“They think they’re the only ones up here.”

This post is based on my participation in this thriving discussion topic on JewsByChoice.org. As I groused throughout my conversion journey, liberal Judaism–which really is all non-Orthodox Judaism–frequently is the subject of criticism outright derision by Orthodox Jews. If we all knew our own denominational histories, that might not be the case.  There’s a trend in modern discourse about the denominational history of Judaism in America to assume three things:

  • That the modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements emerged as increasingly less observant forms of Judaism;
  • That modern Orthodoxy is the same Orthodoxy that existed in Europe prior to American emigration; and
  • That the level of observance demanded by modern Orthodoxy in America today has historically always been as high.

Problem is, all of those assumptions are false. There’s actually a great new scholarly book on this topic, The Synagogue in America: A Short History, by Marc Raphael, which I highly recommend if you want to delve into the details. 

According to the historic record and original research done by Raphael by poring through decades of records at hundreds of American synagogues, the Conservative movement did not emerge out of the Reform movement. Instead, it was a response to both the modern Reform and Orthodox movements as they existed in the early 1900s. In fact, the denominational timeline in terms of founding the major modern movements was Reform, then Orthodox, then Conservative. Here’s the chronology:

  • Judaism has been present in the U.S. since colonial times, but originally in a very disjointed, unorganized manner. Central European Jewish immigration through the first half of the 1800s steadily increased the number of American synagogues, and almost all of these traditional synagogues sought to “reform” the liturgy and, especially, the decorum of worship to some degree, in order to mimic American Protestantism (and, thus, better assimilate as Americans.) In other words, the original “reform movement” was really the entirety of traditional Judaism in America.
  • When eastern European immigration skyrocketed in the late 1800s, the newer immigrants felt uncomfortable with the level of reform in many American synagogues and started to rein in reform efforts at many of them. The synagogues where this did not happen eventually formed the basis of the Reform movement. But even when the Reform movement was formally launched in the latter half of the 1800s, its founders saw it as an umbrella organization for all American Judaism–because before Eastern European immigration, the reform trend really was an umbrella movement.
  • By the end of the 1800s, the Orthodox movement was formally launched as a counterpoint to Reform’s desire to be an universal umbrella movement. However, along with maintaining separation of the sexes and a full, traditional liturgy, many if not most of these Orthodox synagogues also unfortunately retained an Old World lack of decorum (i.e. talking, walking around the shul during services, walking out during the Torah reading, use of snuff and spittoons) the elimination of which was the original point of the reform trend.
  • Finally, in the early 1900s, the Conservative movement was formed, with the very specific aim of including all synagogues that felt disaffected by both the new Reform and Orthodox movements but didn’t want to return to a non-decorous traditional Orthodoxy. In order to cast as wide a net as possible and attract all shuls that hadn’t yet “taken sides”, in contrast to Reform and Orthodoxy, the Conservative movement deliberately did not set forth a denominational platform (and, in fact, didn’t have one for decades.)

So in reality, traditional Judaism in America created and welcomed the reform trend in the first place.

There’s more of interest. In the late 1960s, the American Reform and Orthodox movements began a simultaneous swing to more traditional levels of observance. For Reform, that meant the publication of increasingly traditional, Hebrew-centric siddurim (prayerbooks.) For modern Orthodoxy, that meant an increasingly stringent level of observance and, finally, a return to decorum in the sanctuary.

Here’s the punch line from that Orthodox swing: the contemporary level of observance for frum (traditionally observant) modern Orthodox American Jews is probably the most observant Orthodox Jews have been in America. Ever. Prior to the 1960s–and especially in the 1800s and early 1900s–the level of letter-of-the-law Orthodox observance in America was far, far lower, and potentially equal to that of the most observant contemporary Reform Jews.

Raphael isn’t the first person to demonstrate all of this by any means, but the fact is that all three major American Jewish movements (apologies to Reconstructionist Judaism) as we know them today have all changed very, very greatly over time, and will probably continue to do so. Reform’s founding fathers would be shocked to see the level of observance that some contemporary Reform Jews now adopt. Today’s modern Orthodox Jews would be shocked to learn about the lax observance of their own (in some cases, substantially recent) forebears. And today’s Conservative Jews would be surprised to know that the original point of their movement was simply not to be the other two movements.

It’s not a simple history, but it’s important to know how we got here. And where we are is living with American Jewish movements that all have the same origins in the dialectic between the modern world and a long-gone traditional Orthodoxy. Seen in this light, any attempt to judge one movement from the lens of another in terms of a particular level of observance or particular form of liturgy is pretty meaningless.

But some Jews seem intent on continuing to do just that. So I’d suggest a better measure of Jewish “authenticity” than simply whether one’s movement considers the mitzvot binding, or the Torah the literal word of God. It’s clear that a person’s chosen denomination doesn’t always denote their level of observance. For an improved comparative picture of who is and isn’t a committed American Jew, how about asking denominational Jews whether they actually observe the mitzvot (some mitzvot? any mitzvot?)–regardless of whether their denomination says they should. Knowing more about that last question would probably offer a pretty sizable common ground among denominations. But I doubt many non-liberal Jews would be eager to answer that kind of question honestly. At least not in public.

I’m reminded of an old joke about (my birth tradition of) Roman Catholicism that seems ripe for adapting to the matter at hand. A Reform Jew dies and the prophet Elijah meets him at the gates of heaven. “There really is an afterlife!” says the shocked man. “That’s nothing,” says Elijah, “Let me show you around.” Elijah  proceeds to show the new arrival that everyone righteous goes to heaven. “See? That’s the Reform heaven over there, and the Conservative heaven on the other side. And iIf you look in the other direction, there’s the Christian heaven and, next door, the  Muslim heaven, too.” Elijah pauses for a moment, then continues in a whisper. “Now do me a favor and make as little sounds as possible as we pass the Orthodox Jewish heaven.” “Why?” asks the man. “We don’t want to disturb them,” says Elijah.

“They think they’re the only ones up here.”

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