January 8, 2019


A Tale of Conflict and Disagreement (David Biale, JANUARY 7, 2019, LA Review of Books)

IN THE WAKE of the October 2018 massacre of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, the place of Jews and Judaism in the United States has suddenly come into sharp relief. In particular, the awkward attempt of political and religious leaders in Israel to express their solidarity only highlighted how different American Jews are from their Israeli cousins. So, for example, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel refused to call the site of the murders a synagogue because the worshipers were either Conservative or Reconstructionist Jews rather than Orthodox. And Israel's Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett, tried to tie the crime of the White Nationalist shooter to the rockets that Hamas in Gaza regularly shoots at the south of Israel. As if all hatred of Jews is the same.

What also became clear after the Pittsburgh murders is how American Jews as a whole are defined by a commitment to social justice. The murderer was incensed by the work of HIAS, the Jewish immigrant aid society, in resettling refugees and immigrants (never mind that there are eight other non-Jewish agencies funded by the federal government to engage in the same work). This was a charge to which many in the synagogue would no doubt plead guilty.

Steven Weisman's The Chosen Wars offers a nuanced analysis of how this American Judaism arose and how it came to define Jews in the United States. Weisman's focus is on the early history of American Jews, with a particular emphasis on the 19th century. He pays relatively little attention to the period of mass migration from Eastern Europe, starting in the 1880s and lasting until the 1924 restrictive immigration law. Although he does not say so explicitly, Weisman seems to hold that the institutions created by Sephardic and German Jewish immigrants before the East-European influx were the ones that persisted into the present day. Said differently, the new immigrants from Eastern Europe, who would vastly out-number earlier Jewish immigrants, ultimately came to accept the Judaism that those earlier American Jews created. [...]

In 1885, a conference of rabbis issued the "Pittsburgh Platform," the would-be constitution for classical Reform Judaism. This was not a declaration of independence for American Judaism tout court, as Wise had envisioned, but instead, says Weisman, a "declaration of war." The result was not unity, but the rise of Conservative Judaism, a more traditionalist compromise and of new forms of Orthodoxy as well.

The prevailing belief of Reform Jews was that while revelation may not have been divine, the Jews nevertheless had a divine mission, which was tikkun olam (social justice), the Jewish equivalent of the social gospel of late-19th-century Christianity. In the formulation of the Reform leader Kaufmann Kohler, who was influenced by Charles Darwin, the Jews are the most morally fit people, a product of divine natural selection. As Arnold Eisen showed many years ago, American Jewish thinkers like Kohler were able to transform the old idea of the Jews as a chosen people into a uniquely American doctrine.

Posted by at January 8, 2019 12:01 AM