Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A People Divided:
Judaism in Contemporary America

by jack wertheimer
basic books, 267 pages, $25

The slogan of the United Jewish Appeal, the most successful of all of America’s philanthropies in terms of fund-raising, is “We Are One.” The UJA’s success is due to the deep emotional ties of American Jewry with Israel, combined with the fact that the major part of the funds raised in the annual UJA campaign goes to support various social welfare agencies in the Jewish state. An annual contribution to the UJA has become arguably the lowest common denominator of American Jewish identity. This unity, however, does not extend to the realm of American Judaism.

As Jack Wertheimer’s cogent, eloquent, and well-researched survey of contemporary American Judaism makes clear, belligerence and intolerance have become the hallmarks of American Judaism. Typical is the 1984 comment of Rabbi Nisson Wolpin in the Jewish Observer, an Orthodox publication, regarding cooperation with the non-Orthodox. “While compromise for the sake of unity can often make good sense,” Wolpin noted, “when dealing with basic principles of faith, ‘compromise’ is actually a sell-out . . . It is time that all Orthodox rabbis recognize that Reform and Conservative Judaism are far, far removed from Torah, and that Klal Yisroel [the community of Israel] is betrayed—not served—when Orthodoxy enters in religious association with them.” He warned those within the Orthodox ranks contemplating interdenominational cooperation “to take note of the awesome pitfalls involved and step back from the abyss.”

This intolerance is also prevalent in Israel, which is periodically convulsed by struggles involving Jewish identity and Judaism. The most recent clash occurred a half-decade ago over the issue of “who is a Jew.” This stemmed from the insistence of Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate on defining a Jew as someone either born to a Jewish mother or converted according to traditional Jewish law by an Orthodox rabbi. Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews in America strongly protested this definition, since it denied automatic Israeli citizenship and other benefits accruing to Jews in Israel to those who had been converted by non-Orthodox rabbis. The non-Orthodox threatened to withhold funds from the UJA and to take other actions if Israeli authorities caved in to Orthodox pressure.

This intense reaction in America to the “Who is a Jew” question seemed at first glance to be incongruous in view of the sparse number of non-Orthodox converts who had settled, or were planning to settle, in Israel and who demanded the right of citizenship under Israel’s “law of return.” But the issue was never “Who is a Jew,” but rather “Who is a Rabbi.” The Orthodox position denied religious legitimacy to the non-Orthodox rabbinate, and this was a challenge that Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis, their seminaries, and their laity could not ignore.

The “Who is a Jew” issue was simply the latest in a long line of controversies that had divided American Jews along denominational lines. It had been preceded during the 1970s and 1980s by disputes over the Reform movement’s broadening of Jewish identity to encompass patrilineal descent, the Conservative movement’s decision to ordain women, and the increasing willingness of Reform rabbis to officiate at intermarriages. Indeed, so divisive has American Judaism seemingly become that Irving Greenberg, the head of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL) and a spokesman for left-wing orthodoxy, invited representatives of the four Jewish denominations to a 1986 conference titled, “Will there be one Jewish people by the year 2000?” Greenberg himself was quite somber about the future of American Judaism, predicting that the orthodox would refuse marriage with the non-orthodox because of doubts about their Jewish bona fides.

Wertheimer shares Greenberg’s anxieties. The title of chapter nine of A People Divided, the most important in the book, asks the question, “Religious movements in collision: a Jewish culture war?” and he answers in the affirmative. Wertheimer concludes his volume with the bleak warning that “it is no longer possible or wise to dismiss religious polarization as peripheral to Jewish life. the divided world of Judaism imperils the unity of the Jewish people in America.” “Name-calling and invective,” he laments, “are now routinely injected into Jewish public discourse.” According to Wertheimer, we are now witnessing a Jewish kulturkampf in which Orthodox (and Conservative) spokesmen portray the Reform movement as assimilationist and deviant, while Reform leaders such as Rabbi Alexander Schindler argue in turn that Orthodoxy fosters “stale repression, fossilized tradition, and ethical corruption.”

Judging from the pronouncements of the representatives of the four Jewish denominations and by surveys of the sentiments of rabbinical students in the various American Jewish seminaries, Wertheimer’s fears are warranted. But, one can ask, are these necessarily the most accurate and relevant barometers to evaluate the future of American Jewry and of American Judaism? Is factionalism the major problem facing American Jewry? Factionalism is, after all, a sign of health. Factions exist when issues are worth fighting over. For many observers of American Jewry, the major problem facing American Judaism is not divisiveness but indifference. The soaring rate of Jewish intermarriage is important not because the diverse responses of Reform and Orthodoxy to exogamy threaten Jewish unity, but because intermarriage manifests a widespread apathy toward Jewish identity and continuity.

Wertheimer is a professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the major bastion of Conservative Judaism, and it is not surprising that he takes seriously the rhetoric emanating from the rabbis and from the offices of the four American Jewish denominations. Nor is it surprising that, as a faculty member of the JTS, he should be dismayed by American Jewry’s divisiveness. Ever since Solomon Schechter, the first chancellor of the JTS, proclaimed early in this century that “Catholic Israel” should be the goal of the Seminary, the Judaism of the JTS has striven to be both traditional and innovative. From the Seminary’s perspective, Orthodoxy was a European fossil that could never flourish in America, while Reform was too willing to sacrifice Jewish tradition in behalf of acculturation and Americanization. Only the Judaism of the Seminary was true to both tradition and modernity. Thus, for example, in the early 1950s the Seminary sanctioned riding in a car on the Sabbath, but only if it was necessary to take part in religious services.

The Seminary’s gurus hoped that this combination of tradition and innovation would be attractive to the great majority of American Jews who remembered the world of their fathers and yet wished to adapt to American conditions. During the immediate post-World War II decades these expectations seemed to be confirmed by the rapid growth in Conservative congregations and in the number of families affiliating with the Conservative movement. Indeed, most observers believed Conservative Judaism to be the religious wave of the future.

It was not to be, however. By the 1970s, the centrist Judaism of the JTS was under attack from a resurgent Orthodoxy on the right and from an increasingly attractive Reform on the left. Any hope that Conservative Judaism had a religious formula that would be attractive to the majority of American Jews disappeared. In fact, as Marshall Sklare, the movement’s foremost sociological authority, wrote, the movement had serious morale problems of its own, and many of its leading lights were now skeptical that the movement’s message had any appeal to American Jews. If A People Divided is any indication, however, the vision of “Catholic Israel” continues to resonate at the Seminary.

The overwhelming majority of American Jews are less troubled than representatives of the various Jewish denominations by what they perceive to be a tempest in a clerical teacup. In contrast to the “elite” religion of the rabbis and the professors at the seminaries, the “folk” religion of those in the pews is not unduly concerned with matters of theology and Jewish law. This Jewish folk religion emphasizes Zionism, political and social liberalism, the struggle against anti-Semitism, and Jewish survival. Even the Orthodox laity are far more tolerant of the failings of their co-religionists than one would assume from the anathemas their leaders are hurling at the non-Orthodox.

American Jews are both Jews and Americans. As Americans they share in that most important characteristic of American religion—freedom of choice. If in Europe Jewish identity was a matter of birth, in America it has been a matter of choice. The nostalgia for a unified Jewish community cannot overcome the centrifugal force of American history and sociology. For better or worse, denominational pluralism and all that this portends for Jewish continuity is here to stay. “A People Divided” is less a problem than a condition that American Jews will have to live with.

Edward S. Shapiro is Professor of History at Seton Hall University and the author of A Time For Healing: American Jewry After World War II (Johns Hopkins University, 1992).