'The Chosen Wars' tells how Judaism redefined itself in America

Today’s Jewish community continues to be divided over issues related to assimilation and secularization.

The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion By Steven R. Weisman Simon & Schuster 368 pp.

At the beginning of The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion, Steven Weisman quotes the historian Jacob Rader Marcus, who, describing early American Jewry, wrote that “squabbles in God’s house were almost as traditional as the liturgy itself.” From an 1843 lawsuit over a South Carolina temple’s addition of an organ to a riot in an Albany synagogue on Rosh Hashanah in 1850, Weisman deftly brings those squabbles to life. In doing so, he tells the compelling story of how Judaism redefined itself when it reached American shores.

The early tensions – which eventually led Judaism to split into its three main branches of reform, conservative, and orthodox – were largely between reformers who wanted to adapt the religion to life in the New World and traditionalists who remained wedded to Old World ways. Take that organ, for instance. Traditional rabbis believed that playing a musical instrument during Shabbat services violated the injunction against working on the Sabbath. They further argued that organ music made synagogues sound like churches. For their part, many proponents of the instrument declared that similarity a good thing: They hoped that making synagogues more like churches would further Americanize Judaism.

The synagogue involved in the lawsuit, Charleston’s Beth Elohim, at first attempted a compromise that saw the pro-organ and the anti-organ factions alternating holding services in the sanctuary week to week. Eventually, however, the reformist members sued their traditionalist brethren and won. The traditionalists appealed to the state’s highest appellate court. In a decision that Weisman says “revealed a bias toward reform,” the lower court decision was upheld, with the appellate judge writing that religious institutions “cannot withstand the agitations of free, active, and progressive opinion.”

The compulsion to adapt Jewish traditions resulted in part from practical concerns. For example, many new Jewish immigrants worked as traveling peddlers and struggled to observe kosher dietary restrictions while on the road. Much of the reform impulse, however, resulted from wider cultural and intellectual influences. Following the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, Protestants separated into different denominations. “In this atmosphere,” Weisman observes, “it became easier for Jews to see themselves as one of many threads in the multicolored tapestry of religion in America. It was something they had no ability to do in Europe, where they had lived apart under their own rules for many centuries.” Many Jews, wanting to conform to American culture, looked for commonalities between themselves and Christians.

Even more momentous were the effects of scientific advances in paleontology and geology, which undermined belief in literal interpretations of the Bible and helped spark the commitment to social justice that is characteristic of American Judaism today. Reformers began to feel, as Weisman puts it, “that Scripture had given too much importance to God intervening in the world and too little to the power of human beings to seek social justice on earth.” 

Charles Darwin’s "On the Origin of Species," published in 1859, had an explosive effect on religious faith and practice, both by further eroding confidence in the Bible’s literal truth and by depicting life as constant struggle. The adaptation of Darwin’s theory of evolution to economic life, linking the “survival of the fittest” to social and economic conditions, furthered the social reform impulses of American religious communitites. As Weisman writes, “For Christians and Jews, the late nineteenth century was ripe for the belief that addressing issues of economic inequality, poverty, social and racial injustice, worker rights, and an end to war" was "the best way to implement God’s teachings.”

"The Chosen Wars" is peppered with colorful and important figures in the history of early American Judaism. One of the most interesting is Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a German immigrant who played a significant and polarizing role in the rise of Reform Judaism (he was at the center of the Albany Rosh Hashanah melee). His lifelong dream, which would prove impossible to realize, was to unite all American Jews under one distinctly American Jewish denomination. 

As Weisman notes, that vision of unity couldn’t survive the late-19th-century influx of Russian and Eastern European immigrants, which saw two million Jews land on American shores between 1881 and 1914. (The United States imposed strict quotas on immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe not long after.) Today’s Jewish community, about two percent of the US population, continues to be divided over issues related to assimilation and secularization; the fiercest disagreements among American Jews relate to the policies of Israel. In uncovering the conflicts of the past, Weisman deepens our understanding of the ongoing conflicts of the present.

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