Sectors of American Judaism: Reform, Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reconstructionism

By Jacob Neusner | Go to book overview

28
JUDAISM IN FREEDOM

JACOB NEUSNER

What is at the heart of the matter? In what ways is the situation of American Judaism new and unprecedented? These are the questions asked in the following essay, which proposes an answer as well. The answer derives from what Americans in general perceive as distinctive about America: the openness of its society, the newness and opportunity for experimentation presented by its civilization. For Judaism too the open society is a new and hitherto unknown context. In the nineteenth and twentieth century European experience, the Jew had the choice of remaining Jewish in a restricted community or becoming something else entirely. Only in the decades from Bismarck to the end of Weimar Germany do substantial numbers of European Jews seem to have found it possible so to relax as not to choose at all, thus to fall into a kind of indifference, marked by the presence of residual loyalties, characteristic of American Jewry today. For the rest, people who became indifferent to Judaism commonly became something else, Christian or Marxist or whatever. America is perceived, perhaps with excessive enthusiasm, as a wholly benign setting. Judaism then becomes the problem, for it is full of demands, which now must be confronted and accepted or rejected. The choice is not new, but the conditions in which the choice must be made are fresh. That is the refreshing challenge of freedom to contemporary American Judaism.

The central issue facing Judaism in our day is whether a long- beleaguered faith can endure the conclusion of its perilous siege. Our faith, during the past century the object of assault from other religions, from academic scholarship, and our people, under social and political pressure of all kinds, suddenly confront a day when both have in many places entered the inchoate cultural establishment. Thus a wholly new attitude towards Judaism characterises many Christian groups. The determinedly uninformed slanders against it by scholars of religion in antiquity, and of the several disciplines of the social sciences, have long since been discredited, and even so distinguished an anti-Judaist as

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