This year marks the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in North America. In 1654, twenty-three Jews arrived in Dutch New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil, fleeing the Inquisition. Although not the first Jews to set foot in North America, they were the first who intended to settle here. Try as he might, Peter Stuyvesant was unable to keep “these hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ” out of the colony. Economic considerations won out over religious scruples. The imperatives of trade and commerce competed with the imperatives of faith and religiously regulated public order. Jews found a promising opportunity for toleration in the shifting gap between these needs. So long as the Jews took care that the poor among them did not become a public burden and so long as they conducted their worship in the privacy of their homes, they were able to secure the rights to trade, to own property, and to participate in the body politic by serving guard duty. Jewish life begins in North America in a milieu not wholly unlike our own: a vigorous, forward-looking commercial civilization that was not disrespectful of the religious traditions of its past but was also not dominated by them. That was good for the Jews. But was it good for Judaism?
Jonathan D. Sarna’s important new history, American Judaism, covers too many themes to be reduced to one central concern. But it is no affront to the scope and detail of the book to suggest that the question of Judaism and freedom lies at the foundation of the history he considers. Sarna begins at the beginning—with Recife and its European antecedents—and proceeds chronologically, with his first chapter, “Colonial Beginnings,” covering the dozen decades of American Jewish life that preceded the founding of the United States. Even before there was a Declaration, a Constitution, and a Bill of Rights, the question of Judaism and freedom was fundamental. Keeping in mind that Judaism lives in and is sustained by the organized community of Jews, the earliest challenge for American Judaism was how to constitute community in a new, postmedieval world. Initially, Jews tried to import the compulsory, centralized forms of community that they had known in Europe. Even as they existed in Amsterdam or London, such kehillot, as they were called, were already less capable than their medieval antecedents of exercising power over their members, and in British North America it soon became apparent that the kehillot did not stand a chance. Without effective state support for disciplinary sanctions, voluntary consensus was the only real cement for community. Although communities tried to discipline their members when consensus broke down (for example, over Sabbath violations or eating non-kosher foods), their bans had little effect. Eventually, the reality of a single comprehensive synagogue community broke down as competing synagogues arose. The religious pluralism that characterized much of colonial America became typical for Jews as well. Congregationalism replaced the European ideal of the kehilla. Judaism was constituted as a religion, abandoning any residual claim to defining a public, communal order for Jews.
In the revolutionary period, the wholly voluntary character of American Jewish life would be given a republican interpretation. Judaism was felt to be uniquely compatible with liberty and self-government. The constituting documents of Revolutionary-era synagogues used the rhetoric of popular sovereignty and rights to assert their ideals. In this sense, an “American Judaism” arose that reflected the themes, possibilities, and crises of the American experiment. In every period, the forces shaping the religious life and thought of Christian Americans also played upon Judaism. Sarna, a master of American religious history, traces, for example, the impact of democratic culture upon Judaism during the period of the Second Great Awakening in much the same way that Nathan Hatch did for Christianity. The breakdown of traditional authority, and the emphasis on personal religious experience and free will provided an impetus to competing strategies for the renewal of Judaism.
The antebellum neotraditionalist Isaac Leeser, for instance, exploited the missionary possibilities of the printing press with vigor, translating the Bible for the first time into English, producing a national Jewish monthly, a prayer book, and much more. Leeser “witnessed how effectively Christian evangelicals harnessed the press to spread their gospel.” He created the Jewish Publication Society as an analogue (and defense against) such groups as the American Bible Society. The antebellum shakeup in religious authority also provided the context for the rise of Reform Judaism—a more radical strategy of adapting to America than Leeser’s revitalized traditionalism. The competition between these currents, which persists to the present day, reflects the democratic basis of American Judaism. As Sarna puts it: “The question of how best to secure Judaism’s future would be decided just like so much else was in America: by majority rule.”
While every page of Sarna’s elegantly written narrative yields insights into the development of American Judaism, the book does not confine itself to history alone. The themes that it details—the impact of democratic culture, the rather feckless quest for unity as a concomitant to the affirmation of pluralism, the perplexed status of religious authority, the voluntary option for religious identity and the (also increasingly voluntary) ethnic alternative—press forward into the present reality of Judaism as well. In his conclusion, Sarna brings his analysis of more than three centuries of Jewish life to bear on the dilemmas of contemporary Jews. In this case, the platitude is true: The more things change, the more they stay the same. In America Jews have been an “ever dying people.” Like Jews in earlier periods, contemporary Jews are acutely aware of dissolution and loss as well as revival and revitalization. Beginning in the postwar years, and increasingly in recent decades, Judaism has been marked by astonishing vitality at the center and unbridled assimilation at the not-too-distant periphery. This “bipolar model,” as Sarna calls it, induces a mood of anxious uncertainty. American Judaism “radiates optimism concerning the future of American Jewish life, as well as bleak pessimism.”
Sarna delineates several challenges that American Judaism must confront, all of which persist from the earliest encounter of Judaism with freedom. Foremost among them is the question of boundaries: determining who is in and who is out is an essential, “if unpleasant,” task of group maintenance. In an individualistic and authority-averse culture, the traditional definitions of Jewishness no longer win the approval of large numbers of Jews: there are movements that regard as Jewish those persons whose fathers but not mothers (the traditional criterion) are Jewish; and there are thousands who profess to be Buddhists and Jews, or evangelical Christians and Jews. Surveys of the Jewish population have to resort to ever more nuanced and imaginative criteria in order to capture the diversity of self-defined Jewish types. How, if everything in a democratic culture is resolved by majority rule, can an even notional Jewish unity be preserved when the members of the voluntary Jewish polity cannot agree on fundamental boundaries? Preserving Jewish unity, such as it is, is another of Sarna’s daunting challenges. Other challenges for contemporary Ju-daism include authority and leadership (who speaks for the Jews both religiously and civically?) and the conflict of loyalties engendered by the clash between contemporary culture and historic Jewish norms (consider the question of gay ordination or marriage).
Does the history of American Judaism provide intellectual and moral resources to meet these challenges? That it does is apparently the faith that underlies this book. Beneath the book’s magisterial scholarship, there lies a passionate commitment to American Jewry. Sarna evidently believes that if American Jews learn their history, they won’t be condemned to repeat it. He closes his book with a personal recollection and affirmation. At the beginning of his scholarly career, he says, he was warned that it would not be worth the trouble to study American Jewish history because the American Jews were doomed. Assimilation and intermarriage were inevitable; the writing was on the wall. It is to our great benefit that Professor Sarna did not heed this dismal advice. He took to heart, instead, a lesson from the history of American Judaism: “that today, like so often before, American Jews will find creative ways to maintain and revitalize American Judaism. With the help of visionary leaders, committed followers, and generous philanthropists, it may still be possible for the current ‘vanishing’ generation of American Jews to be succeeded by another ‘vanishing’ generation, and then still another.”
After 350 years American Jews are poised between hope and anxiety about their future. While both fundamental orientations are justified on the basis of history, this book tips the balance ever so slightly in favor of hope.
Alan Mittleman is Professor of Religion, Muhlenberg College.