Commentary Magazine

The Jewish Revival in America, II:
Its Religious Side

Last month we described the various pressures and patterns that have led to larger and larger numbers of American Jews joining religious institutions. More Jewish children today attend Jewish religious school, more Jewish adults today are members of synagogues. At various points, we were brought to the brink of a discussion of the problem of religious sentiments and beliefs where we would have had to ask why parents have sent their children to religious schools, and why they themselves have joined synagogues. Is it only because they have attained middle-class status and live in milieux where such things seem proper? And is it also because religious institutions have gained such authority, with the gradual weakening of secular and skeptical and naturalistic attitudes, that people no longer feel able to resist them?

Perhaps this is the whole story, but I think not. Religion involves a realm of feelings and sentiments difficult to systematize and present clearly. Yet any effort to ground a discussion of religious feeling on evidence gathered by sociological and social-psychological methods will not get us far. The Gallup Poll, for example, reports that 96 per cent of the American people believe in God. But does that tell us anything important about the religious life of the American people? Even if we were to use a more subtle method of social and psychological investigation, and follow up this first question by asking what the respondent meant by God, we would not get much further. Most people are not theologians, most people have not thought about what they mean, and this second stage of our investigation would only leave us with a mass of confused data in which we could discern the various influences of the Catholic catechism, fundamentalist Protestantism, liberal religion, and the agnosticism of earlier years.

At this point we should be forced to proceed to a third stage and, ignoring what people think they believe, and even their explanations of what they believe, try to understand them on the basis of what they actually say and how they actually behave. We might then come up with a statement of what Americans believe which they would not recognize and which they might attack, but which, nevertheless, could be true.

And similarly with American Jews. If we were to limit ourselves to what they think they believe, we would have, on the one hand, watered-down clichés of liberal religion, and on the other, a kind of confusion in which loyalty to the Jewish people was identified with the Jewish religion. (Actually, Judaism itself mixes these categories; yet there are obvious distinctions.) If we were to ask American Jews about their religious beliefs, we should find prominent the feeling that religion ought to keep in step with science, psychotherapy, and liberal politics; the notion that religion is important for Jewish self-respect—a kind of adjunct to the work of the defense agencies engaged in fighting anti-Semitism; and the idea that Judaism is important in keeping the Jewish people alive and together—a kind of adjunct to the work of the Zionist groups.

This would be the result of an extensive, well-conducted survey of the religion of American Jews. We should find almost nothing that could be described as traditional Jewish piety. Only an infinitesimal proportion of Jews would, if asked what their religious beliefs were, respond with Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith, or any other kind of declaration of belief in the authority of Torah, God’s providence, Israel’s election, and the coming of the Messiah. American Jews, if they believe in anything, believe in the instrumental efficacy of religion. Judaism is good for the Jew, they feel; it keeps him mentally healthy and adjusted, and keeps the Jewish people together. Any thought that it is good in itself, that it embodies valuable truths, and that—God forbid—these truths should be propagated among non-Jews is foreign to the majority of Jews in this country.



What, one may ask, is the significance of the fact that most American Jews would be incapable of giving a coherent statement of the main beliefs of the Jewish religion, and tend to call “Judaism” whatever views they happen to hold today? After all, formal theological beliefs have never been greatly emphasized in Judaism; even in its great ages they have been quite unimportant for the ordinary Jew. For him the issue was not creed and conviction: piety and faith were expressed in acts, in the performance of hundreds of commandments. There are observers of the Jewish religious scene in America who feel that, in the light of this bent of the Jewish religion, it would be an unfortunate sign of Christian influence if Jews were now to start insisting on tenets and doctrine.

However, traditional Jewish piety as expressed in the observance of ritual is dead or close to dead in America. The traditionally observant Jew is almost as much a curiosity in many Jewish communities as in the community outside. And in view of the general acculturation of Jews to American patterns in so many spheres of life and thought, one might legitimately expect a degree of religious acculturation, too, with the abandonment of the traditional forms of religious life and feeling resulting in a greater emphasis being placed on those many elements of Judaism which parallel Christianity. The traditional Jewish beliefs about God, man, and the world are not very different from those later developed in Christianity. Both believe in the meaningfulness of history, the reward of virtue and the punishment of sin, life—of some sort—after death, the providence of God, and so on, though, of course, the emphases vary greatly.

Even the Christian concept of the spiritual life, different as it is from the Jewish idea of expressing piety and faith through performance, is not foreign to Judaism. The pattern of religious life under Christianity involves the searching for God or faith; the feeling or the failing to feel some more than human presence; visitation by deep religious experiences of one sort or another. In the past, Jews as well as Christians have had this kind of experience and have recorded it.

But any honest observer of the contemporary scene must admit that the fading of traditional Jewish piety has not meant its replacement by more “Christian” forms of religious life, even though some of these have considerable sanction in the Jewish past. I think I do not exaggerate when I say there is nothing in American Jewish literature—and many rabbis have written their autobiographies—that might possibly find a place in any anthology of religious experience. I once asked one of our leading authorities on American Jewish history whether he knew of any autobiography, published or in manuscript, by rabbi or layman, that described in detail a spiritual or religious experience—whether a conversion or a loss of faith. He could think only of the autobiography of a Jew who had been converted to Christianity! Admittedly, he spoke on the spur of the moment. His answer nevertheless reflects a striking characteristic of American Jewish literature—that it contains almost nothing that, by ordinary methods of classification, one would call religious experience. In the biographies of American Jews, and of rabbis too, one will find passions engaged by the problems of Zionism, by politics and reform movements, by the conflict of different organizations within Jewish life—but the category of spiritual experience, as ordinarily defined, is absent.

Cannot one say that all religion has been radically shaken in the modern world, and that Judaism is involved in this crisis? This is true, as far as it goes, but it seems to me that Judaism is even more vulnerable to the unsettling influence of modernity than Christianity. Judaism emphasizes acts, rituals, habits, a way of life. Christianity, in contrast, places more emphasis on beliefs and doctrines. Judaism in its popular form, in the version in which it was taught to the East European Jews who were the fathers and grandfathers of the great majority of American Jews, tended to obscure distinctions between greater and lesser commandments, to ignore doctrine even more than Talmudic Judaism did, and to obscure the meaning of ritual. In effect, it taught a fairly rigid set of rituals to cover one’s entire life. This rigidity permitted no defense in depth, so to speak. Once one had found—as so many immigrants did—that it was more convenient to work on Saturday, or to shave, or to abandon traditional dress, one had no body of doctrine to fall back upon which could explain to one what remained really important in Judaism—indeed, the question was whether anything was really “more important” than the rituals established by God’s word. Under these circumstances, an entire way of life disintegrated. Contemporary Jews are more dependent for an understanding of their own faith on the public-relations agencies of Jewish life—which explain that Judaism believes in democracy, the brotherhood of man, and so on—than on their own memories.

Christianity is more fortunate. Since its emphasis is so strongly on beliefs, one can abandon some of them and concentrate one’s polemical and dialectical resources on the defense of a few fundamental points. On what can Judaism concentrate? As a matter of fact, one will find that major efforts of the Orthodox group in defense of traditional Jewish religion are now devoted to such matters as the height of the barrier between men and women in the synagogue—which is exactly in line with the kind of concerns discussed by the Jewish sages in the Talmud. How to make such a religion viable in the modern world is indeed a problem.



Looking about at the life of ordinary Jews, one wonders what of that traditional Jewish education which, directly or indirectly, has affected so many American Jews remains for them to draw upon. One wonders if the Jewish tradition, or what is left of it, retains in any way more than a formal hold on American Jews.

One element of the Jewish tradition, it is widely believed, still persists to guide Jewish behavior: the concern for social justice. It is true that Jews in this country are predominantly liberal in their political and social outlook. They support organizations defending civil liberties, they are against the segregation of Negroes, they hold what are generally considered enlightened positions in American politics. However, I do not see any direct link with Jewish tradition in all this. American Jews do not derive their political attitudes from Jewish tradition, but from the political positions which the Jews, as an underprivileged element in both Germany and Russia, took in order to advance their own political and social emancipation. The German Jewish immigrants of the middle of the 19th century were naturally, for the most part, liberals and republicans, for it was these elements in Germany who promised to strike off the last shackles of medieval restraint from Jews. In Russia, the Jews were so badly off that the liberal position did not offer them much, and many of them added to their anti-Czarism a commitment to some kind of socialism.

When they came to this country, they brought with them the political attitudes they had adopted in Europe. German Jews in the 19th century generally became Republicans; East European Jews were at first socialists and later Democrats.

I find it hard to see the direct influence of the Jewish religious tradition in these attitudes. The Orthodox elements, among whom this tradition was strongest, were generally indifferent to politics. The Reform Jews, in their search for a relevant modern ethical content for Judaism, emphasized the concern of some of the prophets for social problems. But they mainly used this element of Jewish tradition to attack the emphasis on ritual among the Orthodox, rather than to guide their own behavior. In the 20’s, it is true, there was an active Social Action committee in the Reform Jewish rabbinical group which, together with the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ and the National Catholic Welfare Conference, often acted, and with some effect, in defense of striking workers and their rights. And more recently, both the Reform and the Conservative groups have taken measures to set up social justice commissions. This activity, to my mind, is a reflection in large measure of the decline of secular Jewish political movements. The religious groups, as we have seen, try to spread themselves increasingly over all the activities and interests of American Jews. Just as they run nursery schools and old people’s groups, they take up social problems. Since Jews are liberal and progressive, and since indeed one can find precedents for these attitudes in Jewish religious tradition, it seems appropriate to express the social attitudes of the Jews through the religious groups. Yet it remains a fact that 19th-century socialism has had more to do with the political opinions of the American Jews than the teachings of the Hebrew prophets.

If the social attitudes of the Jews are not a part of the heritage of the Jewish religion still alive for American Jews, what else is there? What in the feelings and sentiments of Jews can we see as reflecting their ancestral religion?



We must begin with something that has not happened; this negative something is the strongest and, potentially, most significant religious reality among American Jews: the Jews have not stopped being Jews. I do not now speak of the fact that they are sociologically defined as Jews; this is of small significance from the point of view of Jewish religion. I speak rather of the fact that they still choose to be Jews, that they do not cast off the yoke or burden of the Jewish heritage. Despite the concreteness of the words “yoke” and “burden,” what I have in mind is something very abstract. It is not that most Jews in this country submit themselves to the Law; they do not. Nor can they tell you what the Jewish heritage is. But they do know there is such a heritage, they do know it may demand something of them, and to that demand, insofar as it is brought to them and has any meaning for them, they will not answer no. The significance of the fact that they have not cast off the yoke is that they are prepared to be Jews. Not to be the Jews their grandfathers were; the medieval world is shattered and Orthodox Judaism is only a museum object as far as the overwhelming majority of American Jews is concerned. But they are prepared to be some kind of Jews, they are capable of being moved and reached, and of transcending the pedestrian life that so many of them live in company with other Americans.

In my view, it is because of this negative characteristic, this refusal to become non-Jews, that we see today a flourishing of Jewish religious institutions. It is true that these institutions do not evoke or engage any deep religious impulses. Yet they are successful only because American Jews are ready to be Jews, are willing to be inducted into Jewish life.

We see the reality of this readiness in the fact that, to every generation of recent times, a different part of the Jewish past has become meaningful. At the same time, to be sure, other parts of that tradition, great chunks without which it seemed it must die, were rejected. And yet at no point has everything been rejected; a kind of shifting balance has been maintained whereby each generation could relate itself meaningfully to some part of the Jewish past. It has been the course of events that has dictated which part of the Jewish past should become more prominent at any given moment—at one time, and for some Jews, philanthropy; at another time, and for other Jews, Zionism or Yiddish-speaking socialism; or, as today, institutional religion. The son of the Reform Jewish philanthropist who gives up the last Jewish connections of his father may surprise us by becoming what his father never was, a Zionist. The son of the Yiddish-speaking socialist who abandoned his father’s movement may join the temple. In this way, each generation shoulders a minimal part of the yoke.

There are even more complex patterns than this in the maintenance of the minimal relation to Judaism, and I will mention one. There are American Jews who have been given a good traditional education, and who, following the pattern of the 20’s or 30’s, have broken with all religious observance. They do not attend the synagogue, they do not observe the dietary laws, they do not mark the Jewish holidays, and they do not believe in the existence of God. When this kind of Jew has children, however, he will decide that they should have some sort of Jewish education.

Such a man is not succumbing to suburban middle-class pressures; he can resist them as easily as can the classic village atheist. He may tell himself—and believe-that the children should know what it means to be a Jew, for willy-nilly they will be considered Jews and they must know how to cope with anti-Semitism. But one sees at work here that obscure process whereby a minimal relation to Judaism is established. The mental calculus seems to be as follows: since I myself have had a good traditional education, I can afford to be an agnostic or atheist. My child won’t get such an education, but he should at least get a taste of the Jewish religion.

Philanthropy, Zionism, Jewish organizational life, attachment to Yiddish, an interest in Hasidism, a love of Hebrew, formal religious affiliation, a liking for Jewish jokes and Jewish food—none of these has, on the surface, any particularly religious meaning. Each of them reflects the concerns of the moment. The Protestant social gospel, the needs of Jews in other parts of the world, varied philosophical movements, a tendency to take pride in one’s origins—each finds an echo in American Judaism. It is easy to overlook any common element in the different forms of Judaism of the different generations, and see only the reflection of movements in society and thought at large. Yet what binds all these shifting manifestations of Judaism and Jewishness together is, I repeat, the common refusal to throw off the yoke.

The insistence of the Jews on remaining Jews, which may take the religiously indifferent forms of liking Yiddish jokes, supporting Israel, raising money for North African Jews, and preferring certain kinds of food, thus has a potentially religious meaning. It means that the Jewish religious tradition is not just a subject for scholars, but is capable now and then of finding expression in life. And even if it finds no expression in one generation or another, the commitment to remain related to it still exists. Dead in one, two, or three generations, it may come to life in the fourth.

Or indeed, it may not. Perhaps it is only an act of piety to preserve the relatedness to tradition. Perhaps nothing can come out of it any more, and all that remains for Jews is to act as the custodians of a museum. This is possible, too.



I should not like to leave the matter here, however, but consider—most inadequately—how it is possible for something like the Jewish tradition to become alive again. My point can perhaps best be made by way of a lengthy detour through one of the most exotic manifestations of American Jewish religious life.

My discussion has up to now been concentrated on what is, historically speaking, new—Reform, Conservatism, the new suburban communities—in American Jewish life. What is old—Orthodoxy, the life of the ghettos of the big cities—has played little part in this discussion, even though in the past a majority of American Jews led this life.

Today it is in decay. The areas of “first settlement” are, in all but the largest cities, deserted. The synagogues which were once churches are now churches again, or boarded up. Negroes and Puerto Ricans now run through the corridors of settlement houses and schools in which a whole generation of Jewish businessmen and professionals were educated. But in the largest city, New York, perhaps two or three hundred thousand Jews still live in such neighborhoods.

Up until a few years ago, I would have said that there was nothing to be learned about Judaism in America from these neighborhoods. The Orthodoxy of the areas of first settlement, as we saw, had almost no lasting hold on the children. As they grew up and married, they would move away—if their parents had not already moved away. If, fifteen years ago, we had been asked to predict the future of the Lower East Side in New York and of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, we would have indicated the further decline of the Jewish population and its eventual replacement by Negroes or some new immigrant group. This is what had already happened to the neighborhoods of first Jewish settlement in smaller Jewish communities like Cincinnati.

However, something quite unpredictable happened. In one of these areas of first settlement, there was a revival of an Orthodoxy of the most extreme sort that won over many of the children of the less extreme Orthodox—and even went beyond them.

In Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, in a small area containing about 20,000 people, three-quarters of them Jews, an Orthodox revival took place which, while it will never affect any but the most Orthodox fringes of American Jewry, still has something to tell us about the other variants of Jewish religious life in America.

In the middle and late 30’s, the well-to-do of Williamsburg were moving out, and the half-dozen large synagogues; along with many small ones, were steadily losing members and support. A well-known and extremely Orthodox yeshiva, an all-day Jewish school for boys, and various other institutions of Orthodoxy remained. George Kranzler, writing about what happened in Williamsburg in an unpublished diesis (in the library of Columbia University), which I follow in my account, points out that this neighborhood, undesirable to live in from almost every point of view, was attractive to Orthodox Jews because it permitted them to live a fully Jewish life as no other area did. They were willing to put up with decrepit and verminous apartments, even though many could afford better elsewhere. The less Orthodox who improved their condition moved out; the more Orthodox moved in. From the late 30’s on, these latter included a larger and larger proportion of refugees from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and other countries overrun by Hitler. Soon the “natives” of Williamsburg, who had prided themselves on their Ortho doxy and considered themselves the most Orthodox element in American life, found themselves outflanked by even more Orthodox elements from Europe.1



But this was only the beginning. As Hitler moved into Eastern Europe, he reached the areas around the Carpathian mountains where those European Jews least touched by Westernization and Western influences lived. Here Hasidism was still strong. Many of these Jews were dragged off to extermination camps. After the war, the survivors gathered in the DP camps to study the Talmud again and re-establish their communities around their surviving rebbes. In the late 40’s, a few Hasidic rebbes who had settled, with some followers, in Williamsburg, were joined by rebbes of much greater fame and with many more supporters. The Williamsburg norm of Orthodoxy was confirmed and heightened by this influx. They established kindergartens and all-day schools for boys and girls, and acquired large buildings to use for their residences and synagogues.

If we had here simply a situation in which a particularly backward and archaic group of Jews, uprooted by war, had successfully re-established, in a small area, their old life, there would be little more to say. We know what happens to such ethnic enclaves: the children go to public school and one generation, or at most two, is enough to make ordinary Americans of them, except for those really exceptional groups, like the Mennonites and the Amish, that are capable of resisting the larger environment.

But there is more to this particular story, and it is its most interesting part. First, Mr. Kranzler asserts, the children of this extremely Orthodox element in Williamsburg remain loyal to Orthodoxy in proportions far greater than ever before. One can understand this when one realizes that almost none of them go to public school. And secondly, which is more remarkable, the Williamsburg Hasidim have made new disciples. It is true they did not settle among Conservative or Reform or indifferent Jews; and we are not dealing with a modern religious miracle. As we saw, the Jews of Williamsburg were already Orthodox, and very Orthodox. These young, observant Jews would attend the services of a Hasidic rebbe, drawn by curiosity, and be swept up by the singing and dancing, moved by the personality of the rebbe, and impressed by the devotion of his followers; many would become followers themselves.



Now is it proper to call this “conversion”? Do we have here the kind of spiritual experience which, as I remarked at the beginning, has been so lacking in Jewish life? I think we do—yet the mode of this spiritual experience is very Jewish and not at all Christian. I think it is fair to say that the experience of religious conversion, in Christian usage, requires that one feel in some way called, touched, or influenced by a more than earthly world. This moment, akin to that of a revelation, has as a consequence the acceptance of a creed, dogma, or set of beliefs—after this moment one believes that God exists, or that he saves, or that he watches over men, or that he rewards virtue and punishes sin. Now at no point do the first-hand experiences reported in Kranzler’s account coincide with this kind of conversion. There is no reaching out for another world—there is rather the example of joy in a holy community given by the Hasidim. There is no acceptance of a doctrine as a consequence of this experience. There is only the imposition on oneself of more of the commandments, some of which had already been followed by these Orthodox youth. The commandments may then change their character: they are no longer meaningless demands, but have become the symbolic expression of an inner state of joy or grace.

Now this experience—which we may sum up as the example of a holy or saintly yet joyful life, leading one to accept more of the yoke of the Torah—to my mind is the paradigm of Jewish religious motion, just as a conversion is the paradigm of Christian religious motion. Jewish religious revivals do not involve bringing God directly to people whose hearts are cold, but rather take the form of presenting living examples. This was the case with Hasidism in its early stages, with the Mussar movement of Israel Salanter in 19th-century Lithuania, and it is the case with these Hasidic rebbes in Williamsburg.

It is not God, directly, found after an inner search, that changes man, but it is the example of the good and holy man and, even more significantly, the example of the good and holy community, and it is to suggest the significance of example in Jewish religious life that I have told this story. (A second reason I have told it is because it teaches us that, no matter how searching our analysis, events may surprise us.)

But what can we say now of the ordinary Jews attending Reform temples and Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, to whom the Hasidic sects are almost as foreign as the Holy Rollers? This paradigm of Jewish religious motion we have described in Williamsburg may, I believe, though in an extremely attenuated form, it is true, be seen in operation among other American Jews insofar as they are in any way touched by religion. Consider the Conservative movement. It speaks of the necessity of maintaining some of the practices of Orthodox Judaism, it urges the use of Hebrew, it speaks of the fellowship that should bind together the worldwide community of Jews. No creed can even begin to emerge from these principles. Instead of depending on the attraction of a philosophy, which may convince people by reason or by giving them answers, it depends on the example of a Jewish life.

This is why Hebrew is so important to Conservative Judaism. What is the good, it has been asked, of taking children away for a summer to a Hebrew-speaking camp so they can learn to say “Please pass the butter” in Hebrew? It makes one no more of a believer to know how to speak in Hebrew than in English. What is happening, however, is that the Conservative Jewish leaders, like the Hasidic rebbes, are trying to provide an example of a Jewish life so that it will not be necessary to argue and put out apologetic literature—it will only be necessary to say, “Be a good Jew,” and give an example of what it is to be a good Jew. In the same way, the Reform movement, once so concerned to formulate a creed, is now indifferent to that problem, but rather asks itself: what example of a Jewish life should we present, what rituals should we urge for the home, how much Hebrew should we require a Jew to know, what kind of ethical behavior should being a Jew impose on one?

Here we are, of course, very far from the Hasidim of Williamsburg, who need not ponder about what kind of Jewish life to live (though even they have certain problems in this respect). They are guided by tradition, and by leaders whose word is law. Among other Jews—and this includes Orthodox as well as Conservative and Reform Jews—the problem is the creation of a meaningful Jewish life whose power can make itself felt over those many Jews who remain, and wish to remain, open to the influence of an example. If Judaism is to become in America more than a set of religious institutions supported by a variety of social pressures, it will be by virtue of examples of Jewish lives that in some way are meaningful, that in some way permit one to be a Jew. It would be ridiculous to set up qualifications for these examples, to say they may spring up in this or that grouping in American Jewish religious life, and not in the other. What can fulfill a human life cannot be known in advance. All we can know, from the history of Judaism, is that the abstract demand to seek faith, to find God, tends to find no answer among Jews; and that concrete examples of a Jewish life must be given before religion has impact on their lives. Once again, honesty requires one to say that it is likely that no satisfactory example can be given in the modern world; it is possible that those moments in Jewish history when the Jews were truly a people of priests and a holy nation required circumstances that can never be repeated.



In the Talmud, on occasion the voice of God interrupts or joins the discussions of the sages. With that customary Jewish circumspectness in speaking of God, it is not, in the text, the voice of God that is heard, but the echo of the voice—not the kol but the bat kol—for after the end of the age of prophecy, it was no longer possible to hear the voice of God directly. I have suggested that we are quite a few stages past that. Certainly, we shall not hear the voice or the echo, or even perhaps the echo of the echo. But something is still left. What is left is a relation to a tradition in which, from all one can tell, the echo once sounded, and there was a readiness to listen. What will come of it I do not know.



1 See also Walter Goodman’s “The Hasidim Come to Williamsburg” in COMMENTARY For March 1955. —ED.


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.