The Chosen Wars

How Judaism Became an American Religion

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Steven R. Weisman
  • New York, NY: 
    Simon & Shuster
    , August
     2018.
     368 pages.
     $30.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781416573265.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Award-winning author and veteran New York Times correspondent Steven R. Weisman provides an informative and accessible history of important happenings and people in American Judaism. The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion covers the period of colonial America through contemporary times, but focuses primarily on the 19th century and the rabbis, congregations, and social conditions that gave rise to what would become Reform Judaism in the US. Weisman describes struggles within Jewish communities—over such issues as including organs in synagogues; the length, language, and liturgy of services; dietary and other laws; and “decorum” during prayer—demonstrating that, at their core, these were contests between the desire for maintaining tradition and full inclusion in modern American society. According to Weisman, the product of these emotional conflicts—involving public debates, civil litigation, congregational schisms, and even physical altercations—was the redefinition of a “particularly American” Judaism (xxv). 

A central theme in Weisman’s book is the evolution of “theological and existential” beliefs among reform-minded American Jews concerning messiah and mission. Traditionally, Jews prayed for a “human messiah to deliver … [Jews] back to the Holy Land, there to worship at the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem destroyed … in 70 CE” (xxv). Weisman outlines an evolution from longing for one who brings an era of peace and temple sacrifice, to accepting the US as “Zion,” to embracing an “idea of a Jewish ‘mission’ to spread morality in the world” (xxv). The latter was an idea birthed in Germany, which matured into contemporary Jewish concerns for social justice and tikkun olam, the “rebuilding of the world.” In this way, Weisman argues, the notion of “chosenness” changed in the American context, from a definition of Jews living apart and separate, to one of a people “chosen” to promote “a distinctively Jewish social gospel” (xxxiii). 

Weisman argues that “the transformation of Judaism into an American religion” emerged from the “practical exigencies of living, and earning a living, for Jewish immigrants in America”; “the determination of Jews to conform to American culture” (xxviii); and the intellectual pulls of modernity—“science, citizenship, anthropology, history, and literary analysis in an egalitarian democracy” (xxx). 

Weisman begins his narrative by describing the arrival of twenty-three Jews seeking asylum in New Amsterdam in 1654, Jews in the American Revolution, and early skirmishes between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews. Two chapters consider Charleston, South Carolina, which boasted the “largest Jewish community in the United States” in the early 19th century. Charleston Jews debated tradition and change within while experiencing religious discrimination and conversion pressures externally. Weisman then attends to 19th century German immigrants to the United States, the challenges they faced as Jews in America—keeping the Sabbath while “blue laws” forbade Sunday work, and avoiding intermarriage—and how they changed American Judaism. He offers stories of Jewish peddlers chasing the American Dream, and the proliferation of Jewish organizations and publications.

Describing the rabbis that migrated from Europe beginning in 1840, Weisman explains: “[b]y the time rabbis could exert control, Jewish communities had grown accustomed to deciding rules and customs on their own” (76). As a result, “nearly all the first generation of rabbis experienced rejection and dismissal” from their communities (82). Weisman devotes abundant text to the “turbulent” life story of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, an early advocate for change in Jewish belief and practice. Some initial reforms included “the introduction of English and German hymns [into religious services], a confirmation ceremony that replaced the bar mitzvah, and abolition of the sale to congregants of ‘honors,’ such as opening the ark or removing the Torah from it” (98-99). Wise was witness to a “fistfight in Albany” (103) that arose from a public rabbinic debate “over the existence of a personal messiah” (111). Underestimating the hold of traditional messianic beliefs, Wise publically sided against them, which exacerbated disputes between Wise and outraged leaders of his congregation. Drama ensued, culminating in a physical altercation during services on the High Holiday of Rosh Hashonah. The dispute erupted into a “melee” that had to be dispersed by local police; afterwards, Wise’s congregation split. 

Weisman examines the prominent roles of Jews on both sides of the Civil War, crediting the conflict for both hastening Jewish integration into American society and serving as fuel for heightened anti-semitism. Describing debates among Jews over the morality of slavery—given Biblical instructions on the proper treatment of slaves—he asserts: “it was easier for reform-oriented rabbis to condemn slavery” (157) because they held to less literal interpretations of the Torah. The final chapters chronicle the creation and rise of the Reform movement—including the infamous incident of the Trefa Banquet, a meal celebrating the first rabbinic ordination in the US where food violating Jewish dietary laws was served—with bits devoted to Conservative and modern Orthodox movements, a paragraph about Jewish Reconstructionism, and a relatively generous discussion of Felix Adler and the emergence of the Ethical Culture Society. 

The 19th century, Weisman argues, set the stage for the “emergence of three main branches of Judaism” in the 20th century (246). Yet, somewhat belied by its subtitle, the book reads less as a story of American Judaism than as one of Jewish Reform. In Weisman’s tale, Reform “protagonists” such as Wise enjoy the lion’s share of text, alongside much briefer considerations of “antagonists” or “supporting actors,” such as Rabbi Isaac Leeser, the “founder of modern Orthodoxy” who “jockeyed for influence” with Wise in shaping American Judaism (140). 

Weisman’s The Chosen Wars is densely packed with information—including both the trivia of history and the grand patterns and perceptions that shaped a people and/or religion (depending on which side of the “peoplehood” argument one chooses). He deftly alternates between telling detailed stories—of the lives of particular Jewish Americans and of events in specific communities—and describing influential thought-trends and movements—such as the Great Awakening, Darwinism, and the Jewish Enlightenment [Haskalah] movement in Germany. In this way, he manages a fine balance between specificity and socio-historical context. Most importantly, he demonstrates that the “conflicts of today are anything but new” (259).

About the Reviewer(s): 

C. Lynn Carr is Professor of Sociology at Seton Hall University.

Date of Review: 
April 3, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven R. Weisman is Vice President for Publications and Communications at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), previously served as a correspondent, editor, and editorial board member at The New York Times. His book The Great Tax Wars: How the Income Tax Transformed America, received the Sidney Hillman Award in 2003.

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