Coming to Terms with America
Essays on Jewish History, Religion, and Culture
- ISBN: 9780827615113
- Published By: University of Nebraska Press
- Published: September 2021
The relationship between Jews and their social environment is complex. Many in traditional Judaism have seen virtue in their remaining “a people apart” (Numbers 23:3) and avoiding interacting socially with others. Empirically, studies indicate that there is an inverse relationship between religious traditionalism and having close friends who are not Jewish. A 2020 Pew survey found that “Orthodox Jews are much more likely than Conservative or Reform Jews to report that all or most of their close friends are Jewish” (“Jewish Americans in 2020,” 110).
The overwhelming majority of American Jews, however, are much less traditional. If it is assumed that religious traditionalism is most closely represented by the Orthodox, they are only 9 percent of America’s Jews. Most of the others,, it may be assumed, want to preserve their religio-ethnic heritage but do not wish to remain apart from mainstream American culture and the freedoms and opportunities it affords. In Coming to Terms with America: Essays on Jewish History, Religion, and Culture, Jonathan Sarna, one of the foremost historians of American Jewry, assembles fifteen of his essays which in one way or another reflect on both the desire to protect Jewish identity and the drive to integrate into American society and culture.
The first section’s first chapter focuses on the history and practice of what he terms “the cult of synthesis,” and proceeds to analyze the beliefs and practices that many American Jews have used to interweave their Judaism and Americanism. He cites Charles Liebman’s terse summation of the core values that underlie the cult of synthesis: “There is nothing incompatible between being a good Jew and a good American, or between Jewish and American standards of behavior. In fact, for a Jew, the better an American one is, the better Jew one is” (68). (Coincidentally, Liebman taught at Yeshiva University, where “synthesis” long served as the motto of that Orthodox Jewish institution and represented the challenge and goal of providing traditional Torah learning integrated with modern university study.)
The synthesis of Judaism and Americanism developed in the 19th century. One manifestation of this was the celebration by traditional as well as modern American Jews of Thanksgiving Day as a civil-religious holiday, replete with sermons and festive dinners celebrating the unity of Jewish and American values. Sarna demonstrates how the synthesis also became a core theme expressed by prominent American-Jewish personalities, including professionals, communal leaders, and religious philosophers.
In the following chapters of the first section, Sarna analyzes a series of additional manifestations of American Jews striving to retain their group identity while incorporating American values. One prominent example was the adjustment of the prayer for the welfare of the government to mesh with American values. He recounts numerous attempts by both traditional and non-traditional rabbis to “update” the prayer and have it reflect the ideals of modern democracy. Lest it be thought that “the cult of synthesis” is a matter of the past, it should be noted that Sarna and a modern Orthodox congregational rabbi have recently taken differing positions on the wisdom of revising the prayer in light of new political developments. The following two chapters offer a fascinating contrast between the Jewish community of Cincinnati and that of Boston and how the development of each was affected by the socio-economic and cultural forces of those cities and the larger society. Sarna’s analyses clarify what might be seen as ironic, that Hebrew Union College, the first rabbinical seminary in America, founded in 1875 in Cincinnati, the city that was once viewed as the “center of Jewish American life,” has decided to close the rabbinical school there.
The second, shorter section is comprised of three essays focusing on the drive to enrich American Judaism by creating major agencies of American Jewish religious culture, especially Jewish book publishing and higher Jewish religious education. The main foci are the Jewish Publication Society of America and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The third section contains a group of essays discussing America Jewish struggles against Christian missionary activity, antisemitism, and a series of church-state issues. In sum, the dualistic character of the Jewish experience in America is highlighted in fifteen carefully researched and thoughtful chapters on American Jewish history, culture, and religion.
One of the many lessons that Sarna provides is, as he puts it, “Experience has taught Jews conflicting lessons, for, historically, those who have focused on principles and those who have focused on group interests have at different times both been right.” (279). But not all the time. In an essay not included in this collection (“Intermarriage in America: The Jewish experience in historical context. In Ambivalent American Jew: Charles Liebman in Memoriam, ed. Stuart Cohen and Bernard Susser, New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2007, p. 133), Sarna raised serious questions about the possibility of minority groups rooted in endogamy to survive, especially if they continue to integrate in American Society and culture. The issue of religious intermarriage appears to be central to American Judaism’s coming to terms with America and it is rather surprising that a discussion of it and its implications does not even appear in this otherwise thoughtful and well-balanced volume.
Chaim I. Waxman is professor and chair of the Behavioral Sciences Department, Hadassah Academic College, Jerusalem, and professor emeritus of sociology and Jewish studies, Rutgers University.Chaim WaxmanDate Of Review:June 18, 2022