Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

American Jewish Adventure

 This week’s material   

Larchmont Temple—Har Chayim

The 19th-20th Century American Jewish Adventure: History Lessons for 21st Century Jewish Life


“It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to separate American from Judaism in the words American Judaism.  American Jews are products of American culture and society to the extent that their Judaism is inseparable from American values.  As a consequence, the Judaism that American Jews create and observe is shaped and reshaped by their distinctive conceptions as Americans.”

[from Contemporary American Judaism, Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, 2009]

Larchmont Temple—Har Chayim

The 19th-20th Century American Jewish Adventure: History Lessons for 21st Century Jewish Life


from American Judaism—A History,  Prof Jonathan Sarna, Yale Univ Press, 2004

In America, where religion is totally voluntary, where religious diversity is the norm, where everyone is free to choose his or her own rabbi and his or her own brand of Judaism—or, indeed, no Judaism at all—many, and not just rabbinical school scholars, have assumed that Judaism is fated sooner or later to disappear…

The history of American Judaism, as I have come to understand it, is in many ways a response to this haunting fear that Judaism in the New World will wither away.  Over and over again one finds that Jews in America rose to meet the challenges both internal and external that threatened Jewish continuity—sometimes, paradoxically, by promoting radical discontinuities.  Casting aside old paradigms, they transformed their faith, reinventing American Judaism in an attempt to make it more appealing, more meaningful, more sensitive to the concerns of the day. They did not always succeed…But the story of American Judaism… is a dynamic story of people struggling to be Americans and Jews, a story of people who lose their faith and a story of people who regain their faith, a story of assimilation, to be sure, also a story of revitalization…

In America, as nowhere else to the same degree, Judaism has had to adapt to a religious environment shaped by the denominational character of American Protestantism, the canons of free market competition, the ideals of freedom, and the reality of diversity. What is distinctive in American Judaism is largely a result of these factors.

…In addition to being distinctive, the history of American Judaism is also far more complex and interesting than common wisdom would have us believe.  It is a history replete with cyclical patterns and unpredictable ones, periods of religious decline and periods of religious revitalization…It is also a history that commands the attention of contemporary Jews, for American Judaism’s past, at least as I read it, sheds considerable light on its present-day challenges and its destiny.

HOW has our adaptation to America’s life-challenges changed Jewish life/faith?

from History Lessons , The Creation of American Jewish Heritage, Prof Beth S. Wenger, Princeton Univ Press, 2010

The regularity with which American Jews continue to articulate the convergence and compatibility of Jewish and American ideals reveals just how thoroughly this maxim has penetrated American Jewish culture.  Indeed, in American Jewish history, no theme resounds as loudly or as consistently as the perceived symbiosis between Judaism and American democracy. Yet, as one scholar has noted, “the synthesis of Judaism and Americanism is a historical fiction.” There is nothing inherent in either American culture or Jewish tradition to render them fundamentally compatible. Rather, it was American Jews themselves who created this construction of American Jewish culture and gradually cemented it in books, communal celebrations, and a variety of public proclamations. In a creative process of collective self-fashioning, Jews reinterpreted their own culture and history to fit the circumstances of American Jewish life. In so doing, they laid the foundation for an American Jewish heritage that fused the Jewish past with the American future and shaped the paradigms of Jewish religious and ethnic culture in the United States…

American Jews found seemingly endless means to create a useful sense of the past, both in print and in public….The result is an abundance of narratives, a term that I use broadly to encompass the various retellings of the American Jewish past, whether written or spoken, that posited an understanding of the development of Jewish life in America.

HOW has the harmonization of Judaism with American culture reshaped the Jewish past/present?

from Contemporary American Judaism, Transformation and Renewal, Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, Columbia Univ Press, 2011

Judaism in America is an integral part of the American religious landscape, but it has a number of special characteristics.  To an extent unknown in most other religious, Judaism focuses on the Jews as a people. The ancient Israelites identified themselves as part of a nation and not just followers of a religion. God makes a covenant between Himself and the Jewish people. Moses is privileged to receive the revelation from God on Mount Sinai because he is the recognized leader of the Israelites, a people. Over the last two centuries, many Jews have wanted to stress that their identity was purely religious in order to better fit into their host society. Some of the early leaders of the Reform movement in both Central Europe and the United States made a point of identifying themselves as “Germans of the Jewish faith” or “Americans of the Israelite belief” in order to indicate to others that being Jewish was solely a religion…As a result of this discrepancy, professional scholars and even many Jews themselves are confused about the real nature of Jewish identity.

American Jews have been trying to reconcile individualism with commitment. They have been thrust into a position without precedent, and traditionalists fear much of the religious wisdom that is precious to them may be lost forever…Their ancestors long carried the flag of monotheism and a unique religious vision that emerged out of a distinctive worldview.  Whether or not they regard themselves as religious, they remember the centuries of persecution…and feel a sense of responsibility to carry on the legacy…But despite the gnawing sense of obligation to their forebears, Jews in contemporary America are exploring virgin territory and have no idea where it may lead.

HOW will our individual choices inform the creation of American Jewish Community 2morrow?

from The Dynamics of American Jewish History, Brandeis Univ Press, 2004

 Jacob Rader Marcus’s Essays on American Jewry, Edited by Dr. Gary P. Zola

Jacob Rader Marcus (1896-1995) was a scholar, professor and rabbi. He played a leading role in the development of American Jewish History as an academic discipline….During his long and productive career, Marcus published more than 300 books and articles on the history of American Jewry.  In addition to the prodigiousness of his historical writings, Marcus was among the very first trained historians to apply modern critical methodology to the writing of American Jewish history…In 1947—with the support of his friend and classmate, Nelson Glueck, the newly elected President of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, he became the founding director of the American Jewish Archives, serving until his death in 1995.  During this time the AJA grew into one of the world’s largest and most significant catalogued collections of archival material documenting Jewish life in North America….Unquestionably, he was one of the field’s most seminal figures…Little wonder that students and colleagues dubbed Marcus the “Dean of American Jewish Historians.”

5 broad themes informed Marcus’s conceptual approach to the study of American Jewish history:

 1: American Jewish history is consistently influenced by the total historical experience of the Jewish people.

American Jewish experience is inextricably linked to the totality of Jewish history…Marcus believed that Jewish history in the Diaspora is inextricably bound to the history of the civilization within which Jews lived. …The study of American Jewish history must be seen as part of the Jewish historical continuum. Thus he began his account of American Jewish history with how Jewish life “took root 3500 years ago in a Near Asiatic environement.”

2:  American Jewish history has a practical benefit; illuminating our understanding of contemporary AmY issues.

For Marcus, the study of American Jewish history was didactically useful. He maintained, following the ideas of Graetz and Dubnow, that a knowledge of the Jewish past serves as a pivotal factor in maintaining the Jewish people’s national character even when living as a subgroup of a larger host culture….In addition to the practical role it plays in the corporate survival of the Jewish people, the study of history also provides Jews with a “perspective” on their own contemporary realities.

3:   American Jewish history possesses inspirational value; it enhances Jewish pride & strengthens Jewish identity.

Marcus emphasized the inspirational value of American Jewish history. ..If there is one idea that runs like a thread throughout his essays, it is Marcus’s dogged insistence that the study of the past maximizes the likelihood that Jews will become “proud exponents of the best in our Jewish heritage.”

4:  Am Y Jewish history is the study of how individual Jews have interrelated w/ their ethnic-religious community in America.

In the preface to his four-volume magnum opus, United States Jewry, Marcus declared: “I am committed to the thesis that the story of the Jew in this land lies not in the vertical eminence of the few but in the horizontal spread of the many.”

…In his 1989 address to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Marcus reminded his colleagues “When you survey your congregation on a Friday night,” he preached, “don’t count bodies, count souls.”…Yet, the Jewish individual can never be cut loose from the community. “In Jewry,” Marcus wrote, “where there is no community there is no history.”

5:  American Jewish history lends support to the historically based assertion that the Jewish experience is immortal.

“Jews glory in their survival,” Marcus once observed, “they refuse to disappear.”

Like many of the Jewish historians he admired, Marcus believed that civilizations and nations may rise and fall, but as long as Jews cling to their ethical legacy they can never be obliterated.


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