Monday, July 13, 2015

Orthodox Jews in America by Jeffrey S. Gurock

This history of Orthodox Jewry in America is an outstanding example of what a critical historian does.  Prof. Gurock shows that from the beginning of Jewish settlement in North America, the Jewish citizen wanted to desperately fit in and would go to great lengths at bending the rules of Jewish Law without  abrogating his affiliation to gain acceptance as an American.  Prof. Gurock shows us that those people who identify with the Orthodox synagogue and refuse to compromise in their affiliation to join a Conservative or Reform synagogue do not necessarily manifest a wholly observant life style that the synagogue represents.  These people do not, like so many others, go over to the Non -Orthodox synagogues in an effort to assuage guilt but rather tenaciously hold steadfast  their belief that Judaism has an authentic teaching that cannot change with the vicissitudes of social pressures and morays.  Prof. Gurock presents a thesis that there is such a thing as an ‘authentic sinning Orthodox Jew’(my quotation marks).

The historian presents two types of Jews: the one that makes accommodations to American Life to fit in and another who separates himself from the mainstream of American culture but benefits from the legal rights of all Americans.  The accommodationist is highlighted in this very readable history showing a variety of American cultural phenomena that the Orthodox Jew wants desperately to experience (like mixed dancing).  One can feel the overwhelming pressures of the immigrant experience that bring on the agonizing decision to work or not to work on the Sabbath.  One reads about the painful question does one put Tefillin on the Holiday if one is treating the Holy day as a secular moment since one is working on the day!

After WWII, with an influx of Hasidim, and others with a separatist attitude begin to confront the accomodationists.   The book highlights Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s leadership in leading those who accommodate and those Roshei Yeshiva like Rabbi Aaron Kotler who lead the separatists.  Unfortunately, the clash between these two camps becomes aggressive with the separatists casting the claim of ‘illegitimate’ to the approach of those who accommodate! Prof. Gurock outlines some of the innovations that the accommodationist rabbis allow and shows clearly that the innovations (women's prayer groups, women putting on Tefillin, women being called to the Torah or acting as leaders of prayer and even becoming rabbis) come from the social pressures and values of modernity (like feminism).  These social patterns come from the outside and are not germane to Jewish law or Tradition.  The rabbis are not so much leading as much as they are attempting to keep their flock from straying!

The Prof. concludes that even today outside of New York or other Metropolitan areas where the separatists have claimed victory and authority calling into question anyone who does not lead a wholly observant lifestyle, one still finds in the heartland of America or its outer stretches the type of Jew who feels more comfortable in the Orthodox synagogue but does not lead a complete Shulchan Aruch abiding lifestyle.  One may conclude from reading this history that there are social pressures that are so great that even rabbis do not have the sway to change people's behavior.  The separatists only gain a major following when the immigrant experience has already run its course!  When the social model changes from “melting pot” to “salad bowl”; that to be different is in vogue does the separatist gain momentum and clashes with those who want to “be American”.

What I learned from this critical historian is that people do not necessarily follow their leaders but rather social, economic and societal pressures move people.  In such situations, the leadership has to have the wisdom to condone or condemn or ignore the ignominious or irreligious behavior that is not found in the Shulchan Aruch.

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