Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Book Review: Politics, Faith, and the Making of American Judaism

Politics, Faith, and the Making of American Judaism by Peter Adams
Paperback: 230 pages
Publisher: University of Michigan Press (March 25, 2014)

Adams explores how politics and faith played a role in the evolution of Judaism in America. While there is a small amount over overlap with When Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan Sarna, this is very much Adams' book.

There's a lot in here on how Reform Judaism came to be, much thanks to Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.  The book briefly touches on how the Conservative Judaism movement came out of those that thought the Reform movement went too far but didn't feel completely comfortable with the Orthodox movement either.  A middle ground, if you will.

I am one of those that finds it very uncomfortable with walking into a Reform shul and this goes back to the Bar Mitzvah circuit from when I grew up in a Conservative shul before slowly becoming Orthodox in college.  It feels too much like a church with the organs and lack of tallit and kippot.  This book explains just how that came to be.

I knew that Conservative Judaism had started in America but I didn't realize just how liberal Reform Judaism was at the time.  After reading the book, I wonder how Rabbi Wise would feel about the current conflict seeing as how much of an anti-Zionist he was and how he was so opposed to Herzl at the time.

After the infamous order by Grant during the Civil War, many Jews felt that it was best to assimilate with their fellow Americans.  For some, this meant working on Shabbas since it was illegal in many places to open shop on Sunday.

In the post-Civil War of America, American Jews paid attention to what was happening elsewhere with fellow Jews around the world.  President Grant took notice of what was happening in Romania and Russia and did his best to help the situation.

Back in the day, the Board of Delegates served as the predecessor to the the modern-Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.  Wise was not a fan of this board and he made his feelings very much known to those involved.

American Jewry played a role in helping as many of the Russian Jews as possible given the pogroms that they were suffering from in Russia.

All of this, of course, happened in a world without social media.  I can't help but think just how mobilized the Jewish community would have been in the 1800s--especially judging from my Facebook feed in the last few weeks.

I highly recommend this book, especially to those Jewish history buffs out there!


Mike Barer said...

I think reform Judiasm plays a role of allowing casual believers to stay connected. Also, don't always judge a book by it's cover. Many Reforms keep Kosher, follow the Shabbat, and wear Kipot during services. They just do it as their choice. Our temple now, does not have an organist. However the Cantor often plays keyboards and the former Rabbi guitar. I think that enhances the service.

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