The Cho­sen Wars: How Judaism Became an Amer­i­can Religion

  • Review
By – March 29, 2018

This book sur­veys the evo­lu­tion of Amer­i­can Judaism from the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry to the end of the nine­teenth, and briefly dis­cuss­es con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish life. It fea­tures pro­files of the lead­ers who ini­ti­at­ed the ide­o­log­i­cal and rit­u­al changes which sig­nif­i­cant­ly mod­i­fied tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish prac­tices to remove bar­ri­ers to full par­tic­i­pa­tion in civic, social, and eco­nom­ic life in Amer­i­ca. Many if not most of the Rab­binic and lay lead­ers were influ­enced by their expe­ri­ences in Europe which sug­gests that the author might have incor­po­rat­ed a transna­tion­al focus which makes it clear that many of the reli­gious inno­va­tions were not devel­oped in the US but were a response to mod­ern­iza­tion and there­fore a response to that process rather than to Amer­i­can life. There is a greater focus on the evo­lu­tion of Reform Judaism. The infa­mous 1883 tre­fa ban­quet mark­ing the first grad­u­at­ing class of Hebrew Union Col­lege is por­trayed as a major mile­stone, and described in great detail at two points in the book. Although the largest share of Amer­i­can Jews now self-iden­ti­fy as Reform, the book over­looks impor­tant inno­va­tions in the cre­ation of Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism on Amer­i­can soil and the mod­est but often sig­nif­i­cant adap­ta­tions with­in the Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty. An impor­tant recent trend, the growth in the num­ber of Jews who have no denom­i­na­tion mer­its discussion.

Like oth­er cul­ture wars, the evo­lu­tion of Amer­i­can Judaism involved con­flicts and con­tro­ver­sies, not the least of which was the response to the tre­fa ban­quet whose din­ers includ­ed both tra­di­tion­al­ists and reform­ers. There were sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences of opin­ion among Reform­ers, one of whom was Isaac May­er Wise, the founder of Hebrew Union Col­lege, who took a num­ber of extreme posi­tions includ­ing view­ing kashrut as stom­ach Judaism”; view­ing Yom Kip­pur as based on a fal­la­cy”; dis­card­ing tefill­in, tzitz­it, Jew­ish divorce; and the cen­tral­i­ty of the Mes­si­ah. Some of his con­tem­po­raries, pri­mar­i­ly David Ein­horn, thought that Wise’s posi­tions were extreme and that tra­di­tion­al prac­tices could be retained while mod­ern­iz­ing the reli­gion. Not men­tioned in the book, but sig­nif­i­cant, is the fact that many rit­u­als have been revived: mul­ti­ple Reform syn­a­gogue web­sites fea­ture their rab­bis wear­ing prayer shawls.

The main­ly nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry focus, and the lim­it­ed cov­er­age of the evo­lu­tion of more tra­di­tion­al forms of Judaism – both Ortho­dox and Con­ser­v­a­tive – is based on the idea that the Amer­i­can Judaism Weis­man describes serves as the basis for con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish life. This includes a focus on work­ing for social jus­tice and lead­ing an eth­i­cal life.” Greater detail on the role of these two denom­i­na­tions would have enriched the book, since, as schol­ars like Jen­na Weis­man Joselit vivid­ly demon­strates in New York’s Jew­ish Jews, both groups the mod­i­fied some prac­tices while main­tain­ing cen­tral ideas and rituals.

There are some omis­sions and errors which reflect Wiseman’s neg­a­tive bias toward tra­di­tion­al Judaism, such as his descrip­tion of the decline of kashrut obser­vance as inevitable,” and dis­cus­sions of key halachic issues as arcane.” His brief analy­sis of the state of Jew­ish life today also reflects this bias. Amer­i­can Jew­ish life con­tin­ues to evolve, in some cas­es incor­po­rat­ing ideas and cus­toms from the broad­er soci­ety. Although the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry was an impor­tant time of change and explo­ration, the inclu­sion of greater detail about con­tem­po­rary devel­op­ments in this sec­tion of the book — the role of Chabad, youth groups, Birthright, the Nation­al Jew­ish Out­reach Pro­gram and orga­ni­za­tions like Part­ners in Torah — would have com­ple­ment­ed this study of Amer­i­can Judaism.

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

Discussion Questions