THE JEWISH RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE IN AMERICA THE PROBLEM OF INTERPRETATION
The study of religions in America, including of American Judaism, presents a curious irony. We have a great many answers, much information. We have yet to state the questions. That is, our knowledge of the facts about various religious groups is considerable. We confidently narrate the history of religious movements, the biography of important religious figures, the story of religious institutions. These are answers. But what is the question? To the degree that historical studies limit themselves to the positivist agendum, prefer to talk about matters readily defined in measurable terms, reduce religion to its visible expressions, the available facts do fit the issues under study. Social scientists, of course, find the present agendum congenial, for it reduces the religious question to the answers produced by hard facts, opinions which can be counted, institutions which can be accurately described. When, therefore, we speak of American Judaism, the sociologists take for granted we are talking with them.
The religious question, however, is not wholly answered by positivist methods and results. To take one instance, even when we know the history of Hebrew Union College, its founders, budgets, curricula, and the like, we have not exhausted all that we ought to want to know about that history, its meaning and implications for the study of American Judaism. Indeed, I wonder, when we have completed our description of the founders and later leaders, the professors and students, the work of alumni, whether we have properly interpreted even these readily accessible facts. For several matters still elude us. First, why do people do what they do? What larger issues are present in their minds? Second, what do they imagine they do? What transcendent conception occupies their thoughts, gives meaning to their actions? Third, how do these two