I appreciated Rabbi Ari Lamm’s enthusiasm displayed in his op-ed, “Judaism’s Role in America is Shifting” (July 18). No doubt, his recent experiences in representing Judaism among other faith communities have been new and ennobling encounters for him. Yet there is a danger in his interpretation of these “unprecedented” times. His call for Jews to explore supposedly uncharted terrain in American religious life betokens a lack of familiarity with the centuries-old American Jewish experience. It’s also a reminder of the usefulness of informed history to shape our communal strategies, forming a learned worldview based on the paths taken by our predecessors.
“Unprecedented” can be a problematic word for historians. It relegates their research to the sidelines, as other scholars with more relevant sources of wisdom help guide a path forward. It also can promote a trial-and-error approach in lieu of more efficient and less overwhelming planning.
But the Jewish experience in the United States is not marked by shaking neighbors with hostilities and “anxieties.” Jews were never such outsiders.
To the contrary, Jews have been considered thought-partners and wisdom-providers since the 19th century. Take the Bible, for example. “American Protestants in the nineteenth century sought out and respected Jewish expositions of the Hebrew Scriptures,” Jonathan and Nahum Sarna wrote, in a chapter in “The Bible and Bibles in America.” The trend commenced with Jonas Horwitz and Solomon Jackson, became well-known with the publication of Isaac Leeser’s Bible translation, and was common knowledge after the release of the Jewish Publication Society’s Holy Scriptures in 1917.
What of religious pluralism? Louis Brandeis, Will Herberg, and Horace Kallen were major figures in these 20th-century conversations, harmonizing their Jewish values with other cultural perspectives. The same can be said for Cyrus Adler and Bernard Revel, who aimed to position their schools — the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva College, respectively — to play a greater part on the arena of religious higher education. As for Judaism itself, historians Jessica Cooperman and Kevin Schultz have shown that American Protestantism provided Judaism, in varying degrees of willingness, with a seat at the ecumenical table.
Most of this dialogue was not theological, but focused on how Judaism, unbridled and uncompromised, had a paramount role in representing one of the major faiths in America.
Likewise, we’d be hard pressed to remove Jews and Judaism from the history of national religiously driven discourse in the realms of social gospel, civil rights, and in the political debates surrounding the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses.
In addition, for Rabbi Lamm and others concerned with the “religiously conservative groups,” it would be instructive to point out that Ronald Reagan proclaimed April 2, 1982 as a “National Day of Reflection” in honor of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson’s 80th birthday. Many Americans simply dubbed it “Lubavitcher Rebbe Day.” Finally, Catholic clerics had toured Yeshiva University several times before YU recently welcomed them for a visit.
These history lessons escaped Rabbi Lamm, but they would be very useful for him and others looking to engage American religious discourse as a card-carrying Orthodox rabbi or in any other Jewishly pronounced capacity.
The same goes for the more pernicious aspects of these kinds of conversations.
Jews ought not reach into the medieval period for examples of anti-Jewish violence, as Rabbi Lamm does. Instead, there exists a considerable literature on American anti-Semitism. In past epochs, America’s Jews were quite conversant on this sad topic. They reacted to U.S. Grant’s General Orders No. 11 by reflecting on the Maryland Jew Bill. They tackled targeted immigration restrictions and university quotas by drawing from the lessons learned from Henry Ford and the Leo Frank trial.
In the final analysis, then, it is Rabbi Lamm’s call to action that is most unprecedented in American Jewish life. Past concerns and interests in Judaism’s role in the United States have benefited from the wisdom of earlier experience and paths paved by Jewish leaders and the rank-and-file. It is encouraging that a new generation of Jews is engaging the public religious sector and encouraging others to join them. However, it would be naïve to describe these encounters as unprecedented and unfortunate if we do not learn from the lessons of American Jewish history to inform future renditions of religious discourse.
Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff is chief academic officer of Hebrew Theological College and Associate Professor of Jewish History at Touro College. He lives in suburban Chicago but has many family members in Teaneck, and often is a scholar in residence at synagogues there. His forthcoming “Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life” draws on several local histories to challenge the established narratives of American Judaism in the postwar era.”