Orthodox Jews in America
reviewed by Marc B. Shapiro
This is the first part of a four part post. It begins with a review I was asked to write that in the end was never published. The format of the review was not designed for the arcane stuff and numerous footnotes that are usual fare for the Seforim blog. Yet have no fear, these will return in parts 2-4.
Jeffrey S. Gurock, Orthodox Jews in America (Indiana University Press: Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2009)
Pretty much everyone has seen an image that would have been unimaginable fifty years ago. It could be in a restaurant, playground, sporting event, or just on the street. The image is that of a typical American grandparent, with no identifying signs of being Jewish, doting on grandchildren who are wearing long skirts, big kippot and sometimes even have sidelocks. Many have also seen another image, a Shabbat morning with father and son walking to synagogue. Father is dressed in suit and tie and son also has a suit and tie. Yet the son's suit is black and the shirt is white. He is also wearing the obligatory black hat (and in so doing is helping keep alive a business—hat making—that seems to have no other client base).
From one perspective, these images are understandable, as children have often rejected the religious lifestyle of their parents. Yet what makes the story significant is that until recently the movement was almost always in one direction, with children becoming less observant. Seventy-five years ago Rabbi Solomon Isaac Scheinfeld of Milwaukee could declare that there were no baalei teshuvah (newly religious) in the “Land of Columbus.” Yet today we see both plenty of newly religious and, even more significant from my perspective, many who were raised Orthodox adopting a more stringent observance and narrower outlook on life than their parents. This is all part of the historic revival of Orthodoxy. How we got to this place should be a question on the mind of every thinking Jew.
Many have set out to answer this question, and the study of Orthodox Judaism in all of its forms has been a growth industry for the last couple of decades. Recent years have seen an explosion of writings on the topic, both articles and full-length books. There have also been a number of conferences focusing on Orthodoxy, and many of the proceedings have been published. On the internet there are loads of sites devoted to aspects of Orthodox life and culture from all different angles. Even though the Orthodox are significantly smaller than the other denominations, the amount written about them in recent years dwarfs what we can point to with regard to the Conservative and Reform movements. In terms of blogs and other internet sites, there also is no comparison. How to explain all this?
When it comes to the blogs and more popular sites on the internet the answer is not hard to find. It is true that the other denominations have more “members” than the Orthodox. Yet if we are talking about those who are educated Jewishly, and interested in Jewish matters, the Orthodox unquestionably outnumber the other denominations. Since the internet is the great equalizer, with everyone able to set up his or her soapbox, it is no wonder that it is crawling with Orthodox sites. Furthermore, average Orthodox Jews, by which I mean those who are not in the rabbinate or the academy, buy books of Jewish interest to a much greater extent than other laypeople. Since they are bound to be interested in their own denomination, this would explain why books dealing with aspects of Orthodoxy sell well.
Yet how are we to explain the great scholarly interest that has also taken root? Are the academics fascinated by a movement that defied predictions of its demise, and instead shows incredible dynamism and often seems to be changing before our eyes? To be sure, this is bound to interest those in the academy, especially the phenomenon of a movement supposedly committed to continuity with the past that nevertheless shows an incredible ability to alter its traditional practices. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that for most products one determined if they were kosher by looking at the ingredients. Yet the consensus today in the United States, even among the Modern Orthodox, is that a product cannot be kosher without rabbinical supervision (and the supervision itself has to be regarded as reputable). Kosher consumers are now told by the various kashrut organizations that canned vegetables, which contain only vegetables and water, need supervision, not to mention mouthwash, tin foil pans, and a host of other items. They are further told that some fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries and broccoli, can’t be eaten at all, or at least not without a cleaning regimen (complete with liquid soap) that would discourage most. These are all relatively new practices that have developed, and as such are bound to spark the interest of historians, sociologists, and even psychologists.
The latest contribution to the study of Orthodoxy comes from Jeffrey S. Gurock. Gurock was one of the first scholars to write about Orthodoxy, beginning with his classic 1983 essay “Resisters and Accommodators: Varieties of Orthodox Rabbis in America, 1886-1983.” Since that time, he has written on a variety of aspects of American Orthodoxy, and his latest book can be seen as a culmination of his work in this area. Orthodox Jews in America is the first attempt at a complete history of traditional Judaism in the United States (and the colonies).
Let me note at the outset that intellectual history is not part of the story Gurock tells. Other than Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who is briefly treated, there is no analysis of important Orthodox thinkers such as Eliezer Berkovits, Leo Jung, and Emanuel Rackman, and how their ideas were influenced by their American experience. The only time the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, is mentioned is when Gurock notes that some Lubavitchers regard him as the Messiah. I think this is an important lacuna as Schneersohn's role as thinker and builder are certainly significant enough for inclusion even in a book not focused on intellectual history. In fact, it was the success of Lubavitch that encouraged the non-hasidic haredim (ultra-Orthodox) to also move into “outreach,” and today they are the major force in drawing newcomers to Orthodoxy.
This is ironic considering that some of the leaders of this world mocked the Lubavitch for doing precisely what the non-hasidic “outreach professionials” are doing today. In fact, it seems that the demographic realities of America have affected their perspective even more than Lubavitch. How else to explain that Aish Hatorah, a supposedly haredi organization, honors intermarried celebrities at its events and prominently features them in its programming and on its website? This is certainly something that R. Aaron Kotler (died 1962), who more than anyone else is the ideological forebear of the non-hasidic American haredim, could never have imagined.
In analyzing Orthodoxy we must not forget that more than anything else, it is a movement that revolves around Jewish law. Yet Gurock also pays no attention to how the halakhic system was impacted by the New World. I refer to both specific halakhic questions that arose in the United States (e.g., can one eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?), as well as the wider issue of how the democratic ethos of America influenced the outlook of the halakhic decisors, in particular men such as Joseph Elijah Henkin and Moses Feinstein. How the rabbinic leaders of both the United States and Europe regarded American Jewry, a community whose observance was often tenuous, is also an important part of the story that remains to be told.
For example, Gurock writes about the common practice of “Orthodox” Jews going to work on the Sabbath, a phenomenon he himself witnessed and offers a personal description. He even refers to a synagogue in Atlanta that in 1932 began holding Friday night services, not at sunset, but at a time that would permit members “to attend the synagogue after work or before the theatre.” In some synagogues, especially in the big cities, there was an early Saturday morning service that enabled those in attendance to go from there to work.
Not mentioned by Gurock is that there were rabbis who actually justified some of these Sabbath violators (that is, those who went to work, not the theatre goers). These rabbis asserted that those who worked on the Sabbath did so because they felt this was necessary in order to survive. Therefore, from a halakhic standpoint they could not be regarded as typical Sabbath violators. This is only one example of how the American reality influenced the halakhic response, and the writings of Rabbi Hayyim Hirschenson are most significant in this regard.
Finally, there is no attention paid to the wider religious context of Orthodoxy in modern times. The turn to traditional religion is certainly not confined to Judaism. The same phenomenon can be observed in Christianity and Islam, which means that there are no doubt broad cross-cultural factors that can explain some of the Orthodox revival of recent decades. In fact, this latter point, which I think is of great significance, is also entirely ignored in Haym Soloveitchik’s “Rupture and Reconstruction,” a classic article on the topic of Orthodoxy’s turn to the right. Soloveitchik describes late twentieth-century Orthodoxy’s evolution to a book culture from what had been a living culture. With this book culture, that is, modeling one’s behavior on the rulings found in traditional halakhic texts, as opposed to how Jews actually lived in the “real world,” came increasing stringency. There is a great deal of truth in this, but as is always the case, no important phenomenon can be explained by one cause. I make these points not to criticize Gurock, but only to call attention to how much work still needs to be done, even after Gurock’s book of almost four hundred pages.
Gurock’s strength is social history, and it is with this in mind that his book should be appreciated. He gives us insight into how Orthodox Jews lived, the peddler and merchant of years ago and the white collar professional of today, in places where there were many like them and in areas far removed from other Jews. Newspaper articles and memoirs are much more valuable for this type of history than the rabbinical writings, which are intended for the intellectuals and often give a very different slant. The story he tells is compelling reading, sometimes maddening (as with the various Orthodox disputes and scandals mentioned), and other times inspiring. I put the book down convinced more than ever that Orthodoxy, in all of its permutations, is where the future of American Judaism will be found. At the very least, its power and influence will be of much greater significance than today.
The one major negative that the community has to contend with, and which has always acted as a major hurdle to more people joining, is the incredible cost of day school tuition. Yet even here a new paradigm might be emerging, as some Orthodox parents have begun to send their children to public school. This is a new development that has just begun to pick up some steam and although not included in Gurock’s book, might be part of the Orthodox story in another twenty years.
Gurock begins his story from the start of Jewish settlement in colonial America, and I found the second chapter, dealing with nineteenth-century Orthodoxy and the difficulties it faced throughout the vast country, particularly fascinating. The bulk of the book is understandably devoted to the era beginning with large-scale Jewish immigration towards the end of the nineteenth century. It was then that American Orthodoxy really came into its own.
While some leading rabbis of the time, such as R. Jacob David Wilovsky of Chicago, assumed that no real synagogue could have English sermons, others were more attuned to where the American future would be. Although there were plans in New York and elsewhere to create European-type communities, complete with chief rabbis, the American scene, with its stress on religious autonomy, was not fertile ground for the European model. When one self-styled chief rabbi of New York was asked who actually appointed him to this august position, he is alleged to have replied, “the sign maker.” Even if apocryphal, the story accurately portrays the futility of transferring European models of authority to an increasingly complicated American scene. It is here that Gurock does a fine job showing the reader the complexity of what was taking place.
The twentieth century saw Orthodoxy really come into its own. The challenge of Conservative Judaism, the struggle to create a market for kosher products, and the varied attempts to create an attractive school system for the young are all part of the twentieth-century story recounted by Gurock. Although by mid-century any sociologist worth his salt was ready to proclaim that Orthodoxy would never survive in America—one famously declared that American Orthodoxy was a “case study of institutional decay”—by 1960 it should have been clear that Orthodoxy had made tremendous strides and was here to stay.
While there is much of significance in the book, I feel that Gurock is at his best in his treatment of what I call "old-time Orthodoxy," the type Gurock describes growing up with and has focused on in a few essays. This approach to Judaism, characterized by an identification with Orthodoxy while being less than fully observant in one’s personal life, was the dominant form of Orthodox Judaism in the United States for much of the twentieth country. Gurock has even spoken of the years 1900-1960 as “American Orthodoxy’s era of non-observance.” This “non-observant Orthodoxy” increasingly came under challenge in the latter half of the twentieth century, as stricter observance of kashrut and the Sabbath laws became part of the Orthodox mainstream. As the century came to a close levels of observance continued to rise.
Many of the older generation would have difficulty recognizing the form of Orthodoxy that has developed in the last thirty years. Unlike when they were growing up, today's Orthodoxy does not offer social dances for singles and synagogue trips to Broadway musicals. The mehitzah has been raised and the after-school Talmud Torahs have been closed down since almost all children attend day schools. Orthodoxy no longer feels very welcoming to one who drives to synagogue on Shabbat. In many congregations one who “eats fish out” will have to keep this quiet unless he wishes to appear as a religious deviant. These changes in Orthodoxy happened at the same time that most Orthodox Jews have become completely at home in American society and culture, to the extent of having kosher hot dogs sold at baseball games for all those who wish to take part in the great American pastime.
By creating the day schools and yeshivot to which they sent their children, the old-time Orthodox planted the seeds of the future revolution in American Orthodoxy, a revolution that has brought great satisfaction to some and heartache to others. Their children discovered that Judaism as practiced in their homes was far removed from what the rabbis and the Jewish texts had to say. Unlike their parents, whose major exposure to Judaism was in the home, the children's major exposure was in the schools. It is therefore not surprising that with their new knowledge they often examined their parents' lifestyle and found in wanting. Many of these people spent time in advanced Torah study in Israel, and as part of the quest for a more serious religious life were ready to accept added stringencies (e. g., glatt kosher and even sometimes halav yisrael [milk produced by Jews]).
One sign of the haredi infiltration, as it were, of Modern Orthodox synagogues is the ubiquity of the Artscroll prayer book and Humash, which present an “East European” flavor combined with a quasi-fundamentalism. It didn’t have to be this way. Yet Modern Orthodox intellectuals were so busy writing learned essays to be read by each other, that they abandoned the masses to the right wing, producing virtually no literature directed towards them. It was only in 2009 that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks produced a competing prayer book to Artscroll, one more in line with the Modern Orthodox ethos. Yet I doubt that it can win over many of the synagogues that years ago switched over to Artscroll.
The increasing visibility and power of the right-wing Orthodox, combined with the turn to the right in Modern Orthodoxy, was bound to engender a counter reaction. Gurock has a chapter dealing with Orthodox feminism, which is just one aspect of an incipient move to the left on the part of some in the Modern Orthodox world. This new liberal Orthodoxy, not as powerful or confident as its adherents would like, has begun to focus on issues that the mainstream Orthodox shy away from, including interdenominational and interfaith dialogue. Yet Gurock is correct in sensing that the women’s issue is central to the self-understanding of the new liberal Orthodox, many of whom seek rabbinic guidance from the recently established Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York. It is too soon to tell what the enduring role of this new institution will be. However, the strong attacks on it by both right-wing and centrist Orthodox figures, who see it as the beginning of a new Conservative movement, show that the institution and its rabbis are already viewed as a threat.
The liberal Orthodox first found their voice in dealing with the agunah problem, and have also worked to expand the role of women in the synagogue and communal life. There are now synagogues that regard themselves as Orthodox yet function in a semi-egalitarian fashion, and full egalitarianism might just be a matter of time. Too recent to be included in the book, a woman has just been given a rabbinic ordination, and presumably there will soon be other Orthodox women rabbis. Yet there are also other aspects of the liberal Orthodox vision that Gurock does not mention. For example, social justice has emerged as an issue that they feel strongly about. A new kosher certification has even been unveiled, one that focuses on how the workers are treated. Some in this camp have even begun to speak about the need for a new approach to homosexuality. It is thus very difficult to predict where this segment of the community will be in another fifty years, and if the mainstream will even regard it as part of wider Orthodoxy. Indeed, some of the liberals see themselves as part of a new era, one that is both committed to halakhah and post-denominational in mindset.
At the end of the book, Gurock describes his trip to an Arizona hotel for Passover. Here, around the pool, he witnessed the persistence of old-time Orthodoxy, which he describes as those “Jews on the edges of Orthodoxy’s contemporary tent.” Yet the people he describes are not on the edges at all, but part of mainstream Modern Orthodoxy, especially when one leaves the great population centers. It is true that organized religious life has moved to the right. As mentioned already, you will no longer find synagogues sponsoring trips to a Broadway musical, and the once ubiquitous synagogue dance barely survives. It is also the case that many of the young generation are more observant than their parents. For example, it was almost unheard of for a married woman in America in the 1950’s and 1960’s to cover her hair. If her rabbi’s wife didn’t (and that was almost always the case), then why should she? Yet today, there are many young women in the Modern Orthodox world who do follow this practice.
However, old-time Orthodoxy, which combines a middle or upper class American lifestyle with traditional ritual observance, both survives and is reproducing. Throughout the country pools and beaches are packed with Orthodox Jews, and despite their synagogue’s lack of sponsorship, on any night one can find Orthodox in attendance at Broadway shows and the opera. The synagogue dance might have disappeared, but husbands and wives can dance to the oldies (for many this means “YMCA”) at plenty of Orthodox weddings and bar mitzvahs.
What we can say is that the ritual instinct of many Modern Orthodox Jews has zeroed in on matters such as kashrut and the Sabbath, so that these areas are observed much more carefully than in previous years. However, other areas of Jewish law are treated not much differently than a generation or two ago. While some observers have spoken of a future haredi takeover of American Orthodoxy, there is good reason to assume that the varieties of Orthodox experience described by Gurock will continue for a long time to come.