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Zev Eleff: Is This the End of American Judaism?

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SUMMARY

This series is sponsored by Joel and Lynn Mael in memory of Estelle and Nysen Mael.

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we begin our Denominations series by talking to Zev Eleff—historian, author, and the president of Gratz College—about the development of the denominations of Judaism we have in America today.

 

We’ve been occupied for months with defending our right to be Jews in America, so perhaps this is the right time to return to considering the purpose of the Jewish lives we want to live. In this episode we discuss:

 

  • How did America’s Jewish “denominations”—better termed “movements”—as we know them come to be?
  • What have the different Jewish movements each contributed to American Jewish life?
  • How can we get back to not just fighting antisemitism, but uncovering the meaning of our Judaism?
Tune in to hear a conversation about how previous generations of American Jews have handled the issues that, to one degree or another, threatened to divide us.

Interview begins at 49:36.

Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff is the president of Gratz College. Zev is the author and editor of nine books and more than 50 scholarly articles in the fields of Jewish Studies and American Religion, including Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History, Dyed in Crimson: Football, Faith, and Remaking Harvard’s America, and Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life. Zev’s research focuses on American Jewish history, sports, and Modern Orthodox history.

References:


Jonathan Haidt on The Daily Show
American Judaism by Jonathan D. Sarna

This Is My God by Herman Wouk

Jewish Continuity in America by Abraham J. Karp

18Forty Podcast: “Halacha as a Language

David Bashevkin:

Hi, friends and welcome to 18Forty. You’ll notice this is a little bit of a new intro and I want to give some context for where I am, where 18Forty is. We’ve been on a break for a few weeks and a lot has happened in those weeks, and launching a new series feels very, very daunting to me personally right now, but I’m actually extraordinarily excited because I think this is an opportunity and a moment to talk about Judaism, Yiddishkeit, our lives, in ways that we never have before, and I want to just give a little bit of background to my own thinking before we enter into this series. I may have mentioned this before, but as we were headed into Sukkot of this year, early October, pre-October seventh, we had an entire series already completed. That series was about Jewish denominations. It was about, basically, the denominational structure that we have in the United States of America.

It’s slightly different in other countries, certainly very different in Israel, and we were going to launch that series. It was something that a lot of our listeners were curious about. Something that I’ve given a tremendous amount of thought about, especially because, within my family, being Orthodox is definitely not something that we take for granted. Most Bashevkins around the world do not affiliate as Orthodox. It was my father’s choice to really build his family that way, and we have so many relatives who are reformed conservative reconstructionist, and I did think that I had a little bit of a perspective having grown up in such a family that was multi-denominational on all sides, all spans of Orthodoxy. I have Haredi sisters, I have Yeshiva sisters, I have Orthodox and non-Orthodox cousins, et cetera, et cetera. All very close and all very respectful, and I was excited to share that series.

I really, really was, ’cause there’s so much misunderstanding in the way denominations talk about each other. And I think one of the few privileges that I have in the role, in the position, is that I am very often in Orthodox spaces, listening to people talk about non-Orthodox Jews, and I am very often in non-Orthodox spaces listening to them talking about Orthodox Jews, and I’ve learned a lot from those conversations. I’ve learned a lot from interacting with people, and I’m excited about that conversation. I was excited about that conversation. And then October 7th happened and October 7th, when Hamas attacked Israel and the Jewish people, I was at a loss because we had this whole series planned and the immediate aftermath, that was not on anybody’s mind. This was not the topic to talk about. Even though, since our inception, 18Forty has not been a current event, a news podcast we never have, I’ve always preferred to talk about ancient ideas rather than contemporary unfolding ideas.

So I called up a friend, a mentor, Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, and I remember asking him, I said, “So what should we do? Maybe we’ll do one episode on Israel and then let’s get back to the denominations topic.” And he said, “I don’t think so. I think you got to really see where the world is going. You got to meet the moment.” And that’s exactly what we tried to do. Some people who missed the old 18Forty, talking about theological topics, which I obviously understand. There’s some people who didn’t always appreciate the direction we went in the Israel topic. They were relieved that at the end we stopped off and we did mental health and we spoke about intergenerational divergence as we do every year. But now coming after Pesach, after Passover, there’s such a strange moment that is happening now that has actually given me a great deal of maybe confidence or purpose, I think is the stronger term, in returning to that series that we recorded pre-October seventh on the evolution and development of the denominations in the United States of America.

Obviously it will have implications for people who don’t live in the United States of America, but that is the primary focus and I think it will be eye-opening to explain this moment, but I want to explain where that purposefulness is coming from ’cause it’s not coming from a vacuum. It’s not all of a sudden enough time has passed and we can get back to talking about what divides us and not unites us. That’s absolutely not the purpose. I think there is a whole nother layer of why this conversation is so important right now. Like many, when I was watching the protests beginning in Columbia and then taking hold throughout the country and then watching the counter protests and watching a new upswelling of pride for Israel and for the Jewish people, I kept having this thought because we’ve been in this for so long. The story of Israel and the Jewish people has been occupying headlines for many, many months, and there are people who have been awakened to the fight against anti-Semitism, to the disappointment of how the sensitivities of the world that we have been championing for so many years seems to stop at the Jewish people.

And over and over again, I had this thought, which is, “The purpose of Judaism is not to fight anti-Semitism. We fight anti-Semitism so we can focus on the purpose of Judaism.” Allow me to just say that one more time. The purpose of Judaism is not to fight anti-Semitism. We fight anti-Semitism so we can focus on the purpose of Judaism, and I think a lot of people have been beginning to feel that, organically and naturally. “What have we been fighting for?” “What is the Judaism?” “What is the Yiddishkeit?” “What is the purpose of that Yiddishkeit that we have been fighting for?” It is hard to sustain a fight, and when I say fight, I don’t mean the Israeli army in Gaza. I don’t even mean the campus protests specifically. I mean the fight for Jewish pride, the fight for meaningfulness and purposefulness in our Jewish identity. And it is impossible to scream at the top of our lungs against anti-Semitism and not for a moment to take pause and wonder aloud, “Well, what is the Jewish life that we are fighting for?”

In many ways it feels like the entire world is being pulled back into history. Growing up in the nineties, there was this feeling that we figured it out. And maybe I’m wrong, but there was this feeling where the United States has found its place as the superpower of the world and Israel is stable. That was the feeling. I don’t know that it was true, but it was certainly a feeling. I think there was a generation who grew up taking our connection to Israel, maybe more for granted than we should. What Israel meant to them was more maybe sentimental than existential, of what exactly is the purpose of Israel and why should we fight for it? But in many ways it felt like the world had figured it out and this is going to be the landscape of the world. The Cold War was over. We didn’t really see that many looming threats.

And there’s a book and a passage in a book that actually expresses this and it really made the rounds and that book is called The End of History by Francis Fukuyama. And I know it’s a crazy title. What does it mean, the end of history? But he was really talking about that moment, that moment where it felt like the world has basically figured out the ideal form of government, the ideal form of borders and countries, and this is going to take us into the future. This is what it is and this is what he writes. But supposing that the world has become filled up, so to speak, with liberal democracies such that there exists no tyranny and oppression worthy of the name against which to struggle. Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then he writes, and this is so haunting, “They will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of the struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity and against democracy.”

What a haunting, haunting paragraph. Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause, because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against that just cause And in a way, I feel like that’s what we’re seeing unfold in front of us. If the nineties felt like the end of history… I was talking to my neighbor, Dr. Daniel Hagler, and we were talking about this book actually before this made the rounds. We were talking about The End of History together, the book, The End of History, and he mentioned to me, and I think it’s so true that little did we know that if the nineties felt like the end of history, that 9/11 would be pulling us back into history. We’re not finished, we’re not over. There’s still more, very real philosophical, almost metaphysical battles to be adjudicated in this world, to figure out the purpose and where we are headed as a society.

And to be living in an age where people are literally taking the side of the perpetrators of 9/11, who are also out to destroy the United States of America, who are also out to destroy Israel, who are also out to reorganize the hierarchies of society and civilization itself, is a haunting moment. It is a powerful moment to be in. It is a little bit like flustering, like, is the world really asking these questions? In some ways it’s scary. In some ways it is actually exciting because it wakes us up from the boredom that Francis Fukuyama describes. It wakes us up from the boredom, in many ways, that I described American Judaism with. And in many ways when I was doing that, I had the image of this thesis by Francis Fukuyama that once you figure out the system and this is how it is, then what else is there to struggle for? What else is there to build communally? What else is there to grow and to imagine, even in our own Judaism.

And I was wondering, “Is American Judaism at the end of its history? Is this the structure that is going to be for the foreseeable future, you have the different shades of the Orthodox community. You have the different shades of the non-Orthodox community, and this is the way that it’s going to be until the revealed redemption when all of us, God willing, are once again going to be able to fully call Israel our home?” The fact that we have a battle in the world that is essentially a religious battle that is taking up headlines, is causing, I think individuals, certainly myself and I think much more broadly, society, to ask questions that we haven’t asked in a long time. We’re beginning to question a lot of the promises that liberal democracies made to us, wondering, “Can you stay true to that promise of letting people build their lives, freedom of religion, freedom of expression? Does this have enough meaning to offer society and humans and individuals?”

There was a thinker who we had on 18Forty once before, his name is Zohar Atkins. He’s a friend. He’s really wonderful. And he shared something. He’s philosophical so he can sometimes be hard to parse, but he shared something online that I want to read ’cause it was about this reconfrontation with religious thinking. And when I say religious thinking, I’m not just talking about Orthodox Judaism or even Judaism, I’m talking about metaphysical thinking, like what is the purpose of the world? What is the purpose of being alive? How should we build our lives? These foundational questions that society is grappling with right now. So this is what Zohar writes. It starts off by saying, “Rav Kook believed that all political and cultural controversies represent a fundamental failure to grasp the fullness of God. Cultural war is a system, in Kabbalistic terms of Shevirat HaKelim, the broken vessels of divine creation that you only get a piece of divinity. Since God is involved in all things, all views have an aspect of divine truth, but they’re also flawed and partial. To arrive at a higher truth, you need to moderate your own view while seeking to elevate the view of your opponent.”

So then he asked the following question, “What might this method yield for a fresh perspective on Israel-Palestine? What do the chants of Hamas apologists like, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ demonstrate that is true?” First, they remind us that the core conflict from first principles is about the right to the whole land. We can talk about dividing the land and land for peace as a second order matter like pragmatically competing values. But regarding the metaphysics of the debate we’re talking about greater Israel versus greater Palestine. You do have to choose, but how? Second, they remind us that arguments for land ownership on the basis of being indigenous are relative and contestable. Both sides can and do claim they were there first or more recently or use some other metric by which to lay claim to the land.” And he says, “For the record, I’m more compelled by the Jewish claim to being indigenous and ownership than the Palestinian one, but that’s not the point for now.”

“Third,” and I think this is the most powerful, “they show us that arguments from secular nationalist identity politics, the pure right to self-determination are relative. Israelness and Palestinianness are both historical constructs. A Jew who identifies with the story in which Abraham buys Hebron should also be validated as a matter of identity, though it’s not owing to double standards. Putin identifies with Greater Russia, but we don’t call it dysphoria, we call it megalomania. Hitler identified with Greater Germany when he annexed Eastern Europe. The problem is that when people’s identities conflict, there is no metaphysical resolution to the subjectivism. Where national borders end is fundamentally insoluble and inevitably war-prone when framed as a matter of identity. It’s funny,” he writes, “the campus radicals claimed to be anti-colonial get very much wedded to European nationalism. Real anti-colonialism would involve aligning with Hamas’s bold, proactive theological vision to create an Islamic republic, not with simply secular reactive Palestinian nationalism.”

“At the end of the day, their anti-Europeanism is deeply European. So what comes to transcend this standoff and elevate the oppositional views to a higher synthesis?” My friend Zohar writes, “God, covenant, ultimately relative claims from Lockean theories of property and Cartesian claims from subjective identity are locked in zero-sum battle. There is a higher debate, which is the debate about whether you believe the land is given by God to Jews or to Muslims or to Christians. Here you would think we come to another standoff, perhaps we do, for remember, all controversies represent a limited view of God, but at least it would force the protesters at the western world to take a stand on this question. Second, it would show that the fundamental Zionist idea is religious. The land isn’t just a haven from enemies, but the site of a covenantal destiny. We don’t have this debate because it’s uncomfortable, especially for secular materialists.”

Nobody wants to talk about religious ideas, but here we are. It’s been in the headlines. We’ve been talking about these things for months. “The counter-argument to my point,” and again I’m reading from Zohar, “is that we invented secularism as a way to handle the insoluble nature of theological and metaphysical debate.” And I think that’s so true. “The counter-argument to my point is that we invented secularism as a way to handle the insoluble nature of theological and metaphysical debate. The counter-argument to that is that originally secularism was still framed within a religious horizon as a religious virtue. Now we’ve forgotten the religious origins of secularism and we are adrift. What fills the void left by the death of religion is not more rationality but worse religion, more nihilism and cynicism. What fills the void left by the death of religion is not more rationality but worse religion and more nihilism and cynicism.”

I feel badly for the campus protesters who make an obsession of Palestinian liberation because they have nothing else to give their lives meaning.” And I love this ending line, “Religion may be the opiate of the masses, but pseudo-religion in the form of Ivy League Marxism is the fentanyl of the elites.” That’s a powerful statement. “Religion may be the opiate of the masses, but pseudo-religion in the form of Ivy League Marxism is the fentanyl of the elites.” It reminds me of something I once saw from a recovered heroin addict who actually quoted that line. It’s a line from Marx ,that religion is the opiate of the masses, and she remarked and she was not religious, but she did remark, “It is so interesting that in our country, which has freed us from religious obligation and religious thinking and freed us from this ‘opiate of the masses,’ and after being freed of this, we now have an opioid epidemic.”

It’s a powerful thought and a powerful statement. To me, the reason why what Zohar wrote, resonated so deeply is because it feels like the world woke up and we are being reminded that we still have to confront and think about these grand, grand religious questions, the purpose of the Jewish people, the purpose of Judaism, the purpose of civilization, society, dare I say, the purpose of the world itself. It is one of the largest questions that we’ve ever been confronted with, but this is the question. And so many of the methodologies that we have used to find an answer have come up short. Higher education, in many ways, has failed us in this moment. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about this show.

There’s a show on HBO. My friend Amir Bednarsh recommended it to me and it was so haunting and so powerful that I really can’t stop thinking about it. It’s called The Leftovers. I’m not recommending it. I don’t remember if it’s appropriate enough to recommend, but I’ll just tell you the premise of the show and you can make a decision for yourself. The show is about this unexplained event that happens where, I think, 2% of the world’s population just disappears with no explanation. And the show never gives you an explanation. The show is telling you that from the start. You’re never really going to get an explanation for why they disappear. But what the show is about is how people react to that disappearance, to that unexplained phenomena. Where did they go? Should we rebuild our lives? Should we continue living?

Essentially the show is about how would the world react when we are reminded to be blunt of death, when we are reminded that we need to figure out how we’re going to live our lives, when we’re reminded that we have precious time here in this one life of ours and we need to figure out how to live it, how to build it. It is an incredibly haunting show, and there is one cult almost, that breaks off. They call themselves the guilty remnant, and their entire job is just reminding the world of this unexplained phenomena, reminding the world almost, of the mystery that looms and ensconces life itself. And in some ways it feels like war and it feels like these major metaphysical questions talking about religious groups, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Palestine, Israel, is a reminder that we are being drawn back in to that essential mystery of existence itself of life itself, and these massive questions that are emerging seem to be reintroducing society to question the principles that we have taken for granted on how we should build a life and maybe wonder if it’s time to take a second look and question, “Maybe there’s a better way?”

And that’s both a very general question as it relates to religion, and it’s a very specific question as it relates to the Jewish people. As it relates to religion. I think the person who said it really well was Jonathan Haidt. He’s been saying this for a very long time. He’s not a religious person, but he realizes that the abandonment of religious thinking, religious practice in the world has had a major toll on society itself. This is him very recently speaking on The Daily Show.

 

Jonathan Haidt:

“You speak to this God-shaped hole.” I think it’s a Blaise Pascal quote. God-shaped hole everybody’s heart.

 

Zev Eleff:

Every human heart.

 

Jonathan Haidt:

In every human heart. And that this lack of religion is something that is affecting childhood in a way that, again, as an atheist, I always have my dukes up when that comes about. You said you were one, so you earned yourself a pass. But this lack of religious institutions in this modern media landscape, how do you see that as something that’s affecting a childhood?

 

Zev Eleff:

The way to think about this as an atheist without getting defensive is to say-

 

Jonathan Haidt:

Good luck.

 

Zev Eleff:

No, I’ve been working on this professionally for many years. I finally got it down.

 

Jonathan Haidt:

Let’s see it.

 

Zev Eleff:

Okay. Just looking at it descriptively psychologically, religious people are a little happier than non-religious people. That’s been true for a long time. Just as married people are happier than non-married people. On average, your mileage may vary, but people need to be tied in, locked in, in a community. I’m a big fan of Emile Durkheim, the sociologist. He’s my favorite thinker of all time. When we’re not tied in, locked in, we are free. But that doesn’t make us happy. We have nothing to push against. We have no sense of meaning. It’s like if you try to raise a plant, not in the ground, but just like up in the air, it just can’t be done. And so religious kids are rooted in traditions, faith, rituals, community. They go to church every Sunday. The Jewish kids have Shabbat. They literally can’t use electronics for a day.

They were always happier than the secular kids. But what happens after 2012, it’s quite remarkable on all the graphs. The religious kids get a little more anxious and depressed. The secular kids get much more anxious and depressed. So what I’m saying is, especially if you’re an atheist, you’re going to have to work much harder. You’re going to have to be much more intentional about rooting your kid in stable social relationships. If you give him an iPad, then he graduates to a phone and it’s all this network, that network, interacting with strangers and weirdos and bots and AIs, that’s not a community. That’s crazy making.

 

David Bashevkin:

Maybe the world got too convinced that science and technology would be able to provide us the meaning and purpose in the absence of religious commitment as a general society. Or maybe we’re in a moment where we’re realizing the consequences of living in a world without struggle towards something. And what I find so moving is that people are beginning to ask this specifically about their Jewish life. In one of the most remarkable addresses that I have ever heard from a Jewish leader, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, who we have discussed before and we have a conversation with coming up in this series. Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch got up to his Reform congregation and posed what I think is the most self-reflective question I’ve ever heard from a religious leader, which is, why is it that so many from his movement from the Reform movement are the champions of anti-Zionism. He is a avowed champion of Zionism, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, and he is wondering aloud how the principles of his movement and his community have led to this upsurge in anti-Zionism. This is what he said.

 

Ammiel Hirsch::

We will address the uncomfortable reality that some of those anti-Israel protesters are Jewish. Hundreds of Reform rabbis, cantors, educators, administrators, and lay leaders of our synagogues will begin to grapple with our own inadequacies. Why are so many of those young Jewish protesters, graduates and alumni of Reform synagogues, Reform youth groups, Reform summer camps? What did we do wrong? And most what should we be doing now to instill in our youngsters the core Jewish value without which nothing Jewish makes sense? Ahavat Yasrael. Love, concern and responsibility for fellow Jews.

 

David Bashevkin:

And my reaction when I heard him say this is that honestly, this is a question that more rabbinic leaders should be asking of themselves and their communities. It’s not just the Reform denomination in relation to anti-Zionism, but I think everyone has work to do. I think this is an important question for every religious community to reflect on what we’ve created and what we’ve produced, and there’s a lot of remarkable successes of the Yiddishkeit that’s been built in the United States of America, but there’s been a tremendous amount of loss over the last half a century, last three quarters of a century. There are people who in the current landscape know so precious little about Jewish life, Jewish thought, Jewish practice, and there are people who are waking up in this moment wondering, “What now? What do we do after this? What happens after this? What happens to my religious identity, my Jewish identity after fighting for so many months against anti-Semitism?”

At some point we’re going to have to turn and ask, “Well, what is the purpose of Judaism?” There’s one person who shared something that really made the rounds online, and I want to read it for you again because it’s a sentiment that I think people feel in different ways from how they grew up. It was shared online by someone named Rachel Jessica Wolff, and this is what she wrote. “I grew up Reform. I was president of my synagogue youth group and in charge of social action for Reform teens in four states. I did years of religious training and went to Israel as a representative of the movement. So I was shocked to realize I knew nothing about Judaism. My version of Judaism was the Democratic Party line. We were given the movement stance on every issue and told that supporting these issues was both necessary and sufficient for being Jewish. Every prayer was twisted into justification for Reform Judaism’s, progressive slant.”

“They marched us into state capitals and DC to advocate on behalf of Reform Judaism for immigration reform, gun control, and abortion. They told us we didn’t need to believe in God, didn’t need to know any Jewish law. They told us only to pray with our feet, protest and march for progressive issues.” From that beautiful quote from Rev Abraham Joshua Heschel who responded, this is me talking, just explaining where that quote from, why he was going to march with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, and he said, “I’m praying with my feet,” and she continues. “When my own politics turned conservative, I thought I was no longer a Jew. I distinctly remember telling a friend that at a particularly difficult time that I thought I’d have to convert to Christianity to be religious. The last few years have been a process of discovering the religion that my ancestors lived and died with and were killed for, for thousands of years. A religion that nearly died with me because the watered down version of it I was taught was too weak to mean anything more than a vote recommendation”

“Reform Judaism’s embrace of progressivism is its own death sentence, a ideology that sees the world in oppressed-oppressor terms will always find Jews. The wealthy white capitalist at a fault. To be a Reform Jew is to apologize for existing. There is no sense of Jewish pride in it, only shame for being born a Jew. Reformed Jews, therefore have two options,” this is her writing, “argue that they are actually the oppressed or apologize for being the oppressor. The former adopt a perpetual victim mentality and implement DEI ideologies that only further entrench the oppressed-oppressor worldview in public life backfiring entirely. The latter apologize for being Jewish by adopting anti-Zionism. I didn’t like those two options, so I left. I blocked my Reform childhood friends one by one as they contorted our religion into a call for the destruction of Israel.”

“I learned about Torah and Talmud. I stopped eating pork. I learned Jewish history. I saw my boyfriend wrapping tefillin and admitted I had no idea what it was. I went to dozens of services and felt like a stranger in my own religion and every single one of them, I spent a lot of time angry at the Reform movement for robbing me of my own religion. I have much love for my Reform friends and family in the community I grew up with, but Reform Judaism is a death spiral. Get your family out while you can.” She followed this up because even as I read it, it’s a pretty intense condemnation, one that I would not feel comfortable or even correct saying that forcefully. What I found so moving about it, was a Jew in this moment who is grappling with their Jewish identity. The awakening of saying, “Well, what is this for? What is the life that being a Jew wants me to lead? What does my Jewish identity, what does being born…,” something that this person never chose, but, “What does being born Jewish even mean?”

She followed it up. She said, “A lot of people have accused me of acting better than other Jews because I’m Orthodox.” And then she says, “I’m not Orthodox. I’m religiously lost. I don’t have a home in any Jewish movement because my Reform background failed to teach me anything about my own religion. I don’t recognize the traditions and prayers that my ancestors live with. I feel about as comfortable in modern Orthodox settings as I do in a church service. The fact that a Reform Jewish upbringing in one of the biggest Reform communities in California was so devoid of traditional Jewish practices, that I feel like an outsider in Judaism, is a problem. My connection to my Jewish heritage feels both ancient and alien to me.”

I am so moved by this. I’m so moved by somebody who is grappling with the real questions of how should I live my life? Yes, it’s somebody who grew up in the Reform movement and they are grappling with that. And I’m sure there are many Orthodox listeners who may be saying, “Well, no, duh. Well obviously. Well, we’ve been telling you this the entire time.” And I think that form triumphalist response misses the mark because I’m not sure that we, as a community, because I am Orthodox and live in the Orthodox community, have created a community or articulated a vision of community that ever could encompass or reach the entirety of American Judaism. In some ways, I feel like we’re also at fault that we never stopped really to wonder, “What could Jewish life be in America? How could it be more accessible?”

Perhaps we got so distracted in the incredibly beautiful communities that we’ve built in these densely populated tri-state area, what’s happening in Florida, maybe California, Chicago. We have areas where we’ve built this utopian Jewish life that has its own problems and its own issues, all of which we’ve discussed on 18Forty, but we never wondered, “Who are we building it for? Are we building it for just us, or is there a way that we can articulate a vision of what Yiddishkeit is, that could in fact encapsulate the moment and reach the moment that we are in right now?” And I am suggesting or wondering aloud, or considering, that our communities, and by that I mean the Orthodox community, I’m using the first person, like the community that I grew up in. I’m not sure it is equipped to meet this moment. You can’t just tell somebody who woke up in their mid-twenties, raised into their world, “Oh, come move to Woodmere, move to Teaneck, move to LA. We’ll solve it all for you.”

I’m not sure that any community has the answers of how to build. A lot of people have been pointing to Chabad. I think that model is worth considering and worth thinking about for our community and something that we absolutely should and can explore. I thought about this. When Yeshiva University, where I teach, where I’m a member of the full-time faculty, put out a beautiful invitation for people who are worried about their own experience as a Jew in higher education on different college campuses around the world, and extended their admissions invitation to come to Yeshiva University. It was such a beautiful invitation, but I couldn’t help but wonder, is Yeshiva University ready to handle an influx of people who are genuinely and sincerely searching for Jewish experience and Jewish life, but were not raised within the Orthodox community? Do we know the way to re-articulate what Yiddishkeit can and should…

… the way to re-articulate what Yiddishkeit can and should be in somebody’s life who is not raised in the socio-cultural world that comes along with Orthodox community. That’s part of the beauty of the Orthodox community.

But somebody who wasn’t raised with it and doesn’t know about our camping system and our culture and our songs and our shtick and our language is going to be very lost. So is there a way that we can almost build a new doorway?

The analogy that I have used and that in many ways I feel like this moment and meeting this moment is taking the analogy a little bit more seriously. But it’s an analogy and an imagery that I used in an article that I wrote a few years ago called Failure Goes to Yeshivah: What I’ve Learned From the Failure Narratives of My Students.

It’s a class that I teach in Yeshiva University about religious difficulty, failure, religious crisis, religious identity. At the end of the semester, every student is asked to plot out their own religious trajectory to almost rank their religious affiliation and practice on a scale of 1 to 10, and pick different points in their life. And track their own religious involvement from when they were a young child to the moment that they’re in my class, in their early 20s, late teens. And they’re fascinating.

These are people who, by and large, grew up within the Orthodox world of watching them grapple with their own identity and their own purpose. The sense of failure that often comes when you don’t become the cookie-cutter image of the institutions that you emerge from.

And the sense of homelessness that we read from that beautiful grappling of Jessica Wolf is something that so many experience within the Orthodox world as well, of what’s the community that can build and can create a Yiddishkeit that is purposeful, that’s meaningful, that’s uplifting, that addresses the angst and the existential questions of why we’re alive, why we’re here.

And at the end of this article, which is about that homelessness that exists in all communities. It’s not just the Reform movement, it’s not just in non-Orthodox circles, and it’s not just in Orthodox circles. That sense of homelessness that we feel in our Judaism. I think underlying it is a sense of homelessness and how we understand and build communities in the modern world and the role of community in the modern world.

How we parse together our individual identity, in our communal identity. How we integrate our denomination with our personal practice. How our individual identity doesn’t always cohere with the communities that we associate with. We don’t live in the shtetl anymore.

And I ended that article, which spoke about almost those feelings of homelessness that my own students grapple with, with the following imagery. For fire safety, most buildings require neon exit signs. Our communal institutions need brighter entrance signs.

You look in any room and you’ll see there will always be neon signs that the word exit on them. And very rarely, though sometimes you see it, what people really need and are searching for is a neon sign that says, “Enter here.” This is an entry point. This is a point where you can begin, where you can start, where you can reexamine.

And I think in this moment, at least in the Orthodox community, we have built a lot of exit signs. Those exit signs can be built in neon lights that people exit because of financial reasons and the cost of modern Orthodox life or Orthodox life.

They can leave because in certain communities, the professional trajectory just doesn’t seem doable for a way to raise their kids. They may see an exit sign because in some of our community, it’s just too communal focused and they don’t have enough space for their own individual search and their own individual sense of self.

Or it could be a neon exit sign that’s painted in the non-Orthodox world of someone saying, “Your exit,” because you’re looking for something other than political activism or political slogans. You want something richer and deeper. Even though you don’t know what you believe or what you think is true because this modern world is so confusing. But all anyone is looking for in this moment, I believe, is a neon entrance sign that promises to be a place where we can actually get back to not just fighting anti-Semitism, but discovering the purpose of Judaism.

And in that sense, I feel a renewed responsibility for what 18Forty is all about, for what this community that we’re trying to build is all about.

And while we’re going to release this series on Jewish denominations and we’ll add to it, we’ll have more intros and outros, and we’re going to extend it. I want this to be a tour of sorts into both the history, the life, the sociology of different Jewish communities, what divides them, what brings them together. And allow people to have a window into re-imagining what their individual practice can be, what their family’s religious identity can be, and ultimately what their institutional affiliations can be.

But all three of those don’t always have to be in lockstep. They don’t always have to cohere, and they don’t always have to be perfectly aligned because more than anything else, what we are searching for is a neon entrance sign and a place to begin. So with that in mind, let’s enter our latest series on Jewish denominations. And as always, stay curious, my friends.

Hello and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast where each month we explore different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas.

I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring Jewish Denominations. Thank you so much to our series sponsor, my dearest friend, Joel Mell, who sponsored this series in honor of his parents, Estelle and Nysen Mael. Estelle, Esther bas Zvi, and Nysen, Nissan ben Yaakov Zvi, both of whom I believe I had the privilege to meet.

Joel has played an instrumental role in my own life. And it is really such a privilege to sponsor this series in memory of his parents who played an instrumental role in building Jewish community in Boston, raising an incredible family, and really embodying a commitment to Yiddishkeit before the infrastructure and the communal life that we see before us today even existed. Thank you so much for your friendship and sponsorship.

This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big juicy Jewish ideas, so be sure to check out 18Forty.org, that’s 18 F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

Before we dive into a new topic, namely Jewish denominations, I do, of course, have to have a disclaimer. This topic is one of the most requested topics that we have ever had from our listeners. So many people have reached out and asked us to cover the history, the significance of how the denominations came to be, and there’s really so much to unpack.

But I want to begin with really a note of caution of the sensitivity of what we’re trying to accomplish here. First and foremost, we’re talking about other Jews and their relationship to Judaism itself, which always requires a great deal of sensitivity.

Anytime that you deal with the ideology of what Yiddishkeit is, what Judaism is, how it should be practiced, how it should be transmitted, we’re obviously walking on hallowed grounds. We’re not just having a conversation talking about different ideas, and this is a nice way to pick up your day.

These have been very real battles about what the authentic approach to Jewish thought, Jewish life, Jewish practice should be. And I know people like my father and even my Zayde, who for most of his life was unable, did not keep Shabbos.

But even he had very strong feelings as the synagogue that they grew up in went from Orthodox to conservative to Reform, and the role that that played in the community. And the sense that denominational affiliation plays a very real role in the way that Judaism is expressed communally. And there are people who feel like a lot has been lost, particularly in the United States of America based on denominational affiliation.

What we are trying to do, number one, we are not trying to convince anybody to switch their denominations. I am an Orthodox Jew. I’m very proud of the Orthodox Jewish community that I affiliate with. And frankly, I think Orthodox Judaism is the correct way for communities to preserve Jewish practice from generation to generation.

That’s not to say that there are not a lot of mistakes and issues that are contended with within the Orthodox community, but I would be lying if I said, oh, to each their own, everybody can do their own thing. I am not a pluralist in that sense, and I feel like I need to say that and I should say that.

Yet on the flip side, I don’t look at other denominations and use phrases like, “That is not Judaism.” Hopefully over the course of this series, we will explain why. I do believe that a lot of the dialogue that has gone on between denominations has begun to erode in very, very significant ways.

I think there used to be a lot more interaction, a lot more friendship, a lot more understanding about what was going on in different denominations, in different communities, within the Jewish community.

It’s not just speculation. I see this within my own life when I was growing up in elementary school, so I was one of, not a handful, but a sizable minority, I would probably say. I didn’t take an actual poll, but in my elementary school class, I would guess around 40% of the students probably had first cousins, uncles, aunts up until that one set of removal within the family who did not belong to the same denomination as them.

And I know because I have a fairly sizable sample size, I teach public policy, Jewish public policy at Yeshiva University. And one of the units that we talk about is about denominations and denominational differences themselves.

One of the questions that I ask students every single year is, how many of you have up to first cousins, including aunts and uncles who do not belong to the same denomination as you? Nearly everybody in the class affiliates with the Orthodox denomination. But the question that I always pose students is, how many relatives do you have who do not belong to Orthodoxy?

And it shocks me how few kids… Again, I would say up to first cousins including aunts and uncles, and it is a tiny, tiny minority. Now, obviously, I’m drawing a sample size from Yeshiva University students who come from a very particular type of family. But I suspect that that number has dwindled over the last 50 to 75 years. And I think our communities have drifted because our communities in many ways have gotten much, much stronger.

So what are we trying to do here? I think it makes sense to talk about different denominations because it helps us understand our own history no matter what denomination you belong to. And it is an absolute point of pride that the listeners of 18Forty who are comfortable, who show up and listen week after week, come from a diverse background, belong to the entire spectrum of denominations. And that is a point of pride.

I love the fact that I, unapologetically, I wouldn’t say uncritically, but unapologetically Orthodox can speak and connect to people from different denominations. I treasure that and I love that, and I don’t want to lose that over the course of this series.

What I am hoping to accomplish is help people understand, number one, our collective history. We need to understand that obviously at Mount Sinai, we did not come down from the mountain and we were not divided up into different denominations. How did this come to be? Why did this come to be? And what is the history of what is happening here?

But there’s something even more that I’m trying to do than just understand our own history and even understand and appreciate our own history. I’m trying do something more. And that is really maybe shift a little bit about the way that we look at people from denominations that do not belong to our own.

I have been in many rooms. Rooms that are primarily non-Orthodox and sometimes rooms, and very often rooms that are primarily Orthodox. The things that I see, particularly online, on social media, have been absolutely heartbreaking. And that’s the worst-case scenario. More often than not, they’re absolutely ignorant of the shoulders of communal leadership and communal investments that we all stand on, that very often spans the entire variety of denominations.

And what I’m really hoping to do is really develop a language and a perspective that allow us to see people who do not belong to the same denomination as our own. And we should not look at them, God forbid, as enemies.

And that may be easy to say, oh, I would never do that. I would never say that. But you know what? I’ve been in the room and I’ve heard it. I’ve seen it posted online. I’ve seen it in other people. And that there is a way to have deeply held ideological commitment to look at other expressions of Judaism as mistaken even. But we cannot look at other Jews as our enemies.

I am hoping in some way by having these conversations that we are able to understand where people are coming from. We’re able to see the dignity of other Jewish experiences and other Jewish expressions even without giving up an iota of our own Jewish commitment and our own pride in the ideological truth that each of us, I hope, insists that we possess.

And it’s okay to have that. We don’t need to be hardline pluralist, that everybody is correct, everybody is right, everybody has the truth. I think we can be ideologically committed in the deepest sense of the word and yet be able to see the dignity of experience in the entire breadth of Jewish life.

And that is hoping, what I’m trying to accomplish over the course of this series, and I hope that you’ll join us through this series where we really talk to people who often don’t get to speak to one another, and talk about experiences within specifically American Jewish history that often go overlooked or get absolutely taken for granted. We get woken up in the 2000s, in the late 1990s, and we take for granted the battles, the ideas, and the Jewish communal investments that got us to this point.

There is somebody who shared on Twitter, now called X, in September of last year. The account is called Jew on Shabbat and you can find the handles at T-M-I-J-O-S, the abbreviations. I believe, The Jew on Shabbat. I’m not even sure what that abbreviation stands for, but he said something beautiful and it went semi-viral on Jewish Twitter, but it was really, really beautiful.

And I want to leave you with this before we introduce our next guest. And he said as follows, he wrote, “Say something positive about a stream of Judaism different than your own. I’ll start. I like how reformed Judaism has put strong emphasis on inclusion of people with disabilities.” This was written by somebody, I don’t know them personally, but I believe is an Orthodox Jew. But I don’t know that for sure. They don’t really say in their profile, but I’m just taking a very educated guess. But I absolutely love this idea.

“Say something positive about a stream of Judaism different than your own.” Take a moment and think about something. What was the contribution that was made? I’m going to leave it as a cliffhanger. I responded to this on my own. But take a moment now and think about a contribution that was made about something that you admire about a stream of Judaism that is different than your own.

And it sparked an absolutely fascinating conversation. And I realized after they posted this that a lot of people may struggle, as that they might not even know what contributions other streams of Judaism even made, which is part of the reason why this series is so important.

And that is why I am absolutely so excited to introduce our first guest, Professor Zev Eleff, who is the president of Gratz College. But more than being the president of Gratz College and a widely published author, I quote Zev’s articles constantly. Zev happens to be absolutely one of my dearest friends. I call him constantly when I’m preparing Shiurim and ideas of my own.

His books are absolutely fantastic, particularly about the history of orthodoxy in America. You can check out his book. He has a book on Modern Orthodox Judaism, a documentary history that I own. Absolutely fantastic about all of the key moments and events in the history of Modern Orthodox Judaism, an absolute must read.

He has another book. It’s a lot more fun. He’s a fantastic writer because he really builds the narrative and he has this great book called Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life. He’s got a bunch of other books, and so many fantastic articles that I hope we’re able to link to all of them. Professor Zev Eleff, Dr. Zev Eleff is one of the most outstanding scholars of American Jewish history today.

Anytime he writes, you want to read it, you want to argue about it, you want to think about it, you want to reflect on it. He is a generous scholar. One of the things that I love about him is that if you look at the introductions to his books, he always thanks people for their posts and comments that they make online that improve his own scholarship.

He doesn’t just sit in an ivory tower. He really takes, thinks, meets, gets involved in the day-to-day world and the contributions of people posting online. I love a generous scholar, and that’s exactly what makes my friend Zev Eleff so special.

So it is my absolute pleasure to introduce our conversation on the history of Jewish denominations in America, and you’ll soon see why the very title for this series is actually questionable.

But without further ado, our conversation with Dr. Zev Eleff. I am so excited to be sitting with someone who I consider both a friend and a mentor, Dr. Zev Eleff. What an absolute joy to speak with you today.

 

Zev Eleff:

Yeah, I’ll confirm friend, mentor, that’s a little much—

 

David Bashevkin:

No, come on. How often have you sent me PDFs that I desperately need? If I’m using your stuff frequently enough, you get a little bit of a mentor moniker. It doesn’t impede in our friendship, but it absolutely is true. You’ve been incredibly gracious and helpful to me at many different stages in my life.

 

Zev Eleff:

So it’s settled.

 

David Bashevkin:

It’s settled.

 

Zev Eleff:

Beloved friend.

 

David Bashevkin:

Beloved friend. Okay. It’s a very sensitive subject because when you grow up in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, it looks like the Jewish community that we have has been fixed since time immemorial into these three broad groups, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox as the three major Jewish denominations.

I wanted to begin by asking you as a historian, you also happen to be an Orthodox Jew, but you are really a historian, which is why we’re speaking. How do you conceive of the tripartite, these three divisions of denominations that have animated American Jewish life for at least the last 100 years?

Do you look at them as denominations? Very often I’ll see other people, “That’s not Judaism. That’s not the way I see it.” So how do you conceive of the role of the different denominations within American Jewish life?

 

Zev Eleff:

Yeah. So I think two parties would take umbrage or exception. Number one, people who identify as part of a reconstructionist group would say, what about there’s a fourth in renewal? And that’s the point, is the splintering of so many groups. Jews have been in the United States since 1654, but we’ll try to shrink our discussion for the last 200 years.

The other group is the coterie of American religion scholars who really don’t see American Judaism in the form of denomination. My teacher, Jonathan Sarna, stipulated in the introduction to his book, American Judaism, just now, it’s amazing. I’m about 20 years old. He writes, “Finally, I steer away from the term denomination, except insofar as I’m referring to one or another Protestant denomination.”

 

David Bashevkin:

Meaning he does not like using the word denomination-

 

Zev Eleff:

Not at all.

 

David Bashevkin:

… outside of Christianity. Explain to me why?

 

Zev Eleff:

So he’s borrowing from the great scholar, Sidney Mead, who wrote voluminously about American Christianity.

 

David Bashevkin:

Sidney Mead?

 

Zev Eleff:

Sidney Mead. And what Mead argues or what he puts forward is that in America, Protestantism, or Protestant Christianity, all of its denominations subscribe to an essential text. And what is that? That they all believe that each other is correct. One can be a part of any denomination, any group we’ll say in American Protestantism. But I like it my way. Baptists believe in the details. Important. I don’t want to dismiss that of a second. Adult baptism, of course, Methodism in the style of encampment and more of an emotional worship of the heart type of faith.

All Protestant groups share some of this together, but there are certain details. There are certain aspects and features and protocol that make each one so generous, each and one themselves. In other words, think about it in terms of going to a bank.

 

David Bashevkin:

Go to a bank.

 

Zev Eleff:

You go to a bank, you pull up, back in the day before there was E-bank, I know this because you would always get the lollipop sent down to you, right? So you’ll say, “I want to take out $100.” The teller will ask-

 

David Bashevkin:

First question.

 

Zev Eleff:

… “In which denomination would you like?”

 

David Bashevkin:

In which denomination, 20s, 10s, fives.

 

Zev Eleff:

They all add up to $100. Whether you get 10 $10 bills, five $20 bills, you get all in quarters or pennies, nickels, it doesn’t matter. You get a single $100 bill. It all has the same value. The construction, the arithmetic, how you add it up to that number differs. Each one of us has our own preferences for whatever reason, however we’re going to use that cash. That’s a denomination.

 

David Bashevkin:

And that makes sense in the Christian world.

 

Zev Eleff:

That makes sense in the Christian world. And the way that Mead writes about it, there are different routes to heaven. You prefer one route. Oh, this is illustrative. This is not meant to besmirch any faith group. One likes the scenic route, the other likes the more expeditious, the quickest route, whatever, it is. All roads in their view, lead to heaven. That’s not the same when it comes to American Judaism.

Now, this strikes against issues of pluralism and cooperation. I realize that. But theologically speaking, the different groups in American Judaism do not at all agree with one another. We don’t agree on marriage ritual. We don’t agree in conversion to the contrary. The Mihu Yehudi, who is a Jew movement in Israel, which inflamed American Jewish life from the 50s to this day, but certainly it really reached a high pitch in the 1980s.

The real question was, who can make a Jew? The conservative rabbinate had their formulation, which was unacceptable to reform and orthodox and likewise reform and orthodox. Nobody could agree on the most fundamental aspect of any faith group is the definition of a Jew.

This goes, I know you’ve covered certain issues, patrilineal, descent, conversion, neighborliness. Well, this, fundamentally, without getting into the politics of how to behave with one another.

 

David Bashevkin:

I love that analogy. The word denomination at the end of the day, like we have with currency, it has to equal $100. And that may be true as a Protestant analogy of thinking of the different forms of Protestantism in the United States. That may be true in one shul, and you have different minyanim. You have a singing minyan, you have a Hashkama minyan, an early morning minyan. But the word denomination, because the differences ideologically, theologically are so essential, the word denomination, this is your view and Professor Jonathan Sarna’s view.

 

Zev Eleff:

It’s not just our view. It’s not just our view. It’s not until the last couple of decades. In historians term, maybe we’ll say five decades, last 50, 60 years, that the movements, and this is the punchline, is that Jonathan Sarna and others, and I subscribe to this as well. These are movements, and it’s not just because definitionally it makes more sense, but the groups themselves called themselves the Reform Movement, the Orthodox Movement.

It’s not til much, much later that we call themselves denomination because of the need to contextualize in a broader American scene, but truthfully, the difference between Methodism and Baptism is far more minimal than difference between the different groups in American Jewish life or movements.

 

David Bashevkin:

Take me back. Let’s talk a little bit historically, you had mentioned that Jews came in 1654 to the United States of America. If we were to take a time machine and go back to those early days, you had a Reform Rabbi, a Conservative Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi. And they go back to the early colonial period, which if any of those groups are going to say, oh, those are our Jews. Those are Orthodox Jews. Those are Conservative Jews. Those are Reform Jews. Or and I hope you’ll explain why none of them are correct.

 

Zev Eleff:

Right. They would need a time machine.

 

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, you would need a time machine.

 

Zev Eleff:

They would need Marty McFly to do it because the first Rabbi doesn’t arrive in the United States until 1840.

 

David Bashevkin:

  1. Hello. That’s exciting. I did not set that up. The first American Rabbi-

 

Zev Eleff:

Rabbi Abraham Rice appears in the United States in 1840.

 

David Bashevkin:

I did not know that, but that’s actually moving and fantastic, but answer my first question, then we’ll get to the first rabbis. But in early colonial period, how would you describe that Judaism in America?

 

Zev Eleff:

Folks, would, the rabbinate or others, we as you and I are both ordained rabbis and laypeople would look at the scene, and they wouldn’t recognize it. Not to say that religious practice was fundamentally different. Certainly there would be a shochet. They would trust the kashrut of the folks at Shaareth Israel because all of the meat was purchased through the synagogue.

But the rhythm would be so fundamentally different. You wouldn’t hear about different subgroups. Before you have breakaway movements, you had breakaway synagogues. That doesn’t begin until the 1820s.

Not to say that everybody got along from 1654 til 1820 heaven forfend that never happened. But you wouldn’t see the breakdown, again to invoke Jonathan Sarna, what happens is you move from a synagogue community to a community of synagogues.

But when you’re in that colonial and early republic period, that synagogue community, those synagogues led by laypeople, by the parnas. Today, we call them the synagogue president. They ruled with a tight fist, and what did they have against you, they couldn’t send you to jail.

It was like an independent government, but they could forbid you from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. They could forbid you access to a synagogue, and because they controlled the synagogues with educational opportunities, you would have kashrut, you would have kosher food, meat slaughter, you would have circumcision.

 

David Bashevkin:

Jewish weddings. We have early testimony of a fairly-

 

Zev Eleff:

Absolutely. My colleague Ben Steiner’s publishing a new book on the history of the ketubah in the United States. All of these aspects, they could block your access to doing Jewish. That’s not at all. We take for granted that we have opportunities. It’s a marketplace. There wasn’t a market during the opportunity. It wasn’t a buyer’s market, it was a seller’s market. And if you did not abide by the strictures of the community, of the synagogue, that was it.

 

David Bashevkin:

Help me a little bit. Let’s start from the very basics. I want to go through each denomination, and I want you to tell me one by one how you as a historian would date their inception, both as an idea and specifically in the United States. When self-consciously, we are a reform congregation, we are a conservative congregation, we are an Orthodox congregation. And I know we’re missing a lot in between, and maybe we’ll get to them. Where do you think we should start, if we’re going through one by one?

 

Zev Eleff:

I think you could start with 1824/1825 in Charleston, South Carolina. That was at the time the largest Jewish community in the United States in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Reform Society of Israelites breaks away. It’s the very first synagogue, breakaway from the establishment. It’s led by a figure named Isaac Harby. Young people at the forefront of this movement and inspired by German reform, they break away.

 

David Bashevkin:

Why did they break away? They wanted their own kiddish, they wanted a breakaway minyan?

 

Zev Eleff:

They want to understand the ritual. At the time, the congregation there used Hebrew and Portuguese, Spanish in the ritual. It’s a smart Spanish/Portuguese synagogue. They wanted English. They wanted decorum. They wanted control. They wanted to feel that their American style sensibilities were manifest in synagogue life. They didn’t know much Hebrew to begin with, and they asked, “Please,” first from the congregation leadership there to install these changes. When they said, “No,” they said, “Fine.” It was something novel. “Well, we’re going to start our own community.”

 

David Bashevkin:

It’s so interesting because the reasons why they break off, if there was a reform movement that was coalescing in the States, but those are reasons that you would hear in almost any movement. We’ve heard that in Orthodox.

 

Zev Eleff:

Yeah. Well, the term they use is they’re going to cast off rabbinical interpolations.

 

David Bashevkin:

Interpolations.

 

Zev Eleff:

That was their word, yeah.

 

David Bashevkin:

Okay.

 

Zev Eleff:

They fancy themselves a modern day Martin Luther. Isaac Harby writes a anniversary discourse that he sends to John C. Calhoun to Thomas Jefferson. Both responded gratefully with the free copy. They at least indicated that they had read some of it. And Harby fancies himself a modern day Luther.

 

David Bashevkin:

They were going to reform Judaism, so to speak, using those words.

 

Zev Eleff:

They were going to, and now they don’t. They don’t truly for much too long. Harby moves away from Charleston by, I think the 1840s. And it all fizzles out. Eventually, the congregation that they broke away from becomes a bastion of Judaism, but it starts a trend in New York with the formation of Temple Emanu-El. You have the Har Sinai, the Har Sinai Barine in Baltimore.

 

David Bashevkin:

What distinguishes a thriving Reform community in the 1800s? What marks it? You mentioned decorum. Are they using the same prayer book?

 

Zev Eleff:

The prayer book. Singularly, the prayer book, because what you had was you had multiple forms of reform. You had in Emanu-El in New York, the Merzbacher named after their leader, actually, that early Leo Merzbacher. You had Isaac Mayer Wise, in the 1850s, he edits a new prayer book called Minhag America.

You had David Einhorn with his prayer book in Baltimore than elsewhere, and you have this competition of within the, so-called destabilized reform movement. You have different congregations. You have a war, a battle for prayer books. Go in you can action, I did this.

You can look at the migration of these prayer books and when they were adopted, and by the way, when a congregation adopts the Einhorn prayer book, they make a couple of changes, and so they’re not exactly the same one, differently, one from the other.

 

David Bashevkin:

Zev, I assume that you’ve actually seen these prayer books?

 

Zev Eleff:

I have.

 

David Bashevkin:

Talk a little bit more in detail. What were the distinctions? What was taken out? What was put in?

 

Zev Eleff:

These are Sabbath and festival prayer books. These are Shabbat and Yom Tov prayer books.

 

David Bashevkin:

Okay. Not weekday.

 

Zev Eleff:

Not weekday. It’s not clear when the first weekday minyans started in the United States.

 

David Bashevkin:

Gotcha.

 

Zev Eleff:

So these were all basically the Sabbath prayer books. Mussaf was eliminated in most.

 

David Bashevkin:

All of Mussaf.

 

Zev Eleff:

All.

 

David Bashevkin:

All of Mussaf?

 

Zev Eleff:

For the most part.

 

David Bashevkin:

Okay.

 

Zev Eleff:

A couple kept it for a little… Return to Zion, the personal, the actual idea of a Messiah rather than an idea of Messiah. Sometimes that move from a Messiah is going to come versus we are looking forward to a Messianic age.

 

David Bashevkin:

Can you give me a specific prayer that was edited and the words that were taking out? Do they have… Leading up in Shemoneh Esrei, in Modim, we have V’techezena eineinu b’shuv’cha l’Tziyon b’rachamim.

 

Zev Eleff:

Eliminated or altered in most, Techiyat HaMetim, the the revival of the dead. Resurrection of the dead was eliminated in most.

 

David Bashevkin:

Fascinating.

 

Zev Eleff:

Violence was done to the Maimonides 13 Principles of Faith.

 

David Bashevkin:

Gotcha.

 

Zev Eleff:

And so you had these edited prayer books, and also most fundamental is translating prayers from Hebrew into either English or German.

 

David Bashevkin:

Which is a beautiful meaning. What I feel a lot of people misunderstand is that a lot of the early movement of reform in America that you’re describing seems to be responding to a genuine desire of people to have more education and agency in their Jewish life.

Did they look at themselves as rebels, where we’re casting off the yoke of our fathers, or we’re trying to find a way to integrate our Jewish life into our lives?

 

Zev Eleff:

It’s hard for historians to read into the hearts of people. Certainly English and German were more accessible. Many were first generation or migrants themselves to the United States, so they clearly read German and English…

 

Zev Eleff:

… migrants themselves to the United States, so they could clearly read German. In English, they were becoming more Americanized, so they preferred that as the ritual. It was a way to declare a sort of independence.

 

David Bashevkin:

Okay.

 

Zev Eleff:

It was a way to update.

 

David Bashevkin:

And who won, so to speak? You had these different versions of reform, some of that were quite extreme, some that were maybe more traditionally minded. Is there a point where we reach a consensus? And what is the version that emerges?

 

Zev Eleff:

So by the end of the 19th century, that is the end of the 1800’s, the Isaac Mayer Wise and David Einhorn prayer books have been coalesced. One, the reason why is Wise outlived Einhorn, but Einhorn’s two sons-in-law, Emil Hirsch and Kaufmann Kohler, became the leading forces of the reform movement. And that very much created a centralized reform movement. So you had the union prayer book, which took some of Wise, a lot of Einhorn, coalesced them, synergized them together, and along the way you had the introduction of mixed pews. That was Isaac Mayer Wise first in Albany but then it moved forward. And why did that happen? They got a hold of a new building that was formerly a church that had mixed pews. It wasn’t a deliberate-

 

David Bashevkin:

And what year is that? When do mixed pews begin in the United States?

 

Zev Eleff:

In the early 1830’s.

 

David Bashevkin:

Fairly late. It wasn’t an ideal-

 

Zev Eleff:

Egalitarianism was not the driving force, pragmatism, was pragmatism of this American fundamental creed made it move forward that way, but it wasn’t as if the reform movement said that, “We need gender equality. We need men and women, women and men to sit together.” The family that prays together stays together was not something they were looking to create. There was something that they found resonated with already established pattern in the—

 

David Bashevkin:

I’m just curious, you mentioned that line. I’ve heard that line before, the family who prays together stays together. I know because my zadie, who his shul went through. They began as an orthodox shul and then they introduced mixed pews and my zadie was one of the few, probably for a host of reasons, none of which had to do with Halakha, was one of the few who actually refused to sit with his family. But I’m curious of that line, the family that prays together stays together. Was that a deliberate line, kind of like a tag line that was branded to push?

 

Zev Eleff:

No, it’s a 20th century… I think Patrick Peyton, who was a minister.

 

David Bashevkin:

Okay.

 

Zev Eleff:

As the theme of what we’re discussing, much of the forces within American religious culture writ large were brought into American Judaism. So you have this nascent and growing, and eventually the largest quotient of religiously engaged American Jews at the end of the 19th century identified as Reform. Well, you asked that question about how would they identify? Well, the traditionalists look at what’s happening and they see all this heterodoxy that is reform and they say, “Well, we’re not like them. I guess we’re orthodox.”

You don’t have orthodox until you have heterodox to respond. Orthodoxy is a response. It doesn’t mean it’s always Johnny-come-lately. It’s almost as if it’s reactive, but it is a term that only makes sense when you have heterodox proceedings.

 

David Bashevkin:

Do you have an exact date for who was the first to kind of coin the term Orthodox?

 

Zev Eleff:

The earliest I found is a letter of response to Harvey in South Carolina by Jacob Mordecai also in the 1820s. He’s the first one that I know of who describes himself as an Orthodox Jew.

 

David Bashevkin:

And was there a specific issue that he framed himself as Orthodox in that sense?

 

Zev Eleff:

It’s interesting. One of the fundamental issues he saw was congregationalism, meaning the idea that, “Do not tell me what to do. Orthodoxy meant that we’re going to stay decentralized. Charleston, don’t try to start a movement.” It wasn’t just a response to, “Hey, I still want to remain traditional. I also want to remain free in my congregation in Virginia to make my own decisions.”

 

David Bashevkin:

The Orthodox wanted to remain decentralized?

 

Zev Eleff:

Correct. He calls himself a congregationalist Orthodox Jew.

 

David Bashevkin:

That is so interesting. Dig into that more because I’ve actually have long felt that part of the vitality of Orthodox Judaism America is how it is decentralized much more than other movements in a lot of ways. Even though it gets branded to the outside as the strictest, which in some sense is you could call it that in the most deferential to rabbinic authority, but it is the most decentralized.

 

Zev Eleff:

Absolutely. When you think about it in the 1870’s and 1880’s, again, Isaac Mayer Wise, now moving from Albany to Cincinnati much earlier in the 1850’s, but he comes and he frowns the Hebrew Union. That was an important term during and after the Civil War, union. Hebrew Union College in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis is the third of this triumvirate, which represents organizationally Hebrew Union College, a rabbinical seminary, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union of Reform Judaism, the congregational section of this and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical organization. These three groups grow organically together to form an institutional reform Judaism.

And segueing into Conservative Judaism, it’s not until the early 20th century with the arrival of Solomon Schechter who for a time called himself an Orthodox Jew. He did not fancy himself a Conservative Jew. He dies young only about 12 years into his tenure at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but eventually he takes over. He revitalizes. What was it? Established as an enlightened Orthodox institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary. Its first graduate was not other than Joseph Hertz, the chief rabbi of Great Britain. But in Schechter’s wake after he dies, this is something that my colleague, my friend, Michael Cohen has written about. He calls it about the birth of Conservative Judaism.

It is birthed at the beginning of the 20th century just like reform had created its institutions, Schechter’s disciples as he calls them the students form a capacious tent of institutions that revolves around yet again, a rabbinical school, the Jewish Theological Seminary. The United Synagogue, which is the congregational body. And the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents its rabbinical group.

 

David Bashevkin:

Let’s actually take a step back before we get to Solomon Schechter because I know it’s a central part of Michael Cohen’s book, which is based on his earlier dissertation. I happen to have read both. I found them both fascinating. But my question is the line of what was existing before America in Europe between reform in Germany and then the reform in America, there’s a fair amount of consistency of what they were trying to reform. There’s carryover. Obviously, everything is different in America. Conservative, there’s a little bit of maybe a misunderstanding or a debate because there was something called the Theological Seminary that Zecharias Frankel was involved in. I think it was in Breslau.

What is the difference between, I’m using air quotes, the “Conservative Judaism” or what we kind of retroactively call Conservative Judaism as it existed in Europe. I would maybe even quote… Is Krochmal involved in this. There were a lot of scholars who were engaged very actively in trying to understand how Jewish law is going to be applied in people’s lives. Maybe there were a little bit more progressive. But what is the relationship, if at all, between those movements that we sometimes call Conservative Judaism in Europe, and the Conservative Judaism in America, or is Conservative Judaism a unique American phenomenon?

 

Zev Eleff:

That’s where I show my partisanship and Mike is saturnin disciple and I’m a saturnin disciple, so I have to agree and I want to agree with Mike. His book is called The Birth of Conservative Judaism. It is responding to Moshe Davis’s book published a long time ago, first in Hebrew and then in English in the 1950s and 1960s called the Emergence of Conservative Judaism that it took a while for the so-called Historical School inspired as you point out by Zecharias Frankel and his seminars which is found in the 1850’s in Germany. And those ideas migrate, those people migrate to the United States and take this European institution, and bring it to the United States.

 

David Bashevkin:

It was called the Historical School. That’s a very strange name for a rabbinical school.

 

Zev Eleff:

Well, it was called the Jewish Theological Seminary. Their movement was called either the Historical School or scholars like today to call them the Neolog School. It’s called the Historical School because this was the beginning of Jewish studies scholarship and to historicize the rabbis. To historicize Halakha Jewish law was very much in vogue. And Frankel, who you point out was at the series of conferences, at least one or two of them. And didn’t get along very much with Abraham, that actually left in disbelief.

 

David Bashevkin:

With Geiger, who was more on the reform side.

 

Zev Eleff:

Correct. He leaves and by him leaving, well, he’s certainly not Eastern European Orthodox. Is Zecharias Frankel, Samson Raphael Hirsch does not like him one bit. Look at the collected writings. I think it’s volume five, and you’ll see quite a bit of it. Zecharias Frankel very clearly in the German context is not reformed, but he’s also not Orthodox. Rabbi Hirsch actually forbids any connection with the seminary with Zecharias Frankel and does not accept their ordination as acceptable to orthodox standards.

 

David Bashevkin:

What was his big issue?

 

Zev Eleff:

It was the visinshav.

 

David Bashevkin:

The visinshav.

 

Zev Eleff:

It was the Jewish studies.

 

David Bashevkin:

The Jewish studies.

 

Zev Eleff:

Hirsch called into question with David Zvi Hoffmann. And before that … Azriel Hildesheimer.

 

David Bashevkin:

Could the average lay person know the difference? Rav David Zvi Hoffmann, Rav Azriel Hildesheimer, they’re kind of part of the Orthodox canon of the Orthodox movement. And then you have Zecharias Frankel who is not part of the canon. We don’t study him in yeshiva.

 

Zev Eleff:

The difference is that Hildesheimer and Hoffmann desperately wanted to be included. And they were back channels and pleaded their orthodox bona fides.

 

David Bashevkin:

Is that true?

 

Zev Eleff:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

 

David Bashevkin:

They didn’t want to be excised out.

 

Zev Eleff:

They wrote to the Würzburger Rav, they wrote to Rabbi Seligman Bamberger and said, “Why doesn’t Rabbi Hirsch like us?”

 

David Bashevkin:

And Rabbi Hirsch had the credibility to really change minds.

 

Zev Eleff:

Absolutely. And that’s a very European idea where you’ve state-sponsored rabbi in it. You could do a lot of damage in terms of outlawing certain credential. Think about it, in America, the state doesn’t authorize certain standards of rabbinical ordination. In fact, in American churches, the law separates itself very deeply from such entanglement. In Europe, you could only hold a certain position if the state authorized you and recognized you as a rabbi.

 

David Bashevkin:

What you’re basically saying, which is really fascinating, Zecharias Frankel didn’t really care all that much to be a part of the-

 

Zev Eleff:

Certainly he cared. I’m sure he wasn’t happy about being plugged in herem, being excommunicated by the Frankfurt School. But at the same time he went forward, he marched for it.

 

David Bashevkin:

Were there any overt obvious transgressions? I’m talking to a lay person, not among the rabbis. That Zecharias Frankel advocated for that was kind of like the original sin of him being marginalized?

 

Zev Eleff:

A very young philosopher, Hermann Cohen writes in the pages of Hirsch’s journal and says, “I don’t get it. My teacher, Zecharias Frankel, he davens Minchah every day.”

 

David Bashevkin:

Hermann Cohen writes he didn’t understand what this fight was about. And that’s really fascinating because Rabbi Soloveitchik famously did his PhD on the philosophy of Hermann Cohen. I assume it’s the same one that you’re talking about.

 

Zev Eleff:

And Herman Cohen.

 

David Bashevkin:

And he himself was like, “I don’t really understand what they’re fighting about.’ That’s really interesting. So take me through, there’s a lot of lore around this, and this is pre-Solomon Schechter I believe, but there is a very real and obvious break between the conservative and reform movement in what has become the infamous Trefa Banquet. So tell me a little bit about what this was. You could tell me a little bit about what they serve. I’ve actually seen… I have on my computer the menu that was shared by my dear friend, Fred McDowell. On his old blog he shared the actual menu. I’m curious, what was that about? And was that as monumental as some people in Jewish history make it out to be?

 

Zev Eleff:

Right. It’s 1883. You’re really putting me on the spot for all these dates.

 

David Bashevkin:

Yes, I am.

 

Zev Eleff:

So it’s in preparation for the first ordination ceremony at Hebrew Union College.

 

David Bashevkin:

The Reform College.

 

Zev Eleff:

Of a reformed rabbinical seminary. I believe three graduates, they serve as was sort of the cuisine of the day, a very high-shelf seafood, not pig interestingly if I’m correct. Not pig, but seafood. Interesting how they separate the two. And Benjamin Szold and other traditionalist rabbinical figures who still initially participated in the communality around the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College, storm off in umbrage. Absolutely incensed.

 

David Bashevkin:

In the middle of the-

 

Zev Eleff:

If this is what this seminary represents, eating seafood? I’m out of here. And that triggers a number of episodes that each and of themselves isn’t a cause célèbre, but when you compound it, eventually you got the Pittsburgh platform. In the fall of 1885, which really declares reforms and dependence where they deny the divinity of the Bible where they call for a social justice platform for Jewish faith. They deny rabbinic things like Chazal essentially. Of the Talmud, certainly the Messiah’s, personal Messiah, the resurrection of the dead. I mean, that was really a charge document in Pittsburgh. For all those who are worrying, should he be a Ravens fan or a Steelers fan? I’m not saying that should really change your vote, but if you want to be a Ravens fan, that tips the scales.

 

David Bashevkin:

When this happened, did it cause a stir even at the time… Them leaving the Trefa Banquet.

 

Zev Eleff:

Yes. Because right now, how do people digest their Jewish content on 1840 and other podcasts, time, all you had were newspapers.

 

David Bashevkin:

And this was covered by newspapers?

 

Zev Eleff:

Absolutely at the time. And there was a question, should we create a new rabbinical seminary? And that was the genesis of the idea of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

 

David Bashevkin:

What’s known as JTS.

 

Zev Eleff:

And eventually, this little cheder starts as the Eitz Chaim, not Yeshiva but Eitz Chaim. That eventually merges with another idea for an issue for advanced students called the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. That is the beginning of-

 

David Bashevkin:

We’ll get there in a second. We’ll get to-

 

Zev Eleff:

You have the idea that what is fomenting is the need to have other options to create a market for American Jewish life. And you have rabbis, you have Kaufmann Kohler who I mentioned before is the son-in-law of David Einhorn battling with Alexander Kohut in New York. One is sermonizing in the morning, and the other is delivering a Pirkei Avot lecture in the afternoon. And New York Jews are shuttling from one speech to the other speech, hearing defenses of orthodoxy and reform. And it’s really in the air and it’s what people are caring about. And because controversy breeds interest, and eventually all of these episodes together lead to the creation of the Jewish Theological Seminary. It’s not a very successful institution early on by it’s reformed to be organized. When Solomon Schechter arrives in the United States in 1902-

 

David Bashevkin:

And why was he so instrumental in the birth of Conservative Judaism? Why is this school, Michael Cohen, your teacher, Jonathan Sarna, I read his book. What do you think Solomon Schechter did that allowed the conservative movement to kind of take shape on its own?

 

Zev Eleff:

Schechter is an unimpeachable scholar with international reputation. He is the one with the help of these two sisters discovers the Cairo Geniza, this incredible trove of Mediterranean medieval Jewish life. It’s a time which Jewish studies scholarship was very important to consuming Jewish content and because of international reputation. Because he is born on the continent but moves to England, therefore speaks a perfect English, all of those features of his profile blend together to form what in many people look at as the most perfect symbol of traditional Jewish leadership.

 

David Bashevkin:

We have a conception of what a conservative and orthodox and reform rabbi is if you look in 2023 standards, and a lot has changed. Do we have a sense of what the rabbis in their early seminary JTS were studying what they knew? What was the depth of their education familiarity?

 

Zev Eleff:

It was mixed. It was mixed. In the early years, they interacted with Louis Ginsberg certainly and academic Talmudist who embraced certain conceptions of documentary hypothesis, believe that there’s manmade aspects of the Torah, of the Bible. They honed their craft to deliver English language sermons, something that the Agudas Harabonim or the Agudath Harabonim put all of their graduates of Schechter’s seminary into cherem and excommunicated them.

 

David Bashevkin:

This is a very important point. At that point, the orthodox, their strategy was not always spot on.

 

Zev Eleff:

And remember, we talked about orthodox. This is the punchline I think that you’re driving at. Is while reform is creating its institutional framework of here’s my rabbinical body, here’s my rabbinical school and here’s my congregational body and Conservative Judaism in the wake of Schechter’s passing, forms their own parallel system to finally arrive at, “Hey, I’m a Conservative Jew.” The orthodox are everybody who isn’t doing that.

 

David Bashevkin:

They remain decentralized.

 

Zev Eleff:

Decentralized. And so they’re looking at it and they see that now there are people who are graduating from the Schechter’s seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary who are Talmudists, who are being hired by Orthodox Union certified congregations who may or may not have mixed pews at the time. And it’s a mixed bag, but that creates a range of Conservative Judaism. You have those who are essentially unrecognizable from an orthodox counterpart, to those who are radical, so much like eventually the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism Mordecai Kaplan. What does unite this group is that more often than not, they are American born. And that scares the living daylights out of people who by hook or by crook, are defining themselves as orthodox.

 

David Bashevkin:

At this point, we have this seminal break between reform and conservative, beginning with the Trefa Banquet in 1883. 2 years later, we have the Pittsburgh platform that kind of solidifies. And conservative is kind of in this amorphous, but I think if I were to take a time machine back, your average common Jew might not fully appreciate the difference between conservative ideology versus orthodox ideology.

 

Zev Eleff:

In fact, when Agudas Harabonim would write terribly about Schechter in his lifetime, he would respond, “I don’t get it. I’m orthodox.” And when Sabato Morais, who was the rabbi of Mikveh Israel, where I am in Philadelphia, who was clearly the rabbi of an orthodox congregation, was up to as an orthodox rabbinic leader, he fancied the seminary that he founded as an enlightened orthodox institution. So the term conservative, so Cohen is pushing back against… He doesn’t deny there was a prehistory, but it’s only in Solomon Schechter who, again, was not Draconian. He spoke about Catholic Israel, a capaciousness to Jewish belief. There were certain red lines that he had.

 

David Bashevkin:

Let’s define Catholic Israel quickly because it’s terrible branding because you hear the word Catholic and you’re like that’s-

 

Zev Eleff:

Yeah.

 

David Bashevkin:

Catholic means universal Israel-

 

Zev Eleff:

Correct.

 

David Bashevkin:

… meaning basically saying that the common practice of Jews is what should have a very centered and instrumental role in determining Jewish practice. But to the point where at that point there were actually discussions between the Jewish Theological Seminary, JTS and Yeshiva University about potentially merging together.

 

Zev Eleff:

And before the United Synagogue was formally formed, there were a lot of talks with the early leadership of the union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, now known as the Orthodox Union, to borrow from that energy and widen the scope of what is today the OU. So there were a lot of discussions about where what would eventually be called Conservative Judaism, could be placed within American Jewish life. Eventually, they’re neither reformed nor orthodox. And so by the 1940’s. It’s not really until the 1940s that you have a full-fledged self-identifying conservative movement.

 

David Bashevkin:

But the conservative movement, what would you say was the period where they really came of own as this American-born interpretation of Jewish life that really did capture the hearts and minds?

 

Zev Eleff:

Unquestionably, because we have the synagogue data, the post-World War II period. As Americans start to move into the suburbs, those who return from war have a GI bill. That’s where they go to state universities, they’re college educated. They move from being wage earners to full-salary, and they look for that white picket fence in the suburbs. And more often than not, when you had a critical mass of Jews, they start to think, “Well, hey, we need a form of synagogue.” And they literally summit leadership of what is by then orthodox and reformed and conservative groups, and they say, “We’d like to hold a forum or debate. Convince us what type of synagogue we ought to be.”

 

David Bashevkin:

That happened.

 

Zev Eleff:

And in middle of the road America, you took what their interpretation was, middle of the road Judaism. Not orthodox, not reformed. How about we try this Conservative Judaism?

 

David Bashevkin:

Do we have records?

 

Zev Eleff:

Yes.

 

David Bashevkin:

I mean, tell me a little bit more about that. I never heard that before. I’ve heard of the concept of a probeh, which actually fascinates me. We have different rabbis try out. I’ve never heard of a shul who’s like, “We’re not sure what movement we’re going to belong to.”

 

Zev Eleff:

Here’s the source, is Albert Gordon’s Jews in Suburbia. He does an anthropology of what this looked like. And each one, they talk about bat mitzvah, something that was popular in conservative circles by then, certainly not reformed. They did what’s called today still confirmation and the Orthodox were not ready to compliment bar mitzvah for boys with bat mitzvah for girls. And each group that would speak about their bona fides of why these nascent communities should adopt their brand of Judaism. Again, brand of Judaism, not denomination, different types, Judaisms and Conservative Judaism more often than not won the day.

 

David Bashevkin:

Tell me a little bit, there was a decision that really changes the landscape of American Judaism, as they’re winning the hearts and minds. I don’t know the exact year, maybe you do, but tell me the role that the response and that the conservative movement writes in terms of permitting the use of driving on Shabbos. What role does that play in shaping the landscape of American Judaism?

 

Zev Eleff:

When you live very spread out in the suburbs, you probably don’t live as close as you would’ve in an urban location to a synagogue. And more likely than not, by the 1940’s, I think the number is 75% of American households owned a car. That’s something new. They could afford a car and they had a need for a car. And so in 1950, the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards permit for the use of driving to synagogue, the use of an automobile to ride get to shul on the set.

 

David Bashevkin:

What’s very interesting is very recently, leaders of the conservative movement actually came out and expressed a measure of regret for that response. I’m curious if at the time, anybody voiced concerns because my zadie self-identified as an Orthodox Jew. He did drive on Shabbos. In fact, he drove to work on Shabbos. So there were people who were affiliating in the orthodox movement who also drove. So I’m curious about within the conservative movement, when they came out with this response, were there anybody who’s objective, why is this necessary? Why do we have to put our stamp on something? People are doing it anyways. Let’s allow there to be a dissonance or differential between common practice and what the ideals that we strive to reach towards.

 

Zev Eleff:

Like any new idea, there’s opposition, but the question was actually put forward by the same leaders who ran USY, United Synagogue Youth. That’s another important component. With all due respect to NCSY, which is formed around the same time, USY was the place to be. They got it, and they had their own camping system, Ramah, which started out in Wisconsin, and so you had that infrastructure already in the 1940’s moving into the 1950’s. But it was all part of that culture, and because the driving response was tied to the same leadership of the people who were literally building conservative Judaism in the American hinterland suburbs, you couldn’t stop that. You couldn’t stop that.

 

David Bashevkin:

Let’s move now to the world of Orthodox Judaism.

 

Zev Eleff:

Everybody who’s left.

 

David Bashevkin:

Everybody who’s left. The world of Orthodox Judaism, let’s divide it between the immigration that followed the Holocaust, what was going on in the 1920’s. What did Orthodox Judaism look like in America in the early 1900s?

 

Zev Eleff:

And you’re right to start by the 1900’s. Reform Judaism has captured the hearts and minds of those who still went to synagogue. At that time, already many, many Jews simply were unaffiliated one way or another. So it’s important to talk about the nons, so to speak, sociological, people do not identify with the religious movement. They still exist, certain all the way back to the 19th century. The first attempt though is in the 1800’s with the arrival of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the so-called Chief Rabbi of New York is a terribly failed experiment, so much so that over 100 rabbis from the United States and Canada descend on his funeral in 1902. They bury him in the morning, and in the afternoon, they start a new organization called the Agudas Harabonim.

 

David Bashevkin:

That’s the afternoon of his death.

 

Zev Eleff:

That’s the afternoon.

 

David Bashevkin:

Because they’re like, “We need something.”

 

Zev Eleff:

We need something. This whole chief rabbi thing …

 

David Bashevkin:

It failed.

 

Zev Eleff:

It failed because America is anathema to a chief rabbi. It doesn’t work. You don’t have state sponsored religion. What exactly does the chief rabbi do?

 

David Bashevkin:

Anybody could be the chief rabbi in America.

 

Zev Eleff:

Who made you the chief rabbi? The painter.

 

David Bashevkin:

The painter.

 

Zev Eleff:

One who painted the signs, the Rabbi Siegel in New York around this time.

 

David Bashevkin:

He said that. He said, “Who made you the chief rabbi? Who appointed you?”

 

Zev Eleff:

So you have this rabbinical group, which is fundamentally an Eastern European or a European aligned institution. In fact, in the original charter, you had to have been born in Europe to be a member. That didn’t do so well for what would eventually become Yeshiva University. The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary that is found in the very final years of the 19th century. It doesn’t become Yeshiva University until the 1940’s when it’s officially chartered as such, but they are a new type of institution that embrace both European board migrants and American one.

But as there are restrictions on migration from Europe to the United States moving throughout the early 20th century, most of these students or a larger quotient to the students become American-born. And many of them actually, they were activists. They pleaded with the leadership to implement professional development courses. Teach us how to speak in English, teach us oration, or else we’ll go to the seminary. Jeffrey Gurock, my teacher and colleague, has written about this, about how Yeshiva College was very much a feeder school for the seminary. And it’s that impulse and the need to compete that eventually move meets the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary to really professionalize and compete in the American Rabbi, and they joined forces with a group founded in June 1898, Orthodox Union in the 1930’s. They form a rabbinical group together with a partner school in Chicago called Hebrew Theological College, colloquially the Skokia Yeshiva nowadays, not Yeshiva.

 

David Bashevkin:

Yeshiva.

 

Zev Eleff:

Shout out to my friends in Chicago. And they formed the Rabbinical Council of America. So they too create that recipe for a religious movement, a rabbinical seminary in Chicago and New York, not affiliated but partners with one another. Some of what eventually becomes Yeshiva University. The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and the Theological College of Chicago, they have their synagogue or the congregational body of the Orthodox Union, and they have their rabbinical group, the Rabbinical Council of America. The issue though is that the Agudas Harabonim pointed out Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim. “We’re not a part of your constellation and we don’t accept that.”

 

David Bashevkin:

Why not? Meaning right now you’re describing a lot of the institutional power was really what we would nowadays associate with modern orthodoxy. Centrist orthodoxy. Why were the more Yeshiva oriented organizations and schools? Let’s talk about the Agudas Harabonim, you had Torah Vodaas as the time. You has Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim. Why were they suspicious?

 

Zev Eleff:

Beyond getting into the personal or the politic and the senior side of it, the conservative movement headed off opposition initially by framing their movement at the outset of things. Isaac Mayer Wise took different factions calling themselves reform, and had the political clout to organize reform Judaism out of those three institutions. By the time that RCA, OU, REITs start to coalesce, it’s too late. It’s already been decades that there have been rabbinical groups and rabbinical school and congregational bodies fomenting, and it’s too late for them to coalesce as a tripartite, same way that conservative reform had done in earlier epics. So the attempt to create the same framework of an institutionalized orthodoxy is too little too late. Why, if you’re Agudas Harabonim, would you accept that these American aligned institutions are the end all, be all of an orthodoxy?

 

David Bashevkin:

When’s the first time that we notice outwardly that a person would notice that there are kind of two strains of orthodox Judaism in America, or let’s even call it three, that there’s the Yeshiva oriented Orthodox. There is modern orthodox, and then, I don’t know if you even want to factor in the Hasidic community in America, when’s the first time that, not a historian, but your average Jew is like, “Oh, they’re fighting about something. They’re not all on the same page.”

 

Zev Eleff:

Already by 1913, I have a letter I’ve reproduced in my book, my documentary History of American Orthodoxy, you have a letter that identifies a Russian orthodoxy. That’s the Agudas Harabonim where you assigned with certain features like the Shaito, the women’s head covering, the non-acceptance of English language, sermons, a host of other issues. It’s the first time that you have a term called modern orthodoxy that means different things at different times of course. You have a Sphardic orthodoxy. So early on you are realizing that there are, and I’ll try not to confuse us, denominations of orthodoxy. You have different groups who they do things differently. They prefer their strand, their stream as opposed to someone else’s, but they are an orthodoxy in totality. But there is an awareness of the early 20th century moving forward that there are different versions. Sometimes with great disavow disapproval of one another, but fundamentally different versions of an orthodoxy.

 

David Bashevkin:

Explain to me a little bit, each of these movements have this moment where they kind of come of age or assert themselves. Marshall Sklare was a sociologist who essentially explained the need for conservative Judaism was because orthodoxy was ultimately going to disappear, and we needed something that was going to appeal to people in suburban lives to ensure that we have some traditionalism. When do we see that the orthodox movement is actually not going to disappear? It’s not just on the defensive. It’s not just trying to preserve what we had in Eastern Europe, but it’s kind of come into its own on the American shore. When do you see that offensive of we have an identity and a character of our own? When do you see that on American soil?

 

Zev Eleff:

Right. You’re absolutely right that Marshall Sklare and others in the 1950’s are predicting that orthodoxy is going to disappear as the case study in institutional decay. So while the rabbis are arguing about who’s in charge of orthodox Judaism, the laypeople are more often than not transforming. They’re moving mixed pews into their synagogues and calling themselves a conservative institution. They’re moving to the suburbs and they’re adopting conservative Judaism with their bat mitzvah practice over their parents’ Orthodox style Judaism. It’s not until the end of the 1950’s really until the 1960’s that orthodoxy regains its self-confidence, and eventually it’s triumphalistic motif.

There’s not a signature moment. We talked about the trade of banquet Pittsburgh platform as these signature moments in the arithmetic added together. They represent that parting of the ways that creates a reform Judaism. There’s no particular moment that I have written, for example, about the formation of NCSY in 1954. And then eventually in earnest in 1959. I pointed out the same year in 1959 to the American bestseller. This Is My God by Herman Wolfe in which reform hate it because it’s incredibly popular, but they look at it and say, “This is Wolfe’s guy. This is an Orthodox guy.”

 

David Bashevkin:

Did they react poorly to that book?

 

Zev Eleff:

Oh, yes. They hated it. Many hated it. But what could you do with a New York Times bestseller and a non-fiction list for months on-

 

Zev Eleff:

… And he hated it. But what could you do with a New York Times bestseller and a nonfiction list for months on end? And Wouk is a Pulitzer Prize winner. He’s won it already for the King Mutiny.

 

David Bashevkin:

Did that help?

 

Zev Eleff:

Yes. Having a celebrity, having an influencer as you know, is really important.

 

David Bashevkin:

Did Orthodox Rabbis champion him, like using his own voice?

 

Zev Eleff:

They published study guides.

 

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

 

Zev Eleff:

Maurice Lamb publishes a book club study guide on how to read, This Is My God. He is name-dropped in sermons by people who know him at various levels about look at what the Pulitzer Prize winning, his prize, this time, millionaire, Herman Wouk has done. The author of Marjorie Morningstar, the author of This Is My God, was a book, was a Broadway show and then was a film starring Humphrey Bogart. This was a big deal.

 

David Bashevkin:

Not enough credit. I want to say it right now. I’ve said not enough credit is given to Herman Wouk. I’m actually want to say his name again because every time in the past episodes I’ve mispronounced his last name. It’s Wouk, right?

 

Zev Eleff:

Yeah, Wouk.

 

David Bashevkin:

Not enough credit is given to how monumental that was. That’s an exit moment. Are there any other moments you would add?

 

Zev Eleff:

Yavne, the collegiate organization that forms at Columbia and other Ivy League institutions, other important universities where more and more Jews are heading is critically important. Certainly Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik is becoming more well-known. Commentary Magazine, however, in the early 1960s is writing about Revan Kovach and Spanish Cava of Lakewood.

 

David Bashevkin:

In the 1960s?

 

Zev Eleff:

In the 1960s, David Singer was writing about the Yeshiva movement, the Yeshiva world, and so you’re getting more exposure. The Lubavitcher Rebbe is coming into his own. Sodmer is becoming essentially a voting bloc for New York voting patterns. Are there other signature moments? I think the emergence of Rabbi Norman Lamb first at the Jewish Center in the late 1950s, then early 1960s, and then as President of Yeshiva world.

 

David Bashevkin:

Wait a second, I’m going to take offense to that. My great-grandparents lived in Springfield and that is Kadima erasure to not mention his time.

 

Zev Eleff:

That’s true. He comes up with the idea for Tradition Magazine in Springfield. You’re absolutely right.

 

David Bashevkin:

And my father remembers him at a young age. Listening to him in my great-grandparent’s shul, in Kadima.

 

Zev Eleff:

Simon Dolgan, Beth Jacob in Los Angeles is a big deal in the 1950s.

 

David Bashevkin:

I have never heard that name before.

 

Zev Eleff:

Simon Dolgan, was he a Yeshiva grad?

 

David Bashevkin:

I’ve never even heard that name before.

 

Zev Eleff:

Oh, it was a very important Rabbi at Beth Jacob in Los Angeles in Pico.

 

David Bashevkin:

When is the first time that this tripart conservative reform Orthodox realize that this is the lay of the land and almost consciously either repel from one another or need to come together for some issue? When does the leadership realize that American Judaism has splintered into, again, broadly speaking, these three groups that now need to be coordinated, maybe that politicians need to make choices of who they are reaching out to. Where do you see the final hardening of the ways? When does that start? Is that a moment or is that slowly but surely?

 

Zev Eleff:

It’s something I’ve never considered. It’s a wonderful question. So, I’m going to stipulate tentatively that that cognitive moment, you’re a psychologist after all, that cognitive moment in which they realize that there are three different movements that are here to stay in American Jewish life that are not denominations because they’re blaming one another, and they come full circle, is in May 1964, when Thomas Morgan and now extinct at the time, very well-read magazine called Look Magazine, in its pages writes a four-page article titled The Vanishing American Jew, in which you didn’t talk about intermarriage in American Jewish life. Marilyn Monroe, Rabbi Goldberg in Detroit converted her to being a Jew. We didn’t talk about intermarriage. Now we have no choice but to embrace that challenge in Jewish life. A challenge, is it a bad thing? Is it a good thing? Certainly the Orthodox believed it is a terrible thing. There was leadership in the Reform movement that wanted to institutionalize mixed marriage. In fact, there was a list going around of who did and did not officiate in mixed marriages in the Reform.

 

David Bashevkin:

What year is this? In the 1960s, they had this list.

 

Zev Eleff:

By the early 1970s. It is an open secret that there is a list going around of which Reform Rabbis are doing and not doing mixed marriages.

 

David Bashevkin:

And this alarm of the vanishing of the American Jew is sounded in this Look Magazine and the author affiliates as Orthodox who wrote the article?

 

Zev Eleff:

Thomas Morgan, I don’t even think he’s Jewish. A listener will correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think Thomas Morgan’s a Jew.

 

David Bashevkin:

And he basically says there’s a possibility that Jews may disappear in America because of intermarriage.

 

Zev Eleff:

They’re intermarrying out of existence. And that’s when you realize there are strategies that need to be deployed to do something one way or another. And it’s not just about the movement, it’s not just about Rabbis. That’s when federations, all across America, are saying, you know what? You Rabbis, you’ve had your chance since 1840. It’s time for us, the civic wing of Judaism to start financing operations like education. This is the beginning of giving to day schools and to summer camps in a very big way. For then the lion’s share was given to social welfare and to Israel, and all of a sudden there are censuses around what do Jews need? Very first Jewish population study was done in the early 1970s. And so, federations are thinking about, well, what does Jewish continuity look like and how do we have to invest in order to ensure? Its we-stabilization.

 

David Bashevkin:

And a lot of this is a reaction to this alarm of the idea of we may vanish.

 

Zev Eleff:

Absolutely. And that’s another reaction, eventually, is the decision to adopt patrilineal dissent in Reform Judaism. And that forces Reform and conservative Orthodox leaders to recognize that they have very different standards on not just who was a Jew, but who can create a Jew. That eventually is adopted in 1983, but it is a long campaign, first, deeply opposed because reform leaders did not want to separate themselves.

 

David Bashevkin:

Did they realize the implications by moving to patrilineal descent, leaving aside almost the legality, but was there a self-conscious knowledge that we are now breaking from the one factor that binds the definition, not of our religious practice, but essentially who is a Jew? Because when we debate about this now, it’s like, oh, the Orthodox are hanging on to this antiquated definition and a lot of times people use the term gatekeeping. I hate when people do that. The Orthodox are gatekeeping their definition. Everyone’s gatekeeping, different definitions. I’m, just curious when that was first suggested to move into the essential of what makes Jewish identity, whether it’s going just after the mother of the father, did they know how radical this was?

 

Zev Eleff:

Absolutely. So, the architect of the patrilineal movement was Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who points out that they were actually being more Machomer, more stringent than the Orthodox side.

 

David Bashevkin:

How so?

 

Zev Eleff:

He points, I remember this, the heat of the Cold War.

 

David Bashevkin:

Yeah.

 

Zev Eleff:

He said, Khrushchev’s daughter, grandchildren are Jews by dint of matrilineal descent, but Ben Gorion’s grandchildren may not be accepted in Orthodox circles. So, he made it a Zionism versus communism sort of thing. And he said, in fact, we’re being more stringent than the Orthodox. The Orthodox excepts somebody who’s Jewish because their mother was a Jew. Patrilineal descent, or at the time they like to call non-linear descent, required an affirmative action of Jewish life. You had to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, confirmation. You had to accept going to certain rituals. You have to opt into Jewish life, say the architects of patrilineal or non-linear descent. The Orthodox say DNA alone can decide if you’re Jewish or not.

 

David Bashevkin:

And that’s a really foundational disagreement. That goes all the way, all the way back. Is Judaism primarily a people or a practice? Are we first and foremost a religion or are we a people? From your historical vantage point, if we could go through each denomination and say, in your estimation, what do you think the most important contribution of each denomination was to American Jewish life?

 

Zev Eleff:

Wow.

 

David Bashevkin:

And maybe we could begin with reform because I do believe that every denomination has made contributions that transcend the specific, whether call it a movement or denomination.

 

Zev Eleff:

Okay, I can play this game. Let’s do it. Let’s do it. So, the Reform movement, I would say it’s just to pick one for each because I could also go on forever, this is awesome, is the capacity to make Jews and non-Jews believe that Americanism and Judaism can be synthesized together. That you can do Judaism in American-

 

David Bashevkin:

While being in American.

 

Zev Eleff:

… I think that’s a really important contribution, that the strategies may not have been adopted by other forms of Judaism, but that principle.

 

David Bashevkin:

Ultimately is adopted by all sake, we can do this. We can integrate the two. That’s a great example. Conservative Judaism. What do you think is the most important contribution?

 

Zev Eleff:

I’m going to go with the first contribution that comes to mind. Remember we talked about how it really flourishes in suburbia and that happens because it captures the hearts and minds of young people, so to form Judaism to a certain extent, but the strategies deployed with USY, which have an immediate impact on the Orthodox union to form their own NCSY. Camp Ramah really ups the game of Orthodox camping. There were Orthodox camps, but certainly modern strategies to service religious young people, is I think one of the great contributions.

 

David Bashevkin:

That’s brilliant. I heard it directly, I hope he doesn’t kill me for quoting him, but I heard from Moj Bain, who was a former president of the Orthodox Union, and he said one, if not, the most important institution in preserving Judaism in America is Camp Ramah. Camp Ramah has done tremendous things for keeping people affiliated and keeping people not just affiliated, but loving Judaism. They’re well imitated and I feel like not enough credit in that early period is given to the contributions of Camp Ramah, USY, which again, you said NCSY was a deliberate imitation of.

 

Zev Eleff:

They had to compete in the marketplace.

 

David Bashevkin:

What do you think is the most important contribution of Orthodox Judaism in American Jewish life?

 

Zev Eleff:

Again, I’m going to temper my response by saying this is one that comes to mind in our freewheeling conversation. I’m going to go with the embrace of counterculture. I’m thinking about Chabad to a certain extent. Thinking about day schools, when the Golden Citadels were public schools. You couldn’t Americanize if you went to private schools, you had to go to the public schools. That was the whole point of public schools. The Orthodox who were mainly responsible for day schools certainly contributed to that. So, I would say that in the 20th century, the rebound of Orthodoxy has to do with demonstrating its viability as a counterculture, which in American life, think about the hippie movement, was becoming a thing, so that Orthodoxy recognized that we’re going to do things a bit different, but we still do it and we’re proud to do it here in the United States. They didn’t necessarily speak in those terms in Lakewood, in Kiryas Joel or in Teaneck, New Jersey, but at some level, their success had to do with architecting a viable counterculture in American life.

 

David Bashevkin:

And I think the number one example of it, it’s part of my family. I grew up with a great commitment to sending your kids to Yeshiva. I like that you used it as the primary example, is absolutely reshape the fabric of American Judaism. I would love to ask you as a historian who has seen all of the different options, who have teachers from across the denominational divide. I’m curious if you would feel comfortable responding for why in fact you affiliate as an Orthodox Jew?

 

Zev Eleff:

It’s a really interesting question. I was born, I’m an FFP from birth. I’m the product of day schools. I went to Yeshiva for two years in Israel, went to Yeshiva College, went to Reitz. So, to a certain extent, my point of departure, I also confess that I’ve fallen in love with my Orthodoxy or my modern orthodoxy. We’re so privileged to live in a moment in which, despite what we talked about, the rigidity of these movements, of who gets to define who is a Jew and what are the ingredients of Judaism or Judaisms. There has never before been a time in which you and I can cross into other communities and celebrate Torah, can celebrate Judaism or Judaism’s, however we describe it, with authenticity and integrity and get along to support our Jewish community and represent Judaism to others as well. I guess the answer to your question is, it was chosen for me but I continue to wake up every morning in love with the religious style of life that I’ve adopted or that I was born into, rather, because of how it allows me to contribute and how it affords me a lens to be me, but to be with a lot of other people.

 

David Bashevkin:

I can’t thank you enough for this. And we could talk for another five hours, though we wont.

 

Zev Eleff:

We will, just not in recording.

 

David Bashevkin:

Just not recording. I always end my interviews with more rapid fire questions. What books would you recommend for somebody who wants to understand the evolution of Judaism in America, particularly in the different forms of practice? What do you think should be on someone’s shelf? Obviously it’s a dangerous question to ask you because you could probably fill up many shelves in libraries with recommendations, but what do you think are the primary books that should be on somebody’s shelf?

 

Zev Eleff:

It’s a really good question. I’ve already mentioned it a number of times and quoted from it at the beginning of our chat, is Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism. As a good counterpoint that isn’t a religious history, but it’s more of a social history, Hasia Diner’s, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, and I’ll throw in another one. It’s very popular, very good. Sam Friedman, Samuel Freedman’s, Jew Vs Jew.

 

David Bashevkin:

He’s a former guest on the podcast. I love that book. It’s one of my favorite. It gives you a real inside look at how the different issues, the friction has animated so much of our identity. I love those books.

 

Zev Eleff:

Oh, and Herman Wouk, This Is My God. Forgot about that.

 

David Bashevkin:

One book I actually like, I forgot what it’s entitled, but it actually helped me really understand the basics. He’s a conservative Rabbi. Abraham Karp had a book about continuity in America.

 

Zev Eleff:

Jewish continuity in America is a single volume history of American Jewish life. Ab Karp, as he was known to colleagues, was a terrific historian. All of these sort of capture the history of American Jewish life. Sarna’s is more up to date. In fact, there was a revised edition done.

 

David Bashevkin:

Sure

 

Zev Eleff:

A number of years ago.

 

David Bashevkin:

And they all compliment one another and it’s really fantastic. My next question is always strange when I ask it to such prolific scholars, but if somebody gave you a great deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical with no responsibilities whatsoever to go back to school, imagine that, and get another PhD. What do you think the subject and title of your dissertation would be?

 

Zev Eleff:

I’d write about Shabbas. I would become much more proficient in languages. In order to get mine, I had to learn Hebrew. I was in a day school graduate German and Yiddish. If you’re asking me if I could go back in time for a new PhD and therefore a new career, I’m very happy at my job, is I would train with languages to write a Jewish history through Shabbat, Sabbath, Shabbos. Jacob Katz did this with the Shabbos Goy book, to a certain extent of one sliver of it, I would dedicate my entire life. Again, happy with where I am in life.

 

David Bashevkin:

No, don’t worry. You don’t need so many disclaimers.

 

Zev Eleff:

I wouldn’t change a think but if you’re forcing me to change a thing.

 

David Bashevkin:

Yes.

 

Zev Eleff:

I would write a religious history of Shabbat from biblical times to today.

 

David Bashevkin:

Wow, that is one of the most fascinating answers we’ve ever gotten. I hope you win the lottery or at least some slice of that story.

 

Zev Eleff:

I won the lottery, I would simply just let all two grads out.

 

David Bashevkin:

No, but you have to. But I do hope that you do get to write about that because I love the way that you bring these personal stories of Jewish history to life and illuminate these larger ideas. My final question, I’m always curious about people’s sleep patterns. What time do you go to sleep at night and what time do you wake up in the morning?

 

Zev Eleff:

I go to bed now, between 10 and 11.

 

David Bashevkin:

Okay. On the early side, very scholarly.

 

Zev Eleff:

On the early side. I mean really for us, I have a young family. So, it’s dinner, shooting some hoops outside, bedtime. We’re into dog man right now. Howard and I learned Mishnayos together, by then, I’m just dead tired. When do I wake up? 6 or 7, in time for the LMS early Minyan at 6:45 or seven o’clock. Always have a coffee before that.

 

David Bashevkin:

I absolutely love. That Dr. Zev Eleff, my beloved friend and maybe with a whisper, mentor. I cannot thank you enough for joining me today.

 

Zev Eleff:

My pleasure, my beloved friend.

 

David Bashevkin:

I have learned so much from kind the overview in history, as told specifically from my friend Zev Eleff. He has a wonderful formulation in his book, Authentically Orthodox, a Tradition Bound-Faith in American Life, which really talks about something that I think everyone is striving for, but obviously the focus of this book is about orthodoxy. And he actually begins his introduction by quoting a 1961 manual that was made by somebody named Rabbi Leonard Gwertz of Congregation Adas Kodesh Shal-Emes, a congregation in Wilmington Delaware, where instead of making a manual and calling it for Orthodox Jews, he specifically called it for authentic Jews. And a lot of the introduction talks about how American Jewry has been striving for that feeling of authenticity and what exactly is authenticity. And this is where Zev Eleff, I think in his introduction, says something that I found very thoughtful and very meaningful.

This is what he writes. Yet there is something less definitional about authenticity that fervor articulated by Rabbi Gwertz to describe the experiences of orthodox Jews and their lived religion. The anthropologist, Regina Bendix, described authenticity as a quality of experience. In her words, like the chills running down one’s spine during musical performances for instance, moments that may stir one to tears, laughter, elation, which on reflection crystallize into categories and in the process lose the immediacy that characterizes authenticity. These sensations, Zev Eleff writes, endow experiences with significant meaning and legitimize interactions and occasions. For Bendix, authenticity is experiential. The composite of cultural forces engaging one another and not something static and lasting. Orthodox Jews also claimed that the authenticity they ascribed to their variety of faith could be experienced and verified. It wasn’t just that this brand of creed, so they submitted most closely resembled the faith of their forefathers as Eisenstadt and other earlier Rabbis would’ve probably described religion’s relationship to authenticity.

Orthodox Judaism claimed Leonard Gwartz, for example, could be confirmed by less tangible but no less meaningful means by how it naturally summoned Jews to Torah study and prayer. I love that description because I think it’s something that, again, he’s talking about Orthodox Judaism because it’s the topic of his book in America, but that authenticity as verified through the experience of Yiddishkeit within our lives. Which brings me back to that tweet that I actually began with, that I found to be so thoughtful and that I would urge everyone, you don’t have to get a Twitter account to engage in it, but you could think about it and it’s that tweet from Jew on Shabbat. His prompt was say something positive about a stream of Judaism different than your own. I’ll start, he writes, I like how Reform Judaism has put strong emphasis on inclusion of people with disabilities.

I think it’s a beautiful question and one we should think about. We spend enough time and I have no issue. It doesn’t have to come at the expense of highlighting the very real ideological divides that exist. We don’t need to shy away from them, we don’t need to ignore them, but that doesn’t need to come at the expense of seeing the positivity and really the collective investment that has shaped American Jewry. Here’s what I answered. I wrote, I think the emphasis on Tikkun Olam in the Reform movement is quite moving, bringing Jewish values to social change. I also added, I think Camp Ramah of the conservative movement, has fostered a holy connection with Jewish life among kids that all denominations should appreciate and emulate. The story of Jewish outreach in America is incomplete without considering the contributions of Camp Ramah. That was my answer. And there are so many other answers when you scroll down, which is really beautiful, and I found quite moving.

A non-Orthodox Rabbi named Sarah Zober wrote, I love the communal buy-in that orthodoxy engenders. The way people show up and really live their lives in their Jewish community, like it’s the center of everything. And I think that’s very beautiful to see people look at what they see in orthodox communities even though they live outside to be so beautiful and so moving. One thing that is very common in the thread, if you look at the responses, is how much people praise Chabad. How much the mission of Chabad and really finding Jews, no matter their location, no matter where they are in their own personal Jewish observance. Not everybody would treat it as its own denomination if you even use the term denomination, but I find that incredibly moving as well. Which really makes wonder, what is the right language to talk about different denominations. We use the term denominations, but as Zev Eleff mentioned in our conversation, that’s probably not the right term.

Maybe movement is a little bit closer to the way you think about it. I’ll be honest. The way I conceptualize it as something that we discussed earlier, in our series on Halacha, and I would invite people to go back. I know everybody likes skipping my introductions and making fun of my introductions, which of course does not hurt me in any way, and I do not shed tears privately, quietly, in the corner of my own office, when I hear people making fun of the length of my intros and outros. But here we are in one of my outros and I would almost ask people to listen to the intro and outro that we did in our Halacha series, which was last year. And you can find that on our website, 18Forty.org, where we did an episode called Halacha as language. Where one way to conceptualize differences is really about language itself and the way I think about the full breadth of the Jewish community.

If you were to ask me what’s the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephard between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, I really think about the way differences in language are manifes.t the differences between Ashkenaz and Sephard, people from more European or from more Middle-eastern Jewish communities and the customs that are different. To me, that’s the difference between different dialects and different accents. A British accent versus in a more American Accent in the way that you speak the language. But as you get deeper in the way language evolves, there is a continuity. Obviously when we read old Shakespeare, it’s not the same way that we speak English today, but there is a continuity, and there is a way that you can break the continuity of language. We’re being able to even understand and figure out what did that language mean in some earlier time can be different. There are also slang and dialects, and there’s a way that language can be, I would use the word Corrupted or maybe the way that it’s spoken with people who don’t have the same education or the same background or don’t read at the same language.

There’s a way that children babble and put together sentences that can be different, but the language that is able to tie many, many different people together, still remains the same. The way that we speak or write in a high level academic class versus the way that we speak and write when we’re talking to our friends may absolutely be different. There can be a right and wrong way to speak and to say something. There is incorrect grammar, especially when we’re talking about writing. There’s the way children speak, where they’re not putting together sentences in exactly the correct way, but still there is absolutely a meaning that is transmitted. And when I look at the panoply of Jewish life and observance and the different way throughout the different denominations, I sometimes find that the analogy that is most instructive for me to understand, when I look at other people, because don’t like to look at other Jews and say, well, that’s not even Judaism, because it discounts the fact that sometimes lower levels of observance, different levels of observance, can yield something that is more authentic or is more in line or is more proper speech.

And the way that you would speak to somebody, let’s say a child who’s just learning how to speak English is not, hey, you said it all wrong, is that you model the right way to speak. You model the way sentences work, and eventually people pick it up and fall in line. And if we pay less attention to some of the formal divides of the community in our affiliation and we think of different languages and the spectrum of language and try to model the type of Yiddishkeit, and the type of language of Yiddishkeit, that we think is both not only most correct but transmits the most, yields the most observance, passion, commitment in our own lives. I think that is a healthy analogy that allows us to look at the full breadth and diversity of Jewish life and experience, allows us to still hold on to the fact that there is a proper way to speak and write any language, including the language of Yiddishkeit as transmitted through the generations. But allows us to look at others who may be speak differently or even speak poorly and not look at them with a vulgar dismissal and say, not Jewish, not Judaism, and just cut them off completely.

But realizing that there is a diversity and there is an importance in the way that we preserve a language and very often, incorrect expressions can become incorporated into the proper speaking communities. For me at least, that has always been a helpful analogy for how we understand and conceptualize the full diversity of Jewish experience. So, thank you so much for listening, and thank you to our dearest friend and editor Dina Emerson, and thank you again to our series sponsors, my dearest friends, Joel and Lynn Mayle, who have sponsored this series in honor of people who really dedicated their lives to perpetuating a Yiddishkeit and building Jewish families, at a time when it wasn’t so simple. And that, of course are Joel’s parents, Esther and Nysen Mael. Esther bas Zvi and Nissan ben Yaakov Zvi. I am so grateful for your friendship and partnership. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of Jewish guilt.

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