God in America
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Interview: Jeffrey Gurock

Jeffrey Gurock

Gurock is a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and chair of the Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 2, 2010.

Characterize the dominant religion in America in the late 1860s, early 1870s.

America is a Protestant country with a very significant Catholic minority, and very often the Catholics and Protestants are in conflict with one another on religious items, educational items. The Jewish component therein is a relatively small minority, but during the period after the Civil War, you'll see a significant migration of Jews primarily from Central [Europe] to the United States.

“It's a battle over how we're going to define ourselves in the modern world, and to what extent we want to maintain our particular cultures and traditions as we integrate in America …”

If you go back to the Revolutionary War, there are only 1,000 or 1,500 Jews in the United States. By the 1860s, the numbers of Jews have risen to about 50,000, on the road to a quarter million. So you have a very significant Catholic minority within this Protestant majority, very small Jewish component, and frankly, in terms of tolerance in America, the issue is more of acceptance of Catholics in this country rather than Jews. To a great extent, Jews are not noticed because of the paucity of numbers until the 1850s, 1860s. But as we move through that time period, there will be an increase in Jewish numbers, and with that, that possibility of creating larger Jewish institutions. Critical masses of Jews arrive, and also Jews become far more visible to the Christian majority and of course to the dominant Protestant denominational life in America.

In 1870, does being American have a religious component?

I think, for the white majority in America, there's a basic level of tolerance for a variety of religions, so consequently, I don't think your religious confession is all that important in defining whether you're American. Remember, we're still in an era of expansion of America out to the West, and the issues of what new Americans will mean for the Protestant majority are not all that robust until a little bit later in our history, so that I think [there is] this tolerance for minority religion.

By the same token, there's a great desire on the part of minorities -- in one particular case, the Jews -- to act and look and behave like the Protestant majority without abandoning their faith.

And that's one of the critical crises for Jews: How do I become American without abandoning my Jewish tradition, the totality of my Jewish tradition or portions thereof? And Jewish denominations will split on that, as all want to become Americanized, but they will differ to the extent to which they want to abandon or temper their longstanding Jewish traditions.

The Jewish immigrant coming to New York at the end of the 19th century: From an immigrant's perspective, what was it like to arrive? What are they feeling?

They're feeling liberated that they've made it to America, but the challenge that they're going to face is twofold. One, they're part of a larger immigrant saga, because Jews don't come alone on those boats, or Italians and Greeks and others who are looking for the advantages of American freedom. Jews are coming for the same reasons, but they're also dealing with the question of, how do I maintain my Jewish traditions in a country that's highly accepting of me? That's a very, very different phenomenon for Jews. Jews in Eastern Europe, although Eastern Europe is changing a lot in the 19th century, is a place where maintaining one's Jewish traditions is organic; it's part of your life. When you come to America, there are new challenges: "I want to advance in America, but I want to maintain my traditions. How do I nuance this? How do I balance it?"

Public life in America is dominated by Protestants, but there is freedom. Explain the freedom part.

Freedom is a great challenge for traditional faith, particularly for Jews. In the mid-1890s, one of the most revered rabbis in Eastern Europe -- his name was Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan -- admonished Jews in Eastern Europe. He said: "Don't come to America. America is an unkosher land. And if you go to America, you'll lose your Judaism." So why would he say that? Because he realized that Jews coming to America, given the opportunity to advance in this country, with some limitations, would be challenged in terms of maintaining their Jewishness.

A classic example: American socioreligious culture says that you work six days a week and you rest on the seventh. But the seventh isn't the Jewish Sabbath; it's the Christian Sabbath. And all over this country, you have the phenomenon known as blue laws, where stores are closed and factories are closed, and if you open your store, you open your factory, you're liable for fines. So now, as a Jew, I have to make a choice: Am I going to work six days or five days and observe my Sabbath, because Sunday is off limits? So choices have to be made. ...

It's an American Christian society that's very accepting of Jews, but raises challenges in terms of maintaining one's tradition. So this rabbi says it's better to live under oppression in Eastern Europe and live a full Jewish life than to come to America and be challenged.

Truth of the matter is, his depiction of Eastern Europe in the 1890s is an idealized vision, because, in fact, some Jews are already [working on the Sabbath] back in Eastern Europe. Having said that, the challenges of America in terms of maintaining one's traditions are very, very powerful and impactful upon Jewish families. For example, traditional Jewish families might have a Sabbath meal Friday night, just like they would back in Eastern Europe. Six a.m. Saturday morning, Mom and Dad go out to work, admonish their children to maintain the Sabbath while they're out working, but while the parents are away, the children will play. And there will be a decline in observance within that second generation that doesn't have the experience and feeling of Eastern Europe, and is even challenged more than their parents by the promises of America.

So the children, boys and girls, 99 percent of them are going to the public schools. Public schools in America are nonsectarian schools, as Christians define nonsectarianism, which means no specific form of Christianity is taught, and no specific theological Christianity is emphasized in the school. Jewish children have to deal with Easter pageants, Christmas celebrations and the like, which are pitched not as a way of promoting Christianity but as a way of teaching America to the children of immigrants. So the Jewish child comes home and says to his parents: "I've got good news. I've been chosen to be Joseph in the Christmas pageant." That wouldn't have happened in Eastern Europe. It's a crisis.

Jews look at these schools and want these schools to be totally nonsectarian. And in fact, in the early 20th century, in the great city of New York, there's actually a boycott of public schools by Jews, because too much Christianity is being taught in the schools. And when Christians hear it, they say: "What are you talking about? It's not Christianity; it's America." So that's a major crisis.

One of the end products of this crisis, one of the Jewish responses, is to elevate what was in Eastern Europe a relatively minor holiday called Hanukkah, which comes at the same time as Christmas, to a level not seen previously in Jewish history, as a Jewish alternative during what we call the holiday season, although they didn't call it the holiday season back then.

When Rabbi Kagan says America is a treyf land, an unkosher land, what does he mean?

… He's basically saying that Jewish traditions are going to be challenged. "Treyf," in a sense, means off limits, OK, outside the pale of Jewish tradition. This free libertine America is wide open and therefore problematic. And ironically, he says: "If you've made the mistake and come to America, go back home." And we know that in some cases, Jews do go back, because they find that it's impossible to live this traditional life. The more common response is either to nuance one's Judaism or to strive to maintain the traditions in this country despite all the problems.

What are the challenges in America in terms of the dietary laws?

For East European immigrants, the challenge really is an economic one: the high cost of kosher meat. But interestingly enough, and I think this has a little bit to do, if not a lot to do, with the greater fidelity of Jewish women than men to the tradition, that at least during the first generation, Jewish women maintained kosher homes; they frequent Jewish butchers in the Jewish neighborhoods. The other piece of the story is, to break with the kosher laws and traditions and to opt for what I'll call American culinary styles is a function of feeling a part of America. ...

In a Christian America, people eat whatever they want to eat. Why do Jews have laws about food?

Well, the laws regarding kosher food are biblically ordained. There are certain foods that, in the five books of Moses, are said explicitly [to be] off limits to Jews: shellfish, for example; pork products, for example; eating milk with meat. Beyond those basic laws and traditions, there are all sorts of rabbinic overlays with regard to, how do you slaughter the meat? How do you prepare the meat? What sort of dishes do you use? Multiple sets of dishes [are used] in a kosher home. So these [are] the traditions of 1,000 years' duration that most immigrant Jews bring with them to the United States.

Now, in all candor, there are those who come to the United States, among Jews, who have been radicalized in Eastern Europe, who have no interest in maintaining these traditions. But what I'll call the rank and file feels this very strongly, and they're not yet integrated with the majority culture. ... Eventually, when you enter into partnerships, working relationships with Christians, and when you all go out to eat together, then these types of problems will manifest themselves, and then you have to make all sorts of decisions: I will work with you, I will deal with you, but will I eat with you? That's a little bit later on, as Jews become Americanized, acculturated, and, I would say, this is in most instances beyond the first generation. ...

Kosher becomes more problematic for Jews as they acculturate and attempt to enter into American society. It's only in 1950 that kosher food is available on airplanes. That's a signal moment in terms of Jewish integration: American respect for Jewish dietary laws. So what I'm saying is kosher food is not challenged day one. Sabbath is challenged day one.

American Protestants don't [have] much ritual or tradition. How is Judaism different?

Judaism differs from Christianity not only in theological terms; Judaism is a civilization. Someone who converts to Judaism is not only signing on to the particular theological tenets of the Jewish faith and what the Jewish faith says about the individual's relationship to the Almighty, but you're part of a Jewish community, with a history, a nationality, a culture; you're part of a very, very different group. And to some extent, it's that civilization which is more powerful with Jews than these theological distinctions. So Italian Catholics, they're Italian nationally, they're Italian ethnically, and they're Catholic theologically. Jews are a civilization, a historical nationality, and that has an immense power beyond what I guess Christians would say personal confession and relationship to God.

Now, the more traditional a Jew would be, the more concerned he or she would be with those theological connections, commandments from God to Jewish people and ultimately to the world. But I think for most Jews, it is this civilization which is highly compelling. I think that's one of the fundamental distinctions.

To be part of the civilization, if you don't have a homeland, is that why the ritual and traditions are more certain?

The traditions are maintained in pre-modern times because of the fact that Jews live as a separate civilization from the rest of the world. So as Jews in modern times integrate into the host society, the question of maintaining these traditions becomes far more apparent, and yet for most Jews there's a sense that they are part of a Jewish group, not just a denomination or a theological group.

What do we know about Isaac Mayer Wise's background in Bohemia?

We know that Isaac Mayer Wise was not a major theological personality or religious leader back in Radnitz, Bohemia, when he comes to America. In fact, among some historians there's some controversy as to whether in fact he was an ordained rabbi. But that phenomenon of people coming to America who claim to be rabbis and [are] not really rabbis is an interdenominational Jewish phenomenon.

Prior to coming to America, he is someone who is not a major player during this time of great theological uproar in Germany over reform. He is, to a great extent, a nonentity. He's an immigrant. And in some respects, he's like those 50,000 to a quarter million Jews who come from Central Europe, who themselves are not so caught up in all this modernist talk and action and transformation that's going on in Central Europe. He comes to America ambitious, desiring to lead American Jewry. He has broken with some of the traditional tenets, but he's a very careful reformer, and he attempts to make his mark in America with this cohort of Central European Jews that he hopes to lead. ...

He's able to succeed in areas where others who came before him and after were unsuccessful. I wouldn't call him the father of Reform Judaism in America. I would call him the builder of Reform Judaism, although he would object to that. He would have wanted us to see him as the builder of American Judaism, period, with himself as the prime leader.

Would he have been aware of the theological thinking in Germany?

Unlike many of the congregants that he deals with and seeks to lead -- many of them had no understanding or connection to any of these great debates -- Isaac Mayer Wise, though not a major player or great participant in the theological debates taking place in Germany over nationality and ritual and the importance of the Hebrew language and the question of a corporeal Messiah and the like, he's keenly aware of what's going on around him in Central Europe before he comes to the United States.

How does Wise see America as a place for being Jewish?

Well, he sees American Judaism as a mess when he arrives. What I mean by a mess is, it is a totally voluntary system that he encounters. It's poorly organized, very few leaders, and, significantly, large numbers of Jews falling away from Jewish practice, tradition, and a few, but a significant number, who are opting to become more than just Americans, becoming Christians.

This is a period where you have the beginnings of missionary work, Christians upon Jewish immigrants, and he's very concerned about that dynamic. But more importantly than the handfuls of Jews who become Christians, he's recognizing that there is no set ritual for American Jews, no organizational structure for American Jews, and he worries that in this open, free American world, there will be a significant deterioration in Jewish identity, as do many of the lay leaders of that time period.

Late 1840s, Wise becomes a rabbi in Albany, [N.Y.] Who were these Jews in Albany?

From what we know of the congregants, the ethnicity of the congregants at Beth-El, most of them come from either portions of Poland that are controlled by Germany or from Bavaria, from southern Germany. They are poor; they're immigrants; and perhaps most importantly, in understanding their mind-set, is that they are part of a large numbers of Jews who are untouched by most of the theological changes and debates that are going on in the larger cities in Germany, in the Breslaus, in the Frankfurts, in the Berlins and the Colognes, etc. The Judaism that they knew, that they brought with them from Europe, is a traditional form of Judaism. For lack of a better term, we'll call it Orthodox Judaism, which is a term that comes into the Jewish vernacular at that time, not by Orthodox Jews themselves but by their opponents, who see orthodoxy as this backward faith.

Now, it doesn't mean that upon arrival in America they will be totally or particularly observant of the Jewish commandments, but they don't know much in terms of alternatives. So when they build a synagogue, they build a synagogue that reminds them of the synagogues they knew in the past, and those synagogues are traditional synagogues. So they hire a rabbi who is of their ethnic background, and he's given the job of leading them.

Wise comes with a mixed agenda. On the one hand, he wants to maintain the traditions, but he feels that as the congregation is starting to Americanize, he wants to modernize portions of the ritual. In fact, he does establish a mixed-voice choir, men and women, which you would not see in a traditional synagogue, whether in America or back in Europe. He talks about a confirmation service for boys and girls, which is not really contrary to Jewish law; it's just something that Jews didn't do. And [he talks about] other basic modifications in synagogue life. And he runs into a congregation that's not exactly sure they want these changes.

Now, Wise is a very complex person. At the same time that he's an advocate for these types of changes, he's very strong in promoting Jewish education. He's an anti-missionary fighter. He also speaks from the pulpit and chastises congregants who are working on the Sabbath. That's awfully Orthodox, awfully traditional in that type of behavior. So the question is, who's in charge here? Is it the congregants who are in charge, or the rabbi who's in charge? And this is not necessarily a Jewish story; it's an American religious story. Is the pastor in charge, or is the laity in charge? Well, some of the things that he does anger the synagogue leadership.

In 1850, there's a very significant, almost defining moment where he ends up in the audience in Charleston, S.C., during a great debate between Rabbi Morris Raphall of New York, who debates Cantor Gustav Poznanski of the first Reform congregation in America in Charleston, over the basic question of messianism, or corporeal rising. And during the debate, Raphall turns to Wise and says, "Do you believe in the revival of the dead?" It's one of the basic tenets of Judaism. And Wise says no. Well, this has some spin effect with the congregation.

So look at the complexity here. Here's a man who's suggesting ritual changes. He's affirming the maintaining of the tradition with Sabbath, very strongly speaking out about it, alienating people. At the same time, he's saying publicly that he has a theological view that's breaking with a basic tenet of the faith. It's a very confusing scenario, but not so confusing to the synagogue leadership that's unhappy with him because he's pushing the envelope in a number of different directions.

So they fire him. He arrives in synagogue on Rosh Hashana, the first day of the Jewish New Year, in 1850, and he walks in, and he's about to assume his seat on the pulpit, which is occupied by the synagogue president, who ends up punching him, knocking his cap off. And a mini riot [ensues] within the synagogue. They have to call out the sheriff, and that's the end of his experience at Congregation Beth-El.

The next day, Wise organizes his own separate minyan congregation, [a gathering of at least 10 men in Orthodox Jewish tradition], which evolves into Congregation Anshe Emeth, the People of Truth. Parenthetically but significantly, in the 19th century, when there are interdenominational or intercongregational disputes among Jews, and one group of Jews breaks away from the congregation, the names they choose often reflect synagogue battles. You can imagine what you're saying about your opponents by the name that you chose.

How would you characterize the traditionalist position? What do they want?

I think there are three dimensions to why synagogue leadership doesn't like Isaac Mayer Wise. One piece is, there are those who would not like these ritual changes, because they've never seen it before in their lives. Coming from Europe, these things didn't exist in the communities that they came. Secondly, there are issues of power in the synagogue. Here our rabbi got up in his pulpit, and he chastised us for not maintaining the traditions. That would lead to personal anger toward the rabbi. And the third piece is that he's espousing, although probably not teaching it to the young people, a vision of Judaism which is theologically different from what they understood the faith taught prior to that time. And to deny the idea of a corporeal Messiah, or to deny the idea of the resurrection of the dead, there's a very strong dissent from the faith.

But of the three pieces, perhaps the most problematic aspect, and this transcends Wise, is the power of the laity vis-à-vis the rabbi: Whose synagogue is this? And this goes throughout American Jewish history, where you have situations where the rabbi says: "I'm the teacher of the place. You've hired me to lead you. I'm the leader." "Well, you're a leader in some respects. In other respects, we control the purse strings; we control the power." And Wise's experience is far from idiosyncratic because it happens a lot.

What does that tell us about religion in America, unlike in Europe?

One of the signs that Jews are Americanizing is that they're watching how Protestants behave. And to a great extent, that sort of problem between laity and ministry exists in other denominations. And I also think it's a function of American democracy: one person, one vote; a democratic system, a voluntary system where it is the individual rather than the ecclesiastical leader who calls the shots.

In the 1850s, Max Lilienthal comes to America from Germany, and he writes back to Germany about the way rabbis are treated in America. It's sort of an admonition: "Before you decide to come as a rabbi to America, understand that the congregations are highly powerful and have control over the actions of the rabbis.

Why didn't that happen in Europe?

In pre-modern times, the rabbi is not the spiritual leader of the community; he is the leader of the community. He, in a sense, is the political leader of the community and therefore has a tremendous amount of power. He also has the power of the tradition behind him. But in America, things are starting to change. Now, to be candid with you, it's getting more difficult for rabbis in Europe as well, but America is probably the best example of this libertine attitude that laity have toward their rabbis.

So Wise is a Reform story, but it's an American story. We see him as this builder of Reform Judaism. His early story is repeated oftentimes, albeit very often without the fisticuffs, where rabbis try to lead and congregants have their own vision. So what does the rabbi do? The rabbi either leaves, changes or convinces the congregants to follow his way of doing things. It is this give-and-take that goes on.

Before the fight, characterize the buildup of the tensions. How does Wise handle it?

Wise's approach to ritual change, congregational change, is: "I will only lead the congregation in the direction that the people want. I'll help them move in a modern direction while maintaining tradition." From his point of view, the types of changes he's implementing are tweaking of the system, not transforming of the system. He sees himself as a very cautious, careful reformer. And clearly, it played quite well with significant numbers of the congregants, because those are the congregants who will walk with him after being punched and [will take part in] establishing his congregation. What he might not have realized immediately is that there are elements within the congregation who feel that your tentative, careful changes are radical breaks with what we're comfortable with. So that is that tension.

So I think his being fired, and certainly being punched, comes as a surprise to him, because he thinks that he's helping the congregation move in the appropriate modern direction with all due deference for the tradition. And that's why he'll speak so strongly about observing the Sabbath.

How is this [fistfight] a turning point for Wise?

It's a turning point in order to [further] his own professional development. His next stop in his movement throughout America is that he's going to go to Cincinnati, which is a strong Central European Jewish community. He's elected rabbi of B'nai Yeshurun congregation, and he demands and receives life tenure. So he has a bit of greater freedom to do what he hopes to do.

But I think he also learns from this. I would call him the Jewish Henry Clay. He's the great compromiser. He will spend most of his career, from the mid-1850s on, trying to develop a ritual, which he calls "Minhag America," [or] an American ritual -- Minhag America is also the name of his modern prayer book -- trying to create a Judaism that large numbers of Jews, perhaps all American Jews, could sign on to. And he's willing to negotiate with people, both in terms of what rituals should we maintain, what rituals should we do away with, what would be the theological tenets of this faith. And he worked very hard to arrive at some sort of consensus. Now, he's not successful in that regard because there were so many basic theological points where these American Jews will differ.

And he does more than just talk about it. He attempts in 1855 what's known as the Cleveland Assembly. He calls together the few rabbis and significant lay leaders from all [over] the country, says: "Let's sit together. Let's figure out how much of the tradition we can maintain and how much has to go by the wayside. Let's come to some sort of consensus." So he's willing to negotiate.

It doesn't work. It's a utopian ideal, but he's not deterred. Two years later, he publishes the first edition of his Minhag America, and he does more than that. He pedals Minhag America all over the United States. He is peripatetic. He travels all over the country, speaking in synagogues, influencing Jews, promoting his prayer book. He is the editor of two newspapers, The Israelite in English [and] Die Deborah in German, where he talks about unity, Americanization and creating this American form of Judaism. And he's willing to negotiate all sorts of changes and all sorts of continuities, which will not work well on either side of the extremes.

In other words, the most traditional will say, "We can make some sort of social adjustments, but we can't tamper with the basic tenets of Judaism." On the other extreme, you'll have what you might call radical reformers who say, "We have to transform largely what Judaism stands for." So he tries to occupy this center position with people who are willing to consider change but also have a sense of maintaining the tradition.

Wise wants a unified Jewish people in America, with robust institutions. He wants Jews to belong to synagogues and be active within synagogues. He wants to create a ritual which combines many of the elements of the traditional faith of the past, but with some adjustments in terms of language, in terms of ritual, which will be appropriate for people becoming more Americanized. These immigrants are moved away now from their moorings as foreigners, so now they're trying to be both Americans and Jews. "Well, how can we do this?" Wise wants to help them, and he wants to lead them. To some extent, he wants to jump to the front of the parade, the parade being, "We're Americanizing, we're changing, and we're adjusting to America," and lead that in his direction. And he works very hard at it through his newspaper, through his travels, to convince American Jews that there could in fact be a unified form of ritual, of worship that all Jews could subscribe to. Again, it's a utopian vision, because there are so many elements who feel he's far too radical and far too conservative. But he perseveres.

What are the traditionalists saying about being Jewish in America?

Well, first of all, the most traditional elements among world Jewry during this time period are not in America. But there are those who come to America who want to maintain Jewish traditions pretty much unchanged in terms of tampering at all with the theological underpinnings of the faith, but they're willing to make social adjustments in the way the synagogue operates. A social adjustment would be things like adding prayers in the vernacular into the service, ... making the synagogue look architecturally, from the outside, more like a church. Nothing highly problematic about that -- we're becoming Americanized.

Summarize what traditionalists say about how to remain Jewish in America.

Traditionalists say very simply that in America we can make sociological adjustments to how we render the faith, but we can make no real changes in the theological underpinnings or the basic ritual of Jewish tradition. You can tweak the sociology, but you can't change the basic theology.

Wise takes a somewhat different position. He says you certainly can change the sociology, and you can make moderate changes in the theological vision of Judaism that would be appropriate to the mind-set of these modern Jews that I'm encountering. Once you move off that square of "We're not going to tamper with the theology," there will be innumerable nuances. And depending on how you line up on those questions, you would form alliances or you'd see opposition to other rabbis, other thinkers. ...

How would traditionalists feel about Wise's statements?

A traditionalist would say that perhaps we can find ways of being American and changing some of the tonsorial accoutrements of Jewish behavior -- beards, etc. -- in a way that does not violate Jewish tradition. We're going to try to find a way of doing it. In other words, we want to be American; we want to look the same without violating our traditions.

I want to understand the position that's less willing to accommodate to American culture. Where does that come from religiously?

So the traditionalists would say that the Jewish legal system has loopholes, has a flexibility which makes it possible in those societies where Jews are accepted for them to make appropriate social adjustments within the confines of Jewish law, to be able to live harmoniously in two civilizations. Isaac Mayer Wise is saying that many of these traditions simply have to be jettisoned in America, but there are other traditions which have the power of Jewish history and Jewish past going into the present which have to be maintained. So he would draw the line in the sand very differently than those who were more traditional than he.

Because America is a new place to be Jewish.

So modernity is a new place for Jews. Freedom, integration within a host society, is a new phenomenon for Jews. It's an 18th-, 19th-, 20th-century phenomenon. It's true of Europe, but it's particularly true of America, where Jews feel this freedom and they feel this burning desire, most of them, to be integrated with America. And then the question is, is this Judaism that I've carried with me from Europe, is it a burden that has to be jettisoned, or is it something that we can transform? Can we transform it without doing violence to Jewish history? And if we must make changes in order for Judaism to survive, how far do we want to go in this transformation?

And how you answer this question as a religious leader will help us as historians later on. In some respects, it's all each one in relationship to the other. Sometimes historians incorrectly refer to "This is Orthodox; this is Conservative; this is Reform." Within these definitions, there are 57 varieties of Judaism that manifest themselves.

Describe the spectrum of Jews in America, 1840s, 1850s.

So the spectrum would range from those who say that the Jewish traditions of the past, the basic theological, biblical and rabbinic traditions have to be maintained, but appropriate sociological tweaking is appropriate.

Then there are those who would say that the biblical laws of Judaism have to be maintained; the rabbinic overlay or interpretations or elaborations are open to very close scrutiny and perhaps transformation, and of course appropriate sociological change is warranted.

And then there were those who would say that the biblical traditions and the rabbinic overlay are all fair game and open for transformation in order to maintain one's Judaism; and of course for them, the sociological transformations are appropriate. And then if you look at each one of the traditions and commandments, they would differ in this regard.

Perhaps the best example would be how different groups look at the kosher laws. The most traditional would say you have the biblical kosher laws and the rabbinical interpretations, which are both inviolate. Then you have those who say the biblical laws have to be maintained, but some of the rabbinic prescriptions and details have to be weighed in terms of their appropriateness for Jewish life in modern times. And then there are those who say that the biblical laws are manmade and humanmade, that they apply to an ancient civilization which is not ours, and therefore they are clearly not necessary for us in contemporary times, not to mention the rabbinic overlay, which is superfluous. And they would differ in that regard.

But then even beyond that, there could be some social taboos that even go beyond this teaching. For example, for many Jews, if you look at the biblical definition of foods that that aren't kosher -- two basic categories are shellfish and pork products -- from a biblical point of view, both of them are prohibited. But there is a cultural taboo that's carried about pork products that's even stronger than the social taboos toward shellfish. There's something about pork that for large numbers of Jews who are not so concerned with all the minutiae of rabbinic tradition, there's something cultural, inherent to the Jew, that it's a big step for them to eat pork.

[What did Isaac Mayer Wise do to push for his Minhag America vision?]

One of Isaac Mayer Wise's great achievements in trying to create a Minhag America, an all-encompassing ritual or a Judaism that all Jews could buy into, was his successful creation in 1875 of the Hebrew Union College. There had been prior attempts to create a rabbinical seminary in America which had failed, and part of Wise's greatness was his perspicacity and his institution building and his ability to create a school that had permanence. And of course it survives to the present day, although changed a lot over the course of time.

So 1875, he opens a school. And in typical Wisean fashion, he travels America to recruit the handfuls of students to go to his Hebrew Union College. Significantly, it's not Hebrew Union Reform College; it's a college which is supposed to be, what we would say today, a transdenominational Jewish university. And the goal of the school is to produce American rabbis, not American Reform rabbis. In doing this, he establishes an implicit coalition with other rabbis. Two of the most notable rabbis would be Benjamin Szold of Baltimore and Marcus Jastrow of Philadelphia, also European-born and -trained, far more learned than he, who have departed to some extent from the most traditional of teachings, but who feel they have common cause with Wise in creating a form of Judaism which is both modern and traditional.

After eight years of struggle, the glorious day arrives. It's 1883, and they're graduating the first American-trained rabbis. So there's an ordination ceremony, and then there is a gala banquet held in Cincinnati, which [is] where Hebrew Union College is and was.

What spectrum of Jews has gathered?

Wise invites those rabbis and lay leaders who have cooperated with him over the long haul. They tended to be rabbis and congregants of Central European extraction, who had come around the time he had, and who had worked with Wise up till that time.

Now, there's a whole different cohort of Jews who are living in the downtown areas of Philadelphia and Baltimore and of course New York, who are coming from Eastern Europe, who are not engaged in any of these things. They're not part of that story. But for the Americanized cohort, this is a significant moment. These cooperators join with Wise in blessing the first graduating class of the Hebrew Union College.

So after the proceedings, they sit down to this sumptuous American-style banquet, which was catered by some of the leading Jews of Cincinnati for their guests. And to the great horror of those who cooperated with Wise, they see on the menu -- and we have the menus in our possession -- that among the dishes served are frogs' legs, clams, shrimp, milk and meat products together; and this is seen as a colossal insult to those who maintain the kosher laws.

The first course is littleneck clams. What's wrong with that?

Littleneck clams -- clams are shellfish. Shellfish is a biblical [prohibition] in the Torah, in the Five Books of Moses. It's not a question of how you prepare the food. It's not a question of the right dishes. It's not a question of how many hours you wait between eating milk and meat. It is basically opposed to the biblical teachings of the Torah. So this dinner is saying, "We have no concern about the biblical teaching." So for those who might have some questions about how food can be prepared, and what are the nuances and perhaps the minutiae of the kosher laws, this is a gross violation of Jewish tradition which they cannot countenance.

They have a shrimp salad.

Shrimp salad, same story. Shrimp, clams, shrimp, frog legs, those basic foods are prohibited in the Bible. If you believe the Bible is divinely given, and that these biblical laws have power and appropriateness for you, this is a basic violation of the tradition, no questions asked. So therefore, this is being served.

I realize, as someone who's sitting there who says, "You know, we can talk with Wise about nuance and difference. This is clear. Now, perhaps Wise made a mistake. Perhaps they didn't know what they're serving," but subsequently when Wise says "kitchen Judaism," they realize that a line has been crossed.

There's one other piece, and that is what's not served at the dinner. No pork products are served. So pork is no more or no less prohibited by the Five Books of Moses. But even for these Reform Jews, who don't feel bound by these traditions, pork had a negative social-cultural cachet that they were not ready to cross. So even within these reformers, there was a pork trip wire that they didn't want to trip over.

If you look at the history of dinners at Reform congregations in the 20th century, you'll find that [pork] eventually does make its way into the banquets. And I'm talking about not contemporary times but going back 50, 60, 70 years. But it's a step.

Where do the traditionalists stand on the food laws?

In the Five Books of Moses, the Bible says the following animals you may eat, and fish you may eat; the following you may not eat. You may eat all fishes that have fins and scales, and all fishes that do not have fins and scales are out. In the Bible, pork products are out. Eating a cow is in, and then the rabbis teach us how you slaughter, how you prepare this roast beef dinner, what dishes you serve it on, how long you should wait between eating milk and meat, or meat with milk. But if you believe in those biblical traditions, it's God-given that there's certain animals you should not eat, and now they're serving us these foods, very simple.

For those who were offended at the dinner, what happened?

There are two reactions that are reported on. There are some who get up and storm out in anger, and there are those who sit there and do not touch the food; perhaps they're in shock over what they're experiencing. But it's a traumatic moment for those who had felt that they had common cause with Wise. Wise is now becoming like David Einhorn and Kaufmann Kohler, who were seen by the traditional elements as radical reformers. Now he's moving from being a compromiser to being a definitive reformer.

How do you think this menu came to be used?

I think Wise delegates to some of his friends, the leading citizens of Jewish Cincinnati, to create a menu, a sumptuous menu, which would reflect the fact that "Hey, we've made it in America." So these laypeople go off on their own, and they produce a magnificent American meal. The crucial moment is after this happens: plausible deniability. Perhaps Wise could have said: "My goodness, we've made a terrible mistake. We're sorry." In a sense, he goes on the offensive and talks about what I called kitchen Judaism, basically lining up with those who produced that meal. So he's throwing in his lot with those who feel that the kosher laws [don't have to be binding] at all.

What does kitchen Judaism mean?

From its critics' perspective, "kitchen Judaism" is a term of opprobrium. Your focus is on these foods and how I eat as a Jew, and in so doing, I'm so focused on those types of issues which have no relevance for us as moderns. And since we don't believe that these laws and commandments are divinely given, and because we think that many of these kosher laws were part of a priestly tradition which is 2,000 years old and hasn't been in existence for 2,000 years, why the focus on that? Our focus should be on creating a modern, ethical, monotheistic faith that teaches morals and ethics and elevates culture. And by virtue of being kitchen Jews, you're separating yourself from what is the Jewish mission. The Jewish mission is to teach ethical monotheism to the world, to all comers. Don't be hung up on kitchen Judaism. And in the years that follow, there are great debates within American Judaism precisely over that question.

Why is Wise's statement about kitchen Judaism so shocking and distressing to more traditional rabbis, who were either there or weren't there?

Because now Wise, formerly seen as the great compromiser, the great cooperator, is now on the record as seeing himself as in league with the radical reformers, who for the longest time have said, going back to Germany and certainly in America, that these basic laws and traditions are of no value; in fact, not only [do] they have no value, but they often serve as a negative in terms of the mission we have to improve the world.

How does the banquet and its fallout symbolize a fundamental struggle for Jews in America?

It is not a fundamental struggle for Jews in America. It is a creation of denominationalism among rabbis and leaders, creating new coalitions, new alliances and creating new enemies among those who are thinking very seriously about what the Torah teaches and what the rabbinic tradition is. That's a defining moment for them. As far as the vast majority of American Jews, that incident may be unknown or not totally relevant, but it's a defining moment for rabbis.

The end product of this is two years later, Wise, Kohler, Einhorn invite together groups of Reform rabbis to Pittsburgh, and they promulgate what becomes known as the Pittsburgh Platform which is a full articulation of Reform teachings derived from Germany, which are breaks with not only the sociology of the past but the basic tenets of biblical Judaism and the rabbinic tradition overlay. So for those who are in the middle, who have made some changes and saw Wise as cooperator, they can't cooperate with the reformers anymore.

So they create an institutional alternative: 1886 in New York, the Jewish Theological Seminary is established to compete against Hebrew Union College. Now, some people define it as a Conservative seminary. Today and for the longest time, the Jewish Theological Seminary is in fact, and was in fact, the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism. But it wasn't that way back then. It was a different coalition.

So that's the impact of Pittsburgh Platform and the treyf banquet. It's a defining moment. In a sense, formal Jewish denominationalism can stem from that moment in time, when those clams on the half shell appeared as the opening course in that dinner.

What does it tell us about the challenges faced by rabbis in America?

In a sense, for the rabbis who debate this and who battle over this, it will be a struggle over what is the essential message of Judaism, and a conflict between a universalistic stance and a particularistic stance. The universalistic stance would say that what we're projecting as our faith in America, to the Christian world, is a universal faith that teaches brotherhood of people and ethical monotheism to the world; and those traditions that we had in the past are either irrelevant or, in some instances, move us away from what our ultimate mission is.

And [there are] those who say, "As much as we want to be part of the wider world and have much to teach the modern world, there are basic tenets of Judaism that we will carry with us, notwithstanding our desire to be strongly integrated into society." And that will be the conflict between unquestioned universalism as opposed to those who still see a strong desire for a degree of particularism among Jews. And that's what the rabbis are debating.

Is it a battle for the truth about what it means to be Jewish, or the truth of Judaism?

It's a battle over how we're going to define ourselves as Jews in the modern world, and to what extent we want to maintain our particular cultures and traditions as we integrate in America and to what extent we want to have a highly universalistic profile, projecting it to the world. And this is a moment in time where some of these issues come to the fore, and there's a recognition on the part of those rabbis and leaders who were there and those who were not there that perhaps those who we trusted or who we believed shared our values in fact shared different values, and therefore we have to find others with whom we can work toward creating a variety of Minhage America -- that's plural of Minhag America -- of American rituals, that we hope Jews who are becoming part of this country can attest to and sign on to.

What does this story tell us about being religious in America? Could Wise have done any of this in Europe?

The event obviously take[s] place in America, but this discussion over the validity of kosher laws, the discussion over to what extent we Jews should be seen as a universalistic people as opposed to being particularistic is debated widely within Germany, and that there's a transference of it to America.

I see Wise as a great example of the self-made American. Is something about this story uniquely American?

A point can be made that Isaac Mayer Wise fits into the frontier environment of mid- to late-19th-century America, where yes, he's going West to seek his destiny as someone who, like so many immigrants, Jewish and otherwise, comes to America without much cachet and much of a reputation, finds a way of progressing in America. The greatness of Wise is his perspicacity and his initiatives in creating these types of institutions.

The problem Wise perhaps faces at the end is that there are other rabbis who come with almost as much ambition, different visions. Although he spends much of his career trying to be a compromiser, at one point in time he has to decide, in the end, with whom he will line up. And he ends up lining up not with a coalition which represents all American Jews, but he casts his lot with Reform Judaism.

[Tell us about] the challenge of coming to America as a Jew: how to be religious and also be American.

Or to what extent can I be religious and also be an American, because at the end of the day, Jews remain, as they've always been, a minority group within a majority society. And the problem of America is that you're a minority group in a majority society where basically you're accepted, although there's significant caveats which might undermine your performance of the faith. And therefore, how do I redefine myself in such a way to have some connectedness to the traditions of the past while I make my way in America? And in the end, Jews remain a minority group, and a lot of the decisions are made for them, not by them, and Jews have to react to those types of decisions. Again, in a Christian society, their Sabbath trumps our Sabbath.

You know, the pre-modern Jew has it relatively easy to remain tied to his or her faith, because there're no options, no alternatives. It's easy to remain Jewish. It may not be so easy to live, but it's easy to remain Jewish. America is the opposite scenario. Acceptance as a minority group in a majority society comes with a price. The price is, I have to make some sort of changes. And it's a difficult task.


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Published October 11, 2010

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