The Magazine

Synagogue and State

The Jews in America--then and now.

May 17, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 34 • By BENJAMIN BALINT
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American Judaism

A History

by Jonathan D. Sarna

Yale University Press, 490 pp., $35

WHAT HAPPENS to a minority faith, well acquainted with governmental persecution, when it suddenly finds itself transplanted to a new country that offers unprecedented freedom from old constraints? In his comprehensive survey of Judaism in America, Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor at Brandeis University, offers an impressively detailed reply.

As Sarna tells the story in American Judaism: A History, Jews in this country have faced a paradox ever since the first Sephardic refugees from the Inquisition established a merchant community in New Amsterdam in 1654. The values of self-determination and autonomy, learned from American Protestantism, allowed Judaism in the United States to flourish in some ways even as it disintegrated in others. Jews felt confident that Judaism and Americanism were compatible--some early arrivals considering their new home a "second Jerusalem"--but they were also beset by the fear, Sarna writes, "that the melting pot would subsume them."

The pot, of course, was partially of their own making, since even in those first days, the mere presence of Jews helped to expand the definition of American religious freedom: "Giving [the Jews] liberty, we cannot refuse the Lutherans and Papists," New Amsterdam's colonial governor, Peter Stuyvesant, concluded. And their fear of assimilating was justified. Sarna finds that nearly 30 percent of known marriages of Jews between 1776 and 1840 involved a non-Jewish spouse. Meanwhile, the notions of synagogue and community, until then virtually synonymous, became increasingly decoupled, and there were few leaders to confront demographic or theological threats to the nascent community. "Rabbis," Sarna reminds us, "did not regularly grace American pulpits until 1840," when German Jews began to immigrate en masse.

The German-trained rabbis led by Isaac Mayer Wise were the first to come, and they brought with them Reform Judaism and its drastic departures from what is now called Orthodoxy. Reform's definitive 1885 "Pittsburgh Platform" insisted the Bible reflected only the "primitive ideas of its own age," rejected ritual commandments in favor of a progressive social justice (which Sarna calls "the Jewish equivalent of the Protestant Social Gospel"), and urged American Jews to "consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community." In an 1898 statement, the Reform movement formally joined to this a firm anti-Zionism: "America is our Zion. . . . The mission of Judaism is spiritual, not political."

Sarna shows that the birth of Conservative Judaism--and of its Jewish Theological Seminary, reorganized and revitalized by Solomon Schechter beginning in 1902--represented a turning back from these principles toward traditionalism. Along the way, it supplied further evidence that American Jews could not unite beneath any kind of central religious authority. Reform's rapid spread was ultimately checked not by its Conservative opponents, but by the arrival of some two million East European Jews between 1881 and 1914 fleeing state-sponsored pogroms and poverty. By 1918, the Jewish population in New York City alone exceeded that of Western Europe, South America, and Palestine combined. This large swell of immigrants was stopped by the restrictive quotas Congress imposed between 1917 and 1924, but not before flooding American Jewish communities with radical antireligious socialists (who saw their Reform German predecessors as hopelessly bourgeois) and pious talmudists (who thought Reform rabbis religiously ignorant).

The decimation of Europe's Jews in World War II, as the 1949 American Jewish Year Book made clear, "left the United States the center of world Judaism." Sarna devotes much space to the postwar years, during which Jews enjoyed broader social acceptance, entrance into the suburban middle class, a growing interest in Jewish theologians like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the recognition of Judaism as the country's "third faith"--a process described in Will Herberg's aptly named 1955 sociological study, Protestant-Catholic-Jew.

Sarna makes Israel's 1967 Six Day War the last major turning point of his story because of its enormously galvanizing impact on American-Jewish consciousness. In its aftermath, as the historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz said, many Jews found that "their ideas of war, which had been shaped by Vietnam, were irrelevant to Israel," which became the object of intensified solidarity and philanthropy.

AMERICAN JUDAISM is the most ambitious treatment of the subject since Nathan Glazer's 1957 book of the same title, considered a classic of the genre. But if Sarna's is richer in its smooth synthesis of wide-ranging empirical and scholarly data, it is poorer in interpretive power. Sarna's writing style tends toward the textbookish. When he lays out the sides of a historical controversy (for example, could American Jews have done more to rescue their brethren under Nazi rule?), he consistently declines to render a judgment. And Sarna's method, which takes many of its cues from the great American Jewish historian Jacob Rader Marcus and from Sydney Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People, cannot be called highly original.

Sarna's focus on institutions, moreover, prevents him from developing the keen sensitivity Glazer displayed to definitional problems such as whether "Judaism remains an ethnic commitment more than a transcendent faith"; to political concerns such as the relation of Jews to liberalism; and to cultural questions such as how the Jews (as Irving Howe once observed) managed to export elements of their culture to America, just as they were losing it themselves.

Perhaps most tellingly, it has been decades since American Jewry could be usefully comprehended by means of "waves of immigration." The differences between the children of the Sephardic, German, and East European immigrants has long since disappeared--and Sarna, for all his admirable thoroughness, hasn't replaced the immigration model with a fresh analysis. If the best historical works afford us a map of the current terrain, American Judaism provides a detailed but not especially useful cartography.

Benjamin Balint is assistant editor of Commentary magazine.