The Religion, Judaism, in America: What Has Happened in Three Hundred and Fifty Years?

By Neusner, Jacob | American Jewish History, September-December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Religion, Judaism, in America: What Has Happened in Three Hundred and Fifty Years?


Neusner, Jacob, American Jewish History


I. How Long Does Eternity Take?

Four cases make the point that even a century is not a long time in which to realize a project of enduring influence in the history of Judaism--not including the fact that Moses could write down the whole Torah of Sinai in forty days!

First, the entire Mishna, deriving from traditions of Sinai to be sure, reached categorical definition in less than 150 years, from 70 CE to 200 CE; only a few tractates sink roots into Temple times, and whole divisions commence scarcely a half-century before the Mishna came to closure. The Yerushalmi, its systematic commentary, required two more centuries of tradition, 200 CE to 400 CE; and from the Mishnah to the Bavli, the definitive statement of Rabbinic Judaism, 200 CE to 600 CE, a history of tradition of not much more than the time span from 1654 to 2004 took place. By that criterion we have done nothing that will last--not yet.

Not only so, second, but we gain perspective on the story of Judaism in America from the counterpart history of Judaism in Britain during the same span of time, 1657 to the present. If we ask what major events shaped Judaism in its history in Britain, several remarkable achievements in the history of Judaism present themselves. It suffices to point to Danby's Mishnah and the Soncino Talmud and Midrash and Zohar; the formation of an effective chief rabbinate, and the definition of a normative Orthodox Judaism in a Western society. The remarkable record of cultural encounter that made the English language the medium of Jewish learning was written almost entirely by scholarly pioneers in Britain for the first three hundred years of the simultaneous history of Judaism in Britain, the United States, and Canada. Judaism formed institutional supports that defined a middle-way Orthodoxy and empowered it. No American or Canadian counterpart--a chief rabbinate, a normative Orthodoxy, the adaptation of English to Judaic tasks--steps forward, except for the presentation of Judaism in the English language. And the British Judaic scholars had completed their tasks before American ones got started. From that perspective, we form a backwater of Judaism.

So too, third, German Judaism, entering the modern situation at the end of the eighteenth century and closing its doors scarcely a century and a half later in 1939, produced Reform Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, the concept of academic scholarship in Judaism, the conception of the compatibility of the Torah and Western culture, and, if we encompass the German-language domain, Zionism (in Austria-Hungary). So the span of time in the history of Judaism has proven sufficient to produce enduring Judaic religious systems. Of six most important, generative conceptions of contemporary Judaism, two did not originate in the German-speaking world of Judaism. (The other two were the formation of secular Jewishness, which defines the achievement of Jewry in Eastern Europe, and the framing of an Israeli nationality out of Jewish ethnicity.) The four most influential in American Judaism came to expression in a rigorous, intellectually sustaining way in German Jewry in less than a single century. Since American Judaism divides itself into Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative Judaisms, and since Zionism overspreads the entire Judaic framework, we may once more conclude that we form a backwater, a religio-cultural dependency of German ,Judaism of a century ago.

And what if, fourth, we compare ourselves with Israeli Judaism? The bland and limited religious menu produced in the United States scarcely compares with the profound Judaic choices yielded by Judaism in its land. Indeed, the comparison embarrasses us. For in the State of Israel thrives the most diverse, intense, active set of Judaic religious systems and communities in the world today--the whole the product of scarcely fifty years. Standing in 1948, who would have predicted the diversity of Israeli Judaisms, nearly all of them calling themselves Orthodox, and who would have anticipated the formation of such fundamental conflicts, expressed in politics and in culture, sustained by religious-Judaic convictions, such as flourish in the State of Israel?

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