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American values and Jewish tradition: synthesis or conflict.

MAX WEBER, IN HIS FAMOUS ESSAY, "Science as a Vocation,"pointed out that scholarship cannot be totally "free of presuppositions." There are personal commitments and histories, values and ideals, that all researchers possess. They engage and guide the mind and, inevitably, contribute to the framework and concepts that scholars establish for the objects of their investigations. Indeed, this permits scholarship to yield meaningful results that go beyond a mere cataloging of disparate data.

Yet, there are other "presuppositions," rules of method and logic, that mark the scholarly enterprise. To stray from them in the course of academic investigation is to move beyond the boundaries of scholarly inquiry and into partisanship. It is to ask questions of worth that academic research is incapable of addressing, for such questions are impervious to academic confirmation or disapproval.

This does not mean that scholarly work is irrelevant or unimportant, for what such work can yield is clarity. In the writing of history, the historian can clarify and illuminate the past. The only legitimate task of the historian is to understand and interpret, not to assess the correctness or value of past phenomena. As Weber maintained, scholarship provides "self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts." The legitimate role, and the only demand one can make of the scholar, is

that he has the intellectual integrity to see that it is one thing to state facts, to determine ... logical relations or the internal structure of cultural values, while it is another thing to answer ... the question of how one should act in the cultural community and in political associations. These are quite heterogeneous problems.

An academic investigation "is not the gift of grace of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values and revelations."(1) Scholarly research does not possess the capacity to offer or provide such a "gift."

Weber's insight provides a crucial perspective for understanding and evaluating the nature of Jerold Auerbachs's powerfully written Rabbis and Lawyers. Auerbach, a well-known Professor of History at Wellesley College who specializes in American Legal History, has written, in this instance, a book that draws heavily upon his impressive academic abilities. His research into archival sources and printed documents on I.M. Wise, Schechter, Marshall, Brandeis, Schiff, S. Wise, Frankfurter, Proskauer, and a host of other prominent figures in American Jewish history during the past two centuries, as well as his wide reading of extensive secondary sources, combine to mark Rabbis and Lawyers as a serious volume that explores, to use a sociological term, the "intellectual arrangements" that American Jewish leaders made to permit themselves and masses of other Jews to feel comfortable in this country. Its publication by the prestigious, academic Indiana University Press certainly confirms this volume's serious and weighty tone. The scholar as well as the general reader will learn much from it.

Nevertheless, Rabbis and Lawyers, for all its solid research, is not, in a fundamental sense, an academic work. It is, instead, a work of advocacy, aimed at an audience of literate and engaged Jewish readers. Akin to, though more scholarly than, books such as Charles Silberman's A Certain People and Leonard Fein's Where Are We?, it moves in a substantively different political direction and displays a characteristic strength of this literary genre. Rabbis and Lawyers is passionate. However, it also betrays the weakness of this type of literature. Auerbach signals, from the outset, that his volume will not be an even-handed academic treatment of his subject. He intends to make a case and offer strong judgments.

In his "Introduction," for example, he writes: "American Jewish historians (demonstrating how thoroughly American they are -- |italics mine~) usually confine their subject within narrow conceptual and chronological limits," and he complains that they "rarely, if ever" draw "historical analogies with Jewish communities elsewhere, in time or space." Indeed, given the breadth of informed and careful American Jewish historical scholarship authored by Eisen, Gurock, Joselit, Moore, Raphael, and Sarna, to name just a few younger American Jewish historians, it is difficult to accept Auerbach's critique. All of these scholars, as well as others, have demonstrated extreme sensitivity to the sweep of Jewish history and, as good historians always are, have been careful about the comparisons they have made between the United States and other venues of the Jewish experience. Auerbach, in viewing his subject against the backdrop of the Jewish past, is not as unique as he claims, and his words seem needlessly hyperbolic, almost inflammatory.

The one citation that Auerbach provides to support this contention reflects his tendency towards contentious readings of his sources. Quoting from the work of Deborah Dash Moore, an eminent American Jewish historian at Vassar College, Auerbach asserts that she specifically rejects "the premise that 'American Jews in the last decades of the twentieth century sufficiently resemble other Jewries centuries ago to draw analogies,'" and she warns that such analogies are of "'questionable value'" because they are generally employed in the cause of political polemic. Auerbach castigates Moore for this, reasonably observing that "the exclusion of the past, no less than its inclusion," may serve a "political agenda".

Yet, if one examines the source of Auerbach's ire in this instance, it is apparent that Moore would hardly disagree with this last assertion. Her statement -- taken from a response to an analogy that Lawrence Schiffman of New York University had drawn between issues of Jewish identity and sectarianism in first century Palestine and debatably comparable situations in the contemporary United States -- seems, in context, rather modest and specific to the matter at hand. It is fully in keeping with the duty of the judicious historian and is certainly less sweeping than Auerbach indicates.(2) One would simply hope that Auerbach would make his point -- that American Jewish history has to be seen against the backdrop of the Jewish past if continuities as well as discontinuities in the American Jewish situation are to be illuminated -- and avoid unfounded rhetorical fusillades against the "narrowness" of Moore and other uncited American Jewish historians.

This type of argument, as well as what at times must be described as an acidity of tone, are all too common throughout the book. It attenuates the force of Auerbach's own case and needlessly distracts the reader. The tendency to pass shrill judgment upon every Figure and movement with whom or which he disagrees -- from Anthony Lewis, "the son of a family of Jewish immigrants named Oshinsky" and a "devout worshipper at the shrines of American constitutionalism (especially the Supreme Court and Harvard Law School)"; to Orthodoxy, which is caricatured as freezing "Jewish law to preserve it from further deterioration; to Brandeis, whose liberalism and distinctively American brand of Zionism only "emphasizes |American Jews'~ remoteness from |Jewish tradition~ -- tends to annoy, even when the substance of Auerbach's comments and observations possess more than a modicum of truth. Given the nature of Rabbis and Lawyers, however, Auerbach's rhetoric is not surprising, for his chief aim, in response to men such as Silberman and Fein, is to disabuse American Jews of the notion that there is a comfortable "synthesis between Judaism and Americanism," or, to be more exact, between Judaism and liberalism. In so doing, Auerbach himself explicitly recognizes that his book participates in this debate, and he actively takes up the cudgels against both Fein's and Silberman's visions of American Judaism in the "Epilogue" of his book.

Auerbach attempts, throughout Rabbis and Lawyers, "to question the claims of convergence and compatibility" that American Jewish leaders have advanced concerning American liberal values and the traditional norms of Judaism. The synthesis of Judaism and Americanism, its proponents' claims to the contrary, "is," he writes, "a historical fiction." He analyzes and describes how American Jewish leaders, rabbis and lawyers, "redefined Judaism in American terms". In this sense, Rabbis and Lawyers stands not in opposition to, but directly in the center of the mainstream of modern Jewish historiography, an historiography that is devoted to a description and analysis of the manifold oscillations and permutations between "Judaism" and "modernity" that have been evidenced in every Western nation where the Jews have lived during the past two hundred years. This tale of Jewish reformulation is a standard, but vital, one and it is difficult to comprehend precisely why Auerbach, if be were writing primarily for an academic audience, would find this approach so novel. From this perspective, Rabbis and Lawyers, given the learning and erudition that it possesses, constitutes, despite its tone, another significant contribution to the literature on Judaism and modernity.

Auerbach argues that nineteenth century Reform Jews -- chief among them rabbis such as I.M. Wise and his successor, Kaufmann Kohler -- regarded

emancipation as an unequivocal blessing that assured full integration of American Jews into American society. But once Reform rabbis discarded law, and relinquished rabbinical authority, they empowered others to define the content of American Judaism. In the twentieth century, when the sacred-law tradition of Judaism was rephrased as liberty, democracy, and contitutionalism, the very function of law in Judaism was decisively modified ... The most urgent issues of American Jewish identity would be resolved within the framework of American law.

Auerbach describes how Jewish attorneys, most prominent among them Louis Marshall and Louis D. Brandeis and his disciples, Julian Mack and Felix Frankfurter, eagerly and capably filled the vacuum that the rabbis left. His contention, that the rabbis willingly surrendered authority is a puzzling one, inasmuch as "surrender" is a reflection of the role that Emancipation played in dismantling the political structure of the Jewish community and, with it, the coercive authority of the rabbi -- an authority which lasted only as long as it reflected community homogeneity in religious and political matters. Indeed, Auerbach's argument is made all the more curious in that he devotes an entire chapter of his book to an exploration of this process. Moreover, it is one thing to say that lawyers played a crucial role in establishing the parameters and content of American Jewish identity for acculturating Jews subject to secular, not religious, law, and another to conclude that such issues were "resolved within the framework of American law." The community, inasmuch as it no longer enjoyed the status of a legal corporation, was simply too pluralistic, and its power too diffuse, to speak of it in such unified terms. There is an element of texture missing from such a comment.

Nevertheless, Auerbach's point that lawyers played a key role in forging a synthesis between Judaism and Americanism is undeniably correct. Furthermore, given their general ignorance of the substance and content of Jewish tradition, there is merit to his argument that these men looked to the United States, "to Brahmin Boston and Puritan New England," as Auerbach phrases it in the case of Brandeis, to define their Jewish frame of reference and the content of their Judaism. They forged a "myth" (not necessarily a Jewish one, as we shall see) of a unitary Judeo-American legal tradition that allowed American Jews to believe that the highest ideals, standards, and values of America were derived from and absolutely compatible with Jewish tradition. The power of their synthesis is the continued popularity that it enjoys among American Jews today. Auerbach is not wrong when he argues that virtually all American Jews -- from socialists to Reform, and even Conservative and modern Orthodox Jews, from Republicans such as Marshall to staunch Progressives such as Brandeis -- selectively "extracted from the legacy of Israel what they needed to forge a modern identity".

However, his complaint -- that such an extraction distorted and even "jettisoned" the twin commitments to sacred land and sacred law that had traditionally marked Judaism -- is, overdrawn and overstated. Indeed, European Orthodox figures such as the Hungarian Rabbi Moses Schick and the German Rabbi S.R. Hirsch., contemporaries of the Americans whom Auerbach discusses in Rabbis and Lawyers, employed and applauded liberal institutions and values in their own writings on Jewish thought and the events of the day. The Maharal of Prague (16th century) strongly espoused, at least while Jews were in exile, the principles of freedom of religion, speech and the press, and community election of rabbis, judges and lay leaders. Such writings and practices in traditional Jewish communities around the world indicate that classical rabbinic thought cannot be uniformly described as hostile to modern Western conceptions of democracy.(3) Furthermore, a commitment to these values, as the lives and legacies of these Orthodox exemplars demonstrate, does not necessarily "jettison" a continued allegiance to the values and dictates of Jewish land and law. Auerbach's analysis is thus insensitive to the ways in which tradition is never static and uniform, but always in process of reformulation, and pluralistic.

It is equally serious, from an historical perspective, that Auerbach, in his eagerness to make polemical points, often fails to appreciate the contextual nature of the efforts and events that he describes in his book. Men such as Lipsky, S. Wise, Schechter, Brandeis, Marshall, and Schiff -- the leaders of the Jewish community during the early 1900s and the men who forged the structure of the American Jewish community as we know it today -- bespoke the Progresssivism of their era and were informed by it. To criticize them, as Auerbach often does, for not sufficiently standing up for Jewish interests as he views them, or for not affirming a particular form of tradition, is to rip them out of, and thereby distort, history.

As has been indicated, Auerbach is highly critical of the type of American Judaism that these men established and the nature of American Zionism that some of these men created. However, for an immigrant community, insecure in its status, why should a search for compatibility between minority and majority values and the proclamation of a Judaism that asserted such compatibility be surprising? Was not the hope for a Jewish State and the promotion of the Zionist Idea, even in its Brandeisian spiritual-cultural form, a bold one in its own context? Is this not evidenced by the continuous opposition and charges of dual loyalty that it evoked in anti-Zionist polemics of the day? To ignore this and simply to condemn the efforts of Brandeis and others as means whereby acculturation could be further promoted is to engage in the writing of a manifesto, not history. Whether that vision of Zionism is as compelling or convincing in a contemporary setting as it was a half century or more ago, and whether such a vision is currently in the best interests of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, are matters of legitimate debate. Frankly, my own sympathies are with Auerbach on many of these issues. However, to fail to appreciate the texture of the world that forged such equations is historically unfair. To condemn Brandeis, for example, for enunciating an American version of Ahad-Ha'am's spiritual-cultural Zionism, to fail to appreciate that this, in the context of its day, was a bold step that was distinct from the stance adopted by most of his German, Jewish Reform contemporaries, is to be untrue to the responsibilities of the historian and to view Zionism and Jewish tradition in virtually uni-dimensional terms. To assert that "Jewish settlement in the land of Israel was precisely what Zionism had always been about", is to reduce and oversimplify the many currents that historically constitute the Zionist Movement. Moreover, it reflects an inappropriate imposition of a contemporary political position, however defensible it may be, onto the past. When such agendas are used as criteria to critique positions adopted by persons and groups in the past, a disregard for the context that produced such intellectual and practical institutions, understandings, and values, as well as a static and singular view of traditions and movements, results, and clarity about the past fails to emerge.

Rabbis and Lawyers, as sophisticated as it is, is a work that constantly attempts, in Weber's words, to dispense seemingly "sacred values and revelations." It is an informed book, but it does not embody the measured and balanced tone that one rightfully ought to expect from a work of scholarship. As a result, Auerbach's own case -- that

Jewish history asserts its own claims, quite apart from the fanciful reconciliation with the American experience that American Jews have so often proclaimed. The timeless demands of law and land do not lose their normative authority within Judaism, nor are they converted into options that have no greater sanction than any other, merely because American Jews disregard them"

is rendered more problematic and less persuasive than it might otherwise be. More insight into the complexity of Zionist history and a greater appreciation of the variety of political ideas and institutions that traditional Judaism has embraced, including models more democratic and liberal than Auerbach assumes, would have helped the book. If the author had done so, Rabbis and Lawyers would have displayed less polemic and more analysis. It would have made the book less tendentious, and, in my opinion, more compelling. Auerbach's claims are, in the end, normative, not analytic or descriptive. His "own rendering of losses and gains," as he himself admits, "surely will be disputed".

DAVID ELLENSON is I.H. and Anna Grancell Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.


1. Weber's essay can be found in H.H. Gerth, ed. and trans., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Paperbacks, 1971), pp. 129-156. The direct quotations in this paragraph are taken from pp. 146 and 152.

2. Deborah Dash Moore, "Response to Schiffman and Cohen," in Conflict or Cooperation? (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1989).

3. While the Maharal undoubtedly intended, in the medieval environment, freedom to be Jewish and not freedom not to be, in modern times the choice is surely between both freedoms, or no religious freedom at all. Were the oppressive, non-democratic regimes of many European nations to be preferred by Brandeis and his contemporaries to democratic America as being more consistent with Jewish interests and values?
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Title Annotation:A Review Essay
Author:Ellenson, David
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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