The ‘Great Experiment’

The ‘Great Experiment’

Each year, as we approach the July 4 national holiday, much is heard regarding the blessings of America and the positive impact these had on Jewish history. In this column and elsewhere, there also usually are examinations of the biblical origins of some of the concepts of liberty (most in the Torah itself) that make this country the Land of the Free.

Rarely discussed, however, at least outside the haredi world, is whether America has been good for the Jews and Judaism overall. The answer depends on one’s point of view. What cannot be denied is that the “Great Experiment” that is America posed unique problems for Judaism.

KEEPING THE FAITH: One religious perspectIve on issues of the day At no other time in world history and in no place did religion of any stripe find more fertile ground for free expression than from 1776 onward right here in the United States. This was as true for Judaism as it was for Christian sects. As historian Jonathan D. Sarna explains:

“[T]he world of American religion, opened up with the leveling of restrictive colonial laws and monopolistic church establishments, extended the boundaries of legitimate faiths to embrace Jews in new ways…. Privileges once accorded only to favored denominations of Protestants now applied far more broadly.”

Sarna identified the five principles of American democracy that “proved particularly important: (1) religious freedom, (2) church-state separation, (3) denominationalism (‘the religious situation created in a land of many Christian churches and sects when none of them occupies a privileged situation and each has an equal claim to status’), (4) voluntarism (‘the principle that individuals are free to choose their religious beliefs and associations without political, ecclesiastical, or communal coercion’), [and] (5) patriotism. Collectively known as ‘the great tradition of the American churches,’ these principles, even if sometimes honored in the breach, shaped the contours of American religion forever after; sooner or later, every American faith adapted to them.” (See Sarna’s “American Judaism: A History,” New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.)

Was there a price to pay for Judaism’s adapting to “the contours of American religion”? Indeed, there was, writes Michael A. Meyer:

“There was no government control over religion, no conservative established church to set the pattern of religious life. A multitude of denominations and sects competed for adherents in a free market of religions…. There were no officially recognized communities, no effective means for enforcing religious conformity. Among the early Jewish settlers in America disregard for Jewish observance was rampant and mixed marriage not infrequent. One was not born into a Jewish community, as in Europe, but affiliated – or not – with a particular synagogue. Religion was less a heritage carried with little reflection from generation to generation than a conscious voluntary choice. Because America was so different from Europe, it often seemed that the inherited traditional Judaism was an Old World phenomenon, and out of place in the New World.” (See Meyer’s “Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism,” New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.)

Proof of Meyer’s contention can be found in a sermon delivered by the Orthodox, European-trained Isaac Leeser to his supposedly Orthodox congregants at Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel on Erev Pesach, 1836. His words are no less true today than 175 years ago:

“[We] hear it alleged that our fathers were ignorant, but that we in a more enlightened age should be above their prejudices. Now, no one will gainsay the evident fact that this age has made improvements, wonderful improvements, if you will, upon the discoveries of former periods; but it is utterly denied that in moral sciences the smallest advance has been achieved…. When the name of Jew was a passport to ill-treatment; when we were oppressed in the whole world; when many tears and few joys were our lot, we were cheerful, willing, servants to God…. But now, enlargement has been given to us, persecution for opinion’s sake is no longer the fashion, and especially in this land we can worship God without let or hindrance; we here have a perfect equality with the other inhabitants; yet here it is, where our religion is then most neglected, where we have truly succeeded in making our name a byword for carelessness and neglect of our glorious hope.” (See Leeser’s “Discourses on the Jewish Religion,” vol. II. Philadelphia: Sherman and Co., 1837.)

Perhaps ironically, it was a Reform rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise, who sought to address the problem. With the public support of a number of Orthodox rabbis, he issued an “Appeal” for the creation of a Sanhedrin-like institution to create a unique Minhag Amerika, an “American tradition,” that would guide the development of Judaism here.

“We MUST have peace and union, at any hazard or sacrifice, principles excepted,” read his appeal, which appeared in his own newspaper, The American Israelite, in 1855.

Wise called for “a regular synod …to meet at least once every three years, and consider this body the highest authority of the oral law ([based on] Maimonides, Yad Hachasakah, Hilchoth Mamrim ch. 2)…. We expect that these articles of peace must satisfy even the ultra-orthodox, and we were going to say, everyone who reasons on the subject of Judaism.”

Whether “even the ultra-orthodox” would have found Wise’s solution acceptable, we will never know, but clearly not “everyone who reasons on the subject of Judaism” did. Indeed, although Wise succeeded in having an interdenominational group of rabbis meet in Cleveland in 1855 and vote to approve his plan, members of his own fledgling Reform movement led the attack against it.

Was it really? Think about it this July 4 as you sacrifice hamburgers and hot dogs on your backyard altars of charcoal and gas.

(Some of the sources used here are found in a course developed for the Hebrew University’s Florence Melton Adult Mini-School and offered locally as a postgraduate course by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Melton program. The way the material is used here, however, is entirely my own.)

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