margoshes, writing in the Yiddish Day, has recently said of the American Jewish community that it has done pretty well “without kehilloth recognized by the government, without state subsidies for Jewish schools, without governmental meddling in our affairs, but by our own efforts and a free interplay with the American majority and the American environment.” American intellectuals formerly hostile or at best indifferent to American life have been engaged for some time in rethinking their position. Can Dr. Margoshes’ unexpectedly kind words be a sign that critics of the American form of Jewish communal organization are reconsidering too? Heine’s Law suggests that they may be.



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