Redefining Judaism as an American Religion

an edited review by Allan C. Brownfeld article Jun 23, 2019

Judaism in America is becoming increasingly divided. Some Jewish groups define Judaism as a religion of universal values. Others, adopting the Zionist narrative, define Judaism in nationalistic and ethnic terms. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu says that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews. Most American Jews would disagree.

Their “homeland,” beyond question, is the United States.

Making sense of these divisions is not easy.

In “The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became An American Religion” (Simon and Schuster), Steven R. Weisman tells the story of how Judaism redefined itself in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. The personalities who competed with one another and shaped its evolution. The force of the American dynamic transforming an ancient religion.

The struggles that produced a redefinition of Judaism illustrate the larger American experience. The efforts of Americans of all religious backgrounds to reconcile their faith with modern demands. The narrative begins with the arrival of the first Jews in New Amsterdam. It then proceeds over the 19th century as a massive immigration takes place at the dawn of the 20th century.

“The thesis of the book,” writes Weisman, “is that the Judaism of America today…bears witness to a spirit of dynamism and change similar to what had existed among the rabbis and Jewish scholars throughout Jewish history. …The impact was different in the United States…where it produced a particularly American response, influenced inevitably by the culture of a country that disdained religious hierarchies while allowing and even encouraging citizens of all faiths to create institutions redefining their own distinctive understanding of God.”

A major focus of the disputes of the earlier era was theological and existential in nature.

“It centered,” notes Weisman, “on whether Jews should pray for an altogether human messiah to deliver them back to the Holy Land, there to worship at the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem destroyed by Titus’s Roman legions in 70 CE. For as long as Jews have seen themselves as exiles—-which they have done since the Temple’s destruction—-they have prayed for a return to Zion. But in early 19th century America, where Jews were emancipated and accepted as equal American citizens, they instead embraced the United States as their Zion.. There was no longer a need in their view to pray for a messiah …to lead them away from the land to which they now happily extended their loyalty.”

The first Jews to arrive in the New World may well have been secret Jews or converts aboard one of Columbus’ 1492 ships. Columbus, it has been speculated, may have been one of the “hidden” Jews as well. In 1630, 23 Jewish asylum seekers arrived in New Amsterdam.

By 1800, Charleston, South Carolina had the largest Jewish community in the country. In his dedication of America’s first Reform synagogue in Charleston in 1841, Rabbi Gustav Poznanski declared:

This happy country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple. As our fathers defended with their lives that Temple, that city and that land, so will their sons defend this temple, this city, and this land.”

Weisman writes that,

“The Philadelphia conference proved a landmark in the effort to distance itself from identity as a ‘nation’ or ‘people’ as well as from Jewish traditional practices. In doing so, it effectively fulfilled the legacy of the principles enunciated in Charleston, ‘that this country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this House of God our Temple.’”

In the 19th century, with the immigration of Eastern European Jews in large numbers, American Judaism continued to change. The emergence of Zionism and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe lead many to sympathize with Jewish state in Palestine.

The Jewish Community 21st Century Divide

Today, Israel and its 50-year occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem is a source of growing division.  Many are arguing that it has turned its back on Jewish morals and ethical values in its treatment of Palestinians.

Steven Weisman focuses on the years leading up to the 20th century. His message is a positive one, of how Judaism became a genuinely American religion and continues to evolve.

However, as Jews began to emigrate to America, many felt that Judaism would not survive the challenges of a free and open society.

Nonetheless, Weisman shows us,

“Jews did more than outwit the pessimists and survive. They thrived in part by adjusting their religion to their new environment’s demands. They embraced an intellectual transformation …guiding them to rethink and revise ancient laws, practices and doctrines to be kept alive for future generations.”

A central thesis of his book, Weisman concludes, is that

“After they came to the United States, they evolved in the 19th century from believing in a messiah…who would return Jews to the Holy Land toward a belief in seeking redemption for humanity through good works—-specifically by working for social justice and harmony among all peoples…They may say ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ at Passover. But for the most part, they have left behind the goal of restoring the kingdom of David in the Holy Land. The transformation of Judaism into a faith that seeks redemption through adhering to core traditions while practicing good works to hasten a ‘messianic’ age of redemption has become the bulwark of their survival in America.”

Judaism, as the author shows us, has become a genuinely American religion. The free, open and diverse American society has had a dramatic impact on all religion. It was the American Roman Catholic Church influencing Rome to embrace the principle of religious freedom and diversity. Something it had become comfortable within America. Many Jews feared that Judaism could not thrive in freedom.

As Weisman shows us, they were wrong.