Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

What the Rabbis Said: The Public Discourse of Nineteenth-Century American Rabbis

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

What the Rabbis Said: The Public Discourse of Nineteenth-Century American Rabbis

Article excerpt

BRIEFLY NOTED WHAT THE RABBIS SAID: THE PUBLIC DISCOURSE OF NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN RABBIS by Naomi Cohen New York University Press, 252 pages, $45

Naomi Cohen charts how Jewish clergy negotiated the competing claims of tradition and the novel cultural, political, and religious context of America. In the absence of external religious restriction and a unified internal religious community, nineteenth-century American rabbis had to develop new ways to define and defend Judaism in a land where political liberty and religious denominationalism were the norm- a situation far from the Jewish experience in Europe. Cohen ably depicts the frustrations and successes of diese rabbis and the evolution of the rabbinate.

Most American rabbis were European born and trained. When they arrived in the United States, they encountered a laity that insisted on limiting the themes of the rabbi's sermon, preferring decidedly uncontroversial discussions from the pulpit. Congregations hired dieir own rabbi, and they sought to lead him rather than to be led by him, a situation analogous to that of Christian clergy. …

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