In Princeton, scholar Jonathan Sarna traces the transformation of American-Jewish life.
Photos by Marilyn Silverstein
February 28, 2008
In the wake of the American Revolution, the winds of liberty, freedom, and democracy that swept across the country transformed American-Jewish life as well, said historian Jonathan Sarna.
“The more we learn, the more clear it becomes: The American Revolution’s impact on the American-Jewish community was anything but muted,” Sarna said at Princeton University on Feb. 20.
“Socially and spiritually, Judaism in America was challenged and radically transformed,” he said. “In the very early period before the masses of Central and Eastern European Jews arrived, a whole new American Judaism took shape.”
Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and author of American Judaism: A History, made his remarks during the second annual lecture of the Lapidus Family Fund for American Jewish Studies at Princeton.
The very existence of the lecture was also revolutionary, according to Sarna and others. Sidney Lapidus, a Princeton alumnus from Harrison, NY, established the fund at the university during the summer of 2006 to promote the study of American-Jewish civilization there. Princeton’s programs in Judaic studies and American studies are joint sponsors of the series.
The lecture series “is of inestimable significance,” Sarna said in an interview before delivering his remarks.
“Once upon a time, when I started in American-Jewish history, there were six positions in the world, mostly at Jewish institutions,” he said. “To think that now there is a lecture at Princeton is a statement about the significance of the field and how it has changed.”
Lapidus, a member of the advisory council of Princeton’s Department of History who also attends the advisory council of the Program in Judaic Studies, expressed pleasure at the choice of Sarna. “This is wonderful,” he said. “This is what the gift was meant to accomplish.”
Hendrik Hartog, director of Princeton’s Program in American Studies, called Sarna’s appearance a boost to the program’s success. “We’re trying to find people who are interesting and lively speakers who will illuminate the American-Jewish experience to bring out the vision Sid Lapidus articulated in making his gift,” he said.
Former Princeton University president Harold Shapiro also welcomed the effort to shine a light on the history of Jewish life in America. “It’s very important,” Shapiro said. “People haven’t focused enough attention on it.”
During his hour-long lecture, Sarna traced the ways in which the American Revolution sparked smaller revolutions within the Jewish community of the time.
In 1781, for example, when bachelor Jacob Cohen became a member of Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, the oldest Sephardi congregation in America, he soon formed a wish to marry another member, the widow Esther Mordechai. But Mikveh Israel’s senior clergy member, its cantor, refused to perform the ceremony, asserting that Jewish law forbade the marriage of Cohen, a kohen, or descendant of the priestly class, to Mordechai, who was a convert.
“What is absolutely remarkable and extremely revealing,” Sarna said, “was that Cohen proved defiant. Why should he be denied the right to marry a convert? It ran counter to his newfound sense of democracy and freedom.”
Sidney Lapidus greets Jonathan Sarna before the lecture.
In a bold public act, Cohen placed his personal liberty above the dictates of Jewish law, marrying his sweetheart in a ceremony conducted by a group of friends that included Revolutionary hero Haym Solomon.
“In performing the ceremony, these…highly respected members of the congregation were serving notice that times had changed and the synagogue’s power to regulate Jewish life was waning,” Sarna said.
In a similar act of defiance, he added, another member of Mikveh Israel, Mordechai Mordechai, declared in a 1785 letter to the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Amsterdam that he had performed Jewish last rites on an intermarried Jew whom the congregational leaders, as a warning to others, had ordered buried without shrouds or funeral rituals.
“The real question here plainly had much less to do with Jewish law than with Jewish religious authority in a democratic age,” Sarna said. “Mordechai, echoing the spirit of the American Revolution, challenged his religious superiors and claimed the right to interpret God’s law as he personally understood it. Jews in post-Revolutionary America were making their own rules concerning how to live Jewishly, and there was very little the synagogue could do about it.”
Sarna went on to give other examples of the evolving democratization of American Judaism. In Richmond, Va., in 1784, he said, the city’s first synagogue adopted a constitution granting equal status to every free man over the age of 21 who had resided in the community for three months or more. And in 1805, New York’s Shearith Israel, the oldest congregation in America, abandoned its well-entrenched system of assigning seats based upon members’ status.
“Clearly, in Judaism as in Protestantism, religious leadership was becoming divorced from social position — an enormously important change,” Sarna said. “The elite families could no longer impose their will on the congregation.”
The forces for democratization achieved a signal victory in Charleston and New York in the 1820s, when groups of young Jews moved to revitalize and transform Judaism, according to Sarna. One example was the Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit, a young, breakaway congregation that wrote its own prayer book, injected music into the service, and prayed with heads uncovered.
“For the first time in American-Jewish history, we see young Jews seceding from established synagogues and creating new ones more democratic in form…,” Sarna said. “Where before, American Judaism had been monolithic, now it was democratic and pluralistic.
“American Judaism as we know it was shaped by this remarkable process of democratization,” he said. “Its impact and implications continue to resound to this day.”
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