A Tale of Conflict and Disagreement

By David BialeJanuary 7, 2019

A Tale of Conflict and Disagreement

The Chosen Wars by Steven R. Weisman

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.

The story that Weisman tells is familiar to scholars of American Jewish history, and he is generous in acknowledging the spadework done by these historians. His is a work of synthesis and popular history in the best sense of the word. And he tells his story with verve and insight.

What sets off his book is a striking argument about the way American Judaism came into existence and what it tells us about the character of American Jews. This is a tale of conflict and disagreement. Far from a triumphal march of progress from Orthodoxy to Reform, it is a story of contentious personalities and fights between reforming rabbis and their recalcitrant congregations. As Weisman writes about Isaac Mayer Wise (the moderate reformer who sought to create a unified American Judaism): “Instead of unity, Wise’s efforts produced disputes. But even these disagreements defined the history that all American Jews have inherited.” It is no surprise that Jewish history is filled with conflict, but Weisman is on solid ground in demonstrating how the very dynamism that allowed the Jews to survive was a direct result of controversy.

From its inception, the American Jewish community has been marked by a drive to acculturate, if not fully assimilate. Already in the 1820s and 1830s, the Jews of Charleston, one of the oldest communities in North America, was wracked by conflicts over religious innovations, such as introducing an organ into the synagogue. The conservatives appealed to the courts of South Carolina to enforce their interpretation of Jewish tradition. In the landmark Butler verdict, the court determined that the state should not interfere in the practices of religious communities, which they need to decide by themselves. The court assumed that religions evolve in response to their surroundings and that it is not up to the secular state to uphold tradition. As opposed to the medieval Jewish communities in Europe, which enjoyed state sanction to enforce the laws of Judaism, American Jewish communities were thus declared “voluntary associations.” In this respect, 19th-century American Judaism was even freer than contemporaneous Jewish communities in Europe, which often continued to function as quasi-state bodies, or today’s Israeli Judaism which labors under state-sanction Orthodoxy.

Weisman’s book is filled with colorful and contradictory personalities. There is the bombastic Wise, whose attempts at reform earned him a fistfight with the Albany synagogue president. Or the dour David Einhorn, the advocate of radical reform who opposed circumcision for converts because he opposed circumcision. Even more radical was Felix Adler, who denied the existence of a personal God and abandoned Judaism for “ethical culture.” And then there is Isaac Leeser, the defender of tradition who nonetheless at times found common cause with Wise. Nowhere in this dramatis personae do we find anything like the modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox so familiar today: these were products of the separate histories of the German and East-European Jews.

Wise’s grand plan for a unified American Judaism came to naught. A singular and fabled event was emblematic of this failure. In 1883, a banquet was planned in Cincinnati to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Hebrew Union College and of the reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Whether intentionally or not, the caterer served up various non-kosher delicacies like shrimp and clams. A veritable controversy broke out in which two traditionalists reportedly stormed out. Refusing to apologize, Wise derided his opponents as followers of “stomach Judaism.” As Weisman argues, the controversy accelerated, “at least on the symbolic eve, the division of Jews into two warring camps.”

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.

For Weisman, then, it was these 19th-century controversies that poured the foundations for American Judaism in the 20th and 21st centuries. He summarizes the later developments rapidly toward the end of the book. Perhaps too rapidly for there remain some outstanding questions. First, by focusing so exclusively on the American story, he does not sufficiently account for the European roots of American Reform. He argues that Reform in Germany was thwarted by the mid-19th century by antisemitism, but this was not, in fact, the case. Germany continued to play an outsized role in American Jewish religion into the early 20th century.

Second, a conundrum still remains in understanding how the East-European immigration to the United States influenced American Judaism. These immigrants did adapt to the practices and institutions that Weisman ably describes, but the process was hardly straightforward and deserves a more complete explication. In particular, these immigrants embraced a social justice definition of Judaism out of their own experience in the American working class, a development that did not take place in the synagogue. Moreover, it was not only American Jews who defined themselves by progressive politics. The same was true of many Jews in Europe generally, where Jews led a variety of liberal and revolutionary movements. The history of American Jewish religion is only one facet of this broader, transnational phenomenon.

Finally, one wonders whether contemporary American Reform Judaism has really abandoned its “classical” roots. To be sure, as Weisman argues, Reform Judaism threw off its hostility to Zionism by the 1960s. But as an increasingly authoritarian and ethnocentric politics has taken hold in both the State of Israel and the United States, many Reform Jews — and others as well — are no longer so sure about the identification of American Judaism with Zionism. While they continue to support the right of the Jews to a sovereign state, many have renewed their earlier embrace of social justice as a core Jewish value. The 19th-century reformers would not find their spiritual descendants to be so foreign.


David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of History of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis

LARB Contributor

David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis. His most recent book is Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!