Friday, October 15, 2010

God in America

I watched most of the second installment of God in America on PBS, and I was startled by some of it.

From the segment on Judaism, a person would think that Reform Judaism originated in the United States, and that Isaac Mayer Wise invented it all himself. While the program was right to emphasize his enormous efforts to spread Reform, his accomplishments in founding the major institutions of Reform Judaism in America, and his hope that it would unite all Jews in this country, I think it was wrong to overlook the origins of Reform in Germany and the pre-Wise stirrings of Reform in America.

It also slighted the effects of the radicalism of other Reform rabbis of the period, some of whom were much more radical than Isaac Mayer Wise. Wise's Minhag America was a comparatively traditional siddur, while the Union Prayer Book, first published in 1895, was based on Rabbi David Einhorn's competing siddur, Olat Tamid, which made far more sweeping changes than Wise's.

I was also surprised to hear that Wise found resistance from thousands of "Conservative Jews" emigrating from Europe around 1870. Now, the philosophy of Conservative Judaism did originate in Europe, e.g., with Zecharias Frankel and the "Historical School" that asserted the capacity to interpret Torah, Talmud, and halachah in the light of modern scholarship. But there was no large-scale movement called, or even like, Conservative Judaism in 19th-century Europe, and the Jews who emigrated from eastern Europe after 1870 (many significantly after) certainly did not come from anything like a Conservative synagogue. Conservative Judaism is more genuinely an American phenomenon than is Reform, in my opinion, even though both have roots in Germany and German Reform Judaism remained somewhat closer to traditional Judaism than did American Reform.

The affinity between Jewish emigration from eastern Europe and Conservative Judaism had more to do with the fact that it was the less traditionally religious Jews, those more oriented toward the opportunities of the modern world, who were most likely to emigrate. Thus, they were more open to a style of Judaism that combined more traditional form than Reform with a less traditional philosophy than what we now call Orthodox Judaism.

The program had expert advisors, including Prof. Jonathan Sarna, so it is possible that I am wrong about all this. But what it said was so different from what is almost universally taught that I really wonder how well the producers followed expert advice.