American Judaism

I finally visited the library a few weeks ago and got my hands on American Judaism by Jonathan Sarna.  Too often the world of Jewish history is full of bleak predictions of doom and gloom.  Who wants to read about the demise of your people? No one.  Sarna’s positive outlook on American Judaism was a breath of fresh air that I could not wait to return to each time I put it down.

He presents a tale of American Judaism that has always reflected the historical outlook of its era.  The American Revolution allowed Jews to build proud edifices to their faith, decorated in Hebrew and with Judaic symbols.  Judaism adopted the successful and admirable qualities of different faith groups, enriching, nourishing and sustaining the faith, allowing Jews to live freely as pious or secular members of society.

Woven within the 350 pages are the vacillations between inclusive and exclusive strategies of maintaining synagogue membership and Jewish self-identification.  Even today, Jews grapple with compromising for unity and firmness for principle.

I had never heard of the evolution of the institutional purpose(s) of the synagogue, but it completely makes sense that it became a child indoctrination center due to suburban sprawl.  I feel now that they are beginning to swing toward adult services too, understanding that Judaism doesn’t correlate with one life phase alone.

A very interesting model for determining the likelihood of ritual retention/practice was offered in the pages, and it really struck me at how true it is, even outside of religious considerations.  According to Marshall Sklare, the highest degree of retention occurs when a ritual:

“1) is capable of effective redefinition in modern terms

2) does not demand social isolation or the adoption of a unique life style

3) accords with the religious culture of the larger community and provides a “Jewish” alternative when such is felt to be needed

4) is centered on the child

5) is performed annually or infrequently.”

I also enjoyed the outline he provided about the distinct responses to modernity offered by American Jews.  New York congregations worked within Judaism to accept the non-controversial aspects of American life–what today would be called the MO approach.  Congregations in South Carolina, however, decided Judaism itself needed to reflect the time–what would be called the Reform approach today.  I had never realized until he made the point that both reject the Sephardic tradition of having a uniform minhag throughout the world because the authority lay with, well the laymen, and not the elite organization authority.

I realized I held too monolithic an understanding of European Jews–I did not realize there was such a distinction in practice, belief, and authority figures among Lithuanian, Hungarian, Polish, and German communities.  I am delighted to have corrected on this assumption, and I feel propelled to better understand Medieval Jewish Europe to the Renaissance time.

I was also strengthened in the knowledge that other Jews have struggled to maintain an amicable relationship with Israel the Holy Land.  I love being American.  I love the diversity of Judaism’s here.  It frustrates me that Israel receives so much of our attention and so little of our criticism.  It’s just nice to know that some viewed America as the Promised Land for what it enable Jews to do, years before other nations.  Israel with always be the Holy Land, and I want it always to be open to Jewish life.  But I’m tired of feeling like America is so damn awful a place to live in that we all need to flee the Diaspora.

I’ve waffled between movement affiliations in the past.  One quote (p. 136) really stuck out to me, from a Max Cohen who described what I feel the Conservative movement’s strengths currently appear to be in my eyes: “while not inordinately addicted to Orthodoxy as a rigid standardization of thought and conduct, was yet opposed to the wholesale and reckless discarding of everything that was Jewish simply because it was inconvenient, oriental, or was not in conformity with Episcopalian customs.”  That is why Conservative Judaism appeals so much to me–yes, life changes, yes, our understanding of the world and the Holy changes, but that requires careful assessment of current practice, not utter rejection and reinvention each time the social era restructures itself economically or culturally.

The biggest lesson of America, and American Judaism, is that religion thrives when religion and state are separated. That’s America’s greatest, proven lesson to the world, and a good explanation as to why America is still so religious.

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One thought on “American Judaism

  1. This sounds like a terrific book! Thank you for the recommendation; I’ll add it to my reading list.

    While I share your wish that more American Jews would understand that Diaspora life is no less authentic than that in Israel, I don’t have a problem having “an amicable relationship with Israel.” Sure, I’m very critical of some Israeli policy, but I’m also very critical of US policy…and I’m a proud American.

    By the way, I’m also in SF, so I’m especially interested in your blog. Keep up the great work!

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